Thursday, July 5, 2007

Work Schmerk

I was just thinking about baseball players who make 27 million dollars a year, and that got me to remembering my old job at the Barnes & Noble store in Boulder, Colorado a few years back, my first experience (and preferably last) working in a national chain. At this job I toiled 40 hours in a five-day work week. For my efforts, I earned $8.50 an hour. That came to about $1,100 a month, after taxes. Not a lot.

I'm pretty sure I'm in over my head with this post, and I hope my republican friends don't read this, but here are some probably incohesive, late-night musings on labor after watching democratic candidates speaking at the presidential forum at Howard University.

Republicans are out of touch. Hopelessly out of touch. What's more, their party is obsolete. Democrats are getting there, too, but let's be realistic for a second. Just look at the candidates for president in '08. On the democratic side there is a black man, a woman and a latino. What are the republicans offering? Old white men (which of course I would be ok with if they all smoked pipes and had long beards. They don't). Their idea of a maverick is John McCain, recently seen sucking up to the religious right. They call themselves the party of Lincoln. This is the party of Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes and a Cheney. These people have not a clue about how 99% of the world lives, and I’m pretty sure they don't care.

I've said it before--I LOVE Mike Gravel. He’s the one pointing out that prison is not an acceptable alternative to a job for a young black man.

I love Jimmy Carter for pointing out in last month’s Rolling Stone that, when he was governor, he competed with fellow governors to see who could reduce the number of prison inmates the most. Now governors brag about how many prisons they have built. If anyone ever deserved a second term...

Henry Ford created the automaton worker. Easily trained, easily replaced. Doesn’t that make him the father of the dead-end job? There is no ladder for someone who has one very limited skill. That is a mode of control, isn’t it? You’re not in the club, and you’re not getting in.

Upward mobility is one of the biggest myths perpetuated in American society. Upward mobility has become a lottery ticket. American Idol. A book deal for a fantasy trilogy...

Lack of skill has meant a continuing decline in adequate compensation as company executives help themselves to bigger slices.

Republicans have been the biggest opponents of raising the minimum wage. They are also the biggest opponents of welfare. There seems to be disconnect in there somewhere.

Worker outrage is dulled by a constantly flowing stream of entertainment. Television killed the labor unions as much as anything. Ok, I just realized that I may be completely full of crap.

Speaking of unions, my buddy Josh once told me how, during his own training at Barnes & Noble, he was mistakenly given the manual for a manager’s training. In it, he told me, were instructions on how to put down a strike. Charming. It's quite a trick to keep people poor and content.

I had health insurance while working at B&N. The premium was about $120.00 per month—a pretty hefty chunk of my pay. When Alex and I went to the doctor for a checkup, our “coverage” covered exactly $0.00. The visit included some tests for various things…piss in a cup, etc, but nothing major. The bill--$400.00. A third of a month’s pay. Here in France, that same visit would be less by about $388.00.

Here’s something I thought of the other day: In France there is still a thriving sector of artisans and small, independent retailers. Butchers, bakers, florists, confectioners, booksellers, greengrocers and wine caves abound. Going into one of these shops as an American is almost as much a shock as it is a pleasure. The level of courtesy and knowledge is tremendous. You get to know your baker and your butcher, and they are genuinely happy to see you come in. They learn what you like and don’t like, and because the lady who sells you the baguette is probably married to the guy who baked it an hour ago, and since their livelihood depends on keeping a regular clientele, they are going to put everything into this craft of theirs. They are in charge, not some corporate guy who has never been to the store. Thus the experience is the exact opposite of what you get at, for example, an American supermarket, where the person slicing your cheese doesn’t know you and doesn’t want to know you. He’s making $6.50 and don’t give a flying f*** about cheese.

That said, France has its share of giant retail outlets too. Often, they are more expensive than the artisan shops. Figure that out.

So, basically in the US we’ve created an indifferent, unknowledgeable, zombie class of workers. I walked among them, and it was weird. The worst possible sin was to steal. Following in a very, very close second was working overtime, which was pretty much considered stealing. Both were monitored with an obsessive vigilance from both inside and outside the store (curt emails from HQ were common). I’ve been told that there was a time when working overtime was considered admirable, a way to distinguish yourself, make a few extra bucks and maybe get ahead. While I can’t imagine a “bookseller” (that’s the cute name they gave to us drones) getting fired for accidentally working overtime, you can bet the managers would be.

Anyhow, that’s it. Out of the democratic candidates I like two—Gravel and Kucinich. Those are the two who, I believe, would make life better for the working class, if they ever had a snowball’s chance in hell of being president.

1 comment:

Kid Shay said...

Did you also notice that the booksellers, the lowest workers on the corporate ladder, were also (with perhaps one manager as an exception) the most interested in the product they were selling?

The middle-managers were numbers people. They worked on units sold and kept a stranglehold on employee hours. Corporate...well, who really knows what corporate ever thought about, besides their private yachts and drinking iced baby seal blood from elephant-ivory mugs.

In America, businesspeople have been able to take advantage of people with talent by making distribution the only way to make a profit. You can't be local; you have to be regional or national. The local artisans need to depend on someone else to make their money.

I'm not sure how to change this system, but I think a good start would be for artists to team up with accountants.