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Opinion: Discouraged Workers 

Poli Psy

Published October 14, 2009 at 8:54 a.m.

Got work?

To mingle with folks who don’t, I stopped by a peanut-butter-and-jelly “breadline” in New York’s Union Square the other evening. The event was organized by the Retail Action Project, a joint effort of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the venerable community group Good Old Lower East Side. RAP’s goal is not just to better conditions and organize workers but to build alliances between the employed and the jobless, the laborer and the artist, the clerk and the customer.

How are those connections forged? On that plaza people got started: They talked to each other. I left feeling, most of all, relieved. I was among friends. And it got me thinking about the encouraging power of acknowledging discouragement.

“Are you working? Do you work in retail?” organizers queried folks who approached the table where literature and PB&Js were being distributed.

Yes, a skinny fellow in his twenties replied. “I mean, I think I do, or I was about to.” He shrugged and laughed. “I’m not sure.” He explained that he’d been selected at a recruiting event to be a clerk at Ricky’s, a shop purveying faux-’50s tchotchkes that’s expanding into a chain. When he showed up for work, though, “somebody came two hours later and told us to go to this other store the next day.” The next day, he cooled his heels at the locked door for a long while, then went home.

Economists have coined the term contingent workers for the category of precarious labor into which more and more of us are falling, whether we toil as office temps or are self-employed in the “creative economy.” This guy reminded me just how precarious labor can be: He was a contingent contingent worker.

After him, I chatted with a hipster wielding a crayoned portrayal of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. He turned out also to be an almost-retail worker. Having procured a coveted interview at the relatively high-paying Starbucks, he dropped the gold ring. “They asked me if I knew about their legendary customer service,” he recounted. Of course he knew about their legendary customer service, he’d enthused. Did he support their legendary customer service? Boy, did he ever! And what is their legendary customer service? “It was a trick question,” he commented, with the deadpan delivery of a born barista, IMHO. But apparently the eager applicant had hesitated too long. Now he’s keeping house while his roommate — a former Starbucks employee who says he was fired for organizing — pays the rent working for the union.

Nobody asked me if I was working. As it happens, I was looking exceptionally employed that day, having swapped my writer’s mufti for a conservative blazer to attend a conference of fund managers creating ways to invest in other people’s death benefits — another sign that the economy is looking up. I was even carrying my laptop.

But the truth is, I’m as contingent as those sort-of-employed baristas and store clerks, and these days I’m feeling especially so. The same goes for my friends. Cy, an architect, is applying for unemployment as an officer-employee in his own firm (it’s legal, but he’s been battling the bureaucracy for three months). Ellen, laid off from her job as a newspaper editor, broke down in tears in her daughter’s college financial-aid office. Tom and Sally, who have run a flourishing music school for toddlers, suddenly find longtime customers cutting this item from stretched family budgets. The couple may have to sell their co-op to send their kid to college. Christina, who shuttered her South African crafts shop to become an art therapist, emerged with a degree just when schools and agencies were eliminating all things artistic or therapeutic from their programs. She’s been unemployed for a year and subsisting on child support from her ex-husband, who is — how’s this for rock-steady employment? — an independent filmmaker.

And I’m doing some journalism, writing a book proposal and scrounging for freelance editorial work from the nonprofits that used to account for half my income. In all these endeavors I have been joined by 26,000 former staff editors and reporters laid off in the last 18 months.

Meanwhile, in the larger economy, where unemployment is pushing 10 percent, six job seekers vie for every available position.

And these stats don’t include “discouraged workers,” who have given up sending out their résumés altogether. Add them, and the jobless rate rises to 17 percent.

So far, the Great Recession is not as bad as the Great Depression. In one crucial aspect, however, this downturn is worse. That is the transformation of the labor market and the way workers are compelled to act — and feel — in it: alone.

It started in 1980, when Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers and busted their union, setting back a half-century of labor progress as the first act of his administration. That decade’s recession permanently eliminated thousands of blue-collar jobs, many of them unionized. In the decade that followed, layoffs spread from the assembly line to the sales floor, the office and the academy. By the 1990s, a new management strategy reigned: “flexibility,” the idea that workers could be hired or fired on a dime, the first expense to shave when Wall Street wanted more. Productivity gains — fewer workers, more work — soared, and with them profits and stock prices.

And workers’ power grew commensurately smaller. Even the cubicle, symbol of employee insignificance, shrank: By 2006, the writer Nikil Saval noted, “polls would report that half of Americans believed their bathroom was larger than their cubicle.”

As if this were not bad enough, we were supposed to feel happy about it all. No longer fettered by fuddy-duddy institutions like unions or contracts, we employees were rechristened “free agents” and exhorted to market ourselves as “personal brands.”

In “The Brand Called You,” the 1997 manifesto in Fast Company magazine that ignited personal branding, management guru Tom Peters heralded a world in which a steady job with predictable promotions was no longer possible, even desirable. “Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in,” he announced, we are all “CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc.”

Me Inc. doesn’t just hawk goods or services, though. It sells Me. Peters and his acolytes claimed Me’s chief selling point was its — or her or his — uniqueness. But the marketable qualities they named limned a uniform product: agile, personable, self-starting and self-sustaining, super-confident but also unfailingly compliant to corporate needs.

The promoters of free agency cast the economic and psychological perils of this savage new world as benisons in disguise. “Free agents understand and accept that the relationship between themselves and their employers shifted from ‘’til death do us part’ to ‘What have you done for me lately?’” wrote the career consultant authors of Free Agents. “This realization provides free agents with a new psychological freedom … By being dependent on themselves alone, they are able to develop a new kind of security.”

Peters even proposed folding the government safety net up with the corporate one. Social Security and unemployment insurance, he proclaimed, “had the unintended consequence of sucking the initiative, drive and moxie out of millions of white-collar workers.” In Free Agent Nation, we’d get our mojo back, or be free to starve.

The ongoing recession, and the fragility of the safety net under millions of its victims, could stir popular suspicion about all this newfound individual freedom: Might freedom be another word for everything to lose? Still, resistance to health care reform, banking regulation and unionization shows how firmly the go-it-alone ideology is held in the U.S. Last week, I heard a business advisor on the radio encouraging listeners to “embrace your inner Machiavelli” to ensure that when management’s ax falls, it takes out the person at the next desk, not you.

Americans have always fancied themselves self-made and, as a result, personally responsible for failure, even in the face of global economic calamity. In the 1930s, shame seized the jobless, especially men. At the same time, however, a muscular socialism taught them that it was business’ cycles and capitalists’ decisions that might leave a worker’s children hungry. Out of that understanding came massive union organizing. Workers saw that one by one — or worse, one against one — could never achieve what all for one and one for all could.

Let’s face it: We are all discouraged workers. Yet discouragement is precisely the emotion that “free agents” must never display. Show you don’t believe in yourself — alone — and kiss goodbye your chances of getting anywhere. Or rather, getting ahead.

Looking back, we may note that, for many of us, this strategy hasn’t worked out. Isolation and competition, furthermore, take a toll; they may even exacerbate discouragement. On RAP’s PB&J breadline, people shared their sad stories. That was, paradoxically, encouraging. Admitting individual weakness can be the first step toward embracing collective strength. Solidarity is powerful, but it is also tender. It is friendship to the lonely, comfort to the unlucky.

That’s us, comrades. Let’s mourn, then organize.

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. She was also the author of "Poli Psy," a column that appeared in Seven Days from 2005-2016.


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