Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hymns to Labor, Part Two

You can't really call mine a white collar family, but even though I sometimes throw menial roots around like a white rapper's street cred, I don't think you could rightfully put the kin in coveralls either. Management and administration are not in our blood, not for the most part, but we do tend to be professional types, with our brains generally operating in some close proximity to our hands: we're engineers, scientists, toolmakers, contractors, carpenters, accountants, electricians, teachers, and medical professionals, that sort of thing. Majestically, we span that divide of token neckware like a mountainous archipelago across the straits, just waiting to be torn asunder with, say, a Herculean political argument (or maybe a really strained metaphor). We get by on a lot of training, but without the perks or the power of the decision-makers, no ins to the old-boy's club beyond the generic whiteness.

As a budding nerd engineer, my experiences of labor unions were both vicarious and unsavory. When my wife used to work at the plant, the union was the reason she couldn't run experiments without the superfluous assistance of Labor. She couldn't turn a wrench, monkey with hardware, or truck chemicals around, as certain activities had been negotiated in the dark times, and engraved as sacred to union employees on the corporate stone tablets and stored behind grimy glass. Typically, the union was less than enthusiastic about carrying out their designated subtasks, especially for some pipsqueak girl engineer, and they were, by and large, a surly work-around. (If buckets of resin got illegally carried across the floor when no one was looking, don't tell anyone.) My friends who veered off into the hardcore manufacturing world had similar stories, although I can't tell you these days who stayed there. Labor wedged itself into my mind as a relic associated with heavy machinery, a living anachronism from the days when the U.S. used to make stuff.

Engineers aren't usually considered labor because we aren't usually hourly. Our jobs are instead defined by extended projects and long-term deadlines. So we get salaries instead of the clock, and even if it's easy for me to avoid (I write proposals all the time), a certain measure of devotion is expected too. For lots of people I know, engineering is as much a lifestyle as other full-time jobs can be, just devoid of the "overtime" that labor gets, as well as the "bonuses" that our bosses snag. Engineers aren't unionized, of course, not really invited to the club, and the ambitious career path for us geeks usually abandons the realm where anything useful is done to fretfully advance into the murky networks of managerial bonus-land. The points in my life where I've been suspicious of Labor were the ones where I and my loved ones were only a small and theoretical step ahead of union workers, discovering that all that advanced training and skill development gets you not so far up the ladder at all. I mean, how much does a dock worker or an auto assembler make? What the hell did I go to nerd school for? (And if it pisses me off that inventing chemistry is less well rewarded than schmoozing, I'll honestly admit I'd be a terrible butcher, mover, drywall hanger, or writer without years of effort, and my job pays more than any of those difficult, high-demand fields.)

I don't want to speak exclusively from personal experience in this post, but I do want to advance a generalization about personal experiences. Namely that you're most sensitive to what breaks the people closest to you are getting. Assumed is that privilege enjoyed by someone else will tend to be noticed by the non-privileged (and privilege enjoyed by yourself hardly noticed at all), and what's more, any small difference in status will be played up for resentment during the political season, subtly or ham-handedly, depending on who can get away with vilifying whom, because scaring up distrust of Others is both a more reliable vote-getter than crafting real policy and requires far less work. In terms of class struggle, all of us schmucks who land in between labor and manglement--uncool professionals, small business workers, shop owners, all those poor bastards in retail, probably you can call us the middle class for want of a better definition--are going to save their economic resentments for the advantages enjoyed by those most like them. Income distributions are shaped like a skewed bell curve, and since there are a lot more people on the lower end than on the upper, these small distinctions of advantage can be played up for a larger number total of votes. There are fewer people getting sensitized against the much more substantial gimmes afforded to the small class of heirs and the politically connected, and in the tally of numbers, the internecine friction is concentrated among the saps who actually work for a living. It's easier to get mad at the people you're stuffed into the kiddie pool with than it is to revolt against the ones that make the rules. It's how the democratic part of the system perpetuates itself.

When a narrow group of beneficiaries start making the rules for everyone, the results are predictable. I claim suspicion about the effectiveness of those dinosaur unions, but I'm certainly no fan of the Man, and outside of the old industries, I can't detect too much influence of organized labor these days. It's worth remembering that the nineteenth century labor movement rallied against real abuses by business and government, and gradually secured real gains. When I read about Wal-Mart's modern attempts to crush the organization of their abused labor force, I don't side with the company. And when I read about (and experience) wage stagnation while high-level executive pay skyrockets, I think with naïve fondness about the power of the unruly mob.

Are union bosses corrupt? Of course they are: the organization of power is such that it moves to promote the group in charge, but this isn't unique to labor, and our governors or our captains of industry have had the upper hand lately (and through most of history). So here's for labor in 2008, at least until it gets crooked, in which case fuck 'em. Whether the inevitable corruption of any organization is a function of scale, longevity, or just success is something I have mixed feelings about, but I'll save that redundant chunk of drear for another day. In the meantime, in honor of the most un-capitalist of American holidays, I'm going to fantasize that a more adversarial balance of domestic powers would somehow result in a greater fairness for the workers.

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