Two recent little articles on the plight of working class people in the U.S. today caught my attention. See A Tip for Joe the Machinist: Watch Your Back and Advice to a Grocery Store Clerk.
I know a lot of machinists. Not only those at my own shop, but those at metal shops around town, as the metal business in Memphis is the sort of community where there is a lot of overlap and for various reasons you end up visiting other shops over the years or meeting people at the metal museum or other metal events and so forth. I've worked with both union and non-union machinists, and I think I am fairly familiar with the trade.
In machine shops and other metal shops that employ machinists, if there is not a set pay schedule (meaning: if the shop is non-union) based on seniority and other set factors, then the pay offered to machinists in a given shop usually varies anywhere from 20-45% from base to top level, and pay increases are usually said to be based on performance.
In every non-union metal and machine shop I have been familiar with, the guys who are making the most money, and who are doing the best work, are outproducing the bottom tier guys astronomically. At my shop the top producers are literally putting out 200-300% more work than the guys at the bottom. But they make 40-45% more in pay. Everyone who has experience in a non-union metal shop knows that this is the way of things.
In my own shop, because of animosities and bitterness about reductions in benefits, reductions in pay, loss of bonuses, and the like, the top tier guys have slowed down their productivity, but when the top guys slow down, you usually see the lower tier producers also slowing down, as the top producers set the tone, the "energy" if you will, for the whole shop. So that percentage discrepancy between top producers and base level producers doesn't change all that much.
There are a lot of reasons why a machinist would learn to work better and faster. There is pride in a job well done, of course. There used to be the hope of better pay. But a big part of it is simply the fact that working efficiently and at a steady, fairly quick pace makes the shift go by faster. People who are slackers generally don't last in a metal shop longer than a year or two, if they make it that long and manage to produce enough to keep management off their backs. They just get bored moping around all day and never find that rhythm you need to have to do that sort of work day in - day out, week in - week out, year after year. I suspect there are other reasons that a worker might work harder and better that are not related to pride, work ethic, desire for pay, and the like. Employers probably love the thought of workers working harder because it makes the day go by faster, sigh.
The Joe the Machinist article points to a truth - there really is no economic reason in this economy to pay your good machinists significantly more than your base level machinists. Where else are the good machinists going to go? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a very similar state of things (to what these consultants call for) with regard to very little relation between floor pay compared to production levels, and the IWW in particular galvanized workers to commit actions including work slowdowns and work sabotage. That was before it was so easy to move manufacturing work offshore (though if things keep going in the direction they are America might become one of the world's cheap manufacturing providers).
The situation I describe among machinists is more or less the same situation one finds with grocery store clerks, retail workers, shipping warehouse workers, fast food restaurant employees, maids, janitors, low level health care workers, and the like. These jobs can't be moved offshore, and one also finds in those industries the phenomenon of the top "producers" getting 200% more work done for 20% more pay. As the pay of the top performing workers gets diminished, one can dreamily hope for an increased solidarity between workers, though Americans show no indication of being susceptible to class war agitations. Then again, when the IWW started getting a name for itself for using such tactics, they were a tiny union (as they are again now) who were hated by employers nationwide and by many working people nationwide who had been given a view of the IWW that was informed by anti-union rhetoric. That situation changed, and I suppose it could change again. The IWW has wisely been focused heavily on the service sector in recent years. It seems to me that the American service sector is one arena where the "old tactics" of work stoppage, work slowdown, sabotage on the workplace, and the like might exert actual pressure on business owners.
But there is a different worker psychology with service work than there is with the traditional trades that were the old environs of an easily recognized proletariat back in the day. When you were a machinist working in a Glasgow shipyard, the "product" you produced was "yours" in a more tangible way than the hamburger you hand to one of your McDonald's customers is yours. Machine work and all tradecraft work carried a bit of a signature to it - I can look at any piece of metal in my shop and tell you exactly who worked on it.
In my shop there are two metal lathes that were used to spin artillery casings in WWII and even one used to spin artillery casings in WWI - on each of these are the signatures of machinists who have worked with the machines over the years, and some of those signatures are dated, going back to the 19teens on the oldest machine (which has a war bond stamp on it - the machine was paid for with war bonds and has been used by private industry ever since - I bet whoever used it to make artillery casings in WWI still made a profit from the work done on that war bond paid for machine -- damn war profiteers). The unique vocational abilities that the old trades provided seem to be more conducive toward that worker consciousness that is inclined toward class hostility. You literally made the work reality around you, as it were. This is an entirely different ethos than making soy lattes at Starbucks, where everything is already "made" by the company and you are just moving items from one brand logo piece of equipment to another before handing it over (in a brand logo cup) to your customer, all the while wearing the damn brand logo on your person. Nothing in the Starbucks is "yours" - none of it was of your own making.
And further, in the traditional proletariat trades, you pretty much hung out with your own kind all day - you were in a sea of working class folks who occasionally met with management or, very occasionally if ever, with an actual capitalist. When you are working at Starbucks you are with a small cadre of class peers surrounded by a greater number of people who are your customers, many of whom are likely to be your class "superiors," or at least people who have more disposable income than you.
It's that being surrounded by your "superiors" in a retail setting that makes for an environ ripe for the sort of advice given in the Grocery Clerk article. The current economy has spread out the working classes to an incredible degree, into little islands of "the help" that are not easily brought together into large congregations. This very much suits the interests of capitalists bent on preventing workers from organizing and preventing a growth in class consciousness. It is also frequently humiliating, as in so many working class environments today the worker encounters more people that she is serving than she does those she is serving with. It is the perfect scenario to breed an intuition in the worker that he is the "loser" in the social game, etc. It also makes the basic nuts and bolts activities of worker organization harder - workers are more spread out, more easily "watched" by management, and so forth. Some service industries might be more easy to organize than others (a Fed Ex hub might be a better target than a fast food location). As the economy continues to decline, and employers become more aggressive in their treatment of workers, it will be interesting to see how labor, particularly the more efficient and flexible radical end of labor, adapts to the new circumstances. Pretty much everyone I know involved in the labor movement agrees that new tactics are needed, but there doesn't seem to be any clear consensus emerging with regard to what those tactics should be.