I grew up in and around Detroit in the seventies and eighties. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the auto industry. My father worked for Ford. My father’s income from Ford shaped where we lived. It shaped where I went to school. And of course it shaped what we drove.
Like many in the Detroit area our family fortunes rose and fell with Ford. When Ford made money, my family made money. When Ford didn’t make money, not so much we relied on a combination of my father and mother’s hustle, my grandparents, and unemployment checks, and government peanut butter. And this took it’s toll. On some days my father would come home with a six pack of beer, finish the six pack off without so much of a word, then go to bed, only to awake hours later to “rinse and repeat”.
On other days he’d often work two or three shifts back to back and I wouldn’t see him.
I knew my father’s job was difficult. But I didn’t know how difficult until years later. During the summer of ’89, before my junior year of college—I got a job in an oil refinery. A friend’s father was an engineer there and he got us jobs painting the plant’s pipes with sealants to keep them from rusting or exploding.
The work would be hard but the pay was good.
I jumped at the chance.
Three weeks into the job we were working on a three story high blast furnace, applying what we thought was flame resistant sealant.
Only it wasn’t flame-resistant.
As my co-worker painted the furnace, its heat set his paint and his brush on fire. Because we were 30 feet up, we wore safety harnesses. But my co-worker’s couldn’t get away from the flames because his safety harness was attached to the blast furnace. I removed the safety harness and likely saved my co-worker’s life. My father wasn’t a pipe painter, but before I started working at the oil refinery I didn’t understand how hard and dangerous plant jobs were.
I also didn’t have an appreciation for the way workers were treated. No one talked to us after what happened at the blast furnace. No one gave us the day off, or even examined the blast furnace for safety. There was a very clear hierarchy both at the plant and within the pipe painting crew. “White hats” (engineers) had the run of the plant while “grey hats” (pipe painters and other laborers) had little to no authority whatsoever. Sexual harassment was rampant—the few female pipe painters were routinely propositioned by the bosses and other workers with no recourse. Non-union workers were routinely assigned to the worst jobs, and had the most oversight—I always felt someone was looking over my shoulder.
And in addition to this, the job itself was mind-numbing and spirit killing. We would spend long hours in the summer heat painting, unable to talk to one another, barely able to even whistle to ourselves to break the monotony. I would get through the day’s work on Monday by thinking about the weekend that just ended. I would get through Tuesday by thinking about hump day (Wednesday). I would get through Wednesday knowing that if I got through that day I’d only have two more days before the weekend. Would go to Thursday waiting for Friday…and Friday I’m counting down to Saturday and Sunday. At the end of everyday we’d scrape off the paint with hard wire brushes, scouring ourselves.
But the check was good, largely because the only thing I needed money for was rent during the upcoming year. It wasn’t like I needed the job for my resumé.
There were others there however who had nothing to look forward to—who needed the job to provide for themselves or for their families. Like the downriver worker with the beatup station wagon, a wife and four beautiful big cheeked sooty kids—who ended up getting fired because he tested positive for cocaine.
There were literally thousands upon thousands of people like this in the region—people who worked hard every day not just because they thought it the right thing to do, but because they had a family depending on them. It didn’t matter how they felt from one day to the next. If there was overtime they’d take it. If there was triple overtime they’d take it.
They’d work from sunup to sundown, and they’d keep working until they couldn’t work anymore. My father broke his hip in 1984 during a company softball game. He ended up getting a hip replacement, but hip replacements aren’t permanent—they have to be replaced every ten-fifteen years. He waited until the last possible moment to get his second replacement, because his pain tolerance (and his desire to make money for the family) was so high.
We don’t talk much about labor anymore. We may talk about black unemployment but we rarely if ever talk about black labor. In fact, we haven’t paid critical attention to black labor since the 1970s. Every newspaper I’ve ever read has a “business” section. But how many have “labor” sections?
The lack of discussion here damages our political sensibilities. The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements increased our rights and made it possible for us to express and proclaim our love for black people, but many of our economic rights also came from labor organizing. The right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to peaceably gather mean little to nothing without a related set of rights that give people the ability to work with dignity and respect, the ability to make a living wage, the ability to make a decent living for one’s self and one’s family, the right to meet and work together with other individuals to bargain collectively, and the ability to live quality lives when work isn’t possible (or even in some cases desirable). Whether those people work in a traditional nine to five job, or at home raising children. Americans in general, and African Americans in particular spend a significant amount of time working. Racial equality and labor issues go hand in hand. The labor movement is responsible for the weekend, for the end of child labor, for overtime, for the 40 hour work week, among other things.
In this moment four different types of labor divides loom large. The divide between “good” and “bad” jobs. The divide between unionized and non-unionized jobs. The divide between the employed and unemployed. The divide between being in the labor force and not being in the labor force. And then layered on top of that we have a technologically driven productivity problem.
I deal with them in turn.
First, the “good job”/“bad job” divide. Good jobs offer benefits, living wages (at least), stable hours, job security, dignity and due process, and safe working conditions (among other things). These are the types of jobs we increasingly send kids to college to pursue—the types of jobs becoming increasingly hard for them to get. Bad jobs on the other hand don’t offer benefits, offer very low wages, unstable hours, little to no job security, little to no dignity or due process, and unsafe working conditions. Here, think “WalMart”—paying very little, offering workers very little job security, giving them very little in the way of benefits, and having limited options for upward mobility.
Over the past fifty years the number of Americans with college degrees have increased substantially. To an extent we treat people with bad jobs poorly because up until recently there’s been a strong association between “bad” jobs and education—the fewer years of education an individual has the more likely that individual is to have a “bad” job. Because of this association we routinely write people with bad jobs off, because we don’t think they have the drive they should have, and because they didn’t choose to get the type of education they needed to get a better job. Technological wiz kids like Mark Zuckerberg (the co-founder of Facebook) do not make things easier—if all it takes to become a billionaire is a neat website Walmart workers have no excuse! To the extent people working these low paying service jobs often deliver exactly the level of service their low pay dictates (that is to say, low paid workers often give low pay service), we often blame them for their poor service rather than their employers for giving them low pay. I on the other hand, view them as something akin to the miner’s canary. Coal miners often carried canaries with them into the mine because their respiratory systems were not as well-developed, and as a result if the air quality failed the canary would detect it long before the miners did. I believe these workers—much like blacks in general—work as the miner’s canary. What happens to them in the workplace will eventually trickle up to the rest of the economy.
When does the “good job”/“bad job” divide take hold? We view the Clinton era economy as the flushest in the modern era—Clinton presided over the longest running business cycle expansion in history. And in some ways it was. The nineties was a period of internet-fueled high end success stories. It was also a period of very very low unemployment figures—unemployment went as low as 4%. However, during this same period the number of “bad jobs” also grew. Indeed there was absolutely no “in-between” job growth—available jobs were either very good or very bad. Erik Olin Wright and Rachel Dwyer wrote a report that divided jobs into ten types—from very bad jobs to very good jobs. Their findings? While 20% of the jobs produced during the Clinton era book were not only good jobs but very good jobs, approximately 17% of the jobs produced by the Clinton era were not only bad jobs they were very bad jobs. In fact, a full 40% of the job growth during this era came from either very good or very bad jobs. Compare this to the sixties, to what some think of as the golden age of employment—when it was possible for a plant worker to make enough to buy a house, support a family, and send kids off to college. In the sixties bad jobs accounted for the smallest percentage of growth—less than 2% of the growth in overall jobs came from the growth in very bad jobs.
These findings aren’t just due to “natural” changes in the economy. The technology sector doesn’t just happen to be where the very good jobs were. Similarly the relative death of the the manufacturing sector that USED to create decent jobs isn’t natural—Detroit didn’t have to “die”. Politics played an important role here. Now note that I’m not talking about elections as much. Even though the Democratic Party has been a bit kinder to labor than their Republican counterparts have, putting one party in office versus the other doesn’t matter so much here. More important here is legislation supported by both parties that made it much easier for corporations to outsource their labor, to pay poor third-world laborers pennies to produce $150 Jordans.
The results of this particular divide?
Approximately 75% of bad jobs went to African Americans and Latinos. On the other hand approximately 75% of the best of the good jobs went to whites. The overall increase in white male and female job growth came from the growth in good jobs. White women were especially able to take advantage of the market. Not only did they outpace their white male counterparts in their ability to find jobs they outpaced their white male counterparts in their ability to find good jobs. For black men and women a different picture arises. Job growth for black men and women in general was far lower—pointing to another dynamic I deal with below. And black women were particularly unable to take advantage of the market—to the extent they received jobs they were far more likely to receive bad jobs than their black male counterparts. This dynamic tends to produce and then reproduce the idea that some jobs are racialized. Good jobs increasingly become associated with white skin. Bad jobs increasingly become associated with non-white skin. When people think “janitor” or low end “landscaper” certain images come to mind.
The second divide is the divide between union workers and non-union workers.
Many contemporary “good jobs” are not unionized—Google for example tends to pay workers well, tends to offer good benefits, and creates the type of workspace many of us would dream of, although Google’s employees are not unionized. However not only did unions make it possible for most blue and white-collar employees to make good wages, be treated with dignity, have concrete ways to deal with conflict and workplace harassment, and to work under safe conditions, arguably a number of currently existing workplaces—think WalMart again—would arguably be much better if they were unionized. The percentage of all wage and salary workers who are members of a union has dropped over the past thirty years. Whereas in 1983 near the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, approximately 20% of all wage and salary workers 16 years and older were unionized, in 2010 only 13.1% of all wage and salary workers were. And this drop largely comes from the significant decrease in private sector union membership—in 1983 16.8% of private sector workers were members of a union, but in 2010 only 7.7% were. In contrast approximately 40% of all public sector workers were unionized in 2010 compared to approximately 36%. Again although many people believe this dynamic happened “naturally” through the free market, politics plays a role here as well. I mentioned the Clinton era changes in the economy above. In the drive to give corporations wide latitude in pursuing profits and labor overseas and down south, Democrats and Republicans alike supported policies that gave corporations the ability to pursue non-union US labor (the south is generally hostile to labor unions), to increasingly pursue Third World labor (which itself is rarely unionized), to increasingly automate labor processes (which reduced labor of all forms). Furthermore under the auspices of decreasing “burdensome” regulations, corporations were given the ability to do all of the above with little to no oversight. These political changes exacerbated the trend of decreasing private sector union membership while keeping public sector union membership stable.
What are the racial dynamics here?
Currently a slight union membership gap exists between racial groups. Unionization rates for blacks and Asian Americans are high compared to their overall population percentage. Unionization rates for whites and Latinos on the other hand are low–and for whites, extremely low. What this means is simple. Numerically, union membership is no longer part of the American fabric. But in as labor unions are responsible for many important benefits we take for granted—the forty hour work week, the concept of overtime, the lack of child labor, the presence of workplace regulations that improve working conditions—not only is union membership no longer part of the American fabric the political changes in the workplace that unions are responsible for fighting for is no longer part of the American fabric. I’ve noted the racial dynamics. The gender dynamics are important here as well. Among blacks, Latinos, whites, and Asian Americans, there is a slight gender gap, with men having higher union membership rates than women. Union members get paid much better wages than non-union members, across all sectors, across all racial groups, across both genders. The end result of the union divide is twofold. In as much as non-whites are over-represented in union membership it becomes easy to racialize unions, just as it is relatively easy to racialize bad jobs. Workers are increasingly forced to rely on their own weak ability to bargain, which ends up reducing their ability to be safe and secure. When unions do fight they often fight on an uneven playing field, not simply because their numbers are low, but because they now have to contend with a set of stereotypes that blame them for the poor condition of the economy.
Now the first two divides I’ve addressed above presume employment—in dealing with the differences between good and bad jobs on the one hand and union vs non-union jobs on the other I’m still dealing with the differences between people with jobs. Some would argue that having a bad job, even a very bad job, is better than having no job at all, particularly in this economic climate. I understand and agree with this assessment. However politics is as much about creating a space for us to think about a world in which bad jobs didn’t exist. To the degree we either write off people with bad jobs or reproduce the argument that they should be happy simply because they have a job, we weaken our ability to create that space.
The third labor gap deals directly with unemployment. And we know what the numbers look like here. Although white unemployment is high compared to historic levels, black and Latino unemployment have been at what could be called crisis levels for years. One of the most important and most analyzed aspects of the second great depression is the incredibly high unemployment rate. Turning our eye towards employment-population ratios, we see a significant disparity. As of March 2011 the black employment-population ratio is 51.6, while the white employment-population ratio is 59.1. Almost 52 African Americans are working for every 100 working age African Americans, while 59 whites are working for every 100 working age white Americans. As non-Latino whites and Latino whites are combined here, there is reason to suspect that the white employment-population ratio would be higher if Latinos were disaggregated. There is a slight gender gap—among blacks the male employment-population ratio is slightly higher than the female employment-population ratio. William Julius Wilson argues that one of the most important qualities of stable neighborhoods is that children in them see men going to work and coming back home. Although I’m not sure I agree with him here there is something to the idea that seeing people work routinizes your time somehow. Again the end result is the racialization of unemployment—unemployment is viewed as particularly afflicting non-white populations, rather than something that afflicts the population in general. Even given historically high levels of white unemployment it is still possible to hear republican critics refer to the unemployed using language they formally reserved for (presumably black) “welfare queens.”
The fourth labor gap deals with the elephant in the room. All of the figures above are produced using the civilian “non-institutionalized” population. Approximately 7.2 million Americans are either on parole, in prison, in jail, or on probation. Over half of this population is African American. In fact the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other developed nation in the world, and many more than most underdeveloped nations as well. The numbers here are startling. The United States for example has more people in prison for life, than Japan has in prison. Most of this population is male, but black women now have the highest rate of increased incarceration. Now we usually associate labor and work with productivity…and unemployment with “non-productivity”. To the extent we think about the incarcerated population, we think of them as being counter-productive rather than being productive—what they “produce” tends to be bad for the nation rather than good. But the reality is that the incarcerated population is productive as well. Prison labor works in a variety of different ways, all incredibly cheap, and often very bad. British Petroleum used prison labor to cleanup its oil spill for example, causing NAACP President Ben Jealous to write a letter to British Petroleum’s CEO. Furthermore, they produce an entire labor force tasked to surveil and control them. The most powerful union in the state of California for example is the prison guard union.
Each of these important labor divides—the divide between good and bad jobs, the divide between union and non-union jobs, the unemployment divide, and the institutionalized divide—hurt black populations while benefitting white ones. The end result of these four divides? Although a number of whites face significant levels of job insecurity and anxiety, we not only associate class and race, we associate labor and race. People who don’t work, can’t work, won’t work, are viewed with derision and disgust because they are viewed as a racially distinct population. This reduces our ability to express empathy with other workers. This increases our ability to express derision and disgust with their plight.
But there’s another layer.
In the introduction I referred to an AT&T ad campaign featuring Tom Selleck. A futuristic campaign that foretold GPS, email, video-conferencing, video-phones, internet learning, and tablet computing. Over twenty years later the ad campaign still sticks with me because I was so excited. Being able to talk to someone by video on the other side of the country? Being able to instantly connect and exchange ideas with one another? I couldn’t wait.
There’s a dark side though. Increases in technology means we need fewer workers to do the work, and this has a big effect on unemployment. We don’t need as many workers in the plant because many of the plant’s functions are automated. We don’t need as many tellers at the bank because of ATMs. We don’t need as many book store managers because of Amazon. And in some cases where workers are necessary transportation technologies make it possible to create goods using overseas labor—it costs far less to ship goods in bulk to the US. But increases in technology also affect those of us at the higher end of the employment pool. Once it becomes possible to “send a fax from the beach”, once it becomes possible to collaborate on a spreadsheet or on a document instantaneously in realtime, once it becomes possible to check your “electronic fax” from your phone, it becomes possible to work without end. Always checking email, always taking business calls, always working on projects. Computers small enough to put in your pocket prevent you from leaving work in the office. Labor organizing introduced the 40 hour work week. These technological changes have assisted in replacing that 40 hour work week with the 80 hour work week. Furthermore it introduces the phenomenon of “productivity enhancers”—here I refer to the various management systems that help you manage your budget, maintain your work schedule, plan your meals, optimize your workouts. Of course Tom Selleck didn’t predict any of these things—if you were to go back in time and see the commercials with 1992 eyes, you’d think the future would be full of leisure and personal growth. No. At least in the US and among black populations in particular we’ve got the exact opposite.
In tracing the roots of these dynamics I’ve already noted that politics plays a role. But I haven’t talked about how geography and culture loom large as well. And while the inter-racial politics should be straightforward, there are also intra-racial political dynamics that shape our ability to mobilize and organize around this issue.
First the geographical component. These dynamics aren’t spatially random, nor are they equally dispersed. We don’t see the same degree of unemployment in Detroit as we do in surrounding Detroit suburbs. And we see a different degree of unemployment in Detroit than we do in Seattle. Why is this? Unemployment is particularly concentrated in what we now think of as the Rustbelt, the former manufacturing hub of the country. Cleveland, Gary, Flint, Detroit, Baltimore, St Louis, Milwaukee, all have incredibly high rates of unemployment and bad jobs compared to other places. This is partially because these cities were formerly manufacturing hubs. When the manufacturing sector died these cities “died” so to speak. The political policies and technological changes that allowed manufacturers to flee—first for the suburbs then for the South then for the Third World—transformed cities like Detroit into job deserts. Political policies and technological changes also transformed cities like Seattle and New York City into good/bad job hubs. New York City for example is known for being one of the financial capitals of the world, one of the popular culture capitals of the world, but it is also the hub for a variety of low-end jobs. The financial managers and hip-hop executives need bike messengers, taxi cab drivers, dry cleaners, waiters, concierge service, janitors, landscapers, and a variety of other work that pays very very little. There’s a mismatch between cities, and within cities. The urban education crisis exacerbates this divide as urban school districts still work to create labor for the manufacturing sector–a sector that hasn’t actively hired urban populations for four decades. And of course the prison industrial complex is largely an urban prison industrial complex—we do routinely imprison people in rural areas, but we mostly imprison urban populations.
And then there’s the cultural element—and I’m going to write about this in two different ways. On the one hand when I write about culture I refer to popular culture—the television shows and movies we watch, the music we listen to, the books, magazines, and websites we read. But on the other hand when I write about culture here I’m referring to the sets of organized practices we’ve developed as well as the values we associate with these practices. Here I’m referring to things like our language, our religious practices, our family practices, as well as how we think about work, and our conceptions of right and wrong. I mentioned earlier that all major newspapers and magazines don’t have labor sections they have business sections. My kids, like many American kids, love to watch tv. They live off of a combination of Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and Netflix. I asked them to list their favorite television shows. None of the shows featured the lives of working class men and women. The most diverse show they watch is probably True Jackson. Keke Palmer of Akeelah and the Bee fame plays Jackson, a New York teenager who, after a chance encounter with a high-powered fashion designer, is named VP of the designer’s young apparel line. True appears to have a working class background but this only comes up occasionally in the show. Both Keke Palmer and the character she plays are role models for young girls in general and for black girls in particular. But arguably shows like True Jackson paint a troubling picture of the world, a picture in which poverty is more or less invisible, a picture in which what we think of as working class labor is rare. And this changes a bit when it comes to adult choices—but for black people not so much. If the movie that best captured black male seventies labor in places like Detroit was the 1978 film Blue Collar (featuring Richard Pryor, Japhet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel), then the movie that captured black work in the nineties would be something like Friday or perhaps Menace II Society.
Now some might argue that at least with the adult movies above, these forms of popular culture accurately depict reality. Friday is a comedy, granted, but the reason Friday works as a film is because so many black men aren’t working.
And yes, this argument has more than a bit of truth.
But here’s where the second concept of culture comes in. Even though America was founded on a series of what could be called “forced labor contracts” with enslaved Africans, with poor whites, with children, with Chinese, Mexican, and white ethnic immigrants, we still hold fast to the Protestant Work Ethic. We believe people should work hard in certain ways and be rewarded for their hard work. More to the point we believe people should work hard in certain types of ways outside of the home, and then be rewarded. Mothers, for example, perform all types of hard work in raising children, but based on our ideas on welfare we want poor mothers doing hard work outside of the home for pay rather than stay home doing hard work raising their kids. These norms and values don’t just infect how Americans view workers and the unemployed, they infect how Americans in general and how African Americans specifically view them. Black people view unemployed working class and poor black men and women with disgust. We, like Americans in general, think they should just “get a job” because our norms and values are—while not exactly the same as those of whites—similar enough to them on this issue. We know racism shapes employment opportunities, we know racism shapes job performance, but at the same time we believe black people should rise and grind our way out of our labor problems.
Now how the first definition of culture shapes our ideas about labor is straightforward. If we routinely see stories about upper class men and women and big business and never see, read, or hear stories about working class men and women, and labor struggles in general, we won’t tend to think about labor issues as being important. And this has obvious consequences.
What about the second definition? If we think about culture as a set of norms and values how do our norms and values shape how we think about labor and work? If we tend to value “hard work” as opposed to leisure, people who are depicted as not working in a certain way, or are depicted as acting in a way that will “naturally” lead to unemployment, will be treated with disdain. And unless this is countered, we will begin to treat unemployment itself as a sign of poor character. Then, gradually we will begin to treat certain types of work as being a sign of poor character as well. This will exacerbate all of the trends I’ve dealt with, both between racial groups, and within them.
Labor and unions are weak because of a number of political decisions. Decisions that weakened the ability of labor to mobilize. Decisions that strengthened the ability of big business to move across state and national borders in order to find cheaper labor. And they are also weak because of technological changes. However I do not believe that simply re-instituting these policies or rolling back technological development will increase employment rates and the quality of work in general.
There are a few things we can begin to do. The first thing is that we can fight for an expanded right to bargain collectively—fight for the ability of people in stores like WalMart and Apple to bargain collectively. But in as much as the changes I chart above occur within a larger economic structure that increasingly requires less and less raw labor, it is possible we need to question what work and labor should mean within cities and within a 21st century America.
If we think again about politics and its role in shaping what we think of as being possible and what we don’t think of as possible at all we can think about this in a couple of different ways. On the one hand we can think about bringing labor back in, like I’m suggesting. How would our discussions be different if we did have a “labor” section in the newspaper? If we thought that our nation was only as successful as our workers were? If worker satisfaction were as important as the corporate bottom line? But on the other hand, let’s work on the assumption that the golden age of labor isn’t coming back—that bringing in “green jobs” or something like it won’t come close to reducing systemic unemployment in our nation’s cities. What do we do then? Instead of thinking about work and labor, or perhaps alongside of thinking about work and labor, we can begin to think critically about the politics of leisure. If there really aren’t enough jobs to go around—if we can be incredibly productive with nowhere near full employment—what can we do to help people live meaningful lives without work? How do we make the quality of life that comes with the ability to do nothing a valuable part of our politics?