By James Frey
The following piece, by James Frey, was originally posted at Libcom, and is the story and analysis of organizing in a precarious workplace in New York, where a significant part of the working class works at-will, without health insurance, and several jobs at a time. The piece includes important lessons for organizing precarious work places, as well as a range of important political critiques, made concrete through the questions raised by this struggle. Frey can be reached at email@example.com
In the Summer of 2012 the exploited workers of a New York City moving company autonomously organized our shop and began the fight for control over the conditions of our lives. This is one worker’s account of how it all went down.
“They Just Run Us Into The Ground…”
Our struggle was born in the cabs of box trucks all over the city. Stopped in traffic, cramped and stewing in diesel fumes, and working off the clock due to flat-rate travel pay based on mythic road conditions, we have spent countless hours in the privacy of our little boxes enumerating our grievances endlessly. In these scenes, the individual gripe is always the germ of systematic critique. And such grievances are in no short supply when the starting rate for workers at our dangerous job has progressively fallen over the past four years, rolling back a full five dollars and coming to rest on the precipice of minimum wage, as has the pay cap for our nearly nonexistent pay raises, which can only be negotiated individually and secretly with management, in competition with our co-workers, and are rarely granted. Medical benefits are non-existent, though the threat of severe bodily harm comes with every day’s work, more reliably so than the gratuity with which each of our customers, in morally satisfied ignorance of our pay rate, are expected to subsidize our basic social needs out of sheer generosity. “Have a few drinks tonight!” they’ll chortle along with a meager tip, as we wonder if this keeps us on track to make rent. The undesirable conditions at our shop have created a high turnover which makes for unsafe working conditions, only exacerbating the daily struggle to make ends meet and make it home one piece.
Work in our shop comes in a pattern of feast or famine. We list which days we are available, and work is assigned to us based on necessity. This “flexibility” (as it is presented in the job interview) is misleading, as it is necessary to make oneself available almost every single day in order to make enough hours for the week, and work is announced with less than 24 hours notice. Many days we are available there is no work at all, especially for the newer workers, who can go two weeks at a time without hearing from the company. Often the most competent, experienced, and professional of our ranks view the job as an unfortunate short-term situation, explicitly citing lack of pay, reliable scheduling, and above all, dignity, and these workers have one eye on the door from the start.
This situation has engendered an entire class of disposable workers hired for the extreme short term and not expected to stay beyond a month, at which time they can be replaced by another crop from the inexhaustible Craig’s List precariat. They are hired at a pay rate which most often precludes any experience, and in many cases precludes maturity and responsibility. It is not uncommon to find among new hires an apathetical approach to this labor intensive and dangerous job. Surely, nobody among us can really blame workers making close to minimum wage for behaving accordingly. A while back a worker in this pay rate was an hour late on a Saturday morning, and one of the veterans joked “He just paid $8 to sleep in for an hour.” However, the most experienced and responsible crew members on each job must train each new worker behind the customer’s back while doing the work of two, and to turn their attention away from the new hire to perform a technical task or to even use the bathroom is to risk catastrophe.
And catastrophe strikes often, in the form of avoidable damages resulting from basic errors or carelessness, for which the company regularly doles out thousands of dollars, overcompensating the customer in the name of preserving its good standing in the public eye. The same is true for drivers, who the company is unwilling to hire at a competitive rate for commercial trucking. Instead it opts to underpay inexperienced drivers who routinely cause expensive wrecks and drive up the company’s insurance costs, while posing an obvious threat to the safety of all. In a bitter irony, the myriad expenditures stemming from constant turnover in an underpaid, often inexperienced, and increasingly apathetic workforce are cited as the reason we cannot receive raises, which of course would help obviate accidents and damages, and the cycle continues as wages are driven ever downward by the imperative to minimize costs in the short-term. This lends some weight to the view that in the wage relation, domination of the labor force is the primary concern for the accumulation of capital, and the importance of low wages to immediate concerns of profit is secondary.
Those of us who work our hardest do so not because it reflects our pitiful remuneration, but out of a basic human desire to take pride in the application of one’s faculties to a day’s work, and to recognize one’s efforts in the quality of the product. This is of course a complicated relationship within the paradigm of exploitation, and it leaves especially the most adept and responsible workers feeling like suckers. “The company uses us the same way they use the [notoriously unmaintained] trucks”, one seasoned worker commented morosely. “They just run us into the ground.”
“My Mover Has Read Goethe!”
We have all worked plenty of “shit jobs” before and came to this company with no illusions about the nature of precarious work in the present day. But the real insult to injury for most of us lies in the company’s hipster “niche market” status. According to its literature, our company only hires artists and other creative people, whose creative endeavors the customer can “support” simply by hiring us. This is a major selling point with the customers of course, but also with new hires, with whom it is used to justify low wages. The company dons the “starving artist” trope for itself in dealings with the staff, to whom the trope actually applies. And the idea that “we” are a “collective” of “artists” suggests to the average customer that there is some kind of common ownership or stake in the company, or at the very least, that the workers are compensated anywhere near the mean industry rate. After all, how could a company so hip and cool and with it pay its workers minimum wage? Instead, tips are a major source of our income, though we are prohibited from discussing it with the customers, and many customers seem legitimately unaware of how much we need gratuity to survive. Worst of all, this sort of company manages to drape a layer of DIY hipster obfuscation over the basic relationship of exploitation. This fools the willfully ignorant customers, who don’t want to think ill of their precious luxury item, but can also make things difficult for organizing those among the staff with somebody else supporting them, a type often drawn to this kind of hip company, whose class privilege allows for some distance between the exploitative wage and the material necessities of their lives.
Continue reading A Moving Story by James Frey