My favorite scene in the 1999 film American Beauty occurs when Kevin Spacey's middle-aged, disillusioned office drone, Lester Burnham turns in his job description to his boss, who is in the middle of company job-cuts. His boss, Brad, reads aloud Lester's unhinged rant of his job description.
"My job," Lester writes, "consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge and, at least once a day, retiring to the men's room so I can jerk-off while I fantasize about a life that doesn't so closely resemble Hell."
It is a hilarious, triumphal scene, not merely because our Every Man hero finally tells the boss off. But I imagine audiences enjoy a vicarious thrill in it, perhaps imagining themselves in Lester's shoes. Later at the dinner table he nonchalantly tells his teenage daughter, played by Thora Birch:
"Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go fuck himself and then I blackmailed him for almost sixty thousand dollars. Pass the asparagus."
In quitting his job, Lester regains something he thought he had long ago lost: His freedom.
And therein lies the greatest irony of America, a nation that exalts itself for its "freedom" and "democracy." (After all, didn't the 9/11 hijackers attack us because of "our freedoms?" I mean, what other motivations could they possibly have had...?)
Because the truth is we spend the vast majority of our waking lives in the most undemocratic institution in modern life: The workplace.
Unless you are part of a worker-owned cooperative (more on those later), there is nothing remotely democratic about your job. Democracy does not exist at work. The workplace is, at best, a benevolent dictatorship--and believe me, I have held more than a few jobs where the rulers were not at all benevolent.
(True story: I once worked at a "nonprofit" in South Portland where the executive director would routinely hurl her shoes and shout obscenities at the administrative assistant when she would make the most minuscule of mistakes. The only thing more astounding than her behavior was the fact the subservient secretary never actually got up and quit.)
As economics professor Richard D. Wolff observes,
The capitalist workplace is one of the most profoundly undemocratic institutions on the face of the Earth. Workers have no say over decisions affecting them. If workers sat on the board of directors of democratically operated self-managed enterprises, they wouldn't vote for the wildly unequal distribution of profits to benefit a few and for cutbacks for the many.
Here is the dirty little secret about American democracy--one your history and government teachers neglected to tell you. The Constitution, while it does, through the First Amendment, offer us the freedom of speech, religion, the press and the right to petition and assemble peaceably, it does not explicitly grant any of those things at work.
The exact wording of the First Amendment is, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." The key word here is "Congress." The First Amendment says nothing about what employers (essentially property owners) in a private business can or cannot do. In other words, there is no public law denying citizens free speech. Outside of your job, you can, legally speaking, do whatever you desire. Should you run into any attempts to abridge your freedoms, Congress (i.e. the federal government) will have your back. (Post-9/11 exceptions, noted.)
But the First Amendment says nothing about private business. While the federal government has some regulatory control over private business (though not nearly enough, despite what conservatives may claim), its primary function is the daily operations of public life.
Therefore, the First Amendment does not apply at work.
Consider: Workers have little to no say over the duration of their work, the conditions under which it takes place or how much they get paid. (It is even taboo to ask how much a job pays during an interview, even though it is a completely legitimate question--one that may well determine whether or not an applicant accepts the position.)
In certain "unskilled" jobs--like retail--workers have no say in when they can take their break. Sometimes they cannot even use the bathroom without permission from a manager. Certain jobs, likewise, mandate what employees wear, the length of their hair, and whether or not they can have piercings, tattoos, jewelry or facial hair.
Indeed, in today's anemic economy many do not even have a say in the job itself. They must settle for whatever they can find.
Even those who work at home or are self-employed, while they may seem to have escaped the "rat-race" of the traditional work environment, are still beholden to the same rules, guidelines, and strictures as the rest of us. The only difference is they have brought the dictatorship of the workplace into their own homes. Indeed, many small-business owners often complain about how all-consuming their work schedules can be. Store owners, for example, must remain open on weekends and major holidays, because that is when they do their most business. And because small-businesses typically do not employ as many people as big-box stores, the majority of the work inevitably falls on the owner.
And forming a union? Good luck with that. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates only about 11.3 percent of American workers belong to a union today--the lowest level in 97 years (The New York Times, "Share of the Workforce in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low..." 01/23/2013). Most retail employers--Walmart, Hannaford, Target, etc.--expressly forbid workers from unionizing, despite the fact it is completely legal to do so. Target, Walmart, and Home Depot force new hirees to watch blatantly anti-union propaganda videos as part of their indoctrination, err, I mean "training."
What freedoms we do enjoy at the job (weekends and holidays off, overtime pay, sick-time, maternity leave, child labor laws, worker's compensation, mandatory break times, etc.) are all thanks to the gains of labor unions. The United States had the bloodiest labor battles in history. Union members, labor leaders and activists were beaten, shot at and, in some cases, killed for their worker-advocacy actions.
Employers did not benevolently grant workers these rights on their own. They had to be pressured, prodded, pushed.
It is curious, certainly, how Americans often react with horror at draconian working conditions in developing nations like China or garment factories in Bangladesh. But are we really any freer at our own jobs? Ours is merely a more subtle, deceptively cheery form of workplace dictatorship--propaganda in place of the bludgeon, as Noam Chomsky puts it.
"They caught me singing and they told me to stop," Arcade Fire's Regine Chassagne sings on "The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)." "Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock."
But increasingly workers are fighting back, demanding the same civil liberties that (ostensibly) protect us in the public sphere extend to the private one as well. Worker-owned cooperatives allow employees to do just that.
In a worker co-op, there is no boss. Rather, all employees have an equal say in running the business. All decisions are made democratically. And employees typically have the option to engage in profit-sharing. Essentially, a co-op brings the principles of democracy, into the workplace.
This decentralized operational model not only allows for greater worker participation, but higher worker productivity as well. This means less instances of workers calling out sick, or showing up late for their shift. Empowering employees tends to make them happier at work in general--something both the workers and the business benefits from.
And no--worker co-ops are not something strictly "European." (And even if they were, I do not see how that would necessarily be a bad thing...) They exist right here in the U.S. Local Sprouts Cafe, on Congress Street in Portland is one.
Guerrilla Press will continue to explore worker cooperatives in future installments and how they are altering the nature of work for the better. Stay tuned.
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