Manufacturing Generation Me
April 2, 2012

Cover of "Generation Me: Why Today's Youn...

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Two intellectual trends dominate the burgeoning, nonexistent field of Millennials Studies: one is a few years old, but the other one seems to just be catching on. The older trend is, of course, the growing body of work in social psychology purporting to demonstrate that kids these days are more narcissistic than their parents or grandparents. The younger trend is the growing body of work purporting to demonstrate that kids these days will spend the rest of their lives being fucked sideways by the unsustainable economic consumption and political myopia of the Boomer generation. There are reasonable critiques you can make of either of these theories, but I find them both provisionally persuasive — that is, enough to at least entertain the possibility that my age bracket is, statistically speaking, both uniquely solipsistic and uniquely screwed. Which is enough to make a body wonder if there’s any connection between the two phenomena.

So what follows is a blog-sized sketch of how one might go about marrying the two theories. It’s crude, but I think it carries some conceptual force.

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There is No Alternative, Restaurant Work Edition
March 12, 2012

Union members picketing outside the National L...

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Nona Willis Aronowitz has a good article in the latest issue of GOOD about young, frustrated restaurant employees trying to organize. In a generally shitty and abusive service sector, restaurants stand out as particularly exploitative; half of all workers making below minimum wage work at restaurants, with the burden falling especially hard on women. Yet despite that, Aronowitz writes, a lot of younger restaurant workers are reluctant to support unionization efforts:

Activists like Erik face a two-pronged problem: Middle-class kids don’t want to bother with unions because they have one eye on the door. Workers from the permanent underclass like Levi don’t join because they accept that these jobs are shitty, and if they’re fired, they’ll just have to go get another one. It happens all the time—Levi lost his job this fall, for reasons having nothing to do with the union. Turnover is what the industry depends on.

The problem with middle class kids strikes me as one of education: like students in unpaid internships, it seems like white-collar hopefuls seeking temporary restaurant labor have no recognition of themselves as part of a broader worker class, and don’t see how the exploitation in the restaurant industry can distort the entire labor market. Efforts like the Wobblies’ admittedly sort of quixotic Starbucks campaign (which Aronowitz shouts out in her article) are encouraging because they provide a vehicle for raising these issues.

Levi’s problem is not one of education. As a member of the permanent underclass, he’s better informed about the structural violence of the restaurant industry than those middle class kids. But he also recognizes that, if he openly supports the union, he’ll be fired and pushed into (at best) an identical job at another restaurant. In part this is because what’s left of the social safety net is structured, as I’ve written before, to force people into whatever work is available. In part it’s because modern labor election law is firmly on the side of employers. Levi may have the formal right to organize within his workplace, but that doesn’t mean his boss can’t fire him for whatever other reason — and if he takes up what smells like a wrongful termination with the NLRB, there’s virtually no chance they’ll move fast enough for even a positive ruling to make a difference.

So the remedy, if it exists, is a holistic one: education and organizing, a restructured and reinvigorated welfare state, and strengthened worker protections in labor law. But in addition to that, I wonder if any attempt at restaurant organizing doesn’t need to be an industry-wide effort, with UNITE HERE’s modern hotel organizing work serving as a model.

I’m still a labor neophyte — one who’s also still working out his own feelings on this stuff — so on that question I’ll defer to any more experienced movement hands who want to weigh in. But for now, an industry-wide restaurant organizing push is almost surely a pipe dream — a lot is going to have to change before that becomes conceivable.

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Abolish the Unpaid Internship
March 9, 2012

internship

internship (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Someone must have dosed my morning coffee, because one of Charles Murray’s ideas is making sense:

For one thing, we should get rid of unpaid internships. The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacation. Instead, they get internships at places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator’s office.

It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children. Those from the middle and working class, struggling to pay for college, can’t afford to work for free. Internships pave the way for children to move seamlessly from their privileged upbringings to privileged careers without ever holding a job that is boring or physically demanding.

So let the labor unions win this one: If you are not a religious organization and have more than 10 employees, the minimum wage law should apply to anyone who shows up for work every day.

Yes. A hundred thousand times, yes. And not just for the reasons that Murray gives. Even if you already have your desired career as a skilled white collar professional, unpaid internships devalue your labor by taking a portion of it from you and putting in the hands of unpaid workers. This is an old, old managerial trick: find a class of people who can be trained to do some of the same work for cheaper (or, in this case, nothing but college credits), thereby putting downward pressure on the wages of the more experienced employees and forcing them to produce more. It worked for factory owners in the heyday of Taylorism, and it can work for the Huffington Post today.

In fact, the Huffington post actually auctions off some of its internships for thousands of dollars. Doing work for free is now a privilege that will cost you about as much as a used car. And that’s not including transportation, opportunity costs, and all the other expenses of working even an internship you’re not paying for.

So what does all of that get you? Vanishingly little, these days. As unpaid internships have proliferated (and become seemingly obligatory if you want to enter a skilled white-collar profession), they’ve also come to displace the labor of even unskilled, low-wage workers. The most recent (and extreme) example of this phenomenon is perhaps the clothing chain Anthropologie’s “visual display internship,” which is essentially minimum-wage window display work, but without the “wage” part.

Ross Perlin, author of the book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, has written at length about the indignities of uncompensated labor, but his most urgent message is prescriptive: it’s time for unpaid interns to recognize themselves as workers, and organize as workers. From a May 2011 essay in In These Times:

Present, former and future interns need to take action to restore the promise and dignity of work. Until now, young people have ceded everything, asking only for a foot in the door. It’s time to stop spreading the internship gospel. Stop thinking your labor is, was, or will be worthless. Just because you have a student ID and live in a dorm doesn’t mean you’re not also a worker. Identify and organize as interns, and form alliances with like-minded groups such as temps and freelancers. If you’ve moved on, don’t forget the rookie of the workforce, the unpaid kid doing menial and administrative work: the intern.

If we’re ever going to realize Murray’s proposal of abolishing the unpaid internship entirely, it needs to start now with grassroots intern organizing. Occupy Internships was a step in that right direction, but it seems to have stalled. Hopefully it comes back, but in the event that it doesn’t, the next move is probably education. Interns, college students, people who work with interns: talk amongst yourselves and see what can be done in your workplace or across workplaces. Also keep in mind that many of the most-sought after unpaid internships are at ostensibly progressive institutions that like to trumpet their commitment to the interests of regular working folk. Maybe it’s time to remind the heads of those organizations that this shit starts at home.

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When the Work Stops Working
February 29, 2012

I have an essay out today in The New Inquiry that is essentially a wide-lens adaptation of the ideas expressed in these two posts. Here’s a taste:

This is the danger of talking about “jobs” in the abstract: It can mean forcing people into precarious, temporary, low-wage, nonexistent-benefit work that will most likely land them back on the welfare rolls in a couple of months. Emphasis here belongs on the word forcing, because employers — faced with an oversupply of labor in the broader job market — have the upper hand in negotiations. These same employers can feel free to deprive their employees of the basic security needed to stay off welfare for good. After all, once the fallow season ends, the state will subsidize those workers’ subsistence until the business community needs them again.

Thus welfare becomes a means of keeping spare workers on ice until they can again be made productive — which is to say, until they can again be slotted into temp jobs. But collecting a welfare check shouldn’t mean forfeiting the right to a baseline of self-determinacy. If welfare is to serve to benefit the poor — which is to say for actual human beings, and not for an abstract intellectual construct such as the Economy — then it should ameliorate domination, not perpetuate it in a modified form.

 Read the whole thing.
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Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude
February 16, 2012

From his “favorite graph of the week,” Mike Konczal discovers, in Florida, “a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand.

In layman’s terms: during the peak tourism months in Florida (when the demand for cheap labor rises to accommodate the influx of tourists), the state is more likely to penalize welfare recipients — for whatever reason — by withholding funds. Thereby, presumably, forcing them to find employment in seasonal, minimum wage jobs.

Cue a very strange response from Kevin Drum:

Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn’t really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it’s possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren’t there? Offhand, I’m not sure I see a problem with this.

Drum misses a few things.
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To Save the Labor Movement, We Must Destroy the Labor Movement
November 28, 2011

Kevin Drum is usually pretty solid on labor issues, so it’s more than a little jarring to see him give his qualified endorsement to obvious quackery like this:

Congress should authorize employee associations that are easier to form than current unions, but which do not have the power to interfere with managerial prerogatives (which is pretty much every subject other than employee compensation as determined by a collectively bargained contract). Of course, if the new types of employee organizations are not suffocating their members, they may in fact find it easier than old unions to attract new members.

Author Alan J. Haus never gets around to explaining how unions “suffocate their members,” but apparently it has something to do with a unions’ “power to interfere with managerial prerogatives,” or bargain on anything that doesn’t directly pertain to wages. That’s an odd way to define suffocation.

The maneuver Haus is trying to pull here is an oldie but goody: conflating employee interests with those of management, and suggesting that traditional unions are diametrically opposed to both. The unspoken thesis is that class conflict is something stirred up by innovation-hating unions, not the natural byproduct of a system that relies on worker exploitation. What Haus would have us believe is that everyone can be on the same team, so long as workers don’t put up a fight. In other words: give managers freedom to do whatever they want (except, Haus graciously concedes, when it comes to wages), and the benefits will trickle down to everyone!

I can see why the promise of conflict-free labor-management relations would appeal to Drum, but he should be smart enough to know that Haus is selling snake oil. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century and the advent of scientific management, conservatives and business-friendly “progressives” have foretold a bold new era of cooperation between workers and employers. Mysteriously, realizing this dream has always required that workers cede just a little bit more control of their own labor. And then a little more, and a little more. Haus offers us nothing but a variation on the theme. “Just give up this one more thing,” he promises us, “and this time, I swear, it will happen.”

Well, why take his word for it when we can see for ourselves how it’s worked out so far? I would suggest Drum read his own work to find out.

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