Tag Archives: working conditions

Serfs for Hire: Learning about Labor from Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones

At first glance HBO’s new series, Silicon Valley, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Game of Thrones. Silicon Valley is a comedy in which men (only) vie for immortality behind computer screens, while Game of Thrones is a brutal drama in which men and women vie for immorality on the battlefield, while despots remove the heads of those who usually deserve better. Yet both follow the troop movements of those who seek freedom from tyranny, and, in the process, they reveal something about the capricious nature of justice and even offer some lessons about power in the workplace.

It could be argued that we will not learn much about the serfs of the 21st century by analyzing Silicon Valley. A 2013 survey found that the average salary in the tech industry is $87,811. But even though tech workers earn much more than the average American worker, Silicon Valley critiques the instability of tech labor in the neoliberal era, and it also lobs brickbats at the totalitarian nature of corporate power.

The long suffering hero of Silicon Valley is the honorable Richard the anxious-hearted (comedian Thomas Middleditch), a bug-eyed, curly haired awkward boy/man/genius who has invented a way for audio and video files to be compressed at high speeds with no loss of quality. Richard is awkward with girls and pukes when he is stressed out. This happens frequently, as the two most eccentric and capricious head honchos in Silicon Valley, Gavin Belson, head of the fictional company Hooli, and Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist, vie for Richard’s algorithmic treasure. After much agonizing, Richard turns down Gavin’s $10 million offer to buy his code and instead accepts Peter’s much smaller offer of $200,000 in seed money in order to to retain control of his company, Pied Piper, and his algorithm.

But from episode to episode, Richard and his merry men are not sure if they will be able to keep their funding, their jobs, or the house they live in. They are serfs of the realm ruled by eccentric, narcissistic titans. For all of their privilege, they act out the drama of contingent labor. For all of the hoopla surrounding their intelligence, and for all of the money invested in their potential, they can lose their funding at the whim of their overlords.  And without this funding they could lose their jobs, their health care, and their homes as well as their intellectual property.

Even when they have jobs, they don’t always have control over their labor. When Richard’s friend best friend Big Head is hired away by Hooli, Gavin learns that Big Head doesn’t have the knowledge to help them reverse engineer Richard’s complicated code. So Big Head is kept “on contract,” but taken “off project.” He finds others of his kind on the roof of the Hooli building—barbecuing stuff, tossing footballs, and trying to think of ways to kill time.

The tech workers on Silicon Valley do not control their destiny. Episode six makes this point in a bizarre story line involving a self-driving car that is programmed to drive to billionaire investor Peter’s private island. Instead, it takes the business manager of Pied Piper onto a container ship, leaving him trapped at sea, surrounded only by automated forklifts.

The serfs of Silicon Valley are dependent on the whims of bizarre and wicked rulers like Gavin Belsen and Peter Gregory. Do such characters really exist? Absolutely. Silicon Valley is seen in the tech industry as a roman à clef—a thinly veiled satire of some of the very real and very creepy people who run the tech world. And a recent legal settlement reveals what we have long suspected: that many of today’s tech overlords have conspired to keep their employees’ salaries as low as possible. As a US district judge ruled last month, Apple, Google, and Intel, to name a few, are guilty of wage fixing and driving down salaries by illegally colluding not to poach each other’s employees.

Silicon Valley’s anti-poaching conspiracy violates the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which states that any conspiracy that restrains trade or commerce is illegal and can be punished by fine, imprisonment, or both. But the practice is old, and, possibly, even medieval. A 1364 British ordinance referring to shoe cobblers read: Masters are forbidden to poach workers from other members of the craft.” In this most recent lawsuit, tech industry plaintiffs, who filed this suit in 2001, were seeking 3 billion in damages, but have settled for $324 million, which averages out to about $4,000 per plaintiff—a moral victory but a financial defeat.

Should we feel sorry for the tech serfs of Silicon Valley? Maybe not. But should we see in their labor situation something of the precariousness of the rest of us in the 99%? Should we see in their experiences some similarities to the working conditions of contingent academic faculty; of low-wage fast food, Walmart, and healthcare workers; of blamed and battered public schools teachers; of undocumented workers; and of indentured college graduates?

We should. And that’s why we should also heed the lessons of Game of Thrones. We should build an army of the 99%, employ the cunning of the imp, the tech savvy of the geeks, and the moral ferocity of Brienne of Tarth. It would be cool if we could get some wolves and some dragons, too. United, and armed with the knowledge of our true worth, are we not more powerful than the 1% that sits upon the Iron Throne?

Kathy M. Newman

A Working-Class Perspective on a Seasonal Tale

As your finger is poised over your mouse ready to make that last minute gift selection for a loved one this holiday, bear in mind the complex web of economic, social, and political networks that solve your problems. Over the last year, a number of critical articles and documentaries in the UK have coupled Amazon’s corporate practices with its employment regimes, and in both areas class issues have figured strongly in the critique.

The wider story about Amazon, in the UK at least, centers on tax avoidance. While the company employs around 20,000 people in the UK, it pays very small amounts of tax – £3.2 million in 2012 on UK sales of £4.2 billion. It has been able to do this – perfectly legally – by designating its UK operation as simply an “order fulfilment business,” while its office based in Luxembourg employs only 380 people. Given the tax advantage to companies such as Amazon who are prepared to offshore, it is no surprise that there is now a crisis on the UK high street with many long established chains filing for bankruptcy due to the corporate penetration of Amazon’s business model. As recent articles and critical politicians have pointed out, Amazon is sucking out the tax base within local, regional, and national economies in terms of business rates as well as wages. In a high profile battle, cosmetics company Lush is even taking Amazon to court over its tactics. Lush refuses to sell through Amazon and yet the company uses ‘Lush’ as a search term in order to capture customers who then get directed to other products.  Indeed such is the power of this corporate behemoth that before it decides to locate one of its Customer Fulfilment Centres, it extracts as much as it can from local authorities and regional economic development bodies.  For example, the Welsh government gave £8.8 million in grants to Amazon to entice the company to locate its distribution centre in Swansea, South Wales rather than some place else. Much like WalMart, an Amazon Customer Fulfilment Centre creates some poorly-paid, high-stress jobs even as it also puts other companies out of business, cutting jobs elsewhere.  And as with WalMart, Amazon’s low wages are subsidized by government welfare programs funded by the taxes that Amazon has avoided paying.

Even more interesting have been critiques of working conditions at Amazon, which suggest a connection between the quality of jobs and the wider sense of sustainability of community. The two biggest issues with Amazon UK have to do with employment status and the intensity of the work. In recent Financial Times and Observer newspaper pieces as well as a recent BBC TV Panorama documentary, reporters have gone undercover, obtaining employment as temporary Amazon workers.  Their reports explain how Amazon’s direct workforce of around 5000 workers in the UK swells to over 20,000 during the holidays, but most of the additional workers are hired  through temporary employment agencies.  Amazon offers these workers a carrot: the possibility of permanent employment, slightly higher wages, and better conditions if they behave themselves. In reality, most temporary employees will never enjoy these carrots.

Most temporary hires work as pickers, walking 8 to 15 miles in a shift as they navigate around the selves to fulfill customer orders.  Amazon’s distribution sites are huge as you would expect – they range from 800,000 to 1 million square feet, as large as 14 soccer fields. Workers report suffering fatigue, stress, and blisters, but more worrying is the pace of the work, which would put car factory assembly workers to shame. Each step, each minute, sometimes even each second of the picker’s shift is closely monitored with a central logistic computer telling the worker what and where to pick next and specifying the number of seconds in which they should ideally perform the task. Workers complain about this monitoring and about the company’s sick leave policy, which allows only three periods of sickness before a worker is ‘released.’

So why do people take these jobs? Amazon deliberately targets locations with high levels of unemployment, usually areas where traditional industries were once based. The South Wales base, for example, is in an area decimated by steel and coal closures. The FT magazine article emphasizes that Amazon’s centre in Rugeley, in the English Midlands, is near the site of Lea Hall Colliery, a once modern ‘super pit’ opened in 1960, which closed just before Christmas 1990. Reporter Sarah O’Connor writes that when the 800 workers were made redundant at the mine, they were being paid the equivalent of between £380 and £900 in today’s money.  Today, temp agency workers at Amazon are paid only about £220 per week. Amazon’s low wage tactics reflect a far wider problem with in-work poverty.  This link between low pay and poverty is gaining more attention in the UK, and a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted that of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK in 2011/12, more than half were, for the first time, living in working families.

Like the often cited truism about multinational corporations, there’s only one thing worse than being exploited by a multinational and that is not being exploited by a multinational.  This is true for the communities where Amazon is located.  In communities with high unemployment, these are jobs that pay some kind of wage. But I think we have to ask bigger questions about what companies like Amazon are doing to our communities and to working-class work. Workers must have the right to be represented by trade unions, and they should earn a living wage. O’Connor ends her piece by quoting a local estate agent in Rugeley who criticized locals’ negative attitudes toward Amazon: “People expect a job for life, but the world isn’t like that any more, is it?” Well, the miners of Lea Hall enjoyed better terms and conditions and far safer working environments than their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations because ordinary working-class people had expected and fought for more — if not a job for life then at least job that would give them more of a life than they currently enjoyed.

So as you scan those seductive Amazon pages, spare a thought for the employment and corporate practices that lie behind your choices. You could take a working-class perspective one click at a time. Now there is a seasonal wish!

Tim Strangleman

Adjuncts, Class, and Fear

The biggest obstacle to organizing adjunct (part-time and full-time non-tenure-track) professors, who now comprise 75% of the faculty in higher education, with part-timers working for $2700 per course on average  – is fear.  Most people assume that adjuncts fear retribution for boat-rocking of any kind.  That worry is not unfounded, since examples of such retaliation abound.

However, many adjuncts feel paralyzed by a deeper, unspoken fear, one that is primarily internal and fraught with complexities that Working-Class Studies can help illuminate and overcome.  This fear stems from the tension, well-documented and long-discussed, between adjuncts’ nominal professional status and the actual workplace conditions that place us in the category of the working class.

The intense debate surrounding Duquesne adjunct French professor Margaret Mary Vojtko’s life and death has placed this tension in an unusually prominent light. For many adjuncts, as for members of other professions, talk of organizing instills fear not so much of retaliation but of being associated with the “kind of person” who joins a union.  With titles and work that give the public perception of professional status but without the corresponding income, hanging on to that status becomes critical to maintaining one’s identity.

Professor Vojtko does not appear to have been afflicted with this kind of fear.  Contrary to what the Duquesne administration would have the public believe, she sought out and strongly supported the new union.  Her colleagues and her family, who knew her best, believe that she would have approved of the attention finally being directed at the injustices she and so many other contingent faculty have experienced for decades. Yet a disturbingly high number of the responses to Vojtko’s story reveal that many adjuncts have experienced — or are expected by others to experience — deep shame.   As a result, many adjuncts personalize and privatize the structural and systemic nature of the inequities in higher education.  Naive belief in an illusory meritocracy often obstructs the ability to understand that the academic employment system is not immutable. “I had the privilege of an education and the pleasure of work I enjoy,” goes this script,  “so I should have ‘known better,’ and now deserve the conditions in which I live.”   Variations on this theme include internal and external rebukes for not accepting the economic status quo as supposedly natural rather than constructed.

How can we combat the paralyzing effects of the internally- and externally-imposed fears in order to mobilize adjuncts into organizing and action?

One answer, evidenced by the successful forays of non-academic unions of Votjko’s  Steelworkers  and SEIU into adjunct organizing, has been to “flip the classroom,” to appropriate the language of some of the corporate reform most in vogue. In this approach, faculty indignation that adjuncts are treated as “nothing more” than, for example, fast-food workers (statements that reinforce the class divide) is transformed from denunciation into inspiration — and aspiration.  We begin to see other workers’ material and psychological gains as achievable goals.  We begin to see them as colleagues who are confronting the structural reality we have fooled ourselves into denying.  We allow ourselves to be educated by, as well as to educate, the janitors and fast-food workers of America, who are often our students and sometimes our relatives. This can only be done, like most other organizing, with one-on-one discussions that build trust and relationships as they educate.

For me, the lessons have been quite personal.  Being the granddaughter of an immigrant steelworker from Braddock, PA, was not something to which I gave much thought until I became an adjunct.  Up until then, my experiences as an Asian American woman figured more prominently in my life.   My father had moved successfully from the working class to a solid middle class professional life, never forgetting or turning his back on his roots.  My grandfather, who never finished high school, and my father, who was the first in his immediate family to get a college degree and who worked his way through college without incurring any student loan debt, saw my desire to become a college professor as a logical outgrowth of the family journey.  It validated their faith that higher education was the key element in such a journey.

My grandfather did not live to see me go on to a PhD program.  Nor did he see me get derailed from finishing it and end up in contingent academic employment needing financial assistance from my family because my full-time “part-time” teaching could hardly support a 5-person family with a new baby, a child on the autism spectrum, and a spouse who had lost his own teaching job in the worst economy in the US in decades. I’m glad that my grandfather didn’t have to witness what has shocked my father: that higher education failed to live up to their experience and expectations.

But I am also sad that my grandfather did not live to see me become an activist and organizer for contingent faculty and for the integrity of higher education.  I wish I could ask him about his union organizing in the 1930s, or why he became disillusioned with his union in the 1960s and 70s, and I wonder what he would think about the state of the American labor movement today.  I am glad that I can talk to my father about his professional association and his uncomplicated recognition and appreciation of its function as a labor organization.  And I am very glad, now that I teach mostly working-class and immigrant students at a community college, that I can speak to my dad about what it was like being a working class, “ethnic” student at a college where he was decidedly in the minority. I’m glad that being an adjunct has made me better able to understand the social, political, and economic stresses of my students.

As I work to organize adjunct faculty in Ohio and nationally, my own biggest fear is that any successes we have will erase our collective memory of our adjunct experience and desensitize us to the reality of the least advantaged of our students.  If our efforts re-gild  instead of reclaim the ivory tower, then we will have failed our students and ourselves.

Our success should instead be measured by the degree to which our movement breaks down the academic caste system and promotes respect for those of our students and colleagues who come from working-class backgrounds. It will be successful when organizing efforts, like adjuncts themselves, are no longer on the margins of political activity — or civic education.

Maria Maisto

Maria Maisto is President of New Faculty Majority.

The Last Good Blue-Collar Job?

A journalist from a Scottish newspaper contacted me last month wanting my reaction to the announcement that 2,300 people had applied for eighteen trainee driver posts to service a soon to be reopened rail line in the Scottish Boarders running to the south of Edinburgh. With nearly 128 applicants for each of these jobs, the reporter was keen to discover what was behind this headlong rush. Well, to be precise, what I think she was after were some conditioned clichés about working on the railway, the romance of the iron road, and how it is (still) every little boy’s wish to be a train driver.

She seemed a little crestfallen when I suggested some alternative reasons why these new posts might be so valued.  First, the trainee’s starting salary was $33,230, about average in the UK before you take in to account the rise to $58,400 when fully qualified. I also suggested that recruits could expect a good pension, reduced travel prices, and, above all, the kind of security that many workers can only dream of. This is all in the context of a double dip recession and high unemployment levels. By this time, I could sense that young journalist’s imagined simple story of boyhood romance was morphing into something far more complex and probably less exciting.

She tried one last tack with me. ‘But why’ she asked, ‘were these jobs so good’? My answer was straightforward; railway work in the UK remains one of the strongest bastions of working-class unionisation. When the industry was privatised, or denationalised, two decades ago, conservative politicians made little attempt to hide that their goals included smashing the unions, reducing levels of pay, and eroding conditions of service. Contrary to the conservatives’ hopes, some railway workers have seen their real pay rates increase considerably, and this is especially true of the drivers.

Hot on the heels of the story about the new railway jobs came a similar story from the English Midlands about 1,701 people applying for three full-time and five part-time barista posts with coffee chain Costa Coffee. In other words, these more mundane, less obviously ‘romantic’ vacancies attracted more applicants per position – roughly 212 applicants for each job — than did the train driver openings. Among the biggest differences between the two jobs is the pay rate.  An article in the Guardian pointed out that no barista in London, let alone in the more economically deprived Midlands, gets within ten grand of the national average wage of £26,500.  Another key difference is that driving a train requires a year or more of theoretical and practical training while – and no offence to baristas anywhere – serving coffee does not involve a lengthy apprenticeship, much as some of us may want to fetishize its production. The relatively greater interest in the barista jobs may reflect many things, but it is fundamentally a function of the poorly performing economy and the dire labor market in the UK.

Underlying both stories is a common question that must confuse the presumably middle-class newspaper readership: why would so many people want to do blue-collar work? One answer to this question might lie in reflections being made about working- and middle-class aspiration on both sides of the Atlantic, reflections that reassess the value of blue-collar work.  The most prominent example comes from US writer Matthew B. Crawford’s bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft, subtitled An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Crawford’s basic thesis is that the middle-class obsession with getting the ‘good job’ often ends in a cubicle.  It may be a very nice cubicle, in which one may be able to exercise all sorts of autonomy over the type of posters and humorous postcards placed on its walls, but it’s still a cubicle. Crawford contrasts life slumped in front of a screen between cardboard dividers with the freedom and autonomy still enjoyed by many working-class jobs.  He makes much of his own chosen career in motorcycle maintenance, in which he enjoys endless problem solving mixed with extensive banter with other motorcycle aficionados. While Crawford enters this world from a background of relative educational and financial privilege, he does tap into something about the too often hidden rewards of working-class working life, namely the culture of workplaces shaped by ordinary men and women.

Similar revelations can be found in other accounts of middle-class forays into working-class culture, such as Don J. Snyder’s The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found. Snyder recounts how he lost a tenure-track college post and descended down the class ladder. In a fascinating story, he relates how he found redemption through labor with a set of working-class builders who overlooked his technical incompetence because they could see he needed the job. Snyder contrasts the basic humanitarian gesture involved in helping out someone in need with his experience of the middle-class world he had fallen from where many former friends and colleagues had simply turned their backs on him.

In my current job, I am occasionally contacted by the media about the current state of work, and not just about railways. Much like my students, journalists seem to assume that manual labor or blue-collar work is to be avoided at all costs. I always make a point of asking the often young journalist or assistant researchers about their own work and the conditions they enjoy. Usually, they describe a long-hours culture, working on temporary contracts, switching between employers who contract to bigger media players. To these younger media workers, the working-class world of blue-collar work must seem a strangely alien one, where workers more often co-operate than compete and place emphasis on the importance of dignity and respect for a job well done. No wonder they want to produce stories about this type of old-fashioned work.

Tim Strangleman

Home Health Workers: In Demand But Not Protected

In the nearly 20 years I’ve spent organizing long term care workers, I hadn’t really personally experienced the difficulty of being a care giver.   I worked the policy, political, advocacy, organizing and bargaining pieces in the Union for home care workers.  The women I organized were strong and bold and everyone had a story to tell. We told their stories of care giving in the hope that the workforce would no longer remain invisible and would begin to be seen as the emerging face of the labor movement along with immigrants and service workers.

I have a story to tell as well now.  My mom and dad are in their 80s and in poor health.  Caring for them is the most difficult work I have performed in my life, both mentally and physically.  I moved back home two years ago to care for them.  Ten years ago I used to fear that they would die.  Now I fear that they will live. Each day brings its own lessons in compassion, like when I wake up in the morning and there is no hot water to shower because Mom got up in the middle of the night and left the water running, or, when I am ready to walk out the door to take my son to pre-school and Dad’s colostomy bag breaks and I have a mess to clean up.  Then Dad begins to cry, I try to comfort him, and my son is late for school.   I think back to the women I’ve organized and look to them for strength. I do this for free, which prevents me from working full-time elsewhere, but the workers who did this for a living, mostly women and people of color, really aren’t doing much better financially.

Home health workers are among the most in demand but lowest paid workers in America.  There are 2.5 million caregivers in the workforce, and that number will grow over the next decade because of aging baby boomers, many of whom seem to prefer to receive care at home. Employment in care giving is expected to grow by 70% from 2010 to 2020, much faster than average for all occupations. Over one million workers in this industry have no health insurance. 90% of direct care workers are women, and many are primary breadwinners in their families. Caregivers are paid minimum wage or, if they’re lucky, just slightly above.  Earning such low wages with no health insurance means that 46% of direct care workers rely on some type of government program, such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing, child care, energy assistance, or transportation assistance.

Over one million direct care workers are consigned to near-poverty because of the structure of their employment. The home care workers bathe, change, dress, and feed their clients.  They also perform home-making duties, such as cooking, cleaning, and shopping. These workers face whatever they have to, depending on the kind of day their clients may be having.  Even if the home care agency tells them that they have one hour to get a client dressed, fed, and settled in his/her chair for the day, it may take longer.  But workers do not leave their clients.  Instead, they work “off the clock.”  A home care worker may have four clients for the day but does not get paid for mileage or travel time between clients, much less any benefits for themselves. If the worker’s client becomes ill and is admitted to the hospital, admitted to the nursing home for further care, or dies, or if the family takes the client to their home for the holidays, the worker simply loses that job and does not get paid.  There are no sick days and no vacation days.

Home care workers may be employed by an agency or be independent providers. In either case, the work environment includes a number of safety and health hazards: blood-borne pathogens and biological hazards, latex sensitivity, ergonomic hazards from client lifting, violence, hostile animals, and unhygienic and dangerous conditions.  They may also face hazards on the road as they drive from client to client.

Unfortunately, these workers have been denied the right to organize and bargain in some states, like Ohio. Home care workers are also excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, making them ineligible for overtime, including overnight stays at a client’s home. President Obama spent a day working as a home care worker in California not long after announcing his candidacy in 2007.  Last year, the President proposed a revising a Labor Department rule that would provide FLSA protections to home care workers, and the final rule is still being deliberated.  Guess who opposes the rule change?  The home care agencies.  Agencies receive at least $15 billion of Medicaid money annually for personal care services and are happy to have government money, which fueled a 9% average yearly increase in revenue between 2001 and 2009.  Government becomes harmful, it seems, only when setting a floor under workers’ wages.  The fight isn’t about raising the minimum wage or getting overtime legalized-that would still leave home care workers poor.  It’s about winning some labor standards, rights, and security after decades of losing them.

What happens to this growing element of the working class matters for the shape of our economy, the fate of unionism, and the establishment of a decent standard of living for all.

Debra Timko

Debra Timko was a leading health care organizer for 20 years and is now an independent health care researcher studying the lives of health care workers in Northeast Ohio

This American Strife: What Happened To The Working Class In The Mike Daisey Retraction?

On March 18, the popular public-radio program This American Life issued an unprecedented retraction of the now-infamous episode in which performer Mike Daisey recounts his supposedly firsthand experiences of exploitative labor practices at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China that produces Apple products.  The issue was not that Daisey had misrepresented the company’s labor practices.  Instead, the concern was Daisey’s misrepresentation of his interactions with Foxconn workers.  A full explanation of the inconsistencies in Daisey’s story and the subsequent fallout can be found in the retraction itself, in which both Daisey and TAL host Ira Glass suggest that Daisey’s theatrical untruths serve a broader existential truth, namely that Apple conceals from view the kinds of inhumane and unjust employment practices to which Daisey supposedly gives a human face.  The situation raises several issues related to the ethical standards of theater and journalism, particularly how these standards apply to depictions of the working class.

Public radiophiles have been buzzing for weeks with the revelation of these fabrications, but what has gone largely overlooked and uncommented on, despite write-ups from outlets as diverse as Slate, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post, is how Daisey’s own business practices— the concealment of fact, the smoothing over of complexity in order to form a sleek, streamlined narrative— mirror those of the company whose exploitation he claims to have “outed.”  No doubt Apple understands the centrality of narrative to its marketing success more thoroughly and successfully than any other contemporary corporation.  Suppressing the unpleasant reality of its production practices, Apple peddles a lineup of sleek, minimalist products expressive of an existential “truth” for the consumers who buy them.  We buy iPhones, in other words, not because they have the fastest download speed or the largest screen of any phone on the market— in fact the iPhone remains stunningly behind in both of these categories— but because Apple has wrapped the phone, like all its products, in a narrative of which we want to be a part, a narrative of youth, fashionability, and cleanliness.  (It is one of the damning ironies of the company that one of the adjectives most often used to describe its products, assembled by workers who often work 24-hour shifts in dust-choked factories, is “clean.”)

While Apple conceals its outsourcing of exploitative working conditions in order for its consumers to preserve an image of themselves as socially-conscious global citizens, Daisey conceals actual working conditions in China in order to create the “clean,” streamlined narrative that we, as theatergoers and consumers, want to hear.  Daisey’s stage-performance works not because it peddles an objective glimpse behind the curtain of Apple’s business practices, but because it sells us the story of our lives that we desire, a narrative of ourselves as committed, well-meaning liberals.  Daisey’s story does implicate us in a system of social and economic exploitation, but its ultimate effect is to numb us to this complicity by reassuring us that we somehow transcend this exploitation simply by knowing about and acknowledging it.

In this respect, Daisey’s show is the theater version of the “slacktivism” that so often clutters our News Feeds with links to “KONY 2012” or Mother Jones graphs of American income distribution.  This kind of slacktivism may indeed be consciousness-raising, but it gives us a false sense that we are taking real action toward addressing the root causes of the problems these links point to.  Not only should we acknowledge the limitations of working-class slacktivism, we should also endeavor toward action in the real world of protests, picket lines, and legislation.  It is not enough, in other words, to post links in support of the working class, especially if we’re doing it using products, including the MacBook on which I write this, that undermine the sentiment behind those links; from the beginning, this kind of protest participates in the very practices it condemns.  And this is the genius of Daisey’s show, that it allows us to feel outraged— and self-righteous and angry and indignant and betrayed— but has the added bonus of permitting us to take no real action against the source of our outrage.

This is not to say that conditions at Foxconn, or at any other factory in China, are more pleasant than Daisey makes them out to be.  Workers, to cite an example from Apple’s own supplier standards, are often pressured to work 60-hour weeks on “sped-up” assembly lines at wages low enough to ensure a marginal profit for the corporations that employ them.  Between January and November 2010, a wave of suicides at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen prompted the company to install suicide-prevention netting around its buildings after 14 workers hurled themselves from the factory roofs.  And workers at an Apple factory in Turkey, who sometimes work 30-hour shifts, have been instantly fired for attempting to join a union, even after sustaining workplace injuries that could have been avoided had Apple taken basic safety precautions.  Recently, the Fair Labor Association issued its own critical report on Foxconn labor practices, noting widespread worker dissatisfaction with these kinds of abuses.

At the risk of apologizing for Apple, however, examining the intricacies of these situations— for example that thousands of workers “voluntarily” enroll at these factories, which offer some of the “best” jobs in China, or that Apple is merely one offender among thousands in a globalized system of labor abuse— requires the kind of time and detail that would disrupt the gripping narrative that Daisey constructs.  And in constructing this narrative, he misuses the working class in a manner similar to, though less severe than, Apple’s own mistreatment of its workers.  By fabricating his encounters with the workers of Shenzhen, Daisey transforms human individuals into cogs in the machine of fiction, mere characters designed to plug a hole on the assembly line of rising and falling action.

Even This American Life‘s “retraction” of the Daisey episode ends up oversimplifying, if not ignoring, the working class with which the story began.  In issuing its own quasi-apology for misleading its listeners, TAL wraps itself in the narrative we’ve always wanted to hear from our journalists, the narrative that, despite increasing pressure from a host of complicated factors, journalists continue to hold themselves to a higher standard of truth.  We need only look at the fabrications of a Jayson Blair or a Michael Olesker— or any program on Fox News for that matter— to understand how dangerous this narrative can be.

To its credit, TAL does not defend Apple, but nor does it attempt to interview a single worker at Foxconn or contextualize the experiences of those workers within the bigger picture of the globalized economy.  And while it discredits Daisey in order to prop up its own ethical stance, the show fails to point out that Daisey’s analysis remains an accurate, if mishandled, assessment of the working class both at home and abroad.  Indeed, TAL‘s apologetic hand-wringing conceals how the show utilizes Daisey and the abuses on which he “reports” to paint itself as a bastion of journalistic integrity, while ignoring, like so much American journalism, the broader systemic injustice of which those abuses are a part.  The narratives of both Daisey and Glass employ the working class, like Apple, as a mere tool to bolster each entertainer’s professional reputation.  As consumers of these narratives— and of all popular media in which workers’ voices remain suppressed, mediated, or misrepresented— we should recognize that the true narratives of the working class can only be constructed by workers themselves.

Christopher Kemp

Christopher Kempf is an adjunct faculty member at the Indiana Institute of Technology, and will be a 2012-2014 Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.

Working Christmas

I am a sucker for Christmas. I love decorating the tree, filling my children’s Advent calendar, wrapping presents, baking cookies, watching Christmas specials on television, hosting holiday parties, and making and sending my annual Christmas card.

But there is another reason I love Christmas that has little to do with my personal traditions. I love it because during this season iconic Christmas characters (like Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty) as well as pundits, preachers, and journalists engage in some surprisingly frank discussions of work, capitalism, and the working class.

Let us start with Bass/Rankin classic, Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, which first aired in 1964. Some have argued that it is an allegory for the Cold War, with the Bumble representing the Soviet Union, who is tamed by the ultimate American Yukon Cornelius. Others have argued that Rudolph represents the “Red Scare,” which is interesting, because Burl Ives (the show’s narrator, Sam the Snowman), was blacklisted in 1950 in the anti-communist smear pamphlet Red Channels. Unfortunately, Burl Ives cooperated with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) when he told them that he used to attend union meetings with Pete Seeger in order to “stay in touch with working folk.”

My recent viewing of the Christmas classic suggests a slightly different take. The elves in Rudolph are apparently happy on the job. They sing: “We work hard all day/But our work is play.” Hmmmmm. This is the essential myth of the Christmas elf, right? Making Christmas toys is work, but the work is play.

On the other hand, not everyone who wants to work is allowed to work in Rudolph’s world. Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer is a story about workplace discrimination. Hermey the elf, played with what we now interpret as a “gay” voice, doesn’t fit in with the other toy-making elves. Is he discriminated against for being gay? Or because wants to be a dentist? In his signature song he says, “You can’t fire me, I quit.” Rudolph is similarly cheated out of a chance to work for Santa, and all because of his shiny red nose.

Workplace discrimination in Rudolph has a gendered component as well. Rudolph’s mother and his girlfriend Clarice are told by Donner and Santa that looking for Rudolph is “man’s work.” The misfit toys are also deprived of a chance to serve as joy filled bundles on Christmas morning because they have manufacturing defects. Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon Cornelius rescue the misfit toys by convincing Santa to give them as gifts. Even the Bumble is simply an underutilized employee. When Yukon Cornelius tames the Bumble he explains: “I’ve reformed the Bumble. He wants a job! Look what he can do!” At the sound of these magic words the Bumble tops the Christmas tree with a star.  Indeed, conflicts over imports and fair trade (the embargo on toy imports in Santa Claus is Coming to Town), work stoppages (Santa’s “sickout” in The Year Without a Santa Claus), and working conditions (the life of a clockmaker in The Night Before Christmas) are at or near the center of almost every one of the Bass/Rankin holiday productions.

And how about Dicken’s A Christmas Carol? If ever there was a workplace holiday tale, this is it. Scrooge is a miser who nearly drives his clerk’s family to the poor house. My favorite adaptation of the tale, Scrooged [1988] starring Bill Murray, hits all the right working-class themes. Murray plays a television executive who fires one of his employees, Eliot Loudermilk, in the first scene. Loudermilk goes on to become homeless and comes back to terrorize Murray’s Christmas Carol production with a shot gun. The character of Bob Cratchit is transformed into the character “Grace Cooley,” Murray’s executive secretary. The awesome African American actress Alfe Woodward plays Grace as a single mother who brilliantly makes up for her boss’s shortcomings.

In recent months the character of Scrooge has been called upon to describe the “1%” who control much of the wealth in the US, as identified by the Occupy Wall Street movement. When Jay-Z marketed OWS t-shirts but declined to share any those profits with the movement, a group of artsy jokesters made a statue of Jay-Z in the form of Ebenezer Scrooge.

After Scrooge, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is most often associated with the figure of the miserly malcontent. Just last month President Obama told a rally in Ohio that he hoped Congress would extend the payroll tax rather than play the role of “Grinch.” Shockingly, the now extremely beloved original animated version of Dr. Suess’s popular children’s book, animated by Chuck Jones, was turned down in 1966 by 25 potential television sponsors. Jones remembers that even he was surprised when the show was finally sponsored by the Foundation for Commercial Banks. Jones speculates that the bankers must have missed the moment when the Grinch realizes that “perhaps Christmas doesn’t come from a store.”

Each of these Christmas stories highlights the plight of the downtrodden, the outsider, or the misfit, what Jones called the “slave” or the “reindeer dog” in the Grinch tale. But how far does that critique extend? While Scrooge and the Grinch eventually realize that the “true meaning” of Christmas cannot be bought, when these tales are rebroadcast on television they are sandwiched between dozens of commercials for cars, cell phones, diamonds, slippers, gloves, and video games. Linus may end The Charlie Brown Christmas Special with a passage from the Bible describing the angel telling the shepherds about Jesus’s birth, but you can buy the Deluxe Peanuts Christmas Holiday Specials at Costco right now for under $30.00. I did last month.

In the end, though, the icons of Christmas are highly plastic and can be easily mutated to call for social change. In Denver this month Occupiers were invited to participate in an “Elf Revolt.” The facebook page Occupy Christmas has been active since early November. References to Christmas elves on strike, Scrooge, and the Grinch abound in humor blogs and labor coverage during the holiday season.

And, as much as Fox News broadcasters worry about the “war on Christmas,” the rest of us know that the real war on US soil is being waged by the super rich on the working and middle classes. And we know that on December 26th it is back to work for those of us who still dream of a merrier, more equal society that could bring us glad tidings and figgy pudding 365 days a year.

Kathy M. Newman

Global Women Workers of the World, Unite!

The film version of The Help debuted on August 10th and set box office records for a film that was aimed at book club ladies.  It has earned 71.8 million at the box office in its first twelve days alone, rising to first place this last weekend over Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night.  The film is based on a bestselling 2009 novel by white Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett about two black maids and a young white woman who collaborate to tell the stories African American domestic workers in the Jim Crow south.  It is a fictional tale.  No actual exposé of black domestic workers was written by black or white women in the 1960s.  But the frame of the novel—the book within a book—gives the novel an air of authenticity that makes it appealing.  Especially, perhaps, to white readers like me, who might feel like we are being permitted to peek behind the curtain of a distant, repressive past.

The novel has been celebrated for two years straight, winning accolades from People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and The New York Times.  The film, too, has already garnered Oscar buzz, and the NAACP screened it at a packed theater in July, where, apparently, there wasn’t an empty seat or a dry eye in the house.

I settled down to read The Help earlier this summer to see for myself.  While I was not entirely won over by the novel, finding the villain Hilly Holbrook, who campaigns for segregated toilets at the homes where black women work, to be a racist sorority girl cardboard cutout, and the white girl who interviews the black maids, “Skeeter,” a little too weirdo-goody-goody, what got me to sniffling into a tissue was the relationship between the black maid, Aibileen, and her white charge, a toddler named Mae Mobley.  The girl child is ignored and possibly even emotionally abused by her birth mother, and Aibileen is there to soothe the child—to boost her ego and make her strong — even though she knows that Mae Mobley will likely grow up to be as racist and clueless as her mother.  I was intrigued to learn that the character of Aibileen was based in large part on the author’s own childhood maid, Demetrie (actually employed by Stockett’s grandmother), who comforted Stockett during an especially rough patch during which her parents got divorced.

Both the book and the film have drawn considerable fire from scholars, historians, a very smart and funny blog called acriticalreviewofthehelp, and dozens of African American leaders and journalists.  The criticisms are brutal, and, for the most part, hard to refute.  A clear-eyed statement from the Association of Black Women (ABW) faults the novel and the film for recreating the Mammy stereotype. One of The Help’s main characters, Minny, is a big, fat, soft woman with a surly temper who loves to make fried chicken.  Neither the book nor the film offers any suggestion that black maids, like countless other African Americans in the South and North, were organizing, voting, marching, and protesting.

The statement from the ABW also faults The Help for ignoring the problem of sexual harassment of black domestics by white employers.  Instead, The Help represents black male characters as by far the worst men in the story.  This criticism of The Help seems especially poignant this summer, as a recently released six-page story written by famed Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks hints at the likelihood that she barely escaped being raped by a white neighbor when she worked as a maid in the 1930s.

It is certainly fair to attack The Help on the basis that it distorts history, especially since Stockett meant The Help to represent real life in1960s Jackson, Mississippi.  But is the Civil Rights aspect of the story—done well or botched—the only reason for The Help’s popularity and influence?  I am not so sure.  As I have consumed these different versions of The Help I have been wondering:  have we really traveled so far from the nightmarish hierarchy and inequality suffered by women of color who lived in the Jim Crow south?  What is life like for “the help” in today’s world?

For answers, I turned to a work of non-fiction, Just Like Family:  Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for and the Children They Love.  The book, also published in 2009, reflects more than 100 interviews that author Tasha Blaine conducted with working nannies, three of whom she profiles in the book.  The hardships faced by these modern day nannies do not compare to that of black domestics in the Jim Crow south, but many struggled with similar problems:  forming loving bonds with the children but disagreeing with or disliking the children’s parents, being invited to family events but then being expected to perform as if they were servants, and putting up with the strange behavior of their employers—who were sometimes drunk, verbally abusive, or just plain mean.

If you think it is crazy to see a connection between a historical novel about black maids and present-day child care arrangements, consider this:  a national organization, Nanny Biz Reviews, organized a series of “Nannies Nights Out” during the days after The Help opened.  They encouraged nannies to see the film together and to use the outing as a way to network and have fun.  While some found this preposterous, others commented online that they could relate to the maids in The Help more than any other fictional nannies.  As one commented, “[T]here are still parents out there that want to treat all of us regardless of heritage, as second or third class citizens….Maybe for some it is to see how far we have come, and then on behalf of others to remember there are still ways to go.”

In the meantime, in New York State, which boasts one of the largest nanny populations in the country (the official estimate alone is 200,000), legislators last summer finally passed a series of laws aimed at improving the pay and working conditions of nannies.  The “Nanny Bill” is significant because domestic workers, who were excluded from the National Labor Relations category of workers in 1935, have long toiled with low and/or under-the-table wages. Domestic Workers United, a New York union thatfought hard for the “Nanny Bill,” estimates that more than 50% of their members work more than 60 hours per week, and 26% live below the poverty line.  The Nanny Bill gives domestic workers the right to days off, overtime pay, and holidays—similar to other workers.

The question of class is just one part of the contemporary nanny problem. Race, gender, and national status are part of the mix as well.  In their book Global Woman (2003), Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russel Hochschild write about the ways in which an underclass of third world women have become the nannies, the maids, and the sex workers for the developed world.

So perhaps The Help is wildly popular in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Look how far we have come now that we don’t see maids as property to be passed along to our children as if they were slaves!  But be careful if you find yourself leaving the theatre on too much of a joyous, Civil Rights high.  We still have not solved the problem of childcare in this country—and global women have stepped in to fill the gap.

Viola Davis, the actress who may well win an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Aibileen, said, “The most revolutionary thing you could do is humanize the black woman.”  What can we do, right now, to humanize those who toil as “the help” today?

Kathy M. Newman