Thursday, April 26, 2012

Approaching the End of Working Life

I just can't face any more contract concessions at my workplace. The last negotiations didn't go well. They began with pink slips from Gavin Newsom and his city cohorts and ended with pay cuts and furlough days. Only the MUNI transportation workers resisted the bad deal and voted no on workers shouldering the financial pain. 

I fought hard against the concessions but, like a cat who refuses to go gently into her box to be taken to the vet, all that kicking, scratching and stretching out my claws to hold onto the sides was wasted energy, I knew that, in spite of my best efforts, I would wind up in that box. It was easy to see that the people pushing me there were not only bigger and stronger but had all the power and authority on their side. 

So, I accepted the vet and life in the box and it's really not that bad because I am in the company of the finest of felines. Knowing this has served to make my demotion back into the class from which I came not only tolerable but a starting point for organizing. 

With new contract negotiation going on combined with the fact of my advancing age and a far more oppressive workplace, I have decided to bid adieu to the working world and spend the rest of my days writing, dismantling capitalism and traveling. I am so lucky to have a pension, and eventually I will also have social security, so that I can make this decision. 

At first, the thought of breaking with work was hard, what would I do with all that unstructured time? Now, it seems difficult to believe that I was able to make the demands of work palatable at all. In psychology this process is called resolving cognitive dissonance. 

I will be a retired librarian soon. They say when one door closes another opens, so I'm looking forward to not being stuck in that proverbial hallway too long. My conscious keeps repeating, Close the door, Joan, close that goddamn door! "Blow out your candles, Laura...and so goodbye."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Management Manipulation of an Economic Crisis

Richard Wolff
One of my favorite economists, the open and unabashedly Marxist Richard Wolff, states the following about a concept very foreign to American workers, democracy in the workplace. He begins by commenting that for a democracy-loving people, Americans sure do make a glaring exception for the world of work:

"If democracy belongs anywhere, it belongs in the workplace. Yet we accept, as if it were a given, that once we cross the threshold of our store, factory, or office, we give up all democratic rights. If this agreement at least delivered a rising standard of living, it might make sense that people would accept it. But now we have an economic system that imposes an undemocratic workplace and doesn’t deliver a decent economy in exchange."

Wolff finds it both stunning and amazing that a freedom-loving, group of people who extol the virtues of individual initiative should find an authoritarian-style work environment inevitable.He finds the uncritical acceptance of status hierarchy not only oppressive to workers but counter to productivity as well. 

Of course, the fact that co-operative style workplaces where everyone has a voice and an interest in the organization's success operate more efficiently and humanely is a no-brainer. Even when the product is public service at, for example, a large urban library, a democratic workplace could improve both morale and efficiency, making the institution more relevant and meaningful to all who are involved in its operation.

The current concept of increasing productivity involves a certain type of management that plays down any human commonality between those on the serving end of instruction and those receiving it. This strategy is basically just the sugar-coating of a management manifesto of manipulation. The workshop tips that proliferate in the civil service workplace are indicative of the contempt in which employees are held.  

What exactly are these apprentice managers, some of whom make only about $5,000 a year more than their charges, learning? Shocking, anti-human things like how to avoiding exchanging personal information or having any kind of a genuine relationship with inferiors. They are boning up on ways to ward off and field questions from underlings in order to avoid any degree understanding or emotional intimacy. They are provided a treasure trove of stock phrases to parrot back regarding sick pay, vacation pay or any kind of personal leave. In short, the foundation of this "management training" consists of indoctrination in the "skills" of remaining aloof and barking out directives at people who are assumed to be lazy, devious, potential scammers.

I have worked at my library workplace for seventeen years and have, of late, witnessed its deterioration into a sweat shop. It started when the San Francisco City Librarian gave birth to the idea to keep on only a skeletal staff. This wasn't done by layoffs but simply by no replacement workers being hired after folks move on or retire. This natural attrition has left a skeletal staff in the place where a full staff used to be. A micro-staff that is expected to work just as hard as the full staff used to. Why not five hours a day on the public desk instead of three? Why not have everyone work some evenings and weekend days? Why not have one person order books in three subject areas instead of just one?

This kind of "experiment" is taking place right now in workplaces across the country: speeding up production as salaries drop due to furlough days, fewer sick and vacation days, increased employee contributions to health and pension benefits or the elimination of these benefits altogether.

Yes, if nothing changes the workplace for the "lucky" few employed workers of the future will be upper management's wet dream and the working stiff's nightmare. The way they put it on 60 Minutes was that it's a "buyer's market" for employers. But all it really means is the value of labor has become dirt cheap and those who perform it, totally expendable.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Working for a Paycheck is Not a Choice

Ann Romney
With the latest flap between strategist for the Democrats, Hillary Rosen and obscenely wealthy wife of Republican candidate Mitt Romney making headlines, I feel compelled to interject some comments about well off folks, not just one-per-centers, and the shackles of the brutal, capitalist workplace.

First off, when Hilary Rosen when states that, "Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life," it's true she is not including the drudgery of child rearing, a dirty job in which many of us have consciously chosen never to participate. I'm also sure that Ms. Romney had tons of options for help available to her on days she wasn't feeling quite up to snuff because that is what wealth is all about: options. The single mother who cleans houses, sells drugs, or turns tricks for a living doesn't have options. She doesn't have health care, she doesn't even have a paycheck. The waitress may have some of these perks and the factory worker may have a few more but, none of them possess the luxury of sitting on their butts at home and focusing on child-rearing.

Having choices holds a value far beyond the material world. When you are speaking of creative pursuits, meaningful work, or landing that dream job, the cushion that money provides is not just psychological and physical well being. It provides the ability to keep searching or just wait until that life-affirming work appears. Take a mainstream Democratic Party politician like Nancy Pelosi. She may not be a member of the one percent, but her father was mayor of Baltimore, her hometown. She interned first, without pay and didn't take a job until the right political plum came along. And yes, after that she did work for a paycheck.

Many folks with cushions and safety nets use this strategy. I had a personal friend who wanted to work in computers. She went to a lot of classes and investigated all kinds of programming, all the while with help from her family. She didn't have to take a job until she found just the right fit at thirty years of age.

If you don't have this cushion, you must take whatever comes along whether it is meaningful or politically correct or not.You have neither the leisure to wait nor the connections to mine. This, of course, puts you at a disadvantage that lasts throughout your working life.

So Ann Romney when your only "job" is managing your household staff, dropping in on the children after they have been cleaned up and prepped by teachers and nannies and campaigning for your hubby, I would hardly describe that as work. Miss Ann and her husband Mitt couldn't be more removed from salt of the earth concerns. Their privilege is pale, thick and heavy and, like cream that has been sitting in the sun too long, has begun to ferment and smell.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Writers and Access to Privilege

Jane Austen, Member
of the Landed Gentry
Due to the advent of Adrienne Rich's recent passing, I have been thinking quite a bit about how status, money and access to the political power that comes with it greases the wheels to public creative expression. Since Rich's death I have learned that her father was a physician, medical researcher and professor at John Hopkins University. Her mother was a concert pianist and composer. 

While engaged in processing gift books for the library, I came across Rita Mae Brown's biography, "Rita Will." I always thought Brown was a bit of a snob. One of the main things I remember about her opus, "Rubyfruit Jungle," was that there was only one Jewish family in her Southern town and they smelled bad. She also openly criticized lesbians who weren't "good-looking" enough, I assume, by her arbitrary white, gentile, southern standards. So admittedly, I never found the woman endearing to say the least. But after viewing the personal photographs of Rita herself in her riding gear and at fox hunts, I realize that she was not just upper-middle class, but part and parcel of the one percent. 

Even Jane Austen was a member of the landed gentry. I come across queer writers every day like William Burroughs, Christopher Isherwood, James Merrill and Edmund White, all from illustrious backgrounds. With lesbians it tends to be less apparent, but overall lesbians have enjoyed far less success in the literary world. Elizabeth Bishop hailed from a wealthy Massachusetts family, but Mary Oliver had a modest upbringing in Maple Heights, Ohio. And Dorothy Alison is a notable exception to this rule with her ground-breaking work, "Bastard Out of Carolina," but, I believe, she remains relatively unknown to the straight literary world.

Having access to status and power doesn't guarantee creative success but it provides the freedom and time to pursue passions that, in their early stages, will be less than profitable. The ambience of privilege also provides something intangible but critically important to creative ventures: role models of successful people pursuing their dreams and, in the vast majority of cases, the socially-sanctioned and nurtured self-esteem to do the same.