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Book Review: Lines of Work

by JF

In the introduction to Lines of Work (Black Cat Press 2014), Scott Nappalos places the volume of first-person workplace testimonials, many familiar to readers of Recomposition blog and some previously unpublished, in the tradition of the Johnson Forest Tendency and Stan Weir, whose mid-century accounts of American work located, rather triumphantly, the seeds of a future society in the cooperative productive relations of the present. “Working class experiences of story telling” Nappalos writes “have not been taken seriously enough among those of us who try to organize and build a better society.” And it is not simply the circumstances depicted in Lines of Work which nurture and develop class consciousness, Nappalos maintains, but the experience of story telling itself, and I would add, the experience of reading such captivating stories of everyday hardship, struggle, and above all, faith in the liberatory potential of the working class, no matter how concealed beneath its daily debasement.

From the reader’s standpoint, it is an emotional experience to read these earnest and often unpolished accounts, from such disparate fields as nursing, finance, education, the supposedly extinct North American factory, day labor, and predictably enough, a healthy dose of service work. The pervasive pathos is one of fatigue, bitterness, anger, and oftentimes desperation. Though the authors are primarily politicos ideologically dedicated to workplace organizing, most of the low end jobs, including the worst paying and least rewarding, and almost always in small shops, seem taken out of economic necessity instead of any overarching organizational strategy. The predictable grumbling of Paul Mason’s “graduate with no future” is matched in intensity by the grumbling of stomaches underfed and over-caffeinated. Most notably, a contributor named The Invisible Man, a déclassé college graduate driven to low wage factory work and day labor, plumbs this abject position in a nuanced handling of class, race, and nationality in Canadian society, demonstrating simultaneously the importance of a racial analysis to workplace struggles, and the limits of solidarity based on race and nationality.

On the higher end of the job spectrum, in traditional middle-class bulwarks such a nursing, teaching, and “white collar” office work, the comparatively higher wages bring along endless days of overwork, debilitating stress, and sleep deprivation sufficient to find one dozing off behind the wheel, like P. Barbanegra, whose “Who Dismisses the Teacher?” is a must read for radicals seeking meaningful work in education. And throughout all jobs, the daily perils of sexual harassment, bullying, precarity, time theft, the forfeiture of youth to wage labor, all of which are, on top of it all, met with no little or no mass resistance, are voiced with a sense of despair difficult to exaggerate. When mounted, struggles are isolated, piecemeal, and not the stuff of the labor history their initiators no doubt came up on. Minor victories are briefly savored, as they must be, before the sobering reality of the struggles to be waged kicks in, and often the pink slip is not far behind.

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