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The injuries of class

One of the themes of Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate is work. More specifically the theme is dead-end work, how there is so much of this in the United States. Work has always been something that has interested me; I taught about, and for years I scrutinized my own labor. Now for a few months, I once again have a regular job, teaching in the Labor Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Teaching a large undergraduate class has brought back memories of my thirty-two years of doing this at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Memories by no means mainly positive. I was asked by a colleague in the department to give a public lecture, which I will do next week. I decided to speak about work and the lack of it) in our economic system. I have titled it The Injuries of Class. It parallels and explores more deeply some of the material in the first two chapters of the book. Here it is:

The Injuries of Class

We live in a complex, multiply-divided society. We are divided by wealth, by income, by education, by housing, by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. These divisions are much discussed; in the last two years, there have been entire series in our major newspapers devoted to the growing income divide. Even the wealth-flaunting of today’s rich was the subject of a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine.

What isn’t much talked or written about is what to me is our most fundamental division, one at the center of our economic system, namely the division of our society into a very large class of working men, women, and children – the working class – and a much smaller class of owners – the capitalist class – that employs the former. These two great classes make the world go round, so to speak.

Workers and owners are fundamentally connected and fundamentally antagonistic:

  • It is through the labor of the working class that the goods and services necessary for our survival are produced.
  • It is through the ownership of society’s productive wealth (land, machines, factories, etc.) that the owning class is able to compel that this labor be done. Workers must sell their capacity to work in order to gain access to this productive wealth, since no one can live without access to it.
  • From the perspective of society’s reproduction – then, the relationship between labor and capital is fundamental, essential. Even our ability to physically reproduce presupposes the successful sale of labor power. Without the money from such a sale, there is nothing.
  • The essence of production in capitalism is the ceaseless accumulation of capital, the making of profits and the use of such profits to increase the capital at the owners’ disposal. Competition among capitals both drives accumulation and is driven by it, in a relentless dance.
  • But to accumulate capital, employers must make sure that workers cannot usurp the entire output they produce. This means that employers must strive for maximum control of the entire apparatus of production and any and all social forces and institutions that might in any way interfere with this control (for example, the state, the schools, the media). At all costs, workers must be prevented from getting the idea that they have any rights to the output they produce.

Whatever employers do, at individual workplaces and in the society as a whole, can and does have negative effects on working people. I want to talk about some of these. However, before I do, I want to point out that the whole process of accumulation, the extraction of a surplus from the labor of the workers, is, especially in the United States, hidden from view, so that workers don’t know or are confused about what is happening to them. This is the result mainly of:

  • the public school system and the tireless promotion of individualism and nationalism at its core.
  • endless war, which magnifies and deepens nationalism and promotes both racism and male chauvinism.
  • imperialism, which does the same thing as war and is, fo course, the root cause of it.
  • constant propaganda by the media, think tanks, politicians, and business leaders to deny the existence of the two classes and the antagonism between them. An important element of this misinformation campaign is the mythology surrounding the “free market” economy
  • When these fail, which is most likely to happen before they have become deeply entrenched in the social fabric, naked violence serves to both suppress class consciousness and sow seeds of doubt among workers that they are finally seeing things clearly.

With all of what I have said so far in mind, let me now talk about the “injuries of class.” Consider first unemployment. The separation of workers from productive wealth creates the possibility that workers will be unemployed, that is, unable to find a buyer for his or her labor power. In addition, we know from studying the history of capitalist economies that it is not uncommon for them to periodically sink into recession or depression. Such crises are part of the nature of the system. In such circumstances, unemployment rises dramatically. Furthermore, capital is always searching the heavens for sunny skies (higher profits), and if it finds them somewhere else than where it is currently situated, it shuts down one operation and opens another. Plant contractions and closings will therefore be regular occurrences. What these things mean for working people is a pervasive sense of fear and insecurity that even what seems to be the most stable employment will “melt into air.” Fear and insecurity not uncommonly produce two responses: a kind of joyless penury (use example of my mother) or a present-orientation that is often self-destructive (debt, drinking, etc.). Here is something I wrote in a recent essay, referring to the workers in the mining town in which I was born:

What values did I assimilate from the mining town? This is a complicated question. The working- class solidarity always shown by underground miners seeped into my consciousness as did the ethnic clannishness of the Italian immigrants. This meant a certain distrust of anyone with money and authority and anyone outside the community. But these incipient seeds of class consciousness were counteracted by other more troubling feelings. Mining towns in the United States were typically owned by the mining companies, and the companies exerted a near totalitarian control over the residents. They owned the houses, the only store (the infamous “company store”), all utilities, the schools, the library, everything. They had their own private police – the Coal and Iron Police in Pennsylvania – sanctioned by state law. The climate in such a town is one of perpetual insecurity and fear, emotions compounded by the danger of the work in the mines. While such authoritarian rule generates anger and hate, it also gives rise to feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. Misery is one’s lot in life. There must be something wrong with us. Those in power must have special abilities and powers we don’t have. We deserve our fate. Organized religion contributes to this sense of helplessness and shifts attention away from material conditions and toward God and the afterlife.

Poverty and social isolation added fuel to the fire of fear. People lacked self-confidence and had deep-seated feelings of inferiority. When kids from the village went to the high school in the factory town three miles upriver, they faced a mocking condescension. They had the wrong clothes. They were greasy “dagos.” They were “dumb coal miners.” Some, like one of my cousins, reacted with anger; he hung a teacher from a third- floor window for calling him a dumb coal miner. But others took it to heart and were scarred forever.

It is difficult to overstate the power of fear and poverty in shaping how working men and women think and act. Fear of losing a job. Fear of not finding a job. Fear of being late with bill payments. Fear of the boss’s wrath. Fear your house might burn down. Fear your kids will get hurt. I inherited these emotions. I have a Ph.D. and have always had a job that brings forth instant respect from others. Yet I have a deep-seated lack of confidence and anxiety in the face of authority. I can confront the powerful in a group, even if I am a leader of it, but as an individual, I hate any kind of confrontation with authority and always wonder if I have the right to confront. I prefer to remain in the background, to be invisible.

Should a person face an extended bout of unemployment or a plant closing, the potential injuries of class are many, as research by Harvey Brenner and others has demonstrated: suicide, homicide, heart attack, hypertension, cirrhosis of the liver, arrest, imprisonment, mental illness. [The owning class are almost always better situated to withstand the storms of economic crisis or even unemployment, so these are injuries that the system does not inflict on them. Recently Michael Gates Gill, a wealthy former advertising executive who lost his job, was featured in the New York Times in connection with his book, How Starbucks Saved My Life: a Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else. Gates gets a job in a Starbucks, and in it he learns about ordinary people. By most accounts the book is not very good. But Gates had connections, and not only managed to get it published by a trade press (Gotham/Penguin) but reviewed in our premier newspaper. The chances of this happening for “everyone else” is as close to zero as you can get. The stories of their job losses are written in the litany of woes just enumerated.]

Workers comprise the subordinate class. They are normally in the position of having to react to decisions made by others. They are dependent upon employers, and they are at same time fearful of them since employers hold the power to deny to workers the life-sustaining connection to the means of production. Dependence, fear, and insecurity – in a system where workers are bombarded with the message that they and they alone make the decisions that determine their circumstances – make for a toxic brew, which when drunk often enough, creates a personality lacking in self-confidence, afraid to take chances, easily manipulated and shamed. [of course, on the bright side, these injuries have given rise to a massive “self-help” industry.]

The very subordination of workers, combined with the market mechanism that ratifies and reinforces it, means that capitalist societies will display ineradicable inequalities in variables of great importance: wealth, income, schooling, healthcare, housing, childcare, and so forth. What is more, the market will, absent powerful countervailing forces, not only reproduce inequalities but deepen them as well, as we have seen so clearly in the United States over the past thirty years. This inequality itself generates its own class injuries: In my book, Naming the System, I cite a study of the impact of inequality, other things equal:

In a study done comparing states within the United States, it was discovered that, all else equal, the greater the inequality of income in a state (as measured by the share of income going to the poorest 50 percent of households in each state), the higher the mortality rate. In a summary of this research, Peter Montague writes,

This measure of inequality was also tested against other social conditions besides health. States with greater inequality in the distribution of income also had higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of incarceration, a higher percentage of people receiving income assistance and food stamps, and a greater percentage of people without medical insurance. Again, the gap between rich and poor was the best predictor, not the average income in the state.

Interestingly, states with greater inequality of income distribution also spent less per person on education, had fewer books per person in the schools, and had poorer educational performance, including worse reading skills, worse math skills and lower rates of completion of high school.

States with greater inequality of income also had a greater proportion of babies born with low birth weight; higher rates of homicide; higher rates of violent crime; a greater proportion of the population unable to work because of disabilities; a higher proportion of the population using tobacco; and a higher proportion of the population being sedentary (inactive).

It appears that the psychological damage done to poor people as the contemplate the gap between themselves and those at the top of the income distribution has an independent effect on a wide variety of individual and social health outcomes.

Everything we know about the correlation between health and other social indicators and income (a decent though not perfect proxy for class) tells us that working people will suffer most of these injuries.

You may have heard it said that “the only thing worse than having a job is not having one.” This is true, but what does it say about work? Work in capitalism is a traumatic affair. We all have the capacity to conceptualize what we do before we do it. This capability, when applied to work, has allowed human beings to transform the world round them in profound ways: to invent tools and machines and to socially divide our labor so that the riches of the earth can be unlocked and a cornucopia of output be produced. As we have done these things, we have also transformed ourselves, becoming ever more conscious of causes and effects and better able to understand the world. Put another way, our capacity to think and to do makes us human. It is integral to our being.

In capitalism, which because it divorces the masses of people from direct connection to the means of production and therefore allows owners to claim no responsibility for workers can be considered the perfection of class society, this human mastery of the physical world is reserved for only a few. The capacity to think and to do implies control, and control by workers cannot be contemplated by capitalists. In fact, the essence of management in capitalism is the monopolization of control by the owners, control especially of the labor process – the work – and its denial to the workers.

We don’t have time today to discuss all the various “control tactics” used by employers: the herding of workers into factories, the detailed division of labor, mechanization, Taylorism, personnel management, lean production – all of which deny to workers their humanity, their capacity to conceptualize and carry out their plans, to actually “own” what they make. However, let us look at a sampling of jobs in modern America:

Auto workers:
There are about 1.1 million of these. Not only are they facing rapidly rising insecurity, they are also faced every day with a work regimen so Taylorized that they must work fifty-seven of every sixty seconds. What must this be like? What does it do to mind and body? In this connection, it is instructive to read Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, a startling account of working in auto plants. Hamper worked in an old plant. He eventually got a job in a new, “lean production” facility. He called it a “gulag.” In her book, On the Line at Subaru-Isuzu, sociologist Laurie Graham, tells us about her work routine in one of these gulags. I have skipped a lot of the steps, because I just want to give readers an idea of the work. Remember as you read it that the line is relentlessly moving while she is working:

  1. Go to the car and take the token card off a wire on the front of the car.
  2. Pick up the 2 VIN (vehicle identification number) plates from the embosser and check the plates to see that they have the same number.
  3. Insert the token card into the token card reader.
  4. While waiting for the computer output, break down the key kit for the car by pulling the 3 lock cylinders and the lock code from the bag.
  5. Copy the vehicle control number and color number onto the appearance check sheet.
  6. Lift the hood and put the hood jig in place so it will hold the hood open while installing the hood stay.
  7. Rivet the large VIN plate to the left-hand center pillar.
  8. Begin with step one on the next car.

This work is so intense that it is not possible to steal a break much less learn your work mate’s job so that you can double-up and rest while she does both jobs.

What is true for auto workers is true for all who do this type of labor – whether it be in beef processing plants or chicken disassembly lines.

Clerks:
There are about 15,000,000 clerks in the United States. Many years ago I was on a television show with former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. In response to my claim that a lot of the jobs being created were not all that desirable, he said that there were a lot of good jobs available, ones in which workers had a real say about their jobs (no doubt referring to the “quality circles” so popular then). One such job was that of “clerk.” I blurted out in a loud and incredulous voice, CLERKS? I suggested that perhaps Mr. Reich had never noticed the splints on the writs of many clerks, signs of epidemic carpal tunnel syndrome. Since that time, I have actually worked as a clerk, at the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park. I describe the experience and what I learned in my book Cheap Motels and Hot Plate: an Economist’s Travelogue. Clerks work long hours; they are on their feet all day; they take regular abuse from customers; they are exposed in full view of supervisors with no place to hide; they are accorded no respect (cell phones in grocery lines); their pay is low; their benefits negligible. After a hard day at the front desk, I only wanted a few drinks and a warm bed. The stress level was extraordinary.

Restaurant workers:
There are 11,000,000 of these, growing in number every year. Next to personal care and service workers, those that prepare and serve our food are most likely to experience “a major depressive episode.” Restaurant workers in Manhattan’s Chinatown log as many as 100 hours a week, for less than minimum wage. The pace of the work, the pressure of it are unbelievable. Check out the arms and legs of a kitchen worker. They are full of cuts and burns. Alcohol and drug abuse are rampant.

Secretaries, Administrative Assistants, and Office Support:
These are 23,000,000 strong. Poorly paid, many in sick buildings, stuck in poorly designed chairs, staring at computer screens for hours, taking orders all day long, (usually women from men), often heavily Taylorized, these workers, satirized so skillfully on the television series “The Office”, have to contend with daily degradations, including all too prevalent sexual harassment.

Security workers”
Three million men and women watching over others, in prisons, in malls, in gated communities, in Iraq, on our city streets. This is a type of work guaranteed to be stressful and to generate an extremely jaundiced and pejorative view of the rest of society. Not to mention an extreme, macho personality, prone to violence.

Custodial workers:
There are 4,000,000 building and grounds workers, many of them immigrants, keeping our buildings clean and the grounds swept and manicured. Often they are hired by contractors who are themselves employed by the buildings’ owners. It has taken monumental efforts by the SEIU to organize some of these exploited workers, who must often labor in close proximity to dangerous cleaning fluids, solvents, and chemical fertilizers.

Medical workers:
There are more than 13,000,000 people laboring in our hospitals, urgi-care centers, and nursing homes, as well as in individual residences. With the exception of those at the top, including healthcare administrators and most of the physicians, this is a minefield of poor working conditions. Even nursing has been degraded and deskilled so much that the nursing shortage could be nearly filled simply by the return of disaffected nurses to their profession. At the request of the California Nurses Association, I spoke this summer to nurses in four Texas cities. I heard many tales of woe: sixteen hour days, two weeks straight of twelve-hour days, insane patient loads, constant cost-cutting that damages patient health, demeaning treatment by administrators, etc. Conditions only worsen as we go down the healthcare occupation ladder.

Work takes its toll on mind and body. It saps our creativity, bores us to death, makes us anxious, encourages us to be manipulative, alienates us in multiple ways (from coworkers, from products, from ourselves), makes us party to the production of debased and dangerous products, subjects us to arbitrary authority, makes us sick, injures us. I remember my dad saying, when emphysema (the result of too many cigarettes, too much asbestos, and too much silica dust) had sapped his health that he hadn’t expected retirement to be like this. He and how many hundreds of million others? It is not the CEO who suffers depression, hypertension, and heart attacks from being too long on the job; it is instead the assembly line worker, the secretary, the kitchen laborer. Those who can’t control their work hurt the most. And with all of these injuries of class, I haven’t even touched upon the compound misery endured by black workers, by Hispanic workers, by women workers, by gay workers, by workers without the proper national documents. It is no wonder that people don’t need much convincing to believe that happiness lies not in the workplace but in the shopping mall.

The daily debasement heaped upon working men and women breeds anger and rage. Often rage is turned inward and shows itself as depression, addiction, or suicide. Frequently it is directed against children, spouses, lovers, or against some great mass of “others,” like immigrants, women, radical minorities, or gay persons. But sometimes it is correctly aimed at the class enemy and takes the form of riots, sabotage, strikes, demonstrations, even revolution. And then the creativity bound and gagged for so long bursts forth as people try to take control of their labor and their lives. This is what I think of as the “miracle of class struggle.”

I am not going to end by talking at length about how important it is to keep the struggles of the past fresh in the present, how it is necessary to educate the working class, of how it is essential to build a working class movement and not jsut to organize workers into unions, about how there are any number of hopeful signs that such a movement can be built, of why we must always fan the flames of dissent and revolution. You’ve heard all this before.

Instead I am going to say something different. The injuries of class are deep and long lasting. The poor education that is the lot of most working class children leaves lasting scars that won’t be healed by a picket line. The love lost when the factory-working father spent too much time in bars doesn’t come back after a demonstration. I have been a radical, highly educated and articulate, but the fears and anxieties of my working class parents are like indelible tattoos on my psyche. The dullness of mind and weariness of body produced by assembly line, store, and office don’t go away after the union comes to town. The prisoner might be freed but the horror of the prison cell lives on.

Wilhelm Reich, the German psychoanalyst, was kicked out of the psychoanalytic society because he was a communist. Fair enough. But he was also expelled from the communist party because he was a therapist who believed that the minds of working people, ravaged by the injuries of class, would have to be healed. It would take real effort to help workers regain their humanity. I think Reich was right. We ignore the injuries of class at our peril.

8 Responses to The injuries of class

  1. Toni October 26, 2007 at 8:37 am #

    This public lecture should keep the audience interested because the information contained therein is so true. Telling them of your personal stories and feelings is beneficial, I think. I, too, share some of your fears and anxieties. As one of the administrative assistants you talk about, I can relate to the long days of sitting at the typewriter (in years past) and now at the computer. I am sure that is the cause of my neck and shoulder pain and the many headaches from which I suffer. Although I basically like my job and the people with whom I work, after 30 years I am anxious to move on to something else. I look forward to retirement in about 3-4 years, moving to the city, maybe working part-time, and finding meaningful things in which to participate.

  2. Al October 29, 2007 at 7:29 am #

    Outstanding piece. The growing inequality in the country is now getting a certain amount of attention in the press. But I’ve seen nothing that explains so well the consequences of this inequality. Thank you!

  3. Mike October 29, 2007 at 9:01 am #

    Dear Toni, Thanks for your comments. They add to the essay. Dear Al, Thanks for your kind remarks. Feel free to pass my essay around. Michael Yates

  4. Mehmet Çagatay October 29, 2007 at 1:21 pm #

    Hello Mr. Yates, An inspiring article make you recall the class question obfuscated with miscellaneous illusions. I want to mention a certain kind of fetishism which manifests itself as “sanctification of labor” by capitalists. Couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine from university years has found me on that mysterious Facebook, added me on his friend list. Now, my friend owns a company which designs jewelry to manufacturers. The interesting thing I’m witnessing that my friend frequently changes his “status” with expressions related to his industriousness. Some sayings are like, “X busting his ass right now”, “It is 2am and X is still working”, “X is working with ignoring that it is holiday”, “X is working like all get out”, etc. etc. He is like a horny guy tirelessly fabricating stories depicting himself as Casanova. Please touch on this ludicrous situation in your work. Thank You.

  5. Mehmet Çagatay October 29, 2007 at 4:17 pm #

    sorry, there is a correction: “inspiring article made us to recall”

  6. Renegade Eye November 30, 2007 at 10:11 pm #

    I was told about this blog by Mehmet Cagatay. Really good to the point post. Not the kind of lecture, they are used to. More workers sympathize with unions, than are unionized. That is due to the laws as Taft-Hartley, and the whole state apparatus at the bosses disposal.

  7. Garret January 19, 2008 at 1:36 pm #

    Excellent piece. Too often in the modern world the real consequences of policy are hidden and the debate centers on the theoretical plusses and minuses of the economic choices made by the powers that be. As a union teacher in a large urban school system I see every day the results of the inhumanity of work. As an editorial writer for our union paper I try every issue to point to the consequences of educational policy based on “market mentality”. Thank you for your inspiring article. PS You left out teachers in your piece and while I don’t think our stresses are on a par with some of the others you mentioned I do believe that they influence in a negative way our ability to create an educational system based on social justice.

  8. Organize1199 April 8, 2008 at 12:53 pm #

    The CNA came to Ohio and ran a straight-up VOTE NO campaign to keep 8,000 workers from joining SEIU. Here’s a letter from some of the workers. http://allnurses.com/forums/f323/cna-s-union-busting-ohio-open-letter-288194.html After SEIU won a no-holds-barred three-year fight to win fair rules from Ohio’s 6th largest employer, CNA busted the union. They had nothing to do with the campaign, and only arrived the week of the secret ballot elections, for 54 bargaining units at 9 hospitals. They brought in 36 organizers to do nothing other than run a VOTE NO campaign. They used scare tactics – violent language & numerous lies. They snuck into the hospitals and interfered with patient care. They referred to a “sleazy back room deal” to “gag” nurses and “FORCE” nurses to join the union. I.e., they used the language of sexual violence in a massive anti-union blitz. I worked on the campaign for three years. These people calling us a “company union” et al – and running the bosses campaign for him – it’s atrocious.

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