Progressive Pretensions

"Kwazee Wabbitt" recounts and compares climbing the career ladder at a "progressive" firm to being part of a Leninist sect.

I spent most of my young adulthood avoiding formal "work." The thought of the soul-killing routine that makes up the bulk of most careers horrified me. Unfortunately, I had no clear notion of what I wanted to do, only a strong aversion to boring and routine tasks. As much as possible,I arranged my life so that I could lay around and read with no obligation to do anything else.

College provided an obvious and easy refuge for the lifestyle I desired. By reading the textbooks the week before exams I picked up enough to pass most courses without wasting too much time on academics. The luxuriant student financial aid of the mid '70s easily paid the token tuition at the city university with plenty left over to subsidize my leisure.

When I finally left home (at age 20), the student dole ceased to be enough to get by on, and I was compelled to seek part time work. I couldn't hack more than two months as an evening phone surveyor for "Snears"; I only lasted six weeks as a file clerk at the library. Finally, I found a nice, over-paid, federally subsidized "work-study" job reading journal articles for an absent-minded professor of epidemiology.

My academic status justified my existence to my parents. I satisfied my own existential needs by other means. Coming out as gay, and the associated sexual exploration, occupied my twenty-first and twenty-second years pretty fully.

The Movement, as personified by my lover Joe the Professional Revolutionary, anchored my world for the next two years. It had the additional benefits of aggravating my mother and enshrining my aversion to "alienated"work as political correctness, rather than mere laziness and/or whining.I coasted, happily, a little longer.

THE PARTY

After several years of aimless academic browsing I dropped out of school (a 24-year-old junior) in the summer of '81, and so lost the shelter of financial aid and cushy work-study jobs. After a last six months of leisurely hanging out on my unemployment checks, I was faced with the task of getting a "real" job. And it might as well be one that would justify my existence at the same time, for I was being purged from The Party.

Joe's group, the now-defunct Revolutionary Socialist League, was kind of a humanist Sparticist League, dedicated to a Proletarian Revolution. Come the Revolution, we would run things. Until then, the rank and file worked (ideally) in heavy industry, which provided contact with Real Workers and large dues for the Central Office (about 50% of the wages and everything over $20,000). This work, despite appearances to the contrary, was not "alienated" because it was an part of being a Professional Revolutionary.

The middle management honchos were allowed cushy, middle class jobs like teacher or social worker. The top honchos were paid a bohemian pittance by the Party, which they furtively supplemented with money from their parents. Instead of holding down outside jobs they put out the paper from New York City, and spent a lot of time Thinking and writing "documents"about how to build a Leninist revolutionary "party.

Just before we met, Joe had won hard-fought battle for leadership of the Chicago branch, in one of the very rare successful challenges of the Central Office authority. He defeated the official slate by seducing the local rank-and-file with his appeals to hedonism, and by recognizing of the need for occasional breaks from hawking our unreadable cult rag. He justified his suspiciously enjoyable and unproletarian "interventions" in academia and the gay community by producing real live recruits (a rarity)-like me.

To be a candidate member in good standing, I should have quit school and applied for a job in the steel mills or something. But the rules were not strictly enforced as I was the Organizer's boyfriend. For similar reasons Sally, the Big Cheese's ex-girlfriend, could ignore a technically binding order (from the Organizer before Joe) to get an abortion in Order to avoid "wasted" time.

The C.O. never resigned itself to Joe's liberal regime. Refusing to read the writing on the wall, they considered his election an anomaly made possible by temporary rank and file disgruntlement. A year's worth of persistent covert infighting toppled him, and I was caught up in the long postponed house-cleaning. The technical charges against me were "petty bourgeois" (read: gay) tendencies and anarchism. In view of this latter charge, it amuses me to see that the remnants of the RSL have retro-fitted as "anarchists" in a no doubt futile attempt to find a viable milieu.

In retrospect, I have to acknowledge that I was guilty on both counts,and should never have joined that chickenshit outfit. My attempts to rally opposition to the C.O. were brushed aside, but I at least tried. Joe, my mentor and lover, didn't even defend himself, instead falling into a months-long depression when "criticized" personally by Ron Tabor, the Big Cheese. I was kicked out after a brutal trial before a kangaroo court, while Joe was allowed to resign from office and go "on leave" from Party duties.

Our relationship had been on the rocks for most of its three years. Still, I was hurt and surprised that he dumped me as soon I was purged. Joe later patched up his difficulties with the CO for another few years. The RSL was more important to him than I was, something I hadn't wanted to discover.

I was out of school, out of work (out of benefits, even), out of the movement, and didn't even have a boyfriend anymore. For the first time in my life,a Career began to look good to me.

THE COMPANY

My Career would, ideally, be meaningful, instead of a mere auctioning of my precious time for a paycheck. It had to be Socially Responsible, if not actively Politically Correct. It couldn't be too mainstream, because I just couldn't pass as a standard drone. In fact I couldn't even get a position as a bank teller (a standard job for young three-piece-suit queens).

At first I scraped by on a variety of casual jobs, ones that didn't require much interaction with mainstream work culture. A combination of part-time non-legal pursuits offered short hours but required unsavory company. House-cleaning for "Brooms Hilda" provided good browsing opportunities but little existential gratification. Working as a clerk at a used book store came close to being ideal; then the creepy proto-fascist owner tried to get in my pants. I quit.

A guy I was dating at the time suggested I apply at Recycled Paper Products. His best friend's lover was "an executive" there, and with her recommendation and my native talents, I got a job.

RPP had just reached the peak of its growth. Started in a garage in the early '70s by founders Mike and Steve, RPP printed off-beat greeting cards on 100% recycled paper, a novelty back then. They offered a cute but not cutesy alternative to the smarmy quatrains favored at that time by the two greeting card giants--Hallmark and American. Their recycled paper shtick got them a lot of good initial media coverage, and their cards sold well.

They began to edge into the mainstream when one of their properties really caught on. Sandra Boynton's cute kitten cards sold in the millions. RPP doubled and doubled again, year after year. By 1982, when I started work there, it was the fourth largest greeting card company in the U.S.. It employed hundreds of salespersons in the field, and a hundred more people at its warehouse in Chicago's south suburbs. The central office in Chicago's Newtown, where I worked, had grown from Mike and Steve and their secretary to a staff of almost two hundred.

Newtown is Chicago's youth/hip/gay neighborhood, a developing zone between thoroughly gentrified Lakeview to the south and sleazy Uptown to the north.RPP, with its hip, laid-back reputation, fit right in. The office staff included lots of feminist women and gay men from the area. Flex time in the summer allowed the staff to stroll over to Wrigley Field, 2 blocks to the west, for afternoon baseball games.

RPP looked like the perfect refuge. They proclaimed their determination to promote ecology, and played up their belief that the company should be big, happy family. At first, I approached it as a relatively non-toxic work environment. Soon, encouraged by success, I began to contemplate it as a Career.

I started as a packing slip clerk, graduated in six weeks to commissions clerk, and within six months was assistant manager of my department at double my original pay. This was the largest salary I'd ever earned ($12,000 a year, even then no big deal), and unlike my friends I didn't have to dress up in establishment drag to go to work. Despite my official cynicism I wondered if the American Dream might not be true. I wondered if I were selling out,or if it were OK to be a capitalist as long as you worked for a progressive outfit, and examined RPP from my new vantage point in the lowest branches of Management.

THE PRODUCT

Some years before I arrived, RPP had had some sort of falling out with Boynton, their biggest star, the woman who did the cute cats. However, their association was too profitable for either party to break off. Bound by iron clad contracts monitored by squads of lawyers from either side, she produced X hundreds of designs per year. There was no direct communication between her and RPP. In addition Mike and Steve had recently gobbled up the Dales,a husband-and-wife team that had tried to be an independent card company and failed. They specialized in cards that had smarmy openers on the front and dirty punchlines inside, using words like "fuck" and "shit"; they were very popular.

But dark times were looming for RPP. Lots of people used recycled paper now. Hallmark began to produce a line of "lite" cards that were a frank rip-off of Boynton's designs--and the gullible public, unable to distinguish these from genuine RPP cards, were buying them. Several previously "underground" card companies were just going mainstream, and their slick stuff was far dirtier--and therefore more popular--than anything we produced.

RPP was no longer unique, and its fast growth period was over. For the first time, in 1982, RPP failed to double in size; it hardly grew at all.In 1983 it would suffer its first year of net loss. Mike and Steve, shocked at this sudden downturn after 10 years of uninterrupted success, looked for ways to cut costs. The facade of Family, so long supported by seemingly endless growth, faltered.

THE FIELD

My department, Payments and Records, was responsible for calculating the pay of everyone who worked in "the Field": anyone outside Chicago.Officially these were all "contractors, so that no one got benefits of any sort. In addition to salespersons, who got commissions, there were "service" people, mostly retired women who stocked cards at their local stores at piece-work rates. My job, in addition to supervising the six-person staff, included resolving the complaints of any sales and service personnel who claimed they were not being paid even the sub-minimum wage they were entitled to.

As part of the austerity effort my boss instructed me to deny all such claims wherever feasible regardless of ostensible merit. This was actually fun to do, particularly as most of the salespeople were pushy and obnoxious. Some of the field personnel, put out at being ripped off by a snotty clerk (me) appealed to their regional managers.

If their regional manager was one of the original five salesmen who signed on with Mike and Steve at the very beginning, they always won their appeal. Otherwise not. The field operation was strictly a feudal-style hierarchy,and no one even bothered with progressive jargon to cover it, as we did at the central office.

THE WAREHOUSE

When RPP began, its cards were packed and mailed by blind and disabled people contracted via federal and city agencies. This was PR'd as charitable employment, but in fact after federal subsidies and tax breaks, RPP ended up paying them about $1.50 an hour (and no benefits); some would call this exploitation of the disabled.

When the company grew too big for this, it founded a warehouse in a distant south suburb, a white working class area. The office staff, Newtown liberals and gays, only saw the warehouse staff at the annual Christmas party and we never felt comfortable around these loud red-neck types. We heard vague rumors about tyrannical foremen, low wages, and double-shifts with no overtime.

Shortly after I got there, the warehouse staff tried to unionize. Mike and Steve, progressiveness notwithstanding, hired a famous union-busting law firm and threatened to move the warehouse to Tennessee, a "right-to-work" state. The union lost the vote, the "ringleaders" were fired while a small raise was given to everyone else, and peace returned to the warehouse operation.

I learned most of this by reading confidential memos on my boss's desk while she was doing power lunch. Few people at the central office knew anything about the affair.

THE OFFICE

In fact, as far as I could tell all my boss Eileen did was Power Lunch. I monitored and assigned work in the office, resolved disputes, prepared reports and gave them to her to sign. She did lunch and attended meetings, held frequent morale boosting sessions where she urged us to work harder in New Age jargon, and lobbied for a larger staff while trying to stay on Mike and Steve's good side.

For some reason I could never figure out, virtually all of the department heads, like Eileen, were lesbians. Perhaps Mike and St less threatened by them than they would have by men in the same spots; maybe it was simply that their willingness to tolerate these women's sexual orientation allowed them to pay a good 30% less than comparable positions earned at most other offices.

Soon after I became assistant office manager, Mike and Steve hired an "efficiency consultant" famed for ruthlessly reducing oversize staffs. His advice was to almost totally eliminate an entire level of management--the lesbian department heads, as it turned out. This was actually a pretty shrewd call, for as I'd guessed this crowd did little real work except to stroke the bosses' egos and spy on the workers and each other.

To my bitter disappointment, for I hoped to replace Eileen as many (much lower paid) assistant managers were doing for their ex-department heads,she was one of the very few to weather the storm. Mike and Steve got a real kick out of her sassy, hip style and new age vocabulary.

ANIMAL FARM

At this point I was totally disillusioned about RPP being progressive in any real way, and also realized that now that "fast growth" had ended, so did my prospects for rising into junior management.

I began to notice parallels between RPP and the RSL, despite their ideological differences. In both organizations the rank and file did shit work, the simple, boring, meaningless tasks that compromise most jobs. The progressive claims of our bosses were supposed to transform this drudgery into something exalted, instead of the "alienated" work we could be doing elsewhere for more money.

The middle management got better, more interesting, and easier work, as well as power over the peons and a chance to hob nob with the honchos. In return for this supposed burden of responsibility, we got vastly higher wages. While my co-workers at RPP added columns of figures, filed forms,and stuffed envelopes, I wrote evaluations of them and performed fairly interesting and challenging (if, ultimately, just as meaningless) tasks. Just so, in the RSL, Joe attended steering committee meetings of this or that progressive cause while the rank and file stood on street-corners waving The Paper at disinterested proletarians.

The Top Honchos in both outfits did nothing but sit around and Think, assign blame, get their asses kissed, and feud with each other. Mike and Steve of RPP ruminated over their stagnant sales figures; Ron Tabor, the Big Cheese of the RSL, agonized over the dwindling subscriptions to The Paper. Mike and Steve spent months on the Annual Report; Ron endlessly wrote The Book (on Trotskyism during World War II--a topic as pressing and interesting then as it is now). Both organizations, when a scape-goat was needed, purged their gay caucuses.

In short, the progressive pretensions of both outfits were a seam, with obvious financial and personal payoffs for the honchos. Clearly a good deal for them; equally clearly a raw deal for the peons. But what about the middle managers?

ESCAPE

The real job of the middle manager is Fink. Kissing ass is rarely enough (unless you're doing it physically, that is, putting out sexually), you also have to keep the peons in line. This, ultimately, was where Joe had let the C.O. down. This was Eileen's real job, which she passed along to me. I'd reluctantly accepted it when I was On My Way Up. Now, stripped of my illusions, I balked. I lost my interest in screwing the field personnel out of their commissions, or in whipping on the office. Firing a worker was contrary to RPP procedure--if you fire someone you have to pay a share of their unemployment benefits. Instead, you hazed the worker until they quit. You would take away whatever mildly interesting task they had cornered and give it to someone else, replacing it with inventory duty (the most boring task available). At the same time you watched them like a hawk, noting and writing up every late arrival or long lunch. An impressive paper trail could be used to deny a raise at their annual review--assuming they lasted that long.

Most likely, you have experienced or at least observed this universal and highly successful management technique. The victims are usually perpetrators of Bad Attitude. My first designated purgee was Barbara, a loud, fat, upfront bull-dyke whose very existence aggravated Eileen's Lipstick Lesbian/Careerwoman sensibilities. She was also the unofficial leader of the department rank and file, organizing the after-work bar socializing and generally slowing the pace of work down to human speed despite Eileen's pep talks.

To my great relief, she quit as soon as it became obvious that Eileen had it in for her, and I was spared the unwelcome task of persecuting her in detail and at length. My reprieve was temporary, for inevitably a new worker with Bad Attitude rose to the top of Eileen's shit list.

I was fed up. I'd been doing Real Work for almost two years, and began to dream of escape. I dreaded going to work every morning, hated every moment I was there, and began to get stoned at lunch every day. Finally, I decided to go back to school, at least part time.

Despite my checkered transcript, I found that I could get a degree with only a year's more work--IF I could take some key classes offered only in the mornings. This meant working less than full time and abdicating as assistant manager, a double relief. Eileen accepted my resignation with tight-lipped anger, clearly scenting Bad Attitude.

To my surprise, school was now a breeze. I aced my courses, and began to suspect that there were ways to become a Professional without kissing Eileen's ass. I applied for graduate school (four more years of prolonged adolescence!) and was accepted on the strength of my phenomenal test scores--the result of several years compulsive reading.

Meanwhile, Eileen had replaced me with a new assistant office manager, a cute (if not terribly bright) young lesbian Eileen had the galloping hots for. Pam's first assignment as Assistant Manager was to haze ME into quitting.

My old co-workers, who had written me off when I became Eileen's protégé, welcomed me back to the ranks. They told me how Pam snooped at my desk when I went to work, looking for something incriminating. I began fishing for a student loan, so that I could attend my last quarter of college as a full-time student. When my safety net was in place, I left a note buried in my "in" file which read: "Hi Pam--snooping again?"

Pam found it as soon as I went to lunch (my co-workers later gleefully reported), and ran into Eileen's office, where they talked in angry whispers for an hour. When I got back, a simmering Eileen called me into her office to reprimand me, but I cut her off and gave her two weeks notice and walked out--one of my finest moments and fondest memories.

Needless to say, I did no real work my last 2 weeks on the job. Despite Eileen's ban, my co-workers threw me a farewell party. For a year after my departure Eileen and Pam attributed every misplaced file to sabotage on my part--not entirely without justification. But it was pretty clearly Pam's profound incompetence, and Eileen's infatuated defense of her, which eventually got them both fired.

Since then I have been remarkably successful at avoiding Real Work, "progressive" or otherwise. Graduate school turned out to be an excellent playground and I highly recommend it to the professional readers of the world.

I have encountered numerous "Progressive" operations since I left the RSL and RPP. All insisted that their Cause would transform routine labor into non-alienated work, and also that eventually there would be a concrete payoff of money and/or power, come Dividends day or the Revolution, as the case may be.

Some were sincere. Most were sleazy scamsters. None delivered the goods.

--Kwazee Wabbit