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September 18, 1997

In Search of Work

1. Where Have All the Workers Gone?

The recent San Francisco BART strike demonstrated something I have suspected for a long time --- that Americans of the late 1990s bring to the concept of work a very different understanding from those of earlier generations. During countless interviews repeated endlessly by the media, Bay Area residents departed from traditional expressions of support for, or opposition to, the strikers; they framed their responses in terms suggesting that they were seeing work, and the people who do it, in new ways. Or so it seemed to me. But perhaps, in the absence of major local labor news, I had simply forgotten.

In search of confirmation --- and explanations --- I turned to my library's stash of old magazines and made a quick tour of those long-time purveyors of American values Time, Newsweek, and Life. In an attempt to impose some sort of structure on an admittedly unsystematic project, I traveled in ten-year leaps, beginning in 1947, through the mid-September issues. Looking at popular publications may not be the most accurate way of determining what the public was thinking. But I reasoned that, even if readers only partially shared the opinions expressed, their attitudes must have been affected by what they saw and read there.

 My explorations turned out to be far more than a simple exercise in nostalgia. We've come a long way, baby.

The news magazines of 1947 overflow with images of a nation at work, an energetic nation, newly emerged from an economic depression and a world war and feeling its way to recovery. Despite Congress's recent passage of the oppressive Taft-Hartley Act over Truman's veto, labor was organizing to ensure that workers would participate in the incipient postwar prosperity. Not everyone approved of these efforts: W. L. Geffeney, of Del Mar, California, wrote to Newsweek, "Let's hope that [a photograph of scabs marching determinedly toward a picket line] is the spirit of '47." But the news stories --- a new labor-friendly president of the Toledo, Peoria and Western Railroad; an injunction to prevent the Atlantic Fishermen's Union from controlling the price of fish; the appointment of Cyrus S. Ching (formerly a motorman and subsequently a corporate industrial relations lawyer) as head of the new Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service --- make it clear that union activities were significant parts of American life.

More astonishing from a 1990s perspective, however, is the advertisements. Everywhere, people are at work. In the 1940s both Life and Time carried ads for work clothes. There are photographs of grimy miners and paunchy men in coveralls, standing at assembly lines. (People of color are almost completely absent, but a few female factory workers make a neatly dressed appearance, surprising in an era when women were being politely escorted back to the kitchen.) No matter what the setting, if it is outside the home (and most are), workers are present: a motorist at a service station consults a wrench-wielding mechanic; a family on a country picnic encounters an overalled farmer; a couple in a restaurant discuss the menu with a chef.

Ten years later, the nation's eyes were riveted on Central High School in Little Rock, where a morality play starring Governor Orville Faubus and nine black teenagers was being enacted. The economy was racing ahead. Newsweek announced proudly that more Americans were working than ever before, and fears of inflation replaced worries about economic recovery. Already tarred by intimations of Communist links, the reputation of organized labor sank still further in September 1957 when the AFL-CIO conducted an investigation into Teamster corruption under Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa père. Nevertheless, aside from Life, which devoted its commercial space exclusively to families in the privacy of their own latest-model home, the magazines' advertisements continued to portray a world where everyday life is conducted in a community of people working at a wide variety of jobs.

Not so in 1967. Vietnam had divided the country, and not even Madison Avenue dared to propose a stroll down the war-torn streets of Our Town. Salt-of-the-earth workers --- except for a few indispensable pumpers of gas --- disappeared from the ads. In news stories they became the bad guys in a new morality play where Walter Reuther went head to head (all at once --- no mean feat) against the "nonchalant" CEOs of the Big 3 car companies. Image making was blatant: a photograph of smiling, relaxed strikers is captioned, "Pickets: An Ominous Look." Newsweek even dredged up 91-year-old former federal mediator Cyrus Ching, who reminisced about the good old days of labor relations when tough bargainers like Harry Bridges and John L. Lewis ran the movement. Viewing the UAW strike, one "veteran observer" noted that affluence made for arrogance on both sides. What he saw as arrogance was the auto workers' demand for a guaranteed wage in a society where affluence was increasingly punctured by pockets of poverty.

Ten years later, labor news focused monotonously on growing unemployment rates, with human-interest descriptions of plant closings and proposals by "liberals" for a two-tiered minimum wage to alleviate joblessness among teenagers. An advertisement featuring a photograph of crash-test dummies tells the story best: real people doing real work have eerily disappeared from the magazines. They have been replaced by icons, emblems of a long-gone halcyon time when visions of communities were given shape by the workers in them. Thus, a group of people, each in a different type of work clothes (somewhat like pictures of people in native garb, promoting the idea of international harmony), each holding a black plastic garbage bag. The caption reads, "We all recycle."

In September 1987 another UAW strike caught the attention of the news magazines, if only because it showed how weak organized labor had become. In the face of foreign competition, the union  --- which had lost 400,000 members in the previous eight years --- sought job security, not wage increases. But workers, especially white males, had become important to the popular imagination as symbols of American values. A Time article entitled "For Sale: America" illustrated its theme with a picture of a white worker talking earnestly with his Japanese supervisor. A Newsweek article charting the GOP pursuit of Southern voters found suitable examples in a "threader in a textile plant" who thanked the Republican Party for his prosperity and a "maintenance worker" to whom "conservative" meant "taking care of your own first: your wife and kids, your own people, own country." Thereafter, if the magazines showed people actually working, you could assume that they lived overseas, probably in a third world country. America, the technological superstar, seemed to be run out of clean gray offices where work consisted of pushing a few intelligently programmed buttons.

2. Work Is in the Eye of the Beholder

A person walking down the street today, as in 1947, is surrounded by people working: carpenters and painters, repaving crews, truck drivers, shopkeepers --- all making the world go round, as they have for centuries. Nor has organized labor retired. In addition to the recent well-publicized UPS and BART strikes, a number of unions are engaged in dramatic if unreported battles. Some are local and short-lived; some rival the epic strikes of the past:
  In another time and place, actions like these would have provided heroic material for storytellers. But in an age when workers are invisible, they have become irrelevant. The removal of workers from the popular consciousness, in a kind of spiritual genocide, has made it possible to attach new conceptions of work to the social landscape. New wine, very sour indeed, has been poured into ancient bottles; there it sits, not aging into something fine but turning into vinegar. As the years pass, we may even forget what good wine tasted like.

The new conceptions of work are strange indeed, as comments during the BART strike make clear. The first thing to be discarded was the idea of work for subsistence: the support of self and family by directly producing what is needed or by earning the money to buy it. In the new scheme of things, work --- now usually defined as a job, or work in the employ of other people --- has become a moral value. No matter that a woman inhabiting the idealized land of Single Welfare Motherhood must work hard, day after day, to navigate an ever-changing tangle of support services and provide food, shelter, and nurturance for her families. She has, as Phil Gramm announced, a responsibility to "get out of the wagon and help the rest of us pull." It is likely that she won't be able to support her family on the job she finds. "The person at the car rental agency where I rented the car told me they make $6 an hour and are glad to have jobs" (Robert Wilkinson, Berkeley). But because jobs have only moral value and no intrinsic worth, they are interchangeable. "These days (like it or not) that if you want a meaningful increase in salary, you have to change jobs" (Michael Heine, San Francisco). In fact, because jobs have only moral value and no intrinsic worth, compensation is meaningless. "I'll bet there are thousands of people who would jump through hoops for a $40,000 non-degree job even with the so-called unbearable conditions the current employees are moaning about" (Tanya Taylor, Oakland).  Not to worry: "$250 [for a jacket] falls within the budget of most working women" (Suzy Baxter McAllister, Sausalito).

Once work becomes a moral value, there is no room for the idea that employers and employees have different interests. Work becomes a vocation, which workers cling to with all the devotion of converts. The primary reason for public ill will during the BART strike was that the shutdown kept people from their work. "I am a state employee. We have had no wage increases for three years. Yet we are not punishing the people" (Ben McClinton, Kensington). Practices that arose in Japan --- the company-as-community and team decision-making --- have been eagerly sucked up by the new vacuum in the American concept of work. Workplaces of the future, so graphically captured in PBS's "Excellence Files," aim to "create an environment where the whole human being can participate"; the key to success is devising ways to "get employees to give their all to the company." Employer and employee merge. Small wonder that complaints during the BART strike often rendered workers and management indistinguishable. "They had a pay increase in April and then they raised the fares" (Tom Schoensee, Daly City). The timing of the fusion is fortuitous, and perhaps not accidental, for companies that leap national boundaries require employees who are devoted to them and not to class or locality. Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo called it: "As a matter of principle, labor and environmental worries must not be allowed to be used as instruments to affect free trade in the world."

These converts to the New Work Ethic remind me of the Spanish priests who descended on California some 200 years ago, bringing enlightenment to the Indians living here. Appalled at what they perceived as a laxity of indigenous morals, they resorted to harsh measures to bring their new charges to the Truth. It is easy to wonder if their faith was shaken at times by the evidence they saw of different power structures and other successful ways of living and if, in the face of temptation to abandon hair shirts and flagellation for an easier relationship with the universe, they clung even more tightly to the ways of the church of Rome. The church of the global economy rests not on the rock of human labor but on the sand of speculation. How much more likely that its priests would begin to doubt its efficacy and lash out at those who offered an alternative.

-- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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