In the summer of 2001, I worked as a front desk clerk—we were called guest service agents—at the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park. The work was hard. We spent long hours on our feet, dealing with a steady stream of demanding guests and a constant barrage of problems. The pay was low, six dollars an hour, from which was deducted a significant charge for bad food and small shabby living quarters. The one saving grace was the camaraderie of the clerks. We’d gossip about coworkers in other departments, talk about our lives, and especially express anger and amazement at the often bad behavior of the guests.
As in all workplaces, there was a hierarchy of command: a front desk manager, his assistant, and the director of the entire hotel. About a week after the hotel opened for the season, the manager said that three new jobs were available, and that any of us could apply. The new position was “senior clerk.” A person who took the new job would be like a factory foreman, the front-line face of management. The senior clerks would have extra duties and would be given certain powers to do things the rest of us could not.
My manager asked me to consider the new job, but I said no. I wasn’t interested in more work. The senior clerks would have to begin early and leave late, filling out reports and attending meetings. I had already experienced problem reservations and rude, obnoxious guests. The thought of longer shifts could not have been more unappealing. I didn’t think anyone would want these jobs, especially when we learned that the senior clerks would be earning a grand 25 cents an hour more than an ordinary guest service agent. Who in their right mind would do a lot more work for a quarter an hour raise? The economist in me said no one. The desire for free time in a national park would surely outweigh such a pathetic monetary incentive.
I was wrong. Several clerks applied for the jobs, and three were chosen, all college students, a man and two women. Besides the time it took to perform their extra labor, at least one of them was on duty between 6 am and 10:30 pm, the hours in which we worked. They stood at a large lectern behind us, observing what we did, reviewing room availability, examining logs, and helping us deal with any difficulties that might arise.
If the senior clerks had been facilitators, whose job was to make ours easier, we would have been grateful to them. However, it soon became apparent that they had allied themselves completely with the management. They immediately noticed minor infractions, things they had done just days before. “You’re talking too much with the guests at check-in.” “Someone was drinking too much last night.” They noted when you clocked in a bit late or took too many restroom breaks; they became the arbiters of how we should treat the customers. One of the seniors wasn’t above taking advantage of the special computer room codes to which he had access to give preferential treatment to attractive young females. When a guest called the front desk to ask for something, he would deliver it himself instead of notifying a porter to do this. He hoped to take for himself any tip the occupant might give!
In July I got sick. When my fever, nausea, and overwhelming malaise didn’t subside, we decided to drive four hours to Billings, Montana. Our plan was to stay in a nice hotel for the weekend and get some rest in comfortable surroundings. But as my discomfort rose, we went to a nearby hospital emergency room. A CT scan found a kidney stone, but other tests indicated some liver damage caused by the medicine the Yellowstone Clinic doctor had wrongly prescribed. The emergency room physician made an appointment with a specialist, whom I would see on Monday. That evening, I called the front desk at the Lake Hotel and told a clerk that I wouldn’t be in on Monday.
I reported to work on Tuesday, only to be confronted by a senior clerk. She berated me for my unannounced absence the day before. She said I was irresponsible and that she had reported me to the front desk manager. A sharp exchange followed. My absence had been noted, but she hadn’t bothered to find this out. It was remarkable to me that she had so quickly assumed that I would simply not show up for work when I had been a model of dependability. When we were fellow clerks, we had treated each other in a friendly and respectful manner. She had always shown camaraderie with all of us. Now, however, she assumed the mantle of boss, acting as though I were a typical worker-slacker.
I have often thought about the senior clerks. There are lessons here for those of us who have been advocates of working-class struggle. If these workers would switch class loyalties for twenty-five cents an hour, what might others do for higher “bribes?” When I was a teacher, I had a friend who taught English. I had been to his home often, given guest lectures in his classes, and he had invited me to attend a US Open golf championship, in which a friend of his was competing. He was a strong advocate of more faculty power and never cravenly caved in to administration fiat as did so many of our colleagues. But when the academic dean retired and he was appointed interim dean, he became a regular Dr. Jekyll. He turned on his former friends with a vengeance, taking anti-faculty positions opposite to what he had professed just a few weeks before. At my father’s factory workplace, men promoted to foreman became instant commanders, and suddenly members of a different social caste. It was remarkable how rapidly they became “company men.” Since the earliest days of labor union formation in the United States, employers have routinely co-opted “troublemakers” by promoting them to management. Workers even have served as spies for their bosses, jeopardizing the livelihoods of their workmates.
Yet, the decision by the clerks to take the senior positions had to do with more than money. Twenty-five cents constituted a token raise, not enough to turn on their friends. What really mattered was the power. We live in a world of order-givers and order-takers. We have become habituated to this state of affairs; it appears normal and natural, just an unalterable part of daily life. Given this, the senior clerks, like most people, understood that it is better to give orders than to obey them. And they no doubt believed, as most do, that if they were selected to tell others what to do, then they deserved this. It was a sign of their superiority and the inferiority of those not chosen. Further, economists and most other social scientists, as well as mainstream media, vigorously support the supervisors of the world; they tell us that a society structured hierarchically is necessary if we are to produce efficiently. They presume that everyone has an opportunity to rise above the lowest rungs of the hierarchy, so the inequality implicit in it is fair and just.
Most struggles by working people to improve their lives have accepted the employer’s right to rule and have limited their demands to wages, hours, and conditions of employment. Unions, with a few notable exceptions—the Industrial Workers of the World and some of the left-led unions—have done the same. However, what is really at issue here is the system that lies behind these efforts. Yes, it is good for workers to win higher wages, but these alone cannot challenge the power of capital, a power than can eventually undermine any pay increases. A fast-food wage rate of $15 an hour won’t prevent an ambitious union-supporting counter clerk from taking a management job. No matter what workers do, if they do not challenge the wage system, they will always remain subservient to the profit-maximizing decisions of their employers. It is the hierarchy itself that must be abolished. To do this will require monumental determination. Not only will we have to abolish private property and the ideology that makes a religion of it, we also will have to educate ourselves to learn how to manage our collective affairs. We will have to figure out how to produce useful goods and services democratically and make them available free to everyone. We must somehow create a system of production and distribution in which there are no “senior clerks,” and a society that brings forth human beings who cannot imagine aspiring to be one.
*This was first published in Counterpunch, Friday, October 24, 2014