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Bobby Summers
The Syndicalist Within

There’s no doubt about it; capitalism turns workers into idiots.


Capitalism will take a worker, crawl into his or her mind, completely separate their native mother-wit from the design of their job, and reduce the poor soul to idiocy.


My wife, daughter and I recently moved to a small house in the same city. All three of us are pretty Internet-dependent for work and study. The house we moved into was not however wired for the Internet. So, my wife contacted Comcast, a multi billion- dollar Internet provider and communications firm.

Lord, what an ordeal!

My wife told Comcast that our house would need to be wired for the Internet. Unfortunately, because our house hadn’t wired, the address wasn’t in Comcast’s database. Comcast however, meaning some poor soul employed as a customer service representative, interpreted the lack of an address in their database as meaning our address didn’t exist.


“I’m sorry Ms Summers, I can’t find your address in our data base. Are you sure you’re giving me the correct address?”


“Yes, that is the correct address. The house is not wired for the Internet though, that’s probably why you don’t have it in your database”, my wife said.


“Well, I’m still not finding your address…Are you sure it is the correct address?”


”Yes”, said my wife, “and you will need to wire the house”


“I still can’t find your address”, said the customer service rep, “Are you sure you live in Salem?  Are you sure you don’t live in a different city?”


“Yes, I know where I live, the house has not been wired yet!” said my increasingly frustrated wife.


“Do you have neighbors who have Comcast already?, Maybe you should contact them about your address”, said the service representative.


The above idiocy went on for three weeks, until my wife forced her way to Comcast’s regional vice-president in charge of whatnot. After painstakingly going over the problem for the one hundred and third time, Comcast finally understood…. And thus, I am able to write to my friends and comrades overseas!


The above is not just a single conversation. Instead, it is representative of maybe 15 calls to 15 different company representatives.


There is however something going on that amounts to more than 15 idiots hired by Comcast. Somehow, these Comcast workers lose 60% of their native intelligence when they walk through the company’s door. People just aren’t that uniformly stupid!


I suspect, indeed I am sure that the 15 workers my wife talked to were doing exactly what they were told to do by their bosses. Nobody was ever educated on the mechanics of Comcast’s cable system and how it works. Instead, these workers were trained to perform a series of rote tasks and nothing more. What’s even worse is that any worker who attempted to fix the problem would probably end up being punished for jamming up the system. If some of these workers understood what was wrong, they would almost inevitably jam up the system, because she or he was identifying and trying to fix a problem, which, according to the system, couldn’t exist.


As a union representative, I used to represent State of Oregon transportation and    office workers. One worker told me that her boss told everybody in the office that their job was to make that boss, “look good”. This woman was in trouble for doing good work: her boss felt she made him look bad.


I represented a highway safety worker who single-handedly took care of a truck accident that involved a fairly serious chemical spill. Nobody was hurt and traffic flowed without much disruption. This was on a major highway in a major West Coast city. As a result of his good work, this worker ended up suspended for roughly a month while his boss went over everything he did, trying to find something, anything, he did wrong. To hell with the work! What’s important is that the boss did not like the poor guy. I’m pretty sure his problem was that he just didn’t suck up to the boss right!


Last year, I worked as a teacher, assigned primarily to work with a kid diagnosed with autism. The kid was given an English Literature exam that he was bound to fail given the disabilities that go with autism. I read the kid’s IEP (Individual Education Plan), which included modifying exams and assignments in order to work around the disabilities. I brought the problem to his case manager’s attention, in writing…. The case manager did nothing for a month.


The kid was defeated. He stopped going to school. He figured there was no way he could pass his courses. Two weeks before the school year ended, the case manager took the kid out of the class… even though the kid wasn’t going to school at all. The kid got a failing grade in the class anyway.


I’m trying to get a similar teaching job for the upcoming year. I’ve got 45 applications in to the school district. A couple of teachers have given me rave reviews. But I’m not getting hired…. Seems I’m being avoided like I had the plague. I have no idea why I’m not getting hired. I suspect it might have something to do with the above set of events, or maybe I’m just paranoid, but I will never know.


Hiring is a complicated process in America. In most ways, it has little to do with competency or ability to perform the job. It has a lot to do with an employer trying to shake down what sort of a human commodity it is thinking of buying.


Over a period of twenty years, drug testing has become an almost universal  Human Resources hiring tool (the department that manages the organization’s employees. Think about being defined as a “resource”. Are you being harvested by your employer?). These Human Resources types aren’t asking workers about their skills. Instead, they are asking what kind of a person the worker is… What the worker does when they are not at work, what their values might be, whether they will be loyal, acceptable and compliant… or not.


Then there is the pre-hire interview. Almost uniformly, and I’ve talked about his with many friends, the applicant’s sense of how the interview went has nothing to do with whether they got a job offer or not. Prospective workers are only minimally evaluated according to their skills and competencies.  More importantly, they are being evaluated according to a bunch of standards that they probably know nothing about.


Capitalist society reduces everyone to a prostitute, whether they make their living between their legs or not.


Women are often hired based on the color of their hair and the size of their breasts (http://houseoflabor.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/8/15/83622/7460, an interesting piece here).  Men need to be especially concerned about their ability to grovel and thus, not be a threat to their boss. Both men and women need to be concerned as to whether their behavior is within the desired organizational norms. For both men and women, no hiring standard is quite as important as how they dress and the image they present, whether they work in the public eye or not.


All of this is called “fit” in the world of the Human Resources profession. As a commodity, the poor sucker seeking work really does need to make sure he/she is the type of person who “fits” within the type of image the organization seeks to present.


The newest craze in the Human Resources world is psychological and personality testing for hiring and promotion purposes. Once this catches on, workers will need to be concerned as to whether they have the type of personality structure the organization or company desires. A couple of years ago, my fellow union members and I beat back this kind of testing scheme at the State Transportation Department. However, fighting this stuff gets harder every year.


Us trade unionists, socialists and communists fit into this U.S. capitalist rat competition in a funny way. In almost all cases, us Unionists and Leftists are the best workers in the group. Not in terms of the “fit”, but very much in terms of getting the job done.


I used to work with a lot of highway maintenance crew shop stewards. The good stewards were always the best workers on the crew. One steward I knew used to get mad at his crew when they did poor work. As a trade unionist, he’d never think of tattling to the boss. On the other hand, he had no problem shaming the crew, pointedly and to their faces, when they did sloppy work.


The difference is this I think:


By our very nature, us Unionists and Leftists are highly resistant to identifying ourselves as a commodity. When we go to work, we like to hold onto our humanity. We tend to see our line of work as our productive contribution to all the stuff that makes up a working society. We tend to see society as a human production that wouldn’t exist without ours, and everyone else’s contribution. Thus, our work is part of us; we maintain our humanity when we go to work. Our work is a part of ourselves in a very subjective sense; there is a personal pride in our contribution.


At bottom and often painfully, we know that the world would go on just fine if the boss and the company went away. And we know too that the boss and the company are nothing without our work propping him up.


Smart bosses know that we make or break them, and their efforts will go in the direction of accommodating workers’ needs and opinions. Idiot bosses on the other hand will generally have a shop or office floor war on their hands, no matter who is likely to win. Unfortunately, in the US, unionists and leftists are rare, good bosses are just as rare, and there are far too many walking and talking commodities.


Most folks see liberation as a cataclysmic revolution: The masses in the street; institutions of power falling to pieces; banners everywhere. The biggest revolution however is the one that happens in a person’s heart. This revolution occurs when a worker decides that she or he will no longer leave their humanity at home when they go to work. And, because they insist on their own humanity being respected, they have an intrinsic respect for the humanity and contributions of the people they work and live with.


If this revolution of the heart happens in enough people, the institutions of power will fall and the banners will be everywhere; almost automatically.


This I guess, is the syndicalist within.

 August 15, 2005

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