Working in America III: their time and ours - David Schanoes

Working in America III: their time and ours - David Schanoes

A 1971 account and analysis of working in the main post office in Chicago. Foreshadows the workplace violence the USPS would later become infamous for.

...They’re up there. Watching. They say they need them to keep us from stealing, but they’re really up there so that just, just when the mall starts to disappear from the horizon of our sight, just when we think we can breathe again, and somebody cracks a joke and we all tum to laugh and trade grins, and sure enough the laugh slips loose and dances naked for us; then, just then, they throw their goddamn switch and with a wheeze like a dead man in a whorehouse the mail starts to fall and hits us with rage and glee until we back away from each other and the mist of smiles shudders and dies. The sacks start to build at our feet and pile quickly to our knees, hips, waists, shoulders until ; we are lost in a canvas blizzard. The air squeezes from our lungs in slow plastic gasps (punishment for promiscuous laughing), and they call for the tractors to keep everything neat. Now we have to shovel our way back to the beginning and wonder if there ever really was a beginning, an end, or just once a laugh not crushed dead at our feet. They’re up there, cackling in a buzzard’s dream. They’re up there. I know it.

To the east, the lake tosses upon a curved horizon with a sheet's edge of fog holding the early darkness to itself. The wind’s talons lift huge blankets of water toward a sheltered moon only to, with a raccoon grin, drop the blankets head down on the concrete. (Even the buildings wince.) And the water runs bleeding and sore through the street, across the spider lips of a sewer, and weeps desperately back to the lake. This game of sleep tag lasts until the darkness moans with the mummed silence of cricket wings and the lake pauses, feigns defeat, and suddenly springs cobra fashion at the wind, striking with the cut glass tongue of blood and fish scales and laughing at the dawn writhing behind it.

This laugh catches an echo of the green arteries of the city's womb. Subways scratch along the rails, blue sparks licking fur tongued at the night. The echo changes to the short shriek of bats as the train hustles against the spine of a curve and then snaps itself straight. Inside each car is a fish net of electricity, thigh locked in the air, sparks eating away happily at eyes and ears and sometimes leaping at a carelessly exposed throat. The smells of ozone and hair, the dead smell of liquor and tobacco, and overall the taste of pennies—the copper taste of storm. Occasionally a passenger will slump to the floor and the fishnet will buzz hungrily until the body is ash. Sometimes, just enough electricity touches the temples, and for a second the eyes will turn a ghost blue and then fade, and the tumblers behind a wrench tight skull start to click off like a Las Vegas jackpot and the secrets start pouring out. But in such chaos and jumble as to make no sense. But they keep coming, and the person doesn’t stop until some sense is made. An infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters ....

The train moves on, hunting shadows, tucked neatly in the empty roar of a feather darkness.

This, comrades, is Chicago. Straddling the chest of the United States, Chicago is the knot that laces east to west and back again. Everything within 200 miles is pulled off balance and sucked to the grinning hands of this madman set free. Chicago is the hip pocket of America. The hip pocket, for wallets and blackjacks.

This city used to have a river. It used to have a lot of things, but the river is special because someone, someone with both feet stuck in the future, took a look at that river and took a look at that lake and saw that everything going anywhere would be going through here, and decided that the river is to be turned around. Completely around. Either that river gets turned around or the shit a city throws out every day floats into Lake Michigan and turns that lake into the biggest cesspool, the sweetest breeding ground for the biggest rats this side of City Hall and the Chicago Housing Authority ever. Either that river gets rechristened as a sanitary canal or you are going to spend the rest of your life wishing that goddam wind would please blow the other way, the jesuschrist stench! So they turned the river around and killed it. Choked it to death with mud and garbage and anyone with the audacity to complain about the reproduction of daily life in this, the pivot of America. Turn your petitions in to the carp and the turtles and decompose in quiet. And after they turned it around and dumped the first body in, the people of Chicago grinned and gave themselves a motto. “l will," they said. And someone, the first archbishop or the first thief (history has not chosen between the two), added, “and I got a razor to make sure of it."

Six months after the Paris Commune, an unknown Chicagoan thinking only of his city‘s place in history chuckled "l will” and torched the whole goddamn city. And instead of the fires of proletarian dictatorship Chicago blazed merrily away just for fun. And what a boon that tire was, for Chicago neatly tap danced its way across a very personal hell and hasn’t stopped dancing since. When the orgy was over, everybody sobered up and stopped slopping the coal oil in the streets and rebuilt the city. And kept right on building, all the time thinking, “Oh damn, the next time she goes up she’ll take half the fucking city with her.” And they’ve been building ever since. And waiting.

Squat dead over the Eisenhower Expressway and hunched up to the ex-river is the Chicago Post Office. “Biggest in the world,' says da Mayor, jowls quivering like a hog in heat. And it is the world’s largest Post Office. The Main Post Office is a top heavy building of standard government gray, fed by the continuous advance of trucks and trains that lead deep into the bowels of the building and disgorge mail from the rest of the world. This post office is the notion, the essence, the concrete universal, the nodal point for all other post offices, not only through its size, but because of its methods of discipline. The Chicago Post Office draws its labor from the huge black pools that spread across the South and West Sides of Chicago with an angry radiance. Eighty-five per cent of the 22,000 employees are black, and of these the overwhelming majority are women. This is indeed a precarious position for the world’s most important Post Office and the government has undertaken a massive drive to replace these black workers with white men, in order to exercise greater control and experience less resistance.

From the very moment a new worker enters the Post Office, he or she is attacked by the total mobilization of the postal bureaucracy. This attack has the single purpose of encroaching totally upon the consciousness of the worker and preventing workers from articulating any needs or desires outside the scope of postal authority. Two initial orientation sessions of four hours each are planned for new employees, and the tentacle fungus of absorption stretches with the beginnings of the government litany. The job is the focus of all attention. The job demands one’s complete complicity with the situation as it is. The job demands the realm of the future, and encroaches beyond the eight-hour work day. Attitude (the ability to tolerate agony) becomes the crucial factor in determining the “quality of employees".

These sessions are conducted by the 20-year staff of loyalty and devotion. It is a sad sight to hear these "trainers" recite with the monotone flatness of a machine the benefits available through continued service to the Post Office. If for the next 20 years the worker jumps and breathes in accordance with postal regulation, and trudges through the ruts of advancement, there will be a secure position, a pension, a vacation with pay. But the ruts of advancement necessitate the disintegration of the future. Time is consumed and exists only in the confines of the Postal Service. The historical timelessness of advanced capitalism is purchased only through the ceaseless destruction of time. The worker faces the task of submission or resistance, of destroying the instinctive hostility that work provokes, or destroying the structure of encroachment every day of work.

The methods of encroachment are all aimed at preventing workers from expressing, individually and therefore collectively, their own aspirations as somehow outside the realm and therefore opposed to the postal system of labor. The tactics of encroachment are discipline and paternalism, punishment and reward, and the tactics of reducing a worker to the state of a helpless infant, a kindergarten pupil, and thereby facilitate the stealing of the candy from the baby. The Post Office designs programs for recreation and education, for child care and entertainment, for psychiatric counseling and beauty contests. All of this is done to absorb need, and to prevent the development of consciousness.

The postal orientation period lasts long enough to stress the notion that the postal worker is not just a regular worker, but a full-time piece of government property. With that characteristic clumsiness of the bureaucratic mentality that takes pride in its own bankruptcy, the Post Office stresses its similarity to the Army or the Navy, and warns that even off the job a worker’s conduct is subject to governmental scrutiny. Of course for those who like the situation ....

She tells us about herself with a tight-lipped grin. She tells us about working for 27 years—27 years! And she’s so proud that she can’t even hear us groaning in the back. Listen to her-—telling how during the summer she goes to school, postal school, in Oklahoma-·all expenses paid, thank you—so she can move up higher in the lap of postal authority. And, she has 480 hours of sick leave. "Fancy that,” someone says, but she can’t hear .... And 240 hours of annual leave —- the maximum allowable. And she has never failed a scheme test! Never. "Now all you people are subclerks and have to learn a scheme," she says, "and my advice to you is to learn it as soon as possible.” Behind me a woman is crying: “That’s the saddest story ever heard.” But she can’t hear the crying and goes on about how good the Post Office has been and next summer in Oklahoma until some black man stands up and says, “l bet you even dream about this place." and sits right down. And she hears that, and marks him down for attitude. Personally, I don’t think she dreams at all ....

And the cushion chains of a padded slavery range from insurance and medical plans to free circus tickets for the children and sports teams. There is an alcoholics' club, but no junkie or cocaine club, unfortunately. And if there is a dispute, file it in the ooze swamp of the Equal Employment Office and wait.

But this bureaucratic mobilization is not a mere cancerous growth nor the elaborately constructed conspiracy of the Government. The growth and function of this bureaucracy has its roots in the mode of labor itself, and is in tact the administrative refraction of production. The intense capitalist rationalization of production entails the overall fragmentation of the total process into a series of isolated acts of permanent repetition. These acts are linked together only by the continuous movement, not of labor, but of the object, the commodity. Any continuity is established by the conveyor belt. This very same rationalization that provides the initial division of labor and the life blood of capitalism necessarily creates specialization, fragmentation of knowledge that corresponds to fragmentation of labor, but moreover limits each task to a perpetual repetition and therefore creates the separate function of accounting for each isolated act. This specialization in ignorance of the whole demands the creation of a bureaucracy to reconstruct and account for the total labor process. However, since bureaucracy’s own labor is necessarily rationalized, a true accounting for the process can only be constructed in the very machines that should replace the need for human labor in the productive process. The true totality of advanced capitalism is represented by the conveyor belt and the computer.

Moreover, this mode of intensely rationalized production, permanent repetition of oppression, has reduced human labor to the level of a "dumb brute force”. The conditions of labor have transformed human labor into its opposite. The dumb brute force is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to transform the conditions of existence. The mode of production now demands the exclusion of need and desire from the realm of human labor, but in this very exclusion it allows an area for consciousness to penetrate and perceive the instinctive disgust with the conditions of labor. The unity of consciousness and activity is disintegrated, but consciousness is not yet absorbed into the forms of mental toil, habit, and passivity. The octopus programs of the Post Office, all growing organically from the mode of production, are the mental extension of the transformation of labor to "dumb brute force" into the realm of consciousness and desire. These programs make need itself the perpetuation of submission and the continuum destruction. In this situation, opportunity, advancement, growth, progress are all the transformation of human aspirations into toil.

The onslaught against new workers attempts to act as the buffer to the intolerable conditions of work. Although the starting wage is $3.51 an hour, the rules of work and its constant boredom and stupidity provoke instant frustration. Lunch is only 30 minutes, which leaves no time for anything more than a sandwich or a slow bottle of whiskey. There are no breaks given in the Post Office, but a worker is allowed two trips to the washroom, 15 minutes each. And timed. Supervisors keep records of elapsed urinating time. These rules of course are generally violated but also generally enforced. The result is increasing violence against the supervisors as the work week wears on, and even occasional direct physical assault ....

.... There are signs screaming like empty trumpets in entrances. “All employees are required to show their photo badges." "Leave all packages at the check desk." Over on the side wall beneath the lights and next to the vomit green paint is the slogan of the month. Program Reduction in Distribution Errors. On the workroom floors, there are blackboards printed with the maggot slogans of team spirit, and “We need each other." Recently, no supervisor has had the nerve or the intelligence to write anything on the blackboards. On the other wall is the suggestion box with its quadruplicate form. Someone has scrawled the words "black power" across the box, and everybody gets a small laugh.

Elevators and then the inevitably slow walk into the work area itself. A timeless regularity looms against memory, and it could be yesterday or tomorrow or no day at all.

Below the empty clatter of the machines there is the human noise. After several weeks, it is sensed more than heard. Matches being struck, coffee steaming, and spice flower smell of a woman. On the floor is an alcohol whorl that tells everyone today is Friday. Alcohol lubricates the path to the weekend.

There are clocks everywhere, slicing off bits of the day and chewing at the roots of the night and always stuck just where we don’t want to see them. The regulars are already at work throwing the bundles of letters into sacks marked SCF 600 and through to SCF 629. When the sacks are full they are tagged out (labeled and locked) and dumped onto a conveyor that takes them downstairs to the trucks. When the clock cuts off the air, we have to go to work. The trick is to be late on purpose. Just sit and pay no attention until they hand you a form, and then scratch your head and grin politely and say "Am I late again?”

The Post Office is concerned with theft by the workers. There are stories of workers walking out with TVs and stereos. More frequently, rings and watches disappear from the mails. This is called theft. 'The fact that the Postmaster accepts money from Sears, Montgomery Ward, Aldens, and the other mail-order companies is called “gratuities for excellent service". There you have it.

But extortion, practiced with the subtle hand of a meat cleaver, is not unknown to the ruling administration. The Post Office offers a life insurance plan to each employee. This plan can be rejected, but on the form for rejection it states that the employee has 30 days to file his or her notice. However, it is not written that if the form is not returned within the first week of work, money for the insurance plan will be deducted from the first two paychecks. Let’s see...hmmm. ..that’s $6 from each employee, with a turnover of 10,000 employees a year- $60,000. All of this is protected, of course. by a sign that states: "Assaulting a government employee while on duty is a federal offense.”

The rationalization of production brings with it a corresponding rationalization and fragmentation of time. This destruction of real time is accompanied by the elevation of the destroying force to the level of "real time”, Measurement replaces motion, so that all things are measured not by the time they create, the permanence of access in human pleasure, but by the time they use. Time is parceled out with a guillotine’s efficiency. dragging away the life of workers and chaining it to production. Time in short is production, and it is money. Death becomes the medium of exchange and takes its crystallized form in the materials of guilt, money and credit. Blind necessity replaces need as the system of perpetual misery is sustained through expropriation of labor and time from human self-conscious activity. The supervisors, although not conscious of the full nature of this destruction, are quite aware of the necessity of maintaining the inflexible barriers of prison clocks. They scurry from minute hand to minute hand, berating those workers not sufficiently impressed to regard each breath away from their work as a transgression upon the very foundations of state capitalism itself. The notion of time, appearing in full measure only in this complete over-rationalization of production, provides the pivot for the struggles between workers and production and between workers and supervisors.

The Post Office employs more supervisors than any other industrial network in the country. (Biggest in the world, echoes the grunts of the city’s prime hack.) The ratio is from three workers per supervisor to eight workers per supervisor. These supervisors are recruited from the workers themselves and usually advance from union steward to supervisor. The union, which was recently formed by the merging of five separate unions, is very democratic—so democratic that the supervisors are allowed to retain their union membership and are even given certain honorary status. But the union is the direct manifestation of bureaucracy at the point of production, and it is absolutely inevitable that union and supervisors should be so closely meshed.

Each supervisor is picked and cleaned and strained and trained by the Post Office. They are schooled in special courses and taught to enforce discipline, maintain production, and judge attitudes. They are armed with a teacher’s weapons, those of humiliation and paternalist scolding, coupled with threats of firing. Above all they enforce. They become the personified authority of the destruction of time ....

.... Zallno, the supervisor, calls over Donna and explains to her that 16 1/2 minutes is entirely too long for a washroom break. At first she thinks it’s some sort of joke and cracks an ivory smile, replying: "16 1/2 minutes? Who’s gonna count that‘?" But Zallno, being a postal supervisor, becomes the most serious about me most innocent, the most threatened by the most natural, and pulls out his rule book ....

“Now, Miss Temple, do you know how many people work here? Well, just imagine if everyone took an extra 90 seconds. That would amount to 500 man hours lost.

"What a pity," says Donna. “Wouldn’t that be terrible. Why pretty soon people would be takng 17, 18, or even 20 minutes. Imagine that!"

"That’s right! ' says Zallno.

"That’s right!" says Donna.

Zallno had his jaw broken in three places a couple years back. He tried to take a worker off the clock and send him home. 'The worker had been on a 20-minute break. Zallno’s jaw flapped like a broken shutter in a summer breeze. Three places! And it took the worker less than a minute!

There is extreme sensitivity to this notion of time among workers. Extra breaks, calling in sick, leaving early, reporting in late, all of these are efforts to regain control over what is forbidden —time! Time is a fundamental vehicle for human expression.

It is heartwarming to note the extreme distaste for supervisors —- a distaste that goes far beyond simple anger. In this distaste there are strong elements of disgust and contempt, for the workers realize that the supervisor’s job is in fact dependent on them. The false master is a real slave. And the workers are confident of their survival without him, but kmow he could not survive without them. The supervisor in one sense has less freedom than the workers, for having embraced as his own the demands of production, the supervisor has no choice but to obey the rules. The workers, however, are free to resist and reject every rule.

Outside, a rust iron night scratches the street and raises the smell of an oil wind. It is winter and the streets bleed white from the salt and the snow and the dry death of frozen air. Stuck in one doorway is a drunk, his nose shot through with the exua blood vessels of an alcohol drowning. Across the street is another drunk. They scream at each other in rhythmic harmony, the unintelligible words sliding off into the night.

"Nyaah, nyaah,’ says the first drunk.

"Yya,ah, yyaah," replies the second.

And they go on like this, in a delirium of fever, serenading each other and the cement until the cops come out and push them to the next block.

Maybe it was my imagination, but an arm came out of that night and took my elbow and pressed its panic to my ear with words dying away as soon as they formed.

“Listen, I only do it for the money. You understand. I don’t like being a supervisor. It’s the money. You have to believe me. Three kids and I have a wife. You’re young, you got no one but yourself. You can afford to hate it. But I have kids, and they want to go to college. It’s the money and the kids. Not me."

But the words get coughed away and swallowed in the wind before I smell them, or see the face, or even allow myself to believe that the arm was on my elbow.

There are stories of violence, stories an absolute delight to hear. Once, a worker decided to have a heart-to-heart with his supervisor. They argued awhile until the worker saw that he was getting nowhere, so he picked the supervisor up and threw him out the window. Seven stories. And what a splash he made —teeth and brains and blood. Everybody gathered around the worker and shook his hand, and when the guards came they created so much noise and confusion the worker escaped.

Or the time another worker figured that starting at the bottom was no way to solve things at the top. So pocketing his .45 he walked into the Postmaster’s office and shot a hole in the fat leather chair that the Postmaster called his favorite. Unfortunately, the boss wasn’t there. When he did return, he found a large hole in the front of his chair and a note: “This could have been you." Now they have a special electronic guard door. And if these stories are not true, they still represent the desires of the workers and never fail to evoke laughs and whistles of admiration, and the smirks of delightful violence.

But there are other stories. Outside the Post Office flows the blood of Chicago, that garbage canal, once river. Every week, rumor has it, somebody comes out of work with that look of empty desperation and jumps from a bridge into the floating swamp. Without even a scream. In the spring, along the lake, the smelt start running and the fishermen string their nets under the surface. The nets allow a smelt’s head lo pass through, but not the body, and so the fish are trapped, suspended by a nylon filament ....

....Sometimes they jump in pairs, silent and leaden. Every week. And every week, the guards fish them out. The big ones get cleaned and shuffled to the hospital, dosed full of thorazine. and sent back to work. The little ones are cleaned and eaten on the spot.

A deeper examination of time and its destruction shows that the fragmentation of time is accompanied by its compression. Time is compressed into the product as value and now becomes the physical measure of performance. making activity into calibrated agony. Time becomes space, but the expropriated space.

In a similar way, all time is compressed into working time. Free time exists only in its relation to labor time and is dependent upon the flow of production for its very existence. In this sense free time inevitably focuses back on the chains that bind it to its unfree origins. With this compression of time into space, workers, like the character in Poe’s story, can be forced toward the pit that in fact has become the pendulum

Regular clerks experience the situation somewhat differently, both milder and more permanent in form. Substitute clerks have no regular working days and can be worked as little as two hours per day, but inevitably work weekends. This is part of a discipline process for new workers. Regular clerks have set days, set hours, and a guaranteed salary (which accounts for their political intransigence), but all this is attained through submission to the postal discipline.

For both regular and substitute workers, the incredible rate of absence, tardiness, et cetera is more than a refusal to participate in the labor process, but the instinctive hostility to the compression of time .... The supervisor calls us over for a meeting. These little revival sessions, full of scoldings, praises, and the ceaseless vomit of production goals, are a source of no little humor. And this humor, the spontaneous resistance to the false seriousness of "production", is the organ of a counterattack on the work routine. The humor contains the double edge of convulsive disdain for the supervisor and the ability to maintain the fundamental delight. in living against the work rules. We all snicker and grin and wisecrack through the supervisor’s mechanical whinings, doing a fair job of disrupting his format. This time, the Post Office has a new program for employees, “The Postal Employees Personal Assistance and Emotional Guidance Program”. Somebody whistles; somebody else moans; everybody looks around and smiles.

“Now if any of the employees are having personal difficulties, and you find that it is interfering with your work performance, please come tell me and I'll arrange an interview for you with a qualified counselor. The program is free and for your benefit."

Spears, a black man just back from Vietnam, and my partner in hysteria, gouges me so hard that my eyes turn gray. “Hey,” he says, “tell him about your emotional difficulty.”

“What emotional difficulty?” I ask.

“The one you keep dreaming about.”

"Spears, l can’t tell him I want to kill him. It will spoil all of the surprise."

Spears thinks it out for a minute and then decides to tell about his own difficulties.

“Hey Zallno," he says. "If I got a medical problem, will the PO take care of that too?"

"Why yes," replies the messenger fool.

“OK," says Spears, “I got a case of hemorrhoids, so get somebody down here to kiss my ass.”

And we all laugh and congratulate Spears.

There was one attempt at concerted resistance. The Post Office had decided that if a worker forgot his or her badge he or she could not be admitted without first being questioned by a supervisor, who in turn would issue a temporary pass if convinced of "sufficient reason". If there was not evidence of "sufficient reason" the employee would be sent home.

You could hear the anger among the workers. Skulls refusing to swallow this bit of metal shit. The regulars laughed and shrugged it off, but the substitute clerks demanded that they be given the power to pass judgment on the "sufficient reason". There was talk of deliberate slowdown of work and perhaps a semi-wildcat, but as time wore on and the new rule disappeared into the forest of the old rules, the nucleus of agitation shrank to one or two people. Outrage had succumbed to avoidance, and in part the Post Office has forestalled a serious united threat by the workers (until last year) by allowing for avoidance; by not enforcing its own rules very strongly and thereby preventing any class-numerous confrontation. The disputes as to rules mostly follow the individual pattern of one worker versus the supervisor for one specific incident.

The treatment of women is of special interest. Although women are the majority of the work force and perform all the secretarial work, there are few women supervisors, and almost no women among the upper ranks of the postal bureaucracy. Moreover, despite the smoke screen of “in-distinction" between men and women that the Post Office asserts, women are treated to extra exploitation. The most tedious tasks, the tasks that isolate workers from each other, the tasks that enforce a pattern of absolute rigid toil, like housekeeping, rewrapping torn parcels, even the sorting of first-class letters, those tasks that in fact duplicate the isolation of women in the family and reinforce the slavery of women to tasks of "cleaning" are always assigned to women workers.

There is also a special dress code for women, and they must endure the humiliating and thoroughly contemptible advances of the male supervisors. Such advances are qualitatively different from the mutual eroticism and the fluid sexuality of relationships between the workers. The overtures of the supervisors are always accompanied by the tacit authority of a “superior position", and at times there are direct threats to women to either comply or suffer the consequences at work. On the other hand, the directly erotic relationships of the workers maintain an area of human desire against the encroachment of work and establish a sort of equality at their root although women are still victim to the notions of male superiority.

The workers do not make many attempts at reorganizing the work except that unconscious organization that exists in all work: “Feel good, work good; feel bad, work bad.” But the nature of overrationalized and directly inefficient production, creating as it does fragmentation of the process, acts against such reorganization. The workers’ resistance is based implicitly on the notion that this rationalization, inefficient as it is, is ample evidence that human toil is indeed inessential and is maintained only through such rationalization. Their resistance regards activity as being channeled not into reorganization of labor, but the freeing of labor for the more pleasurable tasks of the imagination.

Resistance takes first form in the continuous battle with the authority of the productive process as personalized in the supervisor. He is humiliated, ignored, and challenged. But there is also the implicit resistance that the workers mount in the day—to—day maintenance of their own life and own living qualities ....

Garbage trucks work at night in this city. They station themselves in alleys. Like this. An old man walks across the headlight beams and the alarm goes off. Two men spring from the truck and grab him and lift him off the ground.

“Got him," says one.

'Woweeboy, is he old?” asks the other.

"He sure is,’ replies the first.

“Put me down," says the man.

"No luck, pops. We’re not trash collectors, you know. This is just a disguise. We’re part of the city health board, and we’re cashing you in. In your state you’re an ecological disaster! ’

'They empty his pockets and collect the money. Then they throw him into the back and set the jaws of the machine grinding. The machine swallows the man, and a small red stream begins to leak from the bottom of the truck.

A black woman crosses the headlights, and the alarm strikes again.

“Another one! "

"Goddamn, a woman, too. Feel her tits?

"Old, old, but nice."

"Hot damn,” says Number Two. “Throw her in.”

And more blood flows through the gills of the truck, and a small stream heads east to the lake and across the water where it crosses the horizon, and there, glowing like ore from a furnace, scalds the eyes of a dead sun. And the Mayor awakens refreshed and comments on the beauty of Chicago sunrises. The only problem is, the drinking water in this city tastes funny.

The Post Office is in the midst of a huge reorganization plan. 'The plan pretends to make the Post Office into a government-independent corporation that must pay its own way. This means in reality increased work discipline and deurbanization of the Post Office in order to fire the blacks and give the jobs to white workers. Black workers are fired at an incredible rate, while most white workers are secure. In one week, the San Francisco Post Office fired 600 workers, and the union, being democratic, did nothing.

The union occupies a desperate situation. It is under increasing pressure from the workers to strike against the postal management, and it faces an intractable authority in the Post Office rulers. The unions merged in order to fight the reorganization and protect the workers, and settle the contract dispute that still remains from the last postal strike. But to do so forces the unions to contribute to a strike which will undermine their authority with workers and with the postal management. The union is suspended between the necessary, to fight the management, and the impossible, supporting a workers’ strike that will inevitably surpass the union itself. In such situations, control institutions commit suicide in their immobility.

The most effective resistance to the work process, more effective than even direct physical violence, is the resistance of play. On a good day, games of football, basketball, and hockey abound. Packages and letters sail through the air accompanied by smiles, bets, and the disapproval of the supervisor. Play, of course, is the refusal to submit to the brutal "rationality” of work, but the latent content of play holds even more revolutionary implications.

Once an open jar of 20,000 government pure methamphetamines came rolling down the belt. What a sight that was — 50 people stuffing those pink neon capsules in pockets and underpants and shoveling handfuls of electricity into their groins. For the next few days, everyone talked a lot more and cracked platinum smiles and had the strangest glow behind their eyes and twitched. You would have thought the place had gone nuts—arms and legs shooting all over the place.

The play response performs the crucial function of extracting time from the parcel —compression of performative space, re—establishing it , as the fluid movement of human pleasure. Play both liberates and masters time by reclaiming the sphere of human activity as the area for happiness. Play also materializes the human personality in its permanent capacity for enjoyment and in the infinitude of resources ‘ for overcoming the boundaries of toil. The pleasure experienced in play demands that time be given not to the commodity, but to the human development of the producer, and therefore the introduction of play destroys the very existence of the commodity and the division of labor.

Time can no longer stand as the disintegrative element inhuman experience, but rather must become an area open to human innovation and the permanent unity of activity and pleasure. Physical requirements of play bring into motion the physical grace of the body and smash the separation of the workers from one another. The latent experiences of childhood, the use of imagination, all are re-formed, as being timefully significant in the play response. It achieves the harmonious interaction of desire and activity, of a notion that the period of pleasure does not belong to a forgotten past that is to be devoured by the demands of “efficiency", but that activity itself must be the pathway to sensuous enjoyment.

Originally appeared in Radical America Volume 5, Number 5 (September-October 1971)

Comments

Juan Conatz
Jun 3 2012 06:59

This was slightly disturbing to read. Mostly because some of the violence the author describes...looking at what started happening 10-20 years later makes his glorification and delight slightly sickening. But also, now the main post office is abandoned. A massive shell of a building in downtown Chicago, this article gives voice to the ghosts you imagine inside while you are walking on the sidewalks outside the building.

Maybe its an American thing, but its haunting to see the skeletons of industry and be depressed not only because the factories are dead and gone, but they were never great places anyway. It's a weird contradiction that someone with knowledge of the recent past is faced with.

S. Artesian
Jun 3 2012 13:19

Not just in the US. My favorite "juxtaposition" of past/present/future?

The set for the battle of Hue, Vietnam in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was a city north of London where manufacturing and industry had been gutted by Thatcher's assault on the working class.