fragments of an attempted writing.

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.


  1. I was wondering, in the grocery store clerk article, where he was actually working. I'm guessing, by alleged number of people with a high education, he's at Whole Foods or something similar. People I know who have worked there have reported similar scenarios. I've spent most of my working life (I'm currently unemployed) working in a closed–shop grocery chain, mostly as a pharmacy tech (got to spend a couple of those years non–unionized because that department was exempted in that region). While there were outliers, most of the grocery clerks I knew and worked with were high school graduates (if that). Some had quite a lot of native intelligence that wasn't encouraged, most didn't. There was, generally, a lot of poor work which exacerbated that whole effect you mention of top producers doing a lot more work… except, they usually did it for less money, because they wouldn't stick around to gain seniority. There were a few exceptions, but even they were usually just taking a longer educational route. (I know a guy who worked full–time for ten years, earning graduate degrees while doing so who left for his "real job" after already having earned a floor leader position and nearly topping out the union pay scale at the store I first worked for.) There is a real way in which the unions in this country, interested only in exacting dues from workers, help exacerbate problems in the American labor force; there is a literal encouraging of bad work. I can't help but think this is the problem with nationally organized unions versus emergent actions from local workers—but who is going to do that nowadays?

    In grocery, this is most evident in the reluctance to give a different pay scale for skilled workers. There is no reason a pharmacy technician, a butcher or a florist should be on the same pay scale as a checkout clerk or bagger. But the union (under the false guise of "equality" and knowing that skilled workers will just choose to move to part time, thus making the skilled departments hire more workers, and thus more dues) and the employer (not wanting to pay skilled employees more) collude (though not actively, just naturally), in the debasement of the American workforce.

    Anyhow, so what I see in that grocery clerk article is something I did see: the few (transient) educated workers might actively care about their position as workers, but most of the long–term employees didn't. Oh, there'd be an exception or two—the store I worked for in Louisville had a butcher from old activist stock who'd give a good rallying cry for the working man, but he was notable mostly in the exception. Grocery is probably the far end of this debasement; the more skilled trade unions are different, but this may be because of the higher median IQ among their workers.

    One really interesting thing I've noticed in retail is how management operates on dictates from on high that work to prevent fraternization in the workplace, which doesn't (of course) have the productivity boon that it is alleged to have (the MBAs who studied one store I worked in even admitted as much), but is more about further isolating and breaking down the workers into isolated units. While the two people I worked with for a year moving pallets at one store and I could move them far quicker as a team and joking and talking while doing so, corporate policy required we worked in different aisles. Since management at this store was largely absentee, we cheerfully ignored the prohibition, but at the second store I worked for, this was discouraged even among the pharmacy employees who work in tight quarters by force. Also telling in retail is the current obsession with forcing employees to rotate between tasks, not because this is more effective, but because of vague social "fairness" rhetoric which is really about keeping people from identifying with even their jobs.

  2. Ari,

    At the McDonald closest to me the workers 3 years ago were almost entirely young blacks who have the impression that they were from the local hood. Today the employees there are almost entirely whites aged 30 or older who do not give the indication that they are from the hood. I get the impression that most of the whites there are in the "some college" category and I would be surprised if there were not several who had BAs.

    That is to say, perhaps if the event in the grocery article happened three years ago, I might be with you on betting it was a Whole Foods, but these days I think that scenario could happen in a much broader range of grocery stores.

    I'll respond more on the union question later but I have to go to class.

  3. Ari,

    OK, I'm back.

    You may well know that one of the early debates within the American labor movement was how union organization should take place - should all workers in a given industry, regardless of occupation or skill level, be in one union? Or should unions be divided vocationally, so that in your grocery there would have been people in the butchers union, and the warehouse workers union, and in the clerks union, and in florists union?

    The IWW, being anarcho-syndicalist, eventually went, obviously, with the "Industrial Worker" model, which holds that everybody in that grocery store should be in the same union.

    I happen to not be an anarchist. I love the IWW, but I'm not sure that model works universally.

    I think the IWW model works well in those places that the IWW is currently trying vigorously to organize, like Jimmy John's subs and Starbucks, where there really isn't any different in serious skill level among the folks working in the joint - pretty much everybody knows how to do everything.

    That said, I've known of some mines that had a single union for all the guys in the pit, and among the many complaints about the union I never heard wage disparity not being great enough as a complaint, and a girl I dated had a step-dad as an electrician in a mine until he was killed in one. The electricians might start at 75k and the base pit guy at 50k, which is less of a disparity than the skill differential probably justifies, but the pay was far enough apart to be accepted.

    Obviously I don't know the grocery store or union you were in, but I know a little bit about that jazz from a former coworker of mine who had been (as had his dad) a Piggly Wiggly manager before becoming a blacksmith. Anyway, this guy told me that one of the problems with unions and pay in grocery stores has to do with technology vastly changing the job and pay considerations not keeping pace.

    40 years ago your grocery store clerk had to be the smartest of the wage slaves in the store. He had to memorize a hell of a lot. The prices on items had price stickers that could be altered by cheating customers, or, the further back you go, just had to be memorized by the clerks. Add to that the clerks had to be able to do math quickly and make their own correct change quickly. They also in some cases were given additional responsibilities such as having the authority to sell damaged items at lower rates and making that on-the-spot decision right there at the check out aisle.

  4. - cont'd

    These days, the grocery check out clerk hardly does anything but babysit equipment, and when it doesn't work, pushes a button to have someone else come to fix it. They don't have to make change, they don't have to know their merchandise, hell, when a person pays with a check they scan it and the driver’s license. So the grocery clerk has become one of the least skilled positions in America today. In this economy, a union that works to maintain wage equality between a butcher and a check out clerk is a union that is bent on failure.

    That said, we should keep in mind that there are two classic postures in anti-union activity. The first is race baiting, particularly getting white workers to be pissed off that presumably less intelligent and less reliable black workers will be getting paid more or getting jobs their skill level doesn't merit thus taking away from what whites would otherwise have. A huge amount of analysis has been done concerning this issue and shown that when black wages and work opportunities have increased it has resulted in better pay and opportunities for whites on the whole, but I'm not going to get into that now.

    The other tactic has been to encourage divisions within different segments of labor - to encourage jealousies and animosities between different skill levels and vocations and so forth. There is story after story after story in U.S. labor history in which a strike or some other direct action failed because management was able to get one union to turn against another. It was in part because of this experience that there was a movement toward industrial unions. It is interesting to note that when capitalists and politicians began to codify union activity, got rid of many of the overt sticks, and started offering unions a lot of carrots in return for getting rid of the radicals, they set up a game in which multiple unions within given industries would be the norm (though obviously not universally practiced). Unions were felt to be more manageable that way, and, they have been.

    Obviously in Marxism (at least classical Marxism) the growth of class consciousness was going to come from the proletariat, which were those in the trades, meaning mostly those in skilled and semi-skilled positions. Increasingly because of a transition away from manufacturing, as well as technologies which have reduced the skill levels required in many other jobs, there has been a significant alteration in the make-up of the working classes - the traditionally conceived proletariat is a much smaller percentage of workers than it used to be in the U.S. But there is no going back - the situation is what it is and must be dealt with. Union leaders learned in the late 19th and 20th centuries that unskilled labor needed to be organized as well, it’s just that it is often harder to do it. There are plenty of success stories of shops organizing in which various vocations and skill levels have different (and more appropriate) rates of pay and yet a strong sense of solidarity between skill sets.

  5. - cont'd -

    I think it would have to be pretty difficult to establish that unions exert a negative influence on the American workforce. Given that only 7.5% and dropping of American workers in the private sector are in unions and a large number of those are still in the traditional trades or in areas like nursing where one rarely hears of unions lowering normal performance standards, it's hard for me to imagine that the unions hurt American productivity. In many areas, I think unions help to maintain standards. In the ironworkers, sheet metal workers, and boilermakers unions a test must be passed before one can even get into an apprenticeship. Those tests aren't a cakewalk (there are study guides and classes to help prepare, etc.). Then there is an apprenticeship and then once one is in the union there are what amount to continuing education requirements and so forth. In each of those fields you have folks doing work that can be dangerous to themselves and others, and working on projects which, if not done correctly, can be a danger to the public. I've heard of a gazillion cases in which management was trying to cut costs and do things in a half assed manner and it was the union the pulled the plug on low quality work. Worker was ordered to cut standards on a given task, he calls his steward, union talks to management, end of story. I think anyone who complains about nurses unions is certifiably crazy - when my mom went to nursing school there were nurses in Ohio hospitals still taking hospital laundry home to ensure their patients had what they needed the next shift. The Youngstown, OH nurses strike (which changed the field of nursing) was mostly about patient safety and even today the #1 issue behind most nurses strikes is short staffing. Yes the nurses are self-interested because they know that when short staffed they are more likely to make a mistake that costs them a job and gets them in court, but I know enough nurses to know that most of them also hate providing the shitty care that occurs when short staffed. That said, I've worked in a Teamsters shop before and seen the sort of slow down type activity you refer to. But the thing is, management at that company (a series of Midas shops) was making money hand over fist, and they deserved their employees acting like stereotypical union workers.

    One last story. My dad worked at a Chrysler stamping plant years ago. He worked as a press operator. You set all the metal raw material and dyes in place and then pushed a button and the press came down and you hoped everything was lined up right so that shrapnel didn't fly through the metal cage you were in killing you. Anyway, dad gets in there and after a few weeks of getting the hang of it he could do about 20 stamps on the press an hour. The guys around him were doing about 12. This went on for a few more weeks and then one day, at the bar across from the plant where dad had his Cutty after work, a few big goons walked up to dad and told him that from now on he would only do 12 presses an hour. End of discussion.

  6. - cont'd -

    Was the union wrong to keep production down at that plant? Hell no it wasn't. My dad was in his 20s and in decent health. There were guys who had worked 30 years in that plant who were heart attack survivors. There were guys who had worked there before the unions got the safety ropes attached to the arms which automatically pulled the arms away when the press came down, and those guys were all missing fingers if not arms, and it took them longer to set up a press before stamping, there were guys there who had gone years on forced overtime, some of them averaging nearly 3000 hours a year for a decade or longer. 12 stamps an hour is what you could reasonably expect from those guys. If the young hires came in and all started doing 20 stamps an hour, management would notice it, and that would become a negotiating tool for them with the union - they would push for higher production levels which might make the work impossible for men who that union was meant to protect. That particular local was a great union local - they at one point led the nation in wildcat strikes and gave the finger to the national UAW all the time. Now, any conservative/libertarian type could come along and point out that this mentality on the part of that union eventually lost those jobs, as there are plenty of people in Asia or Mexico or wherever that will do 25 stamps an hour in horribly unsafe conditions with a smile on their face for .50 a day. Well, yeah. That introduces a host of other issues.

  7. - cont'd -

    There few abuses of work life that come out of unions that one doesn't already see in non-union environments. I think a great deal of it comes out of technological advances mixed with changing social environments. Take a burger joint. 50 years ago the guy working in the back actually had to have a modicum of ability as a quick order cook. Today at McDonalds the worker is working in one of the simplest forms of assembly line work. Add to that the social disintegration of those communities supplying that worker who ends up working in such settings…
    Yes, the unions in this country are bloated and the labor aristocracy who run them almost all useless wastes of union flesh. But at their worst I don't see them as doing more harm than the corporations are doing (I think the greatest incentives not to work hard in our culture today come from the ethos of mass capitalism and not from the labor movement – why bother to work hard for a brand that will discard you on a whim and pays you less and less?), or they are collaborators with capital as you suggest. Somewhere in the middle they are corrupt bastards who actually bother to fight the corrupt bastards in management. And at their best they actually manage to represent their workers. Given the lengths capital and the American gov't went to de-radicalize American unions and encourage corruption, it is no surprise that we see it so systemic in the older large unions.
    We see all sorts of horrors in capitalism, but there are still reasonable people who nonetheless adamantly argue for why we need free markets, etc. There are people who cry from the mountaintops against "crony capitalism" (as if this is somehow an abnormal state in capitalism) but who still believe in capitalism as the best economic ordo available to us. I suppose my view of unions is akin to that. They may be in a god awful state right now, but organized labor, it seems to me, is an essential part of an ordo in which workers, on the whole, are kept at adequate levels of safety and fairly compensated.

  8. The clerk thing rang a bell. Having been around several blocks many times, I can tell you that the corporate model is most assuredly not do what the customer wants. Yes, the rhetoric is that, but the actual systematic culture is to convince the customer that the solution offered is good enough. Good enough is defined as a value proposition almost entirely related to price. Personal service will not get you ahead, because personal service costs the company too much, especially in low end retail like groceries.

    As for unionizing service workers, I have found that a lot of unions turn their nose up at doing it. Unions have become rather corporate themselves, and union consultants don't pay for themselves. Recruiting for a union also costs money, and there has to be a reasonable horizon for recovering those costs. It is very hard to get a union to organize sub $10/hr employees, sometimes even if they are practically already organized.

  9. M.Z.,


    The place where you will find the most low wage union employees today is in the public sector. Foodservice workers, etc. My mother-in-law works for the state of WI and at her facility most of the state employees there are low wage folks making less than $10 or $11 an hour. CNAs working for the state make $3 or so less an hour than they do in the private sector in exchange for the better state benefits. Now that Walker has cut their benefits there are a shitload of low wage state jobs opening up across WI. The openings in higher wage positions mostly have to do with people taking their retirement before the pension system is dismantled, but with the low wagers it has more to do with an increase in heath care benefits and paid time off when you are already making considerably less pay than private counterparts.

    The radical unions are hitting low wage targets, but because they are small they focus on precise targets like Starbucks and in strategic metro areas like NYC, Seattle, San Fran, etc. Recently Dick Trumpka, in his new attempt at union badass, has talked about aggressive organizing in traditionally non-union environments, but I'm not holding my breath.

  10. Owen,

    I'm twenty–six, have two bachelors degrees (and have for four years) and I know a lot of people in my boat in my cohort: Variously un– and underemployed and in and out of retail and restaurant work and such. Grocery is a pretty rare place for people like us to congregate, usually because the smarter workers get put on what most of us see as less–desirable work. I never minded moving pallets, working on the receiving dock or doing inventory, because the rhythms I could develop on the job left my mind free to do a lot of uninterrupted thinking (and smart planning could complete an eight hour's shift's worth of work in far less, leaving me plenty of time to read on the clock), but most educated workers employed down there seem to favor jobs with more human interaction. Or that they want jobs they think magically preserve class, like Whole Foods or non–fast food restaurant work. I've noticed the McDonald's effect to a degree, but I think a lot of those men were probably associates holders from the days you could get a decent job with one of those who were laid off in the recession. I'd love to see more solid data on this. It's also really interesting how there are a few "missing years" in this economy, people who graduated college in '07-'09 are the worst off, because they've never entered their trained–for fields and may never do so because companies are more willing to hire those straight out of college or those unemployed who were laid off. My wife is a year older than me, and her job experience has been totally different. (Looking at my cohort, though, it also seems companies are now more willing to hire women in general.)

    Anyhow, my critique of (some) industrial unions is that they behave more like exploiters of labor than actual labor organizing tools. My experiences were with UFCW and universally awful. In more than one case, I had management offering me more money than my union rep would allow me to have. In another case, UFCW stiffed me for hundreds of dollars of back dues when I was on educational leave. Most of the time, it felt like my employer was stupid and my union was evil, interested only in protecting the unproductive worker so more would be hired and more dues would come in.

    Other unions can behave quite differently, and I wish I could tell my favorite anecdote from recent years online, but it would be identifying information.

    Oddly enough, I think the fight against total automation has resulted in the further decline of the American worker. Semi–automated technologies just require drone–like babysitters. I am all for government action to preserve meaningful skilled labor work within a nation, but I don't think that resisting technology is the correct way to do this.

    I agree with your final paragraph about unions though. I think they're in a terrible state in this country and "part of the problem", but workers need to be able to organize in their interests, I just think that's become increasingly impossible to do in an effective way in the areas where most of the low–wage workers toil these days. I fear most attempts to "organize" fast–food or low–end retail workers will result in just another parasitic body feasting on their labor. (I certainly think unions are a more "natural" entity than the modern corporation.)

  11. My father-in-law was a machinist. He co-owned a very small shop (with a relative) and employed one guy (his son-in-law), except during peak periods, when he might take on another guy.

    He says a lot of machine work is now being outsourced overseas. I can't imagine how you can outsource something requiring the transport back and forth of heavy equipment and machinery. But then, hey, I also can't imagine how it's cheaper to manufacture panties in Asia and then ship them thousands of miles to America than to manufacture them in the textile mill three blocks down the road from headquarters. What do I know?


  12. Ari,

    If the the overwhelming majority of workers in the grocery industry are as you suggest, then maybe the unions are doing their job by making things harder for someone as bright and energetic as yourself.


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