Tag Archives: working conditions

Bottom Chefs: A Working-Class Lens in the Competition Kitchen

Last week Top Chef Boston aired its Thanksgiving episode (filmed in July) in which the chefs had to squat over open fires, stir pots with large wooden spoons, and to try to cook a Thanksgiving feast limited by the ingredients (venison, blueberries, clams, squash, goose, etc.) that would have been available during the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621. Katsuji Tanabe, an eccentric, funny, mouthy chef, the son of a Mexican mother and a Japanese father, won the competition with a dish that combined squash, lobster, and fresh herbs. Tough-as-nails Stacy Cogswell, the only chef who is actually from Boston, was sent home for getting dirt in her clam dish when she had to plate on the ground at the famed Plimoth Plantation.

In the last decade we have seen a prodigious spike in the number of reality shows that feature labor in the kitchen. From the Food Network competitions, to the Master Chef empire, to the Emmy winning Top Chef, if you like to watch people braise, chop, and sauté on TV this is a Golden Era to be sure.

Right now we’re in season 12 of Top Chef, and the Boston area cooking challenges have been decidedly working-class in their orientation. So far the challenges have included cooking a meal for “Boston’s bravest and finest” (police officers) and contributing a humble dish to the Boston Food and Wine festival that the chefs had to base on the first thing they learned how to cook as children.

On Top Chef the humble sous chefs, once just a notch above dishwasher, are now celebrities in waiting—gracing home town newspapers when they appear in these competitions, and often starting new businesses with their new found fame, if not the prize money, when they win. Many of the contestants hail from working-class and/or immigrant families, and their working-class backgrounds are featured in multiple interviews during the show.

Top Chef trades heavily in the exoticization of working-class bodies and voices. Many of the contestants are heavily tattooed, tough, and prone to excessive cursing. They tell genuinely moving stories, direct to camera, about growing up poor, and/or immigrant, and/or being raised by a single mother.

These personal narratives are real—the cheftestants are not faking their hardships, and we know that cooking has long been a working-class vocation. But Top Chef trades heavily in the contestants’ hard luck pasts, in part to increase the drama and/or the tears as contestants talk about how badly they want to win, the sacrifices of their immigrant parents, how they couldn’t afford culinary school, or how their moms worked two jobs when they were growing up.

During the competition the chefs are forced to cook under harsh conditions, including extreme heat, and limited cooking accouterments (as in the Thanksgiving episode). These conditions are designed to increase the tension on the show, but sometimes they cause real injuries. Chefs have cut and burnt themselves, and in some extreme situations, chefs have collapsed or passed out during the filming of an episode. Ironically, perhaps, by forcing the cooks to work in these conditions, and by frequently invoking their working-class lives back home, Top Chef reminds us that for most workaday line cooks, sous chefs, and aspiring “wanna be’s,” the food industry is brutal—the ultimate combination of overworked, underpaid, and uninsured.

This season, Top Chef has found itself in the middle of a bonafide labor dispute, as the show has been using non-local and non-union camera operators and crew. According to multiple sources, a Teamsters protest in July designed to highlight this fact erupted in a scene of members of a Teamster local cursing and hurling racial and sexual slurs at the Top Chef cast, including Padma Lakshmi.

If the allegations are true, these Teamsters should have been fined or worse for their behavior. But their rage—hate filled though it was—is it understandable? Teamsters, who in Boston represent drivers as well as camera operators, and are now trying to organize 1,600 low paid parking attendants, represent some of the last unionized workers in a country that offers less and less to those on the bottom.

Doesn’t it make sense for workers to fight back against a profitable show that has the resources to pay top dollar and to practice what it preaches? The show’s main celebrity Tom Colicchio is a food justice activist as well as a celebrity chef and a restaurateur. He helped to make the film Hungry in America, and he has been publically critical of the refusal of Congress to extend food stamp benefits during these difficult times. On the other hand, Colicchio has been sued for wage and tip violations in his restaurants (in 2008). Colicchio, of all people should know that fair wages are the best way to combat hunger, and he should be making sure that all who work for him on Top Chef, as well as in his restaurants, are paid fairly and decently for their work.

Ultimately, why are cooking shows like Top Chef so popular? Top Chef bills itself as one very unlikely path to the American Dream, a chance for a single humble kitchen worker to become a superstar. But perhaps by accident the show also reminds us of the real labor, harsh conditions, hard luck backgrounds, and low wages of the vast majority of real life cooks and kitchen workers across the country.

As we sit down to feast this Thanksgiving let us remember that those who cook our meals when we’re dining out are among the poorest and the hungriest in America. We should work to feed the hungry, of course, but we should work even harder to ensure that food workers earn a living minimum wage. That way the bottom chefs of America won’t need to compete to win their own spread in Food and Wine magazine or a $100,000 prize in order to have what everyone deserves: the dignity of a decent life.

Kathy M. Newman

Grime You Can Never Wash Off: Internet Content Moderation and New Frontiers in Labor Exploitation

Scrolling through e-mails and my Facebook news feed one morning last week, I came across two related articles. The first, from Alternet, was about the disproportionate harassment and abuse that women face online. Citing a recent Atlantic exposé on the issue, as well as death threats made to feminist video game critic and “GamerGate” target Anita Sarkeesian, the article underscored the negligence of Facebook, YouTube, and other companies whose content moderators—those employed to flag and delete offensive materials coming across their sites—appeared indifferent to or, perhaps, poorly trained to address the increasing problem of Internet-based violence against women. These moderators, the article mentions, are often “swamped with cases.” But in a tech industry dominated by men at all levels of employment, whether or not a woman is subjected to terrifying forms of online abuse—including, in one case, a Facebook post featuring a woman’s head photoshopped onto a picture of a beaten and chained woman— comes down to “human decision-making” on the part of the people tasked with sifting through the digital garbage.

The second article, from Wired, offered a more detailed look at what Internet content moderation involves. I honestly hadn’t given any thought at all to content moderation as an especially filthy job that, even without the smelly trucks and beeping, is a form of garbage collection. In this case, though, the grime sticks to workers in a way that makes emptying trashcans and dumpsters sound like a dream job by comparison.

Internet content moderation is typical of other outsourced, global forms of labor in that the U.S. relies on poorly paid contract workers from the Philippines to do the vast majority of the work. However, since recognizing what would be offensive requires cross-cultural fluency, most companies have also implemented what Wired reporter Adrian Chen calls a “two-tiered moderation system, [where] more complex screening… is done domestically.” Far better paid than overseas workers—“a moderator for a U.S. tech company can make more in an hour than a veteran Filipino moderator makes in a day”—most U.S. based moderators are culled from the ranks of precariously employed college graduates, many of whom are enticed to take these jobs with suggestions that a more permanent position at Google or Twitter might be on the horizon. In general, however, not only do these better jobs never solidify, but content moderation’s status as labor of the living nightmare variety quickly becomes apparent to employees.

In The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild begins her discussion of emotional labor, such as the work of flight attendants, care workers, and others in feminized service occupations, by asking whether there may be a fundamental “human cost of becoming an ‘instrument of labor’ at all” (3). This question illuminates the psychological costs faced by those whose jobs require “[inducing] or [suppressing] feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance” that makes consumers of such labor feel properly “cared for.” This “coordination of mind and feeling” can cause the worker to become alienated from an “aspect of self—either the body or the margins of the soul—that is used to do the work” (7).

But what if the work demands subjecting oneself to psychological trauma resulting from the continual repetition of horrifying images and sounds? What happens to the “margins of the soul” when a job requires workers to be used in this way?

Chen interviewed a number of former and current Internet content moderators who describe what they experienced on the job, and what they still carry with them. One U.S.-based moderator quit his job at Google when a co-worker exhibited a nonchalant response to a video of a beheading: “I didn’t want to look back and say I became so blasé to watching people have these really horrible things happen to them that I’m ironic or jokey about it.” Others, subjected to hours of pornography, report feeling desensitized to the point where they “no longer want to be with their spouses” or, on the other hand, leave work with “a supercharged sex drive.” Many companies ostensibly employ counselors to deal with the psychic fallout from this work, which puts laborers at risk of PTSD much like soldiers and members of specialized police forces, though one former worker claimed to not know anyone who had seen a counselor. “But,” Chen emphasizes, “even with the best counseling, staring into the heart of human darkness exacts a toll.” After being made to watch a nearly half-hour video of a woman being raped, “blindfolded, handcuffed, screaming and crying,” one Filipino woman content moderator “began to tremble with sadness and rage” (in Chen’s words). Says the woman, who is still doing content moderation work, “I watched that a long time ago, but it’s like I just watched it yesterday.”

As its own devastating aspect of the “heart of human darkness” run rampant on the Internet, online victimization of women is an urgent problem. Yet after reading Chen’s report, I can’t help but feel that the “human decision-making” involved in content moderation is compromised by the utterly dehumanizing nature of the work. The “aspect of self” that many content moderators become estranged from is their own humanity, unable to plug into and feel things they must figure out a way not to feel in order to simply bear the work.

This is not to say that in the male-dominated tech industry, sexism and misogyny aren’t also at play when moderators make that quick decision to either delete or push through abusive content aimed at women. But read in this context, Hochschild’s work provokes us to think about the ways that gender and psychic health intersect in an occupation that requires exposing oneself to trauma as a primary duty of the job. Counseling isn’t widely advertised or used, and a masculine “deal with it” ethos further contributes to the occupational normalization of violence in an industry that, as Chen puts it, “[relies] on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us.”

This last observation begs a version of Hochschild’s initial question: if the job of content moderator requires workers to absorb our collective human trauma in order to “protect the rest of us” from the ravages of the Internet, should a job like this exist at all? Should “must expose oneself to violence repeatedly, for days and weeks on end” be an accepted part of any job description? Chen estimates that content moderators “comprise as much as half of the total workforce for social media sites.” Indeed, moderation work is especially insidious in that, unlike labor more typically associated with trauma—sex work comes to mind—it is hidden within an industry stereotyped as the benign realm of particle-board cubicles and sleepy systems administrators.

When we walk down the street, we see waste management workers laboring to present us with a convincing façade of civilized cleanliness. The more thoughtful among us recognize this as the dangerous lie that it is: this waste is never really “disposed” of, only moved out of sight of the privileged. The existence of content moderation work demands that we consider the human costs of maintaining the web’s garbage-free front. If the Internet requires turning human workers into psychic dumpsters for brutalities the rest of us would rather not have cluttering our Facebook and Instagram feeds, then what kind of virtual world are we living in, grime and all?

Sara Appel

Sara Appel is a Dietrich School Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

Labor Day Reading: New Stories of Work

Labor Day was created in the 1880s as a celebration of work and workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the idea came from either Peter J. Maguire or Matthew Maguire – one a leader in the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the other a machinist. Either way, the holiday has its roots in industrial labor and unions, both of which were expanding at the time and have shrunk in recent decades. But changes in work aren’t just about the quantity of jobs. It’s about their quality.

Comments on the shift to a service economy often focus on economic and structural problems. Today’s working-class jobs generally pay less than the industrial, unionized labor of previous generations, and, as a recent series in the New York Times highlighted, uneven schedules and multiple part-time jobs wreak havoc on workers’ lives. But contemporary narratives of work remind us that there is more at stake: today’s jobs offer fewer sources of pride or solidarity.

We can trace the change in contemporary working-class literature. Some pieces emphasize the tedium of factory jobs, as in Tom Wayman’s “Factory Time,” or the way such jobs can leave a worker feeling like a cog in the machine, as Jim Daniels describes in “Digger’s Melted Ice”: “you push two buttons and the press/comes down. Always the same,/so simple you can disappear.” But many classic working-class texts suggest that even when the work is boring and hard, workers feel pride in what they produce and the skills involved. As Mike Rose argues in The Mind at Work, working-class jobs are not just manual; they require expertise and judgment. As we learn in novels like Out of This Furnace or Christ in Concrete, knowing how to recognize when molten steel has the right mix of elements or how to construct a brick arch involves knowledge, not just strength. Industrial work can be alienating, but it also leaves workers with a strong sense of having contributed to a large and significant enterprise. In “Last Car,” from her collection Autopsy of an Engine, Lolita Hernandez describes how workers follow the last Cadillac as it moves down the line, crowding in near the end to sign the last engine, proud of their work even as they worry about what lies ahead after the plant closes.

But the satisfaction of work is also social, and workers’ social networks give them at least some power, as Hernandez shows in “Thanks to Abbie Wilson.” After Abbie’s section of the plant closes and she has been reassigned to a janitorial job, she returns to the empty floor where she once worked and re-enacts the process of attaching gaskets to oil pans. In describing Abbie’s performance, Hernandez makes clear that the work can’t be separated from workers’ relationships and the sense of agency those connections provide. Abbie’s former co-workers come to watch her:

And those who observed Abbie long enough were able to see themselves. They were amazed and happy because they all looked so young, energetic, and hopping in ways they hadn’t for years. Abbie waved at them because she knew they were happy to see themselves at their best when struggles with the bosses and each other were at their hottest, when Peanut Man hawked hot roasteds all through the shift, when Sweet Sadie sold her blouses and jewelry, when Red took liquor orders for lunch, when Thanksgiving was one long banquet of tamales and greens, and Dancing John, dressed up as Santa Claus, drove his jitney on the last day of work before Christmas break singing ho, ho, ho we’ll soon be out the doh. (110)

Remembering their younger selves, the workers recall the pleasure not only of being young and strong but also of standing up for themselves against the bosses, an experience of being “at their best” on the job.

Work looks different in a 2010 anthology from Bottom Dog Press, On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work. These stories explore the soul-killing nature of office work, conflicted relationships among workers, and the indignities of low-wage jobs that don’t let a worker sit down for even a moment on her eight-hour shift. Matt Bell’s story, “Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken” considers the limited opportunities for satisfaction in fast food work. While the narrator listens to the assistant manager’s running narrative of her troubled life, and while he eventually helps her through a personal crisis, their relationship remains tense, in part because the job carries different meanings for them. For the assistant manager, it’s a long-term reality, while the narrator is there just for the summer. On the other hand, they share a disdain for the job and for unpleasant customers: “we often try to make people happy, but we also try not to work too hard doing it.”

In other stories, workers do whatever they must to get by. In M. Kaat Toy’s story, tellingly titled “Any Failure to Obey Orders Will Be Considered an Act of Aggression,” a laid-off social worker now does the jobs “of people she might previously have helped,” busing tables at a restaurant and cleaning hotel rooms. She and her co-workers accept mistreatment from their bosses because, as one indicates, “I’m only in it for the money.” No one at the restaurant or hotel where she works seems to expect satisfaction from the job.

Nor do such jobs offer many opportunities for solidarity, as Dean Bakopoulos suggests in Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon. In the novel, a retail worker who’s taking a labor history class tries to organize a sit-down strike at the mall on Black Friday, modeled on the Flint strike of the 1930s. The story suggests some key differences between retail workers and their grandfathers, who, Bakopoulos tells us, worked at Dodge Main and Ford Rouge. The clerks work for many different large corporations, most of which are based somewhere else, so even though they share common problems at work – petty store managers, uneven schedules, low pay — they don’t have a common employer. They also don’t see these jobs as permanent, even though they have no other options or plans at the time. Shared conditions of labor and inspiring stories can’t overcome their fear of job loss, so only a few show up for the strike. For them, solidarity means getting together for a drink and a wet t-shirt contest at a bar next to the mall, not organizing or standing together to fight for better working conditions.

These days, Americans are more likely to celebrate Labor Day as the last hurrah of summer than as an opportunity to honor workers, and these stories suggest that the change in the holiday’s meaning reflects changes in work and working-class culture. As we head into September, it might be too late for a summer reading list, but it’s not too late to pay attention to the losses for workers captured in contemporary literature about work.

Sherry Linkon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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