A Working Stiff’s Manifesto, by Iain Levison (Chapter 3, Part 1)

Nick’s Notes: And we’re back! We’ll be taking a look at chapter three in all (or part, depending on how lazy I am!) its glory!

Working in a restaurant is fun! …Right?

Levison starts the chapter off by summing up restaurants in a fairly intuitively convincing way. Mind you, I’ve never worked in a restaurant but this all sounds plausible to me:

There’s an unspoken understanding among the employees that their jobs are not real, partly because they were so easy to get and partly because restaurant work doesn’t command respect. So employees are always on the lookout for something better, no matter how much money they’re making. (pp. 50-51-

He also makes the excellent point about being a “shift leader”, saying that it’s all of the responsibility with only a marginal increase in the money you make. It also helps the managers do the “more important things” as he puts it. Such as wandering and looking stressed so they can proceed to start hitting the hard drinks later that night.

But again, I’ve only done retail so I don’t know that any of this is necessarily true. It definitely strikes me as true as it did for people in retail (though there are definitely some people who are, for better or worse, in it for the long haul) and it certainly makes sense that people wouldn’t really want to stick with a job that doesn’t get much respect and usually doesn’t pay too well either.

Restaurants typically have things on the wall and I had never really thought about it but it definitely is a way to make people feel more comfortable or as if their in a garage sale. Of course, Levison points out that the ones in the restaurant he is in has nailed down the various items to the wall. You know, so drunk people (or people in general) don’t try to take them home.

We are quickly introduced to the atmosphere or the restaurant which is…unsurprisingly very peppy. I mean, it would be surprising if this wasn’t (to me anyways) just a tried-and-false strategy that corporations often do to try and “make up” for the workers conditions. Nevertheless the workers are supposed to be all smiles and the “…end result is waitstaff and floor personnel gripped with a forced neurotic enthusiasm, which they substitute for actual pleasantness.”

I’ve never been in a place where this was either enforced or, if it was a policy, seemed to be enforced well. I mean, sure, my co-workers were pleasant enough and were certainly friendly in some average way but most of the time they wouldn’t scream at customers to sound more enthused. Or wear a smile as if the Joker just gassed them with laughing gas.

Apparently though Levison is a bit of a sourpuss, or at least according to the manager Marci he is. Despite him coming on time, sober and being an experienced and reliable cook she still isn’t satisfied with his performance. Due to his lack of ass-kissing, he speculates. But regardless he is left alone after only a few exchanges and isn’t bothered by Marci again.

Despite his attitude not changing in the week that he is told to shape up.

Speaking of managers, Levison is told by another one, Robb, that he should really try to go for one. That it’s better paying (which, according to Levison’s calculations isn’t true) and would include benefits (which are probably only marginally helpful as we’ve seen elsewhere).

But Levison isn’t really interested, as he says,

I’m taking home over $300 a week here, not stress. When I’m done I go. There’s no possibility of them transferring me to another store, like they do with managers. Most importantly, I can mind my own business, and don’t have to wander around making sure everyone is grinning. (56)

This relates to a point I’ve heard from fellow work skeptics: Self-management for workers may be more effective and even economically viable if we remove the state…but it sounds like a lot more work!

This could be true but it depends on the culture of the workplace. Meetings and decisions might happen before physical activity happens or during lunch or something else. There doesn’t need to be a four hour day and then a two hour meeting or whatever. Two hours could be dedicated to decision making and another two on applying those decisions in the given organization and seeing how it goes over the course of an open-ended week. There are many different ways to organize the workplace and I don’t think they all, much less many, have to rely on some valorizing of work.

This next short section highlights just how stupid corporate hierarchy can be.

Let’s break it down:

  1. Levison does the basics for a few weeks (shows up on time and sober and does his job competently)
  2. Gets reprimanded for a “bad attitude” basically
  3. Is told to shape up by Marci within a week or he is out
  4. Never “shapes up” in the way desired but is never talked to again
  5. Robb talks to him about being a manager to replace him which he mostly resists but ends by saying he’ll “think about it”
  6. The general manager (Ken) says he hears that Levison is “interested” (which Levison never said)
  7. All Levison does is take a “module book” that he’s supposed to read for management
  8. Then, the area director comes in and tells Levison that he’s going to be the new manager
  9. So Levison offers an outrageous sum, thirty-two thousand a year…which the area director isn’t even making
  10. But, instead of taking that as a hint that he isn’t serous the area director takes it under consideration
  11. And now Levison is a manager

But wait, it gets better.

Because after only a day or two of management training, Levison gets fired/quits.

Most of the reasons revolve around Levison just not being very good at managing the store but also the fact that he pretty much gets blamed for most things that are wrong as well as the fact that they don’t treat him like a trainee. They treat him like he is a full blown manager with all of these skills…that he doesn’t have.

But most importantly, he fails because of magical thinking on the part of the other managers:

“We’re not paying you this kind of money to just wander around,” he tells me. “Call another restaurant and get them to lend us some grease.”

This makes sense, and while I am doing it, he comes in and screams about the lettuce.

“We’ve got lettuce rotting in the back of the freezer! Why aren’t you rotating it?”

“I’ve been making onion rings, I tell him.

You’re not supposed to be making onion rings. You’re supposed to be managing. Get someone else to make the onion rings I want you watching the lettuce and fry oil quality!”

He’s living in a dreamworld. We’re fresh out of employees. He thinks we have prep cooks lined up drying to work. In reality, if we’ve got three prep shifts a week covered, I’m happy. (59)

Taking even a fairly non-sober look at the restaurant you’d be able to tell it was understaffed. But the management have no such incentives to even marginally consider that it’s all a lost cause. It’s something they must do, regardless of the social context or reality of the situation.

So what does Levison take away from all of this?

That the people up top are ambitious and driven people alright, but they’re mostly just trying to get you to do some of their work for less of their money but for “the rest of us” the dream of being up top isn’t that relevant.

Because if we’re not trying to get up top then we’re only trying to avoid the nightmare of being nothing. We don’t ascribe meaning to being on top of others in some social context. Or maybe it’s just too much work. Or perhaps we’re just not cut out for it. Whatever the case may be those thirty-thousand a year salaries aren’t concerns of ours. Living and breathing and being decently fed are.

But when do we have the time to enjoy these things? When do we have the time after all of our jobs are done to just sit back and relax and think? When do we get the time to really enjoy the things that we buy? Or use the things that we save up for our own personal enjoyment? And when do even live in the places that we’re struggling to pay for?

But Levison prefers to struggle and get by and do a little work then do a lot and get by a little bit better. Because then at least he’s got some time to savor and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Take the person who has three jobs and just trying to survive and pay for their own place, their own car, the insurance and so on. They probably won’t be able to enjoy their place, their car or much of anything else. This isn’t to say these people are bad but that their lives aren’t even well organized around the things that their actions shows they care most about, i.e. their living situation, their travel situation, etc. etc.

I kind of prefer it that way too. I’l take short-term jobs for months at a time and then live off that for a bunch of months and do some odd-jobs, writing and video editing to see if I can get by (what I’m doing now) and then (if the pattern continues) go back to corporate retail before long.

I’m trying to change that by making this blog and my video-editing somehow bringing in enough money to support myself and make it so this is my job.

And I don’t particularly mean just writing for this site (though that’s a big part of it) but writing in general. I’d love to write for a living…I just have serious ambition and motivation issues. Surprised? Yeah, me too.

But hey, if you want to support me via PayPal then that’s cool but I’ll have more options and a post about supporting me shortly so keep a look out for that.

So that’s it for this part of the chapter. We only covered nine pages but we’ll cover the rest of the chapter (about 18 pages) next time and it will cover Levison’s job as a mover and a packer.

One of my problems with Levison’s book is that although the observations are wry and fairly relatable to me they’re a bit too relatable. And by that, I mean they’re really basic observations about hierarchy, corporate problems and the problems one is confronted with the work. They’re nice as a good place to start but I don’t know how much they’ll satisfy someone who is like me who is already familiar with all of these problems.

Part of this problem may be that (surprisingly) I may not be the target audience for this sort of thing. I already know these things and I agree with Levison on a lot of this stuff, that it’s real and that it’s a big problem that should be better addressed. I’d imagine Levison and I would disagree on how to fix this problem but that’s neither here nor there since Levison seems much more interested in analysis than solutions.

Regardless though I’m still enjoying the book and I look forward to finishing the chapter in the next day or so.

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