Full Story: Susie Cagle: The Case Against Sharing
I’ve been calling the “sharing economy” the Urchin Economy, as in street urchin, named for the street kids that are always hanging around in fiction set during the Victorian period, ready to accept a schilling or two to do some chore for a protagonist. They have no job security, no safety net, they’re treated as if they’re utterly disposable. Of course today, there’s always some high-tech middleman looking to take a cut of these transactions.
I also tried to explore some of these ideas in my short story “The Faraday Bag“:
A bunch of my friends found work through this app where young guys–and it was always guys––could have people come over and clean their dishes, do their laundry, that sort of thing. I did that a couple times. Then a guy complained that he wanted “an American” to do his chores for him. I told him I was born in the U.S. and that my family had lived here for two generations. He gave me a one-star review, and I haven’t been able to find work through the app since.
Salon is running a great new interview with David Graeber by Thomas Frank. Here are some highlights (Graeber’s words):
Well, radical elements in the labor movement began embracing such visions from quite early on. After the successful campaigns for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, people immediately started thinking, can we move this to seven, six, or less. Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, and author of “The Right to Be Lazy,” was already calling for something along those lines in 1883. I have a Wobbly T-shirt with a turn-of-the-century style design that says “join the IWW for a new dawn,” it has a sun rising over the rooftops, and on the sun is written, “four-day week, four-hour day.” […]
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go. […]
Call it the revolt of the caring classes. Because, after all, the working classes have always been the caring classes really. I say this as a person of working class background myself. Not only are almost all actual caregivers (not to mention caretakers!) working class, but people of such backgrounds always tend to see themselves as the sort of people who actively care about their neighbors and communities, and value such social commitments far beyond material advantage. It’s just our obsession with certain very specific forms of rather macho male labor—factory workers, truck-drivers, that sort of thing—which then becomes the paradigm of all labor in our imaginations; that blinds us to the fact that the bulk of working class people have always been engaged in caring labor of one sort or another. So I think we need to start by redefining labor itself, maybe, start with classic “women’s work,” nurturing children, looking after things, as the paradigm for labor itself and then it will be much harder to be confused about what’s really valuable and what isn’t.
Sarah Kendzior writes:
Jenina dropped out of nursing school after her mother lost her job, because she needed the tuition money to pay bills. Her income from McDonald’s, where she started working as a high school senior, helps support her mother and younger sister. Patrick’s Chipotle income helps support his mother, a makeup artist who has struggled to find steady work since the recession. Krystal’s Taco Bell income helps support her son; her sister, who lives with her and works at Jack in the Box; and now, her newborn daughter.
Every worker I interview is supporting someone: an unemployed parent, a child, a sibling, a friend. Most of their friends and family members work in fast food or other service industries. Everyone is in their twenties or older. All but one is African-American.
They dream of different jobs. The women want to be nurses, the men want to work in the automotive or culinary industries. But no one can pay for training when they cannot save for day to day, much less for the future.
As a result, fast food workers are turning to activism: not out of ideological motives, but because overturning the economic system seems more feasible than purchasing the credentials for a new career.
Full Story: Medium: The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back
I’m in Des Moines this weekend, writing this over bad hotel coffee and posting via hotel wifi, so this is going to be a quick one.
This week I sounded off on Twitter about how journalism and blogging has colonized my brain, making it difficult for me to tell what I’m really interested in anymore. I think it came off more self-pitying than I meant, when really I just find it sort of puzzling. It’s probably a mistake to even think in terms of what I “really” want to read. But here’s an example: was I interested in this article on DIY transcranial direct current stimulation because I really care about the topic, or because I thought immediately “that’s a perfect story for Technoccult”?
I’d love to take a few months off work and blogging and just see where my interests gravitate if I’m not trying to cover particular beats for particular audiences. But that’s not gonna happen.
All that said, I did find some time to catch-up on some long reads while stranded at DFW for like eight hours yesterday. I’m pretty sure I found all of this interesting:
Kevin Drum writes:
The decline of union power is irreversible. Private-sector unions are all but dead, and public-sector unions are barely hanging on by their fingernails. That doesn’t mean liberals should give up on labor, or that labor should give up on organizing new industries. Of course they shouldn’t. It just means that as a broad-based force that provides a countervailing force against the power of the business community, labor’s day is over. Like it or not, liberals have to figure out something else to play that role.
Drum doesn’t have any suggestions as to what that might be.
Two thoughts on this:
1) We need to disentangle the idea of labor from the idea of labor unions. Saying “unions are dead” shouldn’t mean the same thing as saying “labor is dead.”
2) One possible path forward is through professional organizations, as opposed to unions. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has had some traction in this regard. The difference between a labor union and a professional organization may seem semantic at first blush, but there is a difference. Unions engage in both lobbying and collective bargaining in the work place. Professional organizations skip the collective bargaining, and stick with advocating policy. It can be easier, and more anonymous, to join a professional group. In the near future that could be an advantage.
Miya Tokumitsu writes about the myth of “Do What You Love” (DWYL):
One consequence of this isolation is the division that DWYL creates among workers, largely along class lines. Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.
For those forced into unlovable work, it’s a different story. Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased. As in Jobs’ Stanford speech, unlovable but socially necessary work is banished from the spectrum of consciousness altogether.
Think of the great variety of work that allowed Jobs to spend even one day as CEO: his food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled. Job creation goes both ways. Yet with the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations, how can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers (abysmal wages, massive child care costs, et cetera) barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?
In ignoring most work and reclassifying the rest as love, DWYL may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around. Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work? […]
Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to Pin and Tweet on weekends, the 46?percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.
Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern?— people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth. This has certainly been the case for all those interns working for college credit or those who actually purchase ultra-desirable fashion-house internships at auction.
Full Story: Jacobin: In the Name of Love
I’ve certainly seen these shenanigans in journalism.
Fred Turner wrote about this blurring of lines between labor and recreation at Google in his Burning Man at Google essay(PDF):
by granting them limited powers of choice over their activities, it simultaneously engages their individual creative interests and encourages them to reimagine their workspace as a congenial, high-trust environment. It also blurs the line between workers’ social and professional worlds in ways that are highly advantageous to the firm. Within their ‘20% time’ at least, the subsidy suggests that engineers should stop thinking of working for Google as just a job and reimagine it as a way to pursue individual growth.
Previously: Overtime kills productivity
Nicole Aschoff on the “Alt-Labor” movement, such as the Walmart and fast food strikes:
University of Colorado-Denver management professor Wayne Cascio has shown, through a comparison of Walmart/Sam’s Club and Costco, that low wages are not necessary for high profits and productivity. Costco employees average roughly $35, 000 per year ($17 per hour), while Sam’s Club workers average roughly $21, 000 per year ($10 per hour) and Walmart workers earn an average of less than $9 an hour. Costco also provides it workers predictable, full-time work and health benefits. However, contrary to popular assumptions, Costco actually scores higher in relative financial and operating performance than Walmart. Its stores are more profitable and more productive, and its customers and employees are happier.
Costco is not exceptional. Zeynep Ton, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has studied retail operations for a decade and argues that “the presumed trade-off between investment in employees and low prices can be broken.” “High-road” employers like Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and the Container Store have all found ways to make high profits and provide decent jobs. Catherine Ruetschlin’s research shows that a modest wage increase—bumping up the average annual salary of Walmart or Target workers to $25,000—would barely make a dent in big retailers’ bottom line, costing them the equivalent of about 1% of total sales. Even if a company like Walmart passed on half the cost of the increase to customers, the average customer would pay roughly $17 more per year, or about 15 cents per shopping visit. And, considering most low-wage workers spend nearly their entire paycheck on necessities, the industry would see a boost in sales ($4 billion to $5 billion more per year) to its own workers. Fast-food companies are highly profitable. McDonald’s alone saw profits more than double between 2007 and 2011. They could easily send some of these profits downstream to franchise owners and workers.
So why do most big retailers and fast-food chains insist on a bad-jobs or “low road” model? There are a few reasons. MIT’s Ton argues that labor costs are a large, controllable expense, and retailers generally view them as a “cost-driver” rather than a “sales-driver.” Store-level managers are pressured by higher-ups to control labor costs as a percentage of weekly or monthly sales. And because store managers have no control over sales (or merchandise mix, store layout, prices, etc.) they respond to pressure from above by cutting employment or forcing workers to work off-the-clock when sales dip. Another factor is financialization—the increasing dominance of finance in the economy. Firms feel a lot of pressure from Wall Street to be a Walmart and not a Costco. As Gerald Davis has argued, the rise of finance and the dominance of “shareholder value” rhetoric have resulted in an emphasis on short-term profits that register in increased share prices and big CEO bonuses.
Full Story: Dollars and Sense:
This is encouraging, but the possibility of fast food companies switching to “less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices” is not an idle threat. I’ve seen something like this setup in the food court at the JFK airport. But as I wrote earlier, cultural issues could stop this from becoming widespread — it’s not clear that customers will settle for robots and touch screens over human beings. But I sure wouldn’t rule it out.
Zygmunt Bauman interviewed on the subject of the “precariat”:
The notion of precariat seems quite general and vague to many people. Who are therefore the precarians?
The “general” and “vague” character of the notion of precariat bothers people accustomed to the division of society into “classes” and, in particular, to the phenomenon of “proletariat” or its idea, which the concept of “precariat” should, in my conviction (but not only mine), replace in the analysis of social divisions. In comparison to its successor, proletariat appears indeed almost as an emblem of the “specific” and “concrete”…
How easy it was, when compared to precariat, to determine its content and limits… But the fluidity of composition is one of the features defining the phenomenon of precarity; one cannot get rid of that fluidity without making the notion of “precariat” analytically useless. […]
What issues do, in your opinion, differentiate precariat most distinctly from proletariat? To what extent can one connect the two notions? And finally: is precariat a social class?
Well, I have serious doubts about that. I would prefer to call precariat a social category. The mere similarity of situation is not enough to transform an aggregate of individuals bearing similar characteristics into a “class” – that is, into an integrated group willing to pursue common interests as well as proceeding to integrate and coordinate actions stemming from that will. If workplaces of the times of “solid modernity” were, irrespective of the kind of products manufactured, also the factories of social solidarity, liquid-modern workplaces are, irrespective of their business objectives, the producers of mutual suspicion and competitiveness.
Full Story: r-evolutions: Far Away from Solid Modernity (PDF)
On the “quantified work” beat:
Researchers have estimated the average wage on Mechanical Turk is just $2 an hour, and some claim that’s an overestimate. Craigslist-style scams are common, in which requesters ask for up-front payments in exchange for later rewards, then disappear. If employers decide a completed task is unsatisfactory, they can decline to pay and still keep the resulting work. As a result, workers complain that many requesters decline work simply to get out of paying.
Experts estimate Mechanical Turk sees as much as $400,000 worth of transactions every day, but despite the money, Amazon has kept a hands-off attitude to the marketplace. Workers are left to fend for themselves.
But a new tool may give Turkers a secret weapon of their own. It’s called Turkopticon, a browser plug-in that aims to turn the tables on requesters by giving workers a chance to rate employers by reliability.
Guernica interviews Ai-jen Poo, founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance:
The project grew out of work within CAAAV, where many of the Filipina domestic workers who were organizing had worked in Hong Kong as domestic workers before coming to NYC. In Hong Kong, there are domestic workers from all over Asia, there are Indonesian workers, Filipina workers… It’s a multinational situation, and everyone works under a standard contract. There are set hours, guidelines, wages, and standards that are enforced. When the Filipina domestic workers came to the U.S., many were surprised to find so little protection and that in fact, domestic workers are excluded from a lot of labor law protections.
It was obvious to them that they couldn’t win better conditions alone, that they would have to develop a project with all domestic workers in the field. I had experience with multiracial coalition building and our organization already had that ethic, but the workers themselves also felt it was a natural next step to figure out a way to organize together as an entire workforce, which became Domestic Workers United.
Full Story: Guernica: The Caregivers Coalition
Interestingly Poo never uses the word “union” to describe the NDWA.