Saturday, March 15, 2014

Debt of Thanks

When I called Stretch to quit, he wasn’t happy, but he didn’t try and convince me to stay, either, as I’d hoped. He did, however, manage to deliver a dig that all but summed up my time as a retail employee.

“So, your new job,” he said, his irritation coming through the phone as he realized he needed to fill my shift for the week ahead. “They’re hiring you away from here. I guess [you] don’t care about hard work or loyalty.”
Joseph Williams. My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Cheap
Work is intended to be one of the voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships that we encounter in our lives. The sort of thing where both parties come out ahead, and therefore each has their own reasons for entering into the transaction. But as our overall economy has become skewed, the understanding of work has changed, and it doesn’t seem to be for the better. While one could always think of labor as a commodity, it’s also possible to see the ability to labor as a commodity. And that shifts the relationship between workers and employees.

Mr. Williams hoped that his manager at the pseudonymous “Sporting Goods, Inc.” would recognize the work that he’d done there as valuable enough that it was worth asking him to stay. But “Stretch” (also a pseudonym) apparently didn’t see it that way. (Remember that the whole story comes to us via Williams, who is an inherently unreliable narrator.) While it's not possible to know, one can conjecture that Stretch, like many other people believes that the opportunity to work should be grounds for gratitude, and repaid by hard work and loyalty.

The Great Recession, as economic downturns are wont to do, generated an uptick in the idea that one should consider oneself fortunate to simply have a job. I’ve never been all that on board with the way I’ve understood people to mean this. I’ve considered myself sometimes VERY fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and thus be in a position to be considered for a job - there are usually more people than there are jobs available, and some of the best jobs I’ve ever landed weren’t widely advertised. I stumbled into them through sheer happenstance, and understand that I was lucky (sometimes, remarkably so) in that regard. But keeping a job once I had it, that was the result of the work that I put into it. (Even moreso when I found myself working for companies that would move people around to place some in the path of layoffs, while sparing others.) Now, I’m not always going to claim that I knocked the ball out of the park every time. Unless a company is actively shedding personnel, keeping one’s gig is often just a matter of it being less hassle to keep you around than it is to backfill your position. But the basic calculation is still the same, you’re providing value to the company, and you’re drawing a paycheck for it. Win-Win.

But one of the basic effects of economic inequality is that the parties have differing abilities to walk away from a deal. To be technical about it, their Best Alternatives To a Negotiated Agreement are different, as Williams realized when he learned that his new employer was, as he puts it, “obsessed with theft.”
[...] Abraham Lincoln, in the form of the lone $5 bill in my wallet, had the last word: You, sir, are unemployed and homeless. You cannot pay for food, goods, or services with your privacy.
For Sporting Goods, Inc., the calculus was different. If Williams had balked about being searched every time he left the store and quit, oh, well. There are plenty more where he came from.

And this difference has lead to many of thinking of large areas of work, especially low-paid or unskilled work, not as a transaction, which in theory is supposed to leave both parties better off, but a form of charity, in which the undeserving are overcompensated, and thus in debt to their employers even after having done their jobs. Because while the employee earns their paycheck in the form of work, being allowed to work (and sometimes, we dispute even that) - the very ability to labor for pay, is seen as a benefit, and a form of employer largess, even if it isn’t always given with both hands.

Bad economic times make it difficult to push back against that idea. But it’s important that we do so. Enough of us are in debt as it is. Where do we find the resources to pay for access to resources?

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