Category Archives: labor

Audit This!!!

The following is written by packagedude69 and reprinted, with permission, from elsewhere…

When I read Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, I was expecting something like a Frankfurt School abstract examination of the totality of capitalist society, which is kind of how the book was marketed. But the book was way more concrete than I expected, and one of the book’s concrete-ier chapters dealt with the audit, from Fisher’s perspective of a minor functionary in a vast bureaucracy whose occasional byproduct is education.

I’m also a minor functionary, part clerk and part manual laborer, in a vast organization whose byproduct is the sorting and delivery of packages. Since my, ahem, work, is different, but the experience of the audit is ubiquitous, I have a slightly different perspective on what Fisher talks about in the concrete chapters of his book, and an experience a couple days ago allowed me to put together some things I’d been thinking about for a while but was unsure of.

The experience occurred during a pure audit situation, the ideal audit situation, when the auditors are present but their presence is unknown and things are truly proceeding as normal. I came back late from my pickup route to the sort, and missed the meeting where my manager told all of us “hey idiots, don’t throw packages, don’t cross the belt, if you see someone in a polo and khakis he’s an auditor and you should cough cough, do what you do every single day.” I was across the belt, and a huge package came down and there was only one person on the other side to handle it. The rule is that packages above 75 pounds have to be handled by two people, but honestly anything above 60 and sufficiently bulky can be basically unmanageable by one person at the speed at which the belt moves and given all the additional requirements of the sort (the requirement to place packages in ‘walls’ so they don’t all fall over later, etc.). So, I crossed the belt. About two seconds later a pudgy middle aged man with a goatee and a partially shaved head (have you ever seen a white male police officer?), in telltale khakis and polos, materialized next to me. He took down my employee number by saying “hey, we’re just checking training records, routine stuff, let me see your badge.” After he took my number down, shaking from the rush of witnessing a blatantly unsafe act, he told me that I’d cost my entire workgroup an entire section of the audit and that I should, quote “never cross the belt, especially not during an audit. it’s a major safety violation.”

Fisher says that the audit is self-referential. No data from the audit is ever used outside of the audit, the set of procedures by which the data is collected have relevance only to the audit and not the thing that the process being audited is supposed to produce, and after the audit is done the data is discarded, the process resumes, with the only change being disciplinary actions, in the form of pay cuts, firings, demotions, or the increased arbitrariness and “scrutiny” of authority. At all major package companies this is so obvious not even the auditors themselves or my bosses even bother to appeal to the relevance of the audit to the actual process. Fisher’s equivalent is his “laid-back” ex-hippie boss, who says “hey look, we’ve got to do this and it’s bullshit, but we might as well go on with it and make things as easy as possible for ourselves.” Fisher says that an attitude like this doesn’t actually challenge the legitimacy of the audit at all, or even make it less effective, since its purpose is not to improve the process or, in my case, make anything safer. A short review of the idea of safety, which Fisher doesn’t encounter but makes up the major component of my audit, will establish this.

Packages themselves are unsafe. Spilled dangerous goods, drill bits that dislocate shoulders when lifted, packages that adjust in transit and tumble down when the container is opened, slippery bullshit that crushes toes, etc. Driving is very unsafe, especially in our area, which includes mountainous areas with long driveways, unimproved roads and tons of crazy weather. And delivering is unsafe. People here frequently let huge dogs patrol their grounds like some sort of insane English lord on a quarter acre, in Oakland some routes are done out of armored cars instead of normal delivery trucks, and one dude got the police called on him when he was driving a rental vehicle, a white van of course, and someone thought it was suspicious that he was driving super slow in a deserted residential neighborhood in the early afternoon.

So all this is obvious. Leaving your house is dangerous. The question is not should we take any risks at all, do things that are inherently unsafe, because we have to. The question is how much should we risk to get the job done. Package companies have said, we can risk the health and safety of our workers to a pretty considerable degree to get the job done. We can give them guidelines, punish them if they do unsafe things, and give them seatbelts and purely cosmetic back braces but at the end of the day we have to get packages to where they need to be.

This is where the traditional socialist focus on things other than high wages puts itself head and shoulders above the grubby small-time crap that passes for militancy where I work. There is basically no amount of risk or injury that is defensible or reasonable in the face of about ninety five percent of the pure garbage we deliver every day.

A courier of very long standing snapped his leg on an icy driveway last year delivering a Kindle. He was well paid to do it and he recovered fully, generating thousands of dollars in extra business for insurance adjusters, surgeons, the guys who took over his route when he was gone, and Budweiser. So from the perspective of capitalism everything is working normally. But as soon as these benefits go away, and they are being eroded at non-union FedEx and at “Change To Win” UPS, the broken leg = delivered Kindle equation will appear even more absurd and grossly wasteful than it already is. Socialism’s demand to not only compensate workers fairly but reduce the amount of time they spend working, period, is the only real answer here. And it’s clear from the internal decisions of package companies that they are able to bear the reduction in work – or at least the reduction in the intensity of the work – that would make authentic safety possible. Let me explain how I know this.

Peak season, from Black Friday to Christmas, is really the happiest time of the year at any package company. Everyone gets Hours out the ass, management give almost free reign to employees, the audit is completely suspended (audits only happen during this time of the year, the slow time), and, most importantly, the intensity of work is reduced dramatically. The sort, which during slow times is compressed into a supercharged hour and a half to two hours at my station, is stretched to an almost criminally indulgent six or seven hours during peak season. We get way more packages but more people are working, and working longer, and as a result the time is much easier. Drivers don’t have to worry about running their routes twice (once for priority packages and once for all the other ones), but instead just waltz into their area, deliver everything in a straight shot, and come back after a couple hours of overtime to a happy family and welcome rest. Management fawns over us for a month. We get donuts or bagels every day, crates of frozen turkeys and coolers filled with burritos appear spontaneously, customers leave us holiday cookies on their doorsteps, we do donuts in the parking lot in our huge trucks, and the checks are fat. It’s labor aristocracy hog heaven.

Package companies are meticulously managed and this freedom would not be allowed if the company were not making enough money. But the point is that there is no reason why couriers must be rushed to, say, jog down an icy driveway instead of walk slowly, or why the sort has to be two hours instead of four, and conducted at a much safer, more leisurely pace. Or why the audit focuses on the individual actions of employees in a context created by the company to compel rule violations, corner cutting, and deliberate unsafety, and not the fact that delivering slave labor iPads or merger agreements is not worth any degree of risk to anyone whatsoever.

it’s not crazy – it’s normal!

I knew someone who was institutionalized as a child and went back years later to see her old psychiatrist. She told me he laughed and joked with her about how strange she was as a little girl of 8 or 9 – that she was up late wondering if people had souls or if suffering was normal. So many have lived her life and live as “normal” people now – but how much were they ever crazy to begin with? It got me thinking about some statistics I’d seen earlier about how 6.8 million American children were on ritalin, a 41% rise in the past decade. As the rhythms of our days and nights change, so too do our minds. Over half of “millennials”, those 18-33, are kept up at night due to stress.  The most tragic figure is that of women, who are disproportionately medicated against anxiety and depression to men, 2 to 1.

As I’ve always understood it, sanity was about your reality agreeing with everyone else’s. If you were convinced that the sky was red, and everyone else around you said it was blue, insanity would be doubting their perceptions over your own. Of course, as the pace of our minds increasingly change according to the markets, so does this minority of the “insane” steadily increase. Substance abuse or self-medication, as some would like to call it, is nothing new. However, solutions to being out of sync with reality are becoming more of a public service, less of a private affair and now more the realm of the market. A new pill is rolled out to cure what ails us. Curing cancer is important, sure, but more money is spent on researching pills to take once you have it than on prevention efforts and education. The wheels of commerce roll forward when you are buying something, not when you are eradicating illness. Over $35 billion worth of antipsychotics, stimulants and antidepressants are sold each year in the United States. Insanity is big business. Big business is insanity. It follows that we begin to crack under the strain.

If you look around and see problems with the world around us, and if that drives you to distraction, the practical and profitable thing to do in this modern world is to medicate yourself and seek out someone who can talk you out of your external symptoms of unhappiness.  Taking adderall can help you perform better at work, can help you work two jobs and go to school, etc. Faced with a disappointing middle age spent taking care of ailing parents and distraught children can drive one to antidepressants. Becoming overwhelmed and terrified by a world of distraction and suffering, we start taking anti-anxiety pills.

Anyway, what was so crazy about my friend when she was a little girl? Wondering if one has a soul, if the nature of the world is suffering – these are normal things. If someone is unhappy in a marriage, workplace, prison… this is normal. Instead of changing the world around us, we are ushered into padded rooms and handed pills in paper cups. Children who can’t sit still in class for 8 hours per day only to go home and sit in front of  a screen for the next 6 cannot be expected to have the ability to focus or learn effectively, much less grow into well-adjusted human beings. Adam Lanza was unable to leave his house at the end, medicating a condition rooted in something deeper than his own brain – if Adam Lanzas were normal in this species, we would see spree killing as a historical phenomenon – not something associated with the birth of neoliberal social and economic restructuring.

Of course it’s not sustainable! But many continue to assume that left untouched, we can ride out current era of madness and find something easier on the other side. There is no promise to this, nothing to lead us to believe that inaction would deliver a better world to us eventually. In addition, as history shows us, new patterns of social behavior that rise and fall with material conditions will eventually be integrated into commonplace occurrence, or perhaps the other way around. It’s all fluid and dependent on dominant economic and class mores at the time.  Seventy years ago, it would be strange to think that graphic violence could be celebrated as a part of pop culture through video games, and commonplace among children. So too homosexuality would be considered a mental illness seventy years ago, but perhaps because of this we should be doubly critical of seeing dissent or dissatisfaction with our current lives as symptoms of a disease to be treated with pills. Perhaps we should start to look deeper and wonder if, maybe sometimes, the sky really is red and it really is everyone else who is crazy.

Why doesn’t anyone talk about unionizing arms manufacturers? On the idea of sex worker unions

No one proposes ending war by unionizing arms manufacturers. Proposing to end violence against women in the sex trade by unionizing them is likewise untenable. The best way to end violence against women in the sex trade is still to end the sex trade. The unionization strategy is a reformist position – and the position that we would like to live in a world where there is no such thing as prostitution, strip clubs, pornography, while it might seem fantastical, is a revolutionary position and the correct line to have for a leftist who calls herself a feminist. It’s not moralistic hand-wringing to criticize the base assumptions of the military industrial complex; why then, is it just my “personal baggage” speaking when I criticize the sex trade?

First, we should look at the conditions in which women in the sex trade live, and ask ourselves if these conditions could be alleviated by unionization:

Seventy percent of women in prostitution in San Francisco, California were raped (Silbert & Pines, 1982). A study in Portland, Oregon found that prostituted women were raped on average once a week (Hunter, 1994). Eighty-five percent of women in Minneapolis, Minnesota had been raped in prostitution (Parriott, 1994). Ninety-four percent of those in street prostitution experienced sexual assault and 75% were raped by one or more johns (Miller, 1995). In the Netherlands (where prostitution is legal) 60% of prostituted women suffered physical assaults, 70% experienced verbal threats of assault, 40% experienced sexual violence and 40% were forced into prostitution and/or sexual abuse by acquaintances (Vanwesenbeeck, et al. 1995, 1994)… The prevalence of PTSD among prostituted women from 5 countries was 67% (Farley et. al. 1998), which is the same range as that of combat veterans (Weathers et. al. 1993). 

From Farley et. al.  (2003) “Prostitution in Nine Countries” 

Is this staggering violence a result of lack of unionization? Let’s see what the International Union of Sex Workers is fighting for:

All workers including sex workers have the right to:

  • full protection of all existing laws, regardless of the context and without discrimination. These include all laws relating to harassment, violence, threats, intimidation, health and safety and theft.

  • access the full range of employment, contract and property laws.

  • participate in and leave the sex industry without stigma

  • full and voluntary access to non-discriminatory health checks and medical advice

Here is where we begin to be mired in questions, a case by case judgment of “good” vs. “bad” prostitution. What defines coercion? What defines trafficking? What defines abuse? What defines empowerment? Certainly, the assumption of the IUSW is that the sex industry is a normal, neutral industry wherein women happen to be subject to incredible amounts of violence and poverty, where nearly half (47%) are under the age of 18 when they begin working. The idea of the IUSW and other unionists is that the trade is not the focus – the focus, as we so often find it when discussing sex work, is on the women themselves.

Unions often define themselves by their relationship with management – with the “boss” –  but for sex worker unions this is hardly ever the case. As the women are primarily seen as independent contractors for the sake of analysis, the john and pimps are left out of the picture. The culture surrounding the sex trade is not up for analysis, either. It is a neutral, unchanging constant.

The boss is the john, and to take action against the john or the culture that encourages him is to shut down business. Instead, the union is supposed to either challenge the state (to legalize prostitution) or to perform the functions of the state (provide protection, legal counseling, health services). Yet, these are reformist measures that simply serve to react to the conditions women live in, rather than challenging the very conditions themselves. Lest we forget: women are not raped and abused because of a lack of state regulation (or too much state regulation), they are raped and abused because the john, pimp and cop decide to do so, and exist within a system that shelters them from consequence.

Within the realm of the normalized sex trade, rape and abuse are no longer crimes against the person, but rather occupational hazards. In the blog, “Tits and Sass”, two articles underscore this quite well. The first, about rape, is written from the perspective that “unwanted sex” is still consensual when the woman sees material gain from the process. This agrees with studies of john behavior and attitudes, wherein a full quarter believe that the very concept of raping a prostitute is “ridiculous.

 It’s rare that I give authentic “enthusiastic consent” while I’m working. And that’s how I prefer it.

“Enthusiastic consent” was conceived in an effort to eradicate the so-called gray areas of sexual assault, so it’s hard to talk about without also talking about rape. While I appreciate the centering of desire and consent, it wouldn’t hold that every sexual encounter taking place without the enthusiastic consent of both parties is rape… But I still turn over plenty of work-related questions in my head: what does it mean for a man to keep paying to have sex with a woman who doesn’t give signs of enjoying it?

Another article, entitled “On Stripper Burnout” advises women who are tired of the verbal abuse that goes with stripping to buy new clothes, look at photos of money to boost morale, eat sweets, or work for a cruel booking agent as “fear can be a great motivator.” There is no advice here on leaving the sex trade – emotional, verbal and physical abuse in the normalized world of pro-sex work advocates becomes a grey zone, where the woman’s personal attitude is what determines the difference between occupational hazards and something that might contribute to PTSD – putting the onus of responsibility on the woman rather than on the john.

The practical side of unionization brings us back to the current, atomized-view of sex work in general. It is a localized solution which does nothing to address a global problem. Questions arise: Who do you bargain with? How do we unionize all women? If a woman was in the sex trade and did not belong to a union, would this be her choice? Are johns supposed to solicit union prostitutes out of a sense of guilt, a la consumer activism (fair trade hooking?). Do we really expect johns to spontaneously grow a conscience when they are told women are for sale and it’s okay to buy them? When it comes to women in pornography, the average career tenure is quoted in several sources at being between five months and three and a half years – how then, to unionize these women?  Same with prostitutes, who on average enter the trade when they are underage – how to unionize these women? What about pimps and madams, pornographers and mobsters – are they allowed in these unions?

Any leftist worth their red will agree that punishing women is the most counter-productive way to handle prostitution or sex work. Yet unions stop short at criticizing johns who, on the whole, generally acknowledge that women in prostitution experience homelessness, substance abuse and physical and emotional degradation. Johns know, on average, that women enter into it when they are underage and against their will. They buy sex anyway. Unionizing women will not end trafficking, will not end violent deaths – it simply turns what is a societal problem into an organizational problem. Like most unions as they exist under capitalism, a sex-worker’s union’s primary purpose is to keep the more politically-minded in line with the management. We should look elsewhere for solutions that liberate women.

the toxic language of entrepreneurship

What is an entrepreneur? The entrepreneur is an ideal type of market individual – a person who works for “themselves”, whose only boss is the ebb and flow of the market. As an example of this, a comment on Nate Thayer’s piece on the troubles of freelance journalism:

Nate. Sympathies, and dilemma noted. Journalists today are forced to be entrepreneurs, and negotiate business deals. Perhaps, if you offered them a much truncated piece with links back to a site on which you had ads that paid you, or they gave you a venue to sell something from which you made money (books, for example). So, it’s perplexing, yes. But the market is what it is and the challenge is how to sustain yourself while doing quality work.

Meanwhile, talk of entrepreneurism has also proliferated in the NGO/non-profit world, as exemplified by the latest trends in microfinance/microlending and in the language of organizations. For example, again, from Ashoka:

Ashoka is leading a profound transformation in society. In the past three decades, the global citizen sector, led by social entrepreneurs, has grown exponentially. Just as the business sector experienced a tremendous spurt in productivity over the last century, the citizen sector is experiencing a similar revolution, with the number and sophistication of citizen organizations increasing dramatically.

Rather than leaving societal needs for the government or business sectors to address, social entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions, delivering extraordinary results, and improving the lives of millions of people. (Emphasis mine)

Entrepreneurship is another word for “take care of it yourself”. Even at companies where it is clear there is a structure of management, of wage labor, the language of individualism and personal responsibility is found:

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 1.45.21 PMThe offices of LivingSocial, from a Washington Post office exposé 

Worldwide, the idea of taking care of it yourself, of working for yourself, of “personal brands” is gaining traction. What does it do? It destroys camaraderie  as all engage in competition with one another. Microfinance is not the silver bullet it pretends to be – it can tear communities apart. The rise of the independent contractor – the freelancer – correlates with the longest era of wage stagnation/loss in the last 100 years. The language of entrepreneurship also correlates with the plummeting rates of union membership in the United States, in spreading global poverty. Why do we keep hearing about this toxic idea of entrepreneurship, of “standing alone” and “taking responsibility for your own destiny” when we are more vulnerable on our own than ever?

At a time when the state and capital offer labor less than ever in terms of protection, security or even basic living essentials, we are encouraged to become stronger individuals and take care of ourselves – to blame only ourselves if things go wrong.

new labor and new journalism

A fascinating find is going around on tumblr as a response to Nate Thayer’s justified takedown of the exploitative and exclusionary world of journalism. My mother quit journalism when she started to sense it was turning into something less of a public service and vital part of civil life and more of a money-making venture. For sure, someone has always made good money off of journalism, whether it’s a state run or a private venture, but journalists were paid as well. Now that the great labor squeeze has hit the papers, seasoned journalists like Nate Thayer, who does great work and has for many years, are suddenly competing with young upstarts who are willing to do the work for free, or perhaps re-purpose someone else’s. While the pros might accuse the new kids of engaging in scab behavior – they are in a way – both are exploited and both end up losing out in the end. Even the publications that come out in support for Nate admit they publish work they got for free and employ part-time temps (like myself).

As more professional journalists find their living in new concepts like “content marketing” (the magazine I temp for has recently added three to the roster) and more are willing to write for less, the quality of journalism degrades and the democratizing promises of the internet instead further pools the power and income at the top – where it has always gone – while culling smaller and more diverse magazines and newspapers.  The message gets more reverberation, and the origin of the content becomes more obfuscated. Mix that around with some pay-for-play schemes at already established papers, and our version of truth becomes more watered down, more unknowable.

Meanwhile, labor is further fractured and sent scrambling for crumbs. Few who are not endowed with a trust fund paycheck can afford to go do the legwork needed to really dig into a story. What is journalistic integrity? Even the piece that Nate Thayer was arguing about with The Atlantic was originally sold to NKNews, a news site on North Korea that is incredibly opaque itself (the editor board is not listed, nor their source of income) and has possible links to LiNK, a non profit dedicated to introducing “Liberty” to North Korea, among other organizations based in Washington D.C.

It seems I got a little sidetracked. The link I quoted at the beginning is a story from 1999 exploring the new labor economy based on the internet, of which journalism is now part and parcel. Entitled “Why Your Fabulous Job Sucks” it sort of illustrates how this generation got duped into low paying jobs that have little to no chance of unionization for the promise of a “pick your own hours” kind of lifestyle. Of course, no one told us that if we don’t “pick” to work all of them, we get none of them. The promise of freelance – “be your own boss!” – becomes a struggle to undercut the unseen competition, even if that means writing for free.

I was offered journalism jobs when I was living in Palestine – all of them were for no pay and all of them promised me a great opportunity to get exposure and build a portfolio. I never took one of them, something I sometimes regret as I sit where I am. Yet – what would I have been buying into? It’s nice to think of yourself as the next Seymour Hersh, but if you ever want to make money by writing, you’re better off going into content marketing or shilling for the big boys more directly over twitter.

I write what I do for free because I feel I have to. Oh, and the “feed me” button is located here.

on open borders

A new piece by   for the Jacobin advocates:

It is for the Left to square the circle the other way, by globalizing labor; that is, eliminating borders… No penalties, no electric fences, no drone surveillance, no papers, no fear. Instead, universal human rights, consecrated in struggle, enforced by solidarity.

Paul Romer’s concept of “charter cities”, too, advocate multinational and highly mobile labor:

The world needn’t choose between forcing migration on countries that do not want it and shutting out those who want to escape inefficient rules. Charter cities offer a third option. By copying rules that work, new cities can quickly give millions of people the chance to move to places that start with better rules.

from Charter Cities dot org 

What is problematic about open borders, so much so that certain sectors of both the left and right clamor for it? For sure, the idea here is not to enhance or give any credence to the cruel and inhumane ICE system in the United States, with countless risking their lives to make runs for the border and the possibility of jobs. Yet there is very little in common between the world’s workers at this point in time; we are intentionally shut off from one another. An influx of more exploitable labor is not going to draw the hotel cleaners closer to the bourgeoise. If anything, it will destabilize and fragment labor markets in favor of capital. This argument also puts aside the implication that all workers will have equal opportunities to be mobile – case studies from all sorts of sourcing countries, including South Asia and SE Asia show this to be false.

The UAE is a fairly good example of a labor economy that is incredibly diverse. Over 90% of workers who are in the UAE originate elsewhere. Yet on arrival, their situation is largely determined by their race, language abilities, and place of origin. A white worker from England working in a bank in Dubai has a different situation than a man from India working on a construction site – and you will rarely find a British man working on a construction site in any capacity other than a managerial or oversight position. For sure, the state still holds a lot of power in this situation – workers are there at the pleasure of their employers, as they would likely be in a borderless situation where relocation costs are mainly absorbed by the employer and then held over the heads of the workers, who often have to surrender their passports to their managers.

In a borderless situation for labor, capital would also have the ability to move workers to areas they see fit – for example, a place where labor laws are less regulated or perhaps a place where they have near-perfect legal control over their workforce, such as Dubai. For instance, moving workers in South East Asia over a border or two could drop the price of labor significantly, as well as promise more control of a vulnerable labor force to capital.

Then there is the issue of brain drain, as doctors, engineers, scientists and other professionals will find incentive in practicing their craft elsewhere, disrupting labor markets both at their point of origin and at their destination. In some locations even today, the social investment that goes into training doctors is lost entirely as the doctors decide to emigrate elsewhere for higher wages.

I agree that deportations should halt and that surveillance of undocumented communities should cease. However, I don’t think it is so simple to assume that a borderless labor force is the answer to everyone’s problems. It seems too much like an argument that markets can equalize themselves given less barriers to access and less regulation, which any leftist should question immediately.