It’s the day after labour day, and I just read a fascinating article on The Atlantic about Millennials and unions. It spoke to me almost immediately. I’ve always had a fascination and a soft spot for the theory of organized labour. I’m also predictably sceptical of the whole charade. I see hierarchies, and I see wealth disparities. It’s always struck me as strange that unionists and organizers get paid more than the workers they are supposedly protecting.
This is generally a really good article (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/millennials-unions/401918/) but there were two specific segments that really appealed to me. The case study is about a worker at a boutiquey coffee shop. I’m sure the description will ring true to some service industry workers. (I was about to write most service industry workers, then stopped myself, remembering fast food chains, not boutiquey restaurants)
“Bell Bern liked working at Peet’s. Founded in Berkeley in the 1960s and known for its laid-back atmosphere, the company encouraged her to develop in-depth knowledge about their selection of coffees and teas from around the world, taste everything she could, and develop her palate.”
“But a few years later, in its efforts to secure an almost $1 billion acquisition, the company started looking for ways to cut costs and began making operational changes, some of which frustrated Bell Bern and her coworkers. At her store, she says, the manager cut the morning-rush staff in half, and a shop that once allowed for detailed conversations with customers about the minutiae of coffee now had lines snaking out the door.”
This example speaks directly to my experience in the service industry as a millennial with a university degree. I work in a boutiquey restaurant, one that’s been very successful for years, but one that’s been cutting costs for years. Shifting more and more of the burden onto us employees, all the while expecting us to maintain the same high standards. I find it absolutely fascinating that none of my managers could do my job. And that’s just the in-store managers. The management team at head office? Not a chance. None of the management could do my job. And yet, they keep shifting more and more labour and responsibility on us. It doesn’t really seem fair does it? But is it not a reflection of late capitalism?
Now the article goes on to discuss millennials relationships with organized labour. About how a couple Starbucks workers started a ‘zine about unionizing, about how the lady from Peet’s coffee shop attempted to negotiate with head office, and about how she was eventually fired a few months later for being late 3 times in a year. Which was a selective policy. The article goes on to discuss how management have been winning the fight against unions for a very long time. About how the most effective tactic is to fire the most outspoken employee, safe in the knowledge that the fines from the labour board for wrongful dismissal are minimal. In fact, many companies have a little slush fund to cover that. Then the article got into a discussion about other labour unions, and how they would show up at Peet’s, and try to take over the movement. And how millennials are largely distrustful of large hierarchical entities.
The article is pretty clear about the fact that millennials believe in organized labour, but just not in its current form. Except maybe the wobblies.
So it kind of leaves us in an interesting position. We don’t want to keep being exploited by management, in the name of profit. But we don’t necessarily trust the old model, the one that pays unions reps more than it pays us. Because that doesn’t seem fair at all. It’s actually emblematic of a disturbing societal trend if I’m honest. I studied International Development in school, and by the end of my degree was fairly confident that the ideal approach to development was transferring knowledge and technical capacity to the global south, as well as trying to change our western consumption habits, which fuel global inequality. And then suddenly stumbled across a ridiculous irony: the aid industry is dependent on poverty. When bureaucrats in the west are being paid 6 figures to “help” poor countries? That doesn’t make sense. If we’re trying to help, why the middleman? Why do we have entire careers and livelihoods in the west based on “helping” the global south? And this doesn’t even touch the moralistic and paternalistic aspects of “helping the poor”. Why do we need to pay people in the west quite well to help those less fortunate? It’s just like paying union reps more than the workers they represent. It’s just like paying management more than workers.
At the end of it all, I’m really not sure where to turn or where to go from here. Unions may or may not be the answer. The old-style unions definitely aren’t. But we are many, and they are few. Tis the nature of hierarchies.
Until I remember the struggles in the late 19th and early 20th century. Until I remember that big companies would pay security firms to ensure workers didn’t strike, and if they did, they would fight them. Until I remember the gun battles between coal miners and security firms. Until I remember that these gun battles were fought in the struggle for a fucking 8 hour work day. Because the big companies didn’t want to lose out on more profit. Gun battles for a 5 day work week and 8 hour work day and basic safety provisions. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Blair_Mountain)
So then what? We know that management will always have their eyes on the prize, not on the people. We know that the few will always try to take advantage of the many. They certainly know we depend on our wages. Given that basic needs aren’t guaranteed. Life’s a lot harder without a job. How do we eat, sleep, live? So what do we do? We are many, and they are few… But they have drones and security firms. And we have student loans to pay back, and debt. So what do we do?