Archive for March, 2011


Thursday, March 31st, 2011

The biggest occupational category these days is “unemployed,” and the trend is upward. The corporate economy, which depends principally on easy credit and inexhaustible supplies of raw materials, can’t provide enough jobs to keep the labor force busy, and the situation gets worse by the day.

The media call it a jobless recovery, which is like a juiceless orange: an absurdity. So many workers are out of work or working only part-time that big segments of the middle class are falling into poverty, and most of us are barely squeaking by from week to week. So great is the number of unemployed and underemployed that if these workers ever got together, they would be a potent political force. So why not a union of the unemployed?

We know that unemployment is good for employers. It keeps wages down–you don’t demand a raise in pay when ten people are waiting in line to do your job for less than you make–and unemployment is great for discipline, with wage-earners living in terror of losing their jobs. The incentives for employers to support chronic unemployment are almost irresistible, and workers can‘t do a thing to counter these incentives, terrorized, as they are, by profit-craving autocrats. People who are already out of work, on the other hand, have moved beyond terror to rage. So why not a union of the unemployed?

We see the so-called “Tea Party” protesting everything but the exploitation of workers, and we see panicked government employees assembling to preserve public payrolls, and they seem pretty angry, but nobody’s got more to be mad about than the unemployed. Jobless people look around, and there’s plenty to do, and lots of people to do it, and it’s not getting done. How come roads and bridges and schools are crumbling when so many are out of work? Why do vacant factories dot the urban landscape when there are so many idle hands? How come there’s a shortage of caretakers for the old and infirm amidst a labor surplus? Is it unemployment that allows the rich to grow demonstrably richer? Why not a union of the unemployed to unleash the rage that is called for?

People who have jobs are not in a hurry to upset the status quo. Most can’t afford to indulge their anger over crooked financiers, defilement of public resources, official malfeasance, and the obscenity of extreme wealth. A force capable of breaking the hold of the rich must necessarily be a destructive one, and destruction entails consequences that could affect the worker’s family. That’s why people with jobs can‘t advocate radical change. The unemployed have nothing to lose and can advocate the destruction of injurious new values–consumption, greed, disposability, expendability, materialism, leisure, paranoia—to make room for the old ones–thrift, sacrifice, work, ingenuity–which poor people have no choice but to embrace. So why not a union of the unemployed?

The unemployed are invisible, and this leaves them powerless. News about unemployment is limited to monthly statistics, and these reports are widely regarded as inaccurate. Even as the media concede, off the record, that government-sponsored unemployment rates reflect an undercount, they report the meaningless numbers as fact, and the figures are always good news, no matter how bad they are. Not wanting to cause panic, the media tell Americans that the economy is in recovery, issuing reports reminiscent of those seen regularly from 1930 to 1940, in the depths of the last big depression. Each day, thousands of people without income lose hope of ever finding a job, but nobody’s counting them. Isolated from each other, they’re uncounted because they don’t count. So why not a union of the unemployed?

The unemployed are beholden to nobody. The unemployed are furious. The unemployed are broke. The unemployed can’t get by on hope. The unemployed are many and diverse, and each end every one is on his own. They–we–are everywhere. If our potential for anger ever goes kinetic, the USA will experience a trauma that could initiate a cleansing. Jobs might evolve naturally out of that process. Why not a union of the unemployed?

Forbidden Fruit

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

“Yes, we have no tomatoes,” I say in response to a customer’s sandwich order. My customers are middle- and high-school kids breaking for lunch in Portland, Connecticut. My employer is a for-profit company, Sodexo-Marriot, that contracts with the school system there and has ordered me not to decorate the kids’ sandwiches with two slices of tomato.

I’m not being honest when I tell the kids we have no tomatoes. We have them, all right, but we won’t be serving them on my deli line until further notice. There is a sign posted there to the effect that certain commodities have been impacted by bad weather and they may not always be available. The implication is that there are no tomatoes to be purchased.

In fact, there are tomatoes in abundance, but the price has gone up lately. No mention is made of the price in the notice on my line, but that’s the key element here. My boss tells me it’s a company-wide crackdown, as if tomato abuse were rife across the continent. On my line, the company is saving at most $3 a day and disappointing maybe 15 customers.

Halfway into my second season as a lunch lady, I thought I’d long since dispensed with ethical issues when I closed my law practice a couple of years ago and opted for a social security pension and part-time kitchen work. Turns out I’m working for a company that grabs its profit (and my wages) by taking food out of the mouths of children. It’s not just the tomatoes (or the lettuce, which I’m also occasionally forbidden to serve to children). It’s that school food service–a critical function in a town like Portland–is farmed out for profit when it ought to be managed and channeled to benefit the school and the community.

Sodexo and contractors like Sodexo can be expected to satisfy minimal requirements in the interest of maximizing their profits, and they do just that. A certain number of kids will show up at school without bag lunches, and the contractor’s job is to exploit that situation for profit. It’s not to make sure that every kid is fed and nourished, that no food is wasted, that salty and sugary junk is kept out of reach, that local products are preferred, or that the town gets its money’s worth.

The result is, for the kids, spare, starchy lunches, short on produce and long on pricey processed snacks and sweetened beverages. For the contractor, there’s a fully equipped food factory, whence it can whip up snacks and meals for off-hour catered events, sometimes using free or cut-rate supplies it gets from the government for the kids.

Not all Sodexo’s diners are equal. We lunch ladies are instructed to dish out a bigger portion to staff members than to students. I haven’t yet figured out why. The kids are growing and need food, and the adults don’t seem to be any hungrier than the teenagers. I suspect the company’s currying favor with the staff, who are more or less permanent, at the expense of the kids, who are just passing through. That’s my opinion, but if I’m right, it’s a contracting abuse that ought to be stopped.

Because public schools now function as government feeding centers for children from homes with little income, and because this function is heavily subsidized by government, it has attracted private business, which likes to be there whenever money changes hands. Contractors promise a lot when they bid to perform some critical public function like school lunch, but they’re there for the money, not for the public. Once in place, they chisel at every turn, even to the point of denying a kid a few cents worth of fresh produce on her sandwich.