Saturday, September 26, 2009

The tyranny of employment: not child's play


Okay, at first glance the chant in the video up there becomes monotonous pretty quickly, and it's definitely been delivered by better and more interesting performers. But that's not important, because here comes another WB lesson in cultstudcrit (cultural studies critique) 101.

Far from being "just a kiddie chant," the Hello my name is Joe routine is a study in form being integral to content. Repetition and monotony? Absolutely — just like poor working-class Joe's job at the button factory, where he toils to support his working-class existence, feed his family and dog, and pay the mortgage. And those things too, are part of the drudgery in Joe's life; they're how he defines himself, over and over and over again. Given multiple chances to present himself as more — to tell us his interests, his goals, his values, the last vacation he enjoyed — he repeats: I've got a dog, a house, and a family. Those are the four corners of his life experience. He punches the time clock, goes to his post, makes buttons, punches the time clock, goes to his house, feeds the dog, dines with his family, sleeps, punches the time clock.... Repetition of chant reflects the repetition of Joe's stagnant and unchanging life patterns.

And then there's the job. Already busy making buttons, Joe is asked one day by his supervisor, "Are you busy?" Welcome to the tyranny of employment as blackmail. If Joe says yes, by extension refusing to take on additional work, then the supervisor can write him up for being a poor team player, and for being unwilling to pitch in a little extra effort for the good of the company. Once written up enough times, not even Joe's labor union — if he's lucky enough to belong to one — will be able to save his job, and he'll be unceremoniously "let go." And that'll be the end of the dog, the house, and maybe even the family if Joe's wife decides to take the kids and leave this foolish man who didn't know enough not to anger the boss. Didn't Joe know how fortunate he was to have a job at all? What was he thinking?

And that's just if he answers yes. If he answers no when asked "are you busy," then he runs the risk of inadvertently admitting that his position is redundant and unnecessary, and he could be let go for that, too. The only safe answer, really, is no answer at all — but that would get him written up for insubordination. And so, no matter which way he turns, Joe is essentially screwed. As we said: the tyranny of employment.

Hoping to appear helpful and agreeable, Joe chooses to answer no, hoping that it'll be received as an offer to do more than just what his job description requires, and not an admission that his job doesn't require much. Fortunately — at least as Joe, grounded in his ideology of

job = pay = dogfood+groceries+mortgage = contented existence

sees it — the supervisor does hear the answer as an offer, and immediately orders Joe to take on even more physical labor. This, Joe finds acceptable, and continues singing his monotony song without any changes.

But then, over the years, the company sends the supervisor five more times to see Joe and trap him in the same no-win "are you busy" dilemma. Each time, jobs have become more scarce, groceries have become more expensive, family expenses have become more numerous, and even basic home maintenance costs more. And Joe has grown a little older. He can't lose his position; he might not ever be seen as employable again, other than as a greeter at Wal-mart earning subminimum wage.

And so, since no was taken as a voluntary "team player" offer the first time, Joe repeats it each time the boss asks if he's busy, and in every case, the boss piles on more physical labor. Eventually, there's nothing left; Joe is physically unable to do more, his body used up and worn out, his spirit broken. But one important thing changes in his life narrative of repetition and submission: he finally gathers the courage to shout Yes! at his supervisor — and to stop working.

And that's the end of the chant.

Now, do you want a more perfect allegory for, say, the Flint GM Sit-Down Strike that gave birth to the United Auto Workers union? The lines sped up; the workers produced more cars; the company collected more profits; the workers' pay stayed the same; their bodies wore out faster; the company expected more for less; the workers shouted Enough! and stopped working.

Contrary to current anti-union rhetoric, it wasn't a burning desire to become communist that began the labor movement in the United States, nor a fantasy about being able to earn a full day's wages for half a day's work. It was the exploitation of bodies and the relentless wearing down of souls that infused American workers with enough remaining energy to organize and fight for employment justice.

Today, union membership stands at around 12% in the U.S., and is shrinking every year. And rather than negotiate fair labor practices and wages, and especially rather than allow employees to organize, American employers have taken the easy route of simply shutting off the lights, locking the doors, and letting foreign workers do the jobs that American workers complained about. Because, you know, complaining isn't team playing, so what obligation does an employer have to continue sponsoring and funding a whiny, greedy team at all?

For Joe the former button maker, there is now one choice. With the plant closed and the paycheck gone, he has to save every penny possible, which means buying the cheapest products, which means a big "Made In China" label on the box. A team player all his life, Joe made the mistake of fighting for a last chance to preserve his dignity and keep from becoming a complete automaton. That mistake couldn't be left unpunished.

A simple children's routine? Far from it. It's the story of American labor, from birth to death — of the movement, and of the workers, and of their jobs.

And through it all, the audience smiles and giggles.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a terrifically nuanced reading of the allegory. And it isn't just workers on the line that experience this catch-22 either. It's a pretty bleak picture, but it's also spot-on....