Part 3 of a now 4 part series looking at some of the 'common sense' too often taken for granted. This section looks at the ways we already support each other at work and how we can build on that. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.
While this series goes against conventional wisdom – conventional wisdom about jobs, work, the economy – the reality is that conventional wisdom hasn't served most of us very well.
After all, we don't act like capitalists in basically any aspect of our daily lives. Despite the mantra that we are “rational economic actors” seeking “profit maximization”, solidarity and humanity seem to win out more often than not. We volunteer. We give to charity. We loan money out to family and friends and never dream of charging interest. When we have friends over for dinner we don't do it to make a buck.
And what is oftentimes waged work – everything from gardening to taking care of a sick relative – we do free of charge when we feel it benefits ourselves or our communities.
Or, think about work. We cover for our co-workers when they come in a bit late or stretch their lunchbreaks. We pick up the slack when someone is feeling under the weather. It may not feel like it, but when we help out each other like this, these are anti-capitalist acts. It's us, as workers, putting our needs, wants, and desires before the needs of capital.
And we know this on another level, too. We work hard and despite our crappy jobs, we do our best because we care about our co-workers and our customers. Yet we know that if we “cause trouble” - ask for higher wages, challenge understaffing, or even just take too many sick days – our hard work doesn't protect us. Bosses would rather go through the time and expense to hire someone new than keep a person who speaks up on the job.
In short, we know there's something wrong with the world. Most of us work too long for too little pay. Work stresses us out. Housing, food, travel, and life in general is too expensive. We know that getting up everyday and going to work for a wage sucks. And even when we're not working, work dominates our lives – either stressing about work or stressing about finding a job.
We know that, despite what we've always been told – despite even what we may tell ourselves – capitalism doesn't work for us.
Too often when we get fed up with a job, we leave. We hope that the next job will pay better, not be so understaffed, that the manager won't be a total d*ck. The first step, then, is to decide that wherever we work, we deserve good pay, respect from our bosses, and decent benefits.
All that can sound like quite a massive task. But that's okay, we can start by building on those small ways we already help each other out on the job.
We already speak with our co-workers about problems on the job. We know the issues. It's a matter of raising them collectively – after all, there's strength and safety in numbers.
Begin strategizing with your workmates: how will you raise the issue? A collective letter? At the staff meeting? Who will say what? How will you respond if your boss gets angry? What if they're supportive and understanding, but don't actually change anything? What if someone is singled-out and bullied, what's your gameplan? Are there outside organizations or other groups of workers you can reach out to for advice and support?
And assuming things don't change, how can you put pressure on your boss? Is it just a matter of 'turning off the tap of friendliness' or do you need to be more drastic – collectively refusing to do a certain task or all calling in sick on the same day?
And what happens if we do win? What happens if we succeed in getting a raise, winning sick pay, or forcing the boss to hire more staff?
We're told if we win, companies will cut jobs or even close down altogether. And, in a sense, this is true: our lives, our jobs, our safety, our environment – these things are not the concern of capital. Profit, growth, accumulation – whatever you call it – this is what drives capitalism.
Capital holds a gun to our heads and tells us to choose: choose lots of jobs at low pay or fewer jobs at higher pay. Choose a decently paying job or a job with decent benefits. Choose between environmental protection or jobs being shipped overseas.
But, if we're organised, we can defend all these things. But we have to be organised first.
Here's a story from London. It's about young, service sector workers, most with little or no experience of unions or strikes who recently won a living wage at the cinema where they work - a raise from the equivalent of ten dollars to fourteen dollars an hour. And it was an uphill battle. They held protests and pickets and marches. They reached out to customers, the local community, and other cinema workers. But, most importantly, they went on strike basically every Friday for three months.
Management finally gave in and handed the workers a huge raise. Then, a few weeks later, the bosses threatened a round of lay-offs. The workers immediately responded by planning another round of strikes. Management backed down. The raise stuck and so did the jobs.
And, to be fair, that's London, not America. But the point still stands: we can win – and we do win – when we fight back.
One final word on solidarity: for people of my generation, picket lines are quite a rare thing. Few groups of workers have the confidence and organization to really effectively fight back. Yet, when they do, the most important thing we can do is to refuse to cross picket lines. Workers don't take the decision to strike lightly – they do so knowing they'll be challenging their bosses, an unsympathetic media, often their own union leaders – and refusing to cross a picket line is the most fundamental act of solidarity we can undertake.
Part 4, the final in this series, will turn a critical eye on what is often assumed our options when it comes to improving our working lives: voting and joining unions.