“… gratitude born of desperation…”

Pictured: Worker (left), boss (right), product of the worker’s labor (center)

I’ve written before about so-called “flexible work”. This is work that while is intended to help the worker is usually not decided by the workers themselves. Instead, we have systematic patterns of authority and abuse going unchecked. All in the hopes of reforming things seen as bugs rather than features.

Getting more flexible schedules would be a wonderful thing for many people, especially lower class workers.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there are certain people who control these schedules and they tend not to be those same workers. Instead, they tend to be the managers of the firm who are more likely to be of a higher class than the workers and thus may not be able to understand their difficulties as much.

None of these things are a definite but given the current wage labor system that is based on the notion of authority via bossism it seems unlikely that these reforms will do much in any case. At the very least, even if workers do get more flexible scheduling, the control of said schedules rest mostly in the hands of the bosses, not the workers.

In which case you’re going to want to have a pretty nice boss, a helpful union or some combination of the two. The other method might be able to somehow appeal to the state but this seems unlikely to work for a lower class worker who has enough trouble paying the rent, let alone court fees and expensive lawyer bills.

A final option might be more informal unions that don’t rely on the National Labor Relations Board and instead perform wildcat strikes, get sympathy strikes from other unions and so on. The concept of minority unions might also prove useful.

Whatever the workers end up doing to fight the abuse by their bosses there’s always these sorts of cases:

The volatility of on-call scheduling, in combination with the low pay, meant my life at Gap wasn’t all that different from when I was unemployed. Though I was working, I still had to go to a food pantry for groceries. In winter, I had to choose between racking up heat bills I couldn’t afford and freezing in my apartment.

My landlord would ask me when I’d have the rent money, but I couldn’t give her an answer because I never knew how many hours I’d actually work in a given week. I couldn’t afford to live in the city where I worked, so I had to transfer to a Gap store back home.

That’s RL Stephens II writing for The Guardian about his experience with Gap, a multinational company that sells clothing and accessories

This all leads into an excellent point at the top that sadly Stephens doesn’t follow up on.

The movement for $15 an hour in certain states isn’t really going to help people who have awful scheduling. In fact, it seems possible that in response to such legislature more companies would try in various ways to reduce workers hours even more. Of course, there could be a public outcry and some companies might claim ignorance or even revert their policies.

But regardless this proves problematic for the Fight for $15 and any other movement like it. These sorts of movements assume good structural or mechanic integrity within our capitalist system. They think that if we can change certain policies or wage distributions that this means workers will have a significantly better life.

And in some ways they could be right. I’m not trying to argue against workers getting more in their wages as much as I’m skeptical of raises in minimum wages as a way to advance the cause of workers. With regards to workers not getting the full product of their labor we can see that through state taxation alone.

I remember a co-worker of mine at my previous job told me that at a certain point of working you actually either lose or at least don’t gain much money due to taxes. Now, this was particularly in Massachusetts which is known for its high taxation relative to some other states. Still, according to my co-worker if you worked over 48 hours a week it was basically a bust for you.

But there are some people who don’t have the ability to work so much to begin with.

And I’m not sure how a minimum wage would help these people. These same people are most likely the most disadvantaged of the lower-class. And shouldn’t minimum wage laws be aimed primarily to help these people the most?

Getting away from the minimum wage debate though, I think there’s a certain sentiment that Stephens conveys that really caught my eye:

One of my co-workers, started working at Gap as she was transitioning out of homelessness, but she wasn’t making enough to get stable housing on her own. Most so-called middle class jobs lost in the recession have been replaced by low-wage work like retail jobs. I’m thankful to be working, but gratitude born of desperation is no comfort and it certainly doesn’t pay the rent. (emphasis added)

There’s this notion that if you’re working, “well at least you have a job!” and that’s true, as far as it goes.

But it doesn’t go very far, actually. This isn’t very surprising since most people say it with an apathetic shrug. Or with some sort of knowing glance that it sucks but hey, that’s life. These sorts of platitudes are more often done for the benefit of the speaker than they are for the other person. They aren’t so much a “reaching out” as a “reaching in” and making sure you can reconcile the suffering in the world with your own worldview.

And I don’t mean to suggest that this is always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s necessary to not care so much about a given object. That’s why we all have certain passions, interests and things that drive us crazy. While, at the same time, having things that don’t interest us very much at all. If we tried to care about all forms of oppression to the extent that I care about work, we’d probably all get burned out pretty fast.

At the same time however, it’s helpful to really listen to people’s complaints and not merely hand-wave them.

Here’s another comment-worthy passage from Stephen’s article:

Unpredictable last-minute scheduling makes it difficult to budget and turns even the most basic decisions into headaches. Will we need babysitters for our children? Will we be able to make a doctor’s appointment? Will we have to rush to Gap from our second jobs?

This more or less ensures that work has a kind of stranglehold on your life. And this is the case whether you’re actually working or not. The boss has you almost literally on the tip of their fingers and can organize your life as they wish. And if you’d like to give them some input I’m sure their door is open.

But then again, I’m sure the door on the way out will be too.

Another co-worker began working at Gap, in addition to a second retail job, as a way to escape the illicit drug trade.

My colleague once told me: “everybody wants a job, no one wants to really be out hustling in the streets.”

But the on-call shifts became unbearable, and he struggled to pay rent. For him, the trade-off between street money and regular employment was costly. This structural combination of low wages and unfair scheduling pressures workers into the underground economy, and is a hidden pipeline to the prison system.

It’s very much true that the state forces poorer folks into scratching by at times and then criminalizes their ways of dealing with that. But it’s also true that these “other marketplaces” as it were can be vehicles for the poor to reassert their autonomy. And they can help do that  in ways that the poor can’t vdo ia the supposed “legitimate” capitalist markets we live under today.

Moreover my point with this post was to respond to people who think that we should be “grateful” to other people for giving us breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs, that have been predesigned, prepackaged and preordained by supposed “higher authorities” who claims some sort of ownership over our lives.

Should I be happy in my desperation to survive in this world ?

You tell me.

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