Tales of toil and occasional termination from offices and stores in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s by Lucius Cabins for Processed World.
I've been working for money since I was fourteen years old. I've held a variety of jobs: caddie, baker, house painter, furniture refinisher, bookstore clerk, environmental door-to-door canvasser, warehouseman, information desk clerk, temporary word processor, secretary, and now typesetter/graphic artist. For the past five years I've been involved with Processed World, and its bad attitude has been a part of my employment history for years.
What is a bad attitude? I'd say it's a general unwillingness to submit to the conditions of wage-slavery. It's demonstrated most dramatically in a surly, uncooperative manner on the job, but must usually be more subtle. The worker with a bad attitude is always looking for ways to work less (procrastination, losing things), to surrender less time to the job (coming in late, leaving early, long breaks and lunches, lots of sick days), to further private pleasures and human interaction on the job (talking a lot, smoking dope), and by doing one's own creative work on the job.
A bad attitude is a fundamentally normal, human response to the utter absurdity of most modern work. It's a mystery to me why more people don't demonstrate a bad attitude--i suppose it's because they fear unemployment and/or lost income and have learned to smile and hide their true feelings. Of course I've done that too, and all too often. You can't get a job in the first place without smiling and lying through your teeth!
Sometimes people don't demonstrate bad attitudes because they actually enjoy their work. Why people enjoy work is harder to explain, but I postulate three basic reasons: 1) the work is a convergence of avocational interests and paying work (this is extremely rare); 2) the work, though boring and/or frustrating, is preferable to the individual's life with family, or friends, or lack thereof; and 3) going to work saves one from finding and creating meaning, of deciding what's worth doing (this is obviously not an explicit motivation, but I think it is a subterranean spur). In the latter two cases, the job serves as a safe haven from the vacuum of meaninglessness in which this society would otherwise leave the individual. Providing economic security reinforces this feeling.
A bad attitude is also a strategic choice in terms of on-the-job resistance and organizing. It may not always be the best choice either! Often, as in my situations at Waldenbooks and at Pacific Software, my attitude pissed off my coworkers as much as the management. This in turn increased my isolation and despair, which undermined the possibility of active resistance. All too often coworkers are as likely to be adversaries as allies owing to their identification with management, or to their own fear. Alienating oneself from gung-ho co-workers can also be an effective survival strategy.
My bad attitude didn't result from a specific job, or erupt suddenly. I had felt stunted and that I was wasting my time in public school. Growing up in Chicago and Oakland I found myself in classrooms where I almost always sat through reviews of material I already knew like the back of my hand. Busywork was the rule, not the exception. Little did I realize then that my work life would be remarkably similar.
I should qualify the story of my bad attitude by pointing out that I've had an extremely easy time finding work. My status as an educated, articulate, white male with decent typing skills has ensured that. I've seldom feared losing a job so much that I'd endure any humiliation, so having a bad attitude has been easy for me.
I should also mention that I'm a good worker. I actually enjoy doing a wide variety of tasks and hope to live someday in a society where I can freely use my numerous skills in my community without getting locked into a "career path." I tend to be over-efficient and organized, but this leaves me feeling stupid on paying jobs because virtually all of them have been fundamentally useless to society, and my skills benefited the owners, not me. I don't think all work is stupid and useless, but even when there is a tangible purpose and value, the work is organized to ensure that more than half of the time spent is taken up with superfluous paperwork, redundant busywork, and meeting the needs of the money system, not the actual human needs it ostensibly serves.
My first "real" job came in 1974 when I got hired by Waldenbooks in a new mall outside Philadelphia, for $2.10 an hour (minimum wage at the time). I felt lucky because at 17 I wasn't really eligible for employment under Pennsylvania's child labor laws. As it turned out, it was the first time my common sense ran smack into the rules of the job and hence my first display of a bad attitude.
Business was pretty slow, so after dutifully cruising the store to straighten tables and replace sold books, I ended up behind the register with a good book. Much to my amazement, this was not allowed by Waldenbooks's chainwide rules! I was supposed to be on my feet for the entire 8-hour shift (it was presumably an act of kindness that my boss allowed a chair behind the counter), and furthermore, we clerks were to greet each customer at the door and try to sell him or her books. Allowing people to browse, thattime-honored bookstore tradition, was considered bad management. Our manager was frequently chastised for her staff's lack of aggressiveness!
In spite of regular admonitions to stop, I continued to read behind the counter, arguing that no one could possibly be offended by a bookstore clerk reading! Of course I also did a huge share of basic store maintenance--book stocking and ordering, minor bookkeeping, etc.--plus I knew where books were better than the other employees--they needed my labor and knew it, so the standoff lasted for months.
I left for college after Xmas and they begged me to come back for the summer. When I did, I was informed that all males must wear ties while working. That was really too much; no way was I going to wear a tie as a flunky sales clerk for $2.25 an hour!
After some heavy scenes with the store and district managers, I finally submitted. But I always took my tie off for lunch and "forgot" to put it on afterward. This omission permanently ruined relationships with my more obedient coworkers, who weren't inclined to fight about this. I lasted a few more weeks and then quit--I had completely stopped wearing a tie and blatantly spent time reading at the register. My days were numbered, so I self-terminated.
This job taught me that work wasn't much different from school. I had learned a foolproof strategy in junior high school: work really hard and impress teachers during the first weeks; they'll label you an overachiever and leave you alone the rest of the year. My early work experience taught me that the same strategy worked just as well on the job. Wage work depends on busywork just as public school does.
Common sense told me that if I had created some "free" time I should be the beneficiary of that "freedom." Obviously this flies right in the face of management's idiotic view that every minute of the work day is theirs and if you finish something that was supposed to take all day, you owe it to them to ask for more (usually unnecessary) work.
I decided to work full-time at Books Inc. in Santa Rosa in August 1977. What I liked best about the job was its difference from my Waldenbooks one. We could dress comfortably, talk with each other when it wasn't busy, and "borrow" books freely (everyone did, even the store manager). But then my closest friend on the job, Karen, became assistant manager. After our brief affair had soured she suddenly wanted us underlings to restock the shelves more often, cruise the store and not read behind the register. I felt she should be our mouthpiece to management, but she identified with management. Later she accused me of being too political and disobedient.
In October I first approached the Retail Clerks Union, which had an office in the mall. But it was always empty, and no one ever called me back after I'd left a message. I tried again once or twice, not really knowing what I wanted from them. They never did get back to me.
The Xmas rush started in November, and the frenzy continued to mount after the big day. The store was wildly successful, and we workers could tell by our fatigue, sales, and the happy reports from our manager. Loretta, and the chain owner, Lou. We were frequently encouraged to look at the books to see just how well we were doing.
In early January I took a short, much needed vacation before which I had figured out how much more the store made in the just-passed holiday season than in the previous one. My calculations indicated a 41% increase in revenues, and so I wrote a letter to Loretta detailing this information and encouraged her to ask for 15% raises for everyone. But I had made the mistake of telling her mousy niece, who did the books, that I was writing this letter, thinking she'd be glad for a raise.
When I got back from my vacation, a message directed me to call Loretta before I went to work on Monday morning--highly unusual. I called her, and she said, "I hear you've written a letter to Lou over my head, demanding a raise. Well, you know I have to fire you." I protested because I still had the letter in hand, and it was addressed to her, but she had made up her mind, blaming it all on my attitude problem.
Unjustly canned, I called the National Labor Relations Board. My NLRB staffer didn't think I had much of a case but was very sympathetic and ultimately convinced Lou to settle with me for 2 weeks pay and to post a notice in all Books Inc. stores. prohibiting management's discharge of workers for their "protected, concerted activities." The fact that I had called the union a couple of times, and that some of the other workers would have probably defended me in a hearing, saying that I represented them in appealing for a raise, is what won the case for me. A pleasant postscript: three years later, another Processed Worlder told me that he had worked at a Books Inc. in Pale Alto at the same time. Both workers and management thought a big union battle had erupted in the Santa Rosa store!
I learned a lot about organizing, although in a halfhearted and undeliberate way. For one thing, it's vital to document that you're trying to improve wages and conditions for all the workers, not just yourself. If you can't prove that, you aren't even technically protected from being fired. Establish a committee clandestinely with the people you know you can count on. Then determine when and if you should go public; often your best protection from management harassment is announcing that you are a union organizer (not necessarily affiliated) because management can be accused of illegal labor practices for any trouble they give you.
My stint at the Downtown Community College at 4th and Mission in San Francisco lasted a mere three months. But it was a turning point for a couple of reasons. For one thing I learned word processing there, which catapulted me from $5-$6/hr. jobs up to $10-$12/hr. ones. It also made me aware that most people worked in offices, especially in SF, and I wanted to address this fact, since I too was suddenly an "information handler.'' As an information clerk I sat right inside the front door and spent seven hours a day telling people where the bathroom was, when and where classes met, and about English as a second language. The school provided two basic services, both primarily for the benefit of the downtown office world: basic training in office skills and English classes for newly arrived immigrants and refugees that prepared them for rudimentary data entry jobs at very low wages.
The job's nemesis was familiar--I wasn't allowed to read, even when there was nothing to do. I was supposed to "look professional" according to my insecure, dressed-for-success, corporate climbing boss. Ms. Walton. She was appallingly dumb, and as far as I could tell she hardly knew anything about goings-on in the school. I think she was an image-builder for the community colleges. Knowing little and being self-conscious about it, she was pressured to accomplish things she didn't understand, and she'd vent her fears by admonishing me for reading the paper at my desk during lulls. My feeling was that if I could do my job well I should be able to pass dead time in any way I pleased. Much to my chagrin my "superiors" didn't share this outlook.
I had never planned to stay long, despite the two-year minimum I promised in the interview. Instead I was going east for a nice, long, summer vacation. About six weeks before I planned to quit, I composed a fake advertisement for the DCCC and had it printed up. This ad summarized all my jaded views of the purpose of this "training institute for the clerical working-class" after a few months of being there 40 hours a week. About ten days before I had planned to quit, I began surreptitiously placing them inside the Fall schedules of SF City College, which I distributed at the front desk. A few days later the shit hit the fan. A coworker came running up to me when I came to work in the morning and asked if I had done a yellow leaflet that had the entire school in an uproar. Apparently a Bechtel executive had turned it in to the administration the night before. I smiled and told her "No, never heard of it.'' It was nonetheless obvious to my coworkers, who knew of my bad attitude, that I was the culprit.
I was absent from my work station when the snooty director, Dr. B, came in, oblivious to my "crime." She gave me a dark look as I scurried back to my position. Five minutes later the phone rang, and I was told to come to her office. She looked rather pale as I entered. She was boiling but tried to act calm. From beneath a 16-inch pile of papers she pulled out a copy of the leaflet--she had only seen it moments ago and had already hidden it--and thrust it at me, saying "What can you tell me about this?!"
I said, "Oh, is that the yellow leaflet I was told about? Can I see it?" I took it and sat down and slowly read it as if I had never seen it before. I chuckled at the funny parts, dragging out my feigned surprise until she finally exploded:
"You are SICK! You must be deranged to do something like this; it's damaging to our institute, YOU'RE FIRED!!" I denied responsibility just in case some kind of lawsuit resulted (I had put her name and the school's actual logo on it) and protested that I wanted to complete my final week, but she told me to go. I left feeling quite satisfied with the extra days off before my vacation...
Later, with my new word processing skills, I plunged into the sordid world of office work in downtown San Francisco. Through a couple of different employment agencies, I quickly found work. After a few one- or two-day jobs, I was placed at the Bank of America data center. Two other temps and I produced a manual that would eventually train computer operators in Florida how to use the BofA computer systems. It was here that I wrote a couple of articles for the first Processed World and also got most of the paper for that issue--"two reams a day keep the paper bills away!" Other early PWers got paper from the Federal Reserve Bank (we must buy our paper now, alas, having greater needs).
My other notable temp job was for Arthur Andersen, the big accounting firm. I remember being amazed to get $1l/hr. to sit around all day, answer the phone occasionally and type a few pages of this or that. The corporate ego seemingly dictated that someone sit at every desk. I think my being male really confused a number of the accountants. They had difficulty asking me to do things and probably saved them for the "regular girl" when she got back. Their consternation drove home the importance of sexist social relations in the office.
Temping confirmed that many people shared similar circumstances. Like me, they worked in an office but self-identified as dancers, writers, photographers, painters, etc. Thinking about this while on the thirty-seventh floor of the Spear Street Tower, I wrote "The Rise of the Six-Month Worker," which appeared in PW #2.
While I was on vacation in 1981 I heard from some Berkeley friends about secretarial work for the Community Memory Project. The CMP, in keeping with its attempt to be a "different" enterprise, particularly wanted a male secretary.
The Community Memory Project was set up in the early seventies as a public bulletin board/discussion through which anyone could create news using public microcomputers linked to a larger computer, with installations in public places.*
[*The SF Chronicle Teleguide system in BART stations in the Bay Area is exactly what Community Memory has tried to avoid. Set up in three locations in Berkeley, allows any user to put any message on any subject the system. Other users can read the message, comment. The content ranges from ads for rummage sales, to erudite philosophical discussions. The Teleguide system, however, only allows the user to access numbered menus advertising local businesses that have paid to be listed.]
I took the job at $10 an hour, Monday to Thursday (I insisted on a four-day week). The CM collective had recently decided to create its own for-profit company to sell the software components of its system. My new job was as secretary for this new company, Pacific Software.
For the first year or so, PS operated out of the same quarters as CM, a large Berkeley warehouse. My job was pretty cushy. I could read the paper and start out easy every morning. I could play pool with my coworkers, who were mostly "programmers with politics."
I liked this atmosphere far better than that of regular jobs partly because everyone was paid the same wage, but I quickly discovered that it really was a regular job. My boss, an eccentric fellow named Miller, wanted to make it in the software industry. My job was to fulfill all the tasks he could think of, which were plenty. He was fond of initiating them with rude, cryptic notes; e.g. "please don't fail to mail a c compiler list to Marcelius (just do it)" What was a "c compiler list"? Who was Marcelius? "Just do it"--was the problem in my head?
On a typical day, I had to send out fifteen to forty information packages on our software "soon to be shipped!"--this turned out to be a joke, since the products weren't really ready for more than another year--and answer the incessant phone calls.
PS slowly abandoned its alternativist pretension and became more of a normal business, eventually moving to plusher quarters a couple of blocks away. The company struggled to stay alive, the founders pumping in new money regularly because the software was permanently just a few weeks away from shipment. After a year of Miller's idiosyncratic leadership--he was interested in what size rubber bands were ordered and how water ran through the postage meter--and the staffs growth to about eight workers, the collective hired real management staff. It seemed that it was the absence of a business plan and experienced managers to carry it out that held back the certain and explosive growth that was "just around the corner.
We old-timers saw this as a threat. The new management's "Pacific Software Salary & Wages Policy" of December 1982 innocuously addressed vacations, overtime, holidays, and educational benefits, but a key parenthetical point provoked my ire. We now had to sign out for lunch. This meant I would either have to take a pay cut or work extra hours for my former pay. Incidentally, many of my coworkers had been docking themselves for lunch all along, but I wrote a memo outlining my position on "free" lunches anyway:
"The assumption underlying the notion that one shouldn't be paid for lunch can only be that it is not working time, that it is in fact "free" time. This is obviously absurd...the hour is entirely circumscribed by work, and its primary purpose is to gain nutritional sustenance and a brief respite from the work routine in order to be able to continue working. Without it the afternoon's productivity would probably go into the negative in a short time..."
Miller responded with a memo full of numbers, claiming that my paid lunch cost the primary backer $10,400 per year, and that if we didn't have paid lunches we could hire an additional five and two-thirds people. But as his word processor I was already wise to his fabricating numbers to suit his purposes. A year earlier I had typed at least 30 different drafts of a prospectus in which he freely changed the numbers to suit his mood. So it was a standoff, and I continued to get paid for my lunch hour while several coworkers continued to sign out.
Meanwhile we employees had created an Employee Bill of Rights for Pacific Software. Most important for us was the establishment of clear job descriptions, because the crisis management style led to enormous tension as demands on people's time and energy escalated. Another key point for us was to have absolute control over who represented us on the "management team," via regular elections and rotations. The response of John Dickerson, our nice-guy MBA who'd been brought in as General Manager, was both direct and indirect. A memo he wrote clearly showed that he would work to undermine our efforts: "I will not operate in a General Management capacity in a situation that allows the institutional possibility of sustained Guerrilla Warfare on the part of a segment of the staff against Management..."
The new management staff stonewalled this proposal over a period of months, and it was never formally adopted. As late as Feb. '83 they were still making totally unacceptable counter-proposals. Nevertheless, the fact that the staff had been having meetings and formulating demands (and that there was this history of "collective self-management") put management in a defensive position from which it never escaped.
Not surprisingly, I was known for having the worst attitude, which I didn't mind at all because it prevented almost everyone from dumping extra work on me. I often felt very isolated from my coworkers, who were willing to work unpaid overtime, make extra efforts, adapt to arbitrary policy changes, and try to maintain cheerful attitudes. The people I felt closest to had fluctuating attitudes depending on their views of the future and whether they were getting the status and responsibility they wanted.
I had always maintained that I didn't want to be promoted because I have always thought it worse to create gibberish than to process it. I did nibble, however, at the possibility of developing print media for the company's products (since I had been working on PW I had learned how to do typesetting, layout, design, etc.). Better to get out of being a secretary than be a lifer.
Well, Pacific Software just couldn't cut it in the marketplace. The software products had missed their "window" demolished by the competition. The backers ran out of money and couldn't keep a sinking ship afloat any longer. One day in June 1983, there was a Monday morning massacre. More than half the workers were laid off with no warning or severance pay. The strategic planners of this "realignment of staffing levels" foolishly figured that I could and would go back to doing the work of six people, as I had done in the pre-expansion days. Well, I saw my chance, and took it. The day after the massacre, I told my boss I was about to walk out on the spot, unless he would lay me off too, in which case I would work another three weeks to train replacements. What choice did they have? NONE!! So I got my nine months of unemployment benefits and loved every minute of it.
Unemployment gave me the chance to launch self-employment, namely typesetting and graphic design, which I'm doing to this day. I decided to try it to avoid further misery in the corporate office, and because my partner and I were going to have a child and I would need a lot more time available for parenting responsibilities. Self-employment has certain enormous advantages over regular jobs--total control over my labor process, my being the direct beneficiary of my own efficiency (finally!), and working fewer hours (my open hours are 12-5 Mon-Fri).
But self-employment has disadvantages too. Because I'm a one-man show, taking days off is risky. I lose income when I do. I also have to do all the bullshit work that holds any enterprise together--bookkeeping, marketing, accounts payable, ordering, etc.--for which I am not paid directly, as I would be working for someone else. And worst of all, I can't count on a fixed amount of money from month to month, so there's insecurity too. Nor does self-employment solve the problem of selling my time. While no one is raking off a percentage just by being the owner, I must still play the same games: making clients feel good about my services, doing jobs that lack purpose or value, and using my creative abilities in unwelcome ways to make a living. I haven't found any more satisfaction in having a more "professional" job, or in being self-employed per se.
Presently, I plan to go on with this for another year and a half and then take off on a long trip with my partner and child. After that, who knows? Maybe I'll be forced back into temporary word processing; maybe I'll find work as a typesetter or graphic artist. Or perhaps I'll find something totally new to do. Whatever it is, after a few months I'll probably dislike it at best or hate it at worst. You see, I've got this bad attitude, and I just don't like selling my time to anyone for any purpose. That will never change.