playtimecubicles

Nikil Saval (The Bat Segundo Show #544)

Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed and an editor at n+1.

Author: Nikil Saval

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Subjects Discussed: Karen Nussbaum and the Nine to Five movement, 9 to 5 as the template for the office comedy, whether the office workplace is permanently stacked against the worker (and attempts to find hope), the beginnings of human resources, the Hawthorne effect, efforts to control workers through close supervision, attention to light and the beginnings of office architecture, the National Labor Relations Act, attempts to organize office workers in the 1930s, anti-immigrant sentiments and racism among white collar workers, unions and white collar workers, why workers feel empowered when they have nothing, the rise of freelancing culture, Richard Greenwald, how office work creates the illusion of giving the worker mastery over his fate, the Bürolandschaft ideal, Robert Propst, Action Office, the historical beginnings of the cubicle, attempts to track down the guy who first closed partitions into the cubicle, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, futile attempts to photograph “action” in offices, sitting up and standing down, healthy activities in the workplace, Propst’s failed three wall ideal, Herman Miller propaganda and Action Office possibilities, when George Nelson was jilted from the office furniture plans, how changes in the broader culture influenced changes in office culture, managers pulled from offices and deposited in cubes, Barry Lyndon, the impact of mass layoffs, the recession of the 1980s and its impact on white collar culture, when the cubicle became associated with transience, the lack of privacy in the workplace, why European countries revolted against office layout while Americans stayed silent, Frederick Taylor and Taylorism, Taylorism’s rise and fall and second rise, Louis Brandeis’s popularization of Taylorism through “scientific management” (used in his argument of the Eastern Rate Case of 1910), Taylorized families, Harry Braverman, the beginnings of human resources, Taylorism vs. eugenics, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise as an anti-Taylorist tract, Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive as a return to Taylorism, Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, perpetuating familial attitudes in the workplace, advertising and irony (and parallels to Taylorism), Taylorism vs. Taylor in Planet of the Apes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, natural light and the early forms of air conditioning, surveillance by overseers that is perpetuated in workplace architecture, zombie-like accountants, the ethical question of happy workers, the beginnings of glass buildings, Le Corbusier and urban planning, the Lever House, when glass curtains won over Lewis Mumford, Vico cycles, how offices may be returning to their original counting house forms, the Sony Tower’s transformation from work units to residential units in the next few years, the question of workplace architecture becoming an ineluctable and oppressive threat on the way we live, mistaken impressions of Marxism spouted by philosophers, companies spending less on office space, developments in living space and workspace, laptops in cafes, freelancers and co-working facilities, the upward presumptions of clerks, and how once stable labor conditions have become a fantasy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We are, in fact, talking in an office. So I’m not sure what that does to this conversation. But we’ll, I suppose, make amends.

Saval: I know. Well, at least it’s a private office and not a cubicle. Because that could be a…

Correspondent: Or an open office for that matter.

Saval: Or an open office. God.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get right into it. Back in the late 1970s, Jane Fonda met Karen Nussbaum, a remarkable figure who organized women clerical workers in this Nine to Five movement. And Fonda and a screenwriter spent an entire evening talking with 40 office workers. This became the basis for the wildly popular movie 9 to 5, which arguably set the template, comic wise, for Office Space, The Office, and, of course, most recently Silicon Valley. As you point out in the book, some of the proposed remedies at the end of that film — plants, rearranged desks, flextime, day care at work — they actually reflect what’s know as the Bürolandschaft ideal. And we’ll get to that in a bit. But, you know, this has me wondering if there is something permanently broken about the office. Is it possible that any attempt to remedy it or improve it is almost this kind of neoliberal trap? What hopes do we have for the worker? Or is the deck permanently stacked against her?

Saval: (laughs)

Correspondent: Just to start off here.

Saval: So softball.

Correspondent: It was such a wonderfully bleak book that I had to have a vivaciously bleak opener.

Saval: Gosh. I wish I could just say, “No no no. The story’s happy. It has a happy ending.” You know, I don’t really mean to say that the workplace is permanently broken. I guess I do want to say that the kind of repeated — as you pointed out, there’s a repeated attempt to make work better, usually through design but also through other kind of arrangements in the workplace. Architecturally and what have you. And a lot of these go wrong. And some of them go spectacularly wrong; the most famous being the office cubicle. And I think the point there is not just that the office seems to be broken, but that there is some sense of an idea of how work might be better and there is an idea of somehow you might be able to organize it better, somehow work might be more free, workers might have more control over their work. Things like that. And usually these are sort of fatally disabled by — I mean, it’s not always the case, but usually, roughly, it’s a presumption that these designers or planners know what’s best for an office worker. And there’s usually something imposed on an office worker. Or there’s a plan that starts out really well and then when it’s replicated ad nauseam, it goes wrong or it doesn’t even strike at the heart of what’s wrong at work and they try to design a way things are more fundamental to the issue of the workplace.

Correspondent: But as you also point out in the book, there is this brief moment for the worker — and perhaps it’s an illusional one or a delusional one — where you have a situation when suddenly there is care about what the worker thinks and how the worker can behave, as opposed to how the worker should behave. And I’ll get into Mr. [Frederick] Taylor in a bit. But what accounted for that particular moment, which was roughly around 1929 and up through about the 1950s, before yet another ideologue came in and had ideas about what to do for the worker and for the workplace?

Saval: Well, yeah, that’s, I guess you could call it, the human relations movement. That was the idea that…

Correspondent: That’s the 1960s of the office. (laughs)

Saval: Exactly.

Correspondent: That’s the hippie idealism, I suppose. That period.

Saval: Yeah. And it comes out of a lot of different sources. And one was just the office, but it was also the workplace. It took hold on factory floors as well. And the idea was just that workers needed to be in corporations that somehow ostensibly cared for them. It came out of what was known as the Hawthorne experiments, which are a famous social science experiment where they tried in the Hawthorne Works to experiment with different lighting levels and to see how this affected the way people worked. And what they realized was that actually there wasn’t a direct connection. It wasn’t that the light got better and workers worked better or got worse and workers worked better. It was just that when workers thought they were being watched — at least this was the conclusion — they felt like the company cared about them. And therefore they worked better. And so, especially at a time — this was not so true in the ’20s, but certainly in the ’30s this was true — when there were union movements, when there were the high points of the American labor movement, corporations and companies just felt that things were not going their way and they did not want unions in their workplaces. And so they thought, “Well, we just need to become more familial. We need to care more. We need to manage more lightly. We need to think of our workers’ psychology, not just their efficiency and their productivity.” And I think this results in all kinds of changes in the workplace. I sort of argue that even the architecture of the workplace somehow reflects this desire to make work better, to make workers feel more at home. Maybe with the mid-century corporation, I think I suggest that with things like the Lever House, the Seagram Building, the attention to light and to design and the explosion of design at that time in the workplace — even the idea that a workplace interior should be thoroughly planned and designed — I think reflects this attempt to make workers happy.

Correspondent: Do you think that many of the behavioral psychologists and these people who were looking into lighting were thinking very much about unions? I mean, we often forget from our — well, to get into the decline of labor in the 21st century is another can of worms, but we often forget from our vantage point now how much pull labor had in the early 20th century. And I’m wondering, in the attempt to determine how workers were feeling, how much was that a presence? How much was that a motivation? Or was it simply just innate curiosity? Or the kind of touchy-feely vibe we were implying earlier?

Saval: You know, certainly with industrial workplaces, it was definitely, absolutely a fear. Partly because union organizing, it just spiked, especially after the passage of the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act. With the office, I don’t think there was a huge worry about it. I did some, to me, very fascinating but probably to other people very tedious archival work where I looked into the proceedings of the International Association of Office Managers, or rather I think it’s the National Association, and there’s a point in the ’30s when they really express worries about this and they think, “Well, it’s really taken a hold on factories and even some offices are starting to unionize.” And there actually is, more than there used to be, in certain publishing houses. The New Republic organizes at the time, with something affiliated with the Communist Party. And so you have people talking about how the last redoubt of capitalism, the place where individualism thrives. The office. Even this is under threat. And so we really need it. I mean, once this goes, I think there’s a little bit of a sense that — and again it was not so widespread, but they were definitely afraid, I think.

Correspondent: Well, you do in fact quote the possibly apocryphal Samuel Gompers line, “Show me two white collar workers on a picket line and I’ll organize the entire working class.” Why didn’t office workers latch onto labor? You suggest that there is this assumption that their talents and their skills could in fact give them an independent shot. And I suppose, I guess we see the natural offshoots of this kind of libertarian impulse with some of the tech entrepreneurs that came later. But I’m wondering. Why couldn’t there be some sort of confluence here? Because it seems to me that everybody here had the same interests in mind.

Saval: Yeah. This is sort of the central contradiction of the white collar workplace. I mean, it’s just that there is, on the one hand, you have this ideal of this perfect meritocracy, that certainly the managers talk about this in their association, that you can rise — and this was true in the early antebellum offices especially. And it made more sense then. If you were a clerk, you would become the partner of that firm. And that lasted even past the point that that was true. When some offices became much larger, business became bigger and there were only so many places at the top and many more places at the bottom. So it was just less and less likely.

Correspondent: Toil long enough at the firm and you will ascend to heaven when you’re dead.

Saval: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: It’s a very familiar promise.

Saval: Right. Exactly. So the way that persists is partly that there’s just a lot of — that it makes sense. It was true for some people. And that had some effect. It made people think that it was true in the office. There’s something about the prestige and status of white collar work that has made it different from blue collar work, especially in the U.S. politically. It just seems like it’s cleaner. The work often required a high command of English. So when there were a lot of high waves of immigration into the United States, there weren’t a lot of immigrants working in white collar workplaces. So there was a kind of homogeneity. And then, of course, also it was very male up to a point. And then when women entered the office, they often entered into the steno pool, a typing pool, to jobs that didn’t have high levels of prestige so that men could feel themselves above in a way, could still feel like they were middle class even when they maybe weren’t. And the other thing — and I talk about this a little bit in a chapter about the skyscrapers — was that there were not a lot of appeals on the part of unions or political parties in the U.S. to white collar workers. It was not clear how to organize them.

Correspondent: It was not clear how to get through to them.

Saval: Yeah. Exactly. The whole model was predicated on industrial organizing. And this doesn’t mean that it didn’t work in a number of cases, a can of worms which I don’t deal with which is the public sector. Because I think it’s a different animal. Can of worms. Animal. Anyway.

Correspondent: Let’s mix as many metaphors as you like. (laughs) But this leads me to wonder. Why couldn’t these very dedicated labor unions get through to the white collar worker? I mean, they had — and again I cannot understate this — they had incredible power at the time.

Saval: Right.

Correspondent: How could they not actually have the communication skills or the fortitude or even the ability to massage their message? Why couldn’t they get through? I mean, they did try. There’s an AFL magazine article you quote, addressed to the white collar workers, where essentially the author says, “Hey. Look after yourselves. You want to think about the future.” But it seems to me that they needed to go further. I mean, what was the disconnect here?

Saval: You know, it just seems like a number of things. One was just the persistence of the idea that upward mobility was a given. And in periods where there are high levels, it’s mainly growth. I think of times like the 1920s, even when inequality widens, union influence starts to dip after a kind of high point in the late 1910s. And then in the ’30s, the union influence in the office increases. Because white collar unemployment becomes a real thing. But then it dips again in the ’50s and then it starts to spike up in the ’70s. And then actually in the ’80s, when things really actually go wrong for a little bit.

Correspondent: With Reagan and the air traffic controllers.

Saval: Yeah. And then it hasn’t really — I mean, you would think that and you would think now in the last four years that it would increase. I feel like I’ve read of isolated cases. But it’s not a trend. There’s a union organizer who I quote, writing in Harper’s in the ’50s — he’s an anonymous organizer — about why white collar workers can’t be organized. And he seems to think that there’s a way in which white collar workers see themselves, even though they are exploited. He says they are the most exploited workers in a certain way. But they see themselves as possessing certain skills, whereas an assembly line worker will talk about the industry that he works in. “I work in the auto industry.” Whereas a white collar worker will refer to his or her profession. “I’m a stenographer” or “I’m a typist.” “I’m a bookkeeper.” And that way of talking indicates that you’re able to move. That you have a skill that other people prize. And I don’t know if that’s a sufficient reason for people not to organize. But it sort of means that you need to talk about different things. And it’s not always the case. People do organize. It has happened. But this was his reason anyway.

Correspondent: In other words, with this particular notion, the suggestion is that one had a kind of linguistic independent identity. One had a label to hold as his own, whereas the organized worker would relate to an industry. This leads me to wonder why that notion of independence was, number one, so appealing to the worker and, number two, why they didn’t see, especially after toiling for many decades and not getting anywhere, that it was all a sham.

Saval: Yeah. It remains a sort of intractable question. But the notion of independence is powerful. And you even see that now in the rise of freelancing or contract work, which I do not want to attribute that too much to people choosing to do that all the time. I mean, there is a lot of it.

Correspondent: The sexiness of having to go ahead and pay for your own health care. Having to look for pennies under the couch. It’s just such a remarkably romantic ideal, isn’t it?

Saval: It’s so freeing. It’s liberating. But on the other hand, there are people who choose to do it. And what they’re seeking is a certain kind of freedom and autonomy over their work.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, MaxJC, danke, ozzi, 40a, ebaby8119, and Dokfraktal. )

The Bat Segundo Show #544: Nikil Saval (Download MP3)

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Unemployment (Follow Your Ears #7)

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The national unemployment rate continues to hover just under 8%. It’s been like this for about a year. That’s higher than the 1991 recession. And the unemployment numbers are starting to match the recession of the early 1980s, just before unemployment hit over 10% in 1982. This program looks into whether or not the jobs are really coming back. Are we avoiding a serious problem that we don’t have the courage to stare in the face? To what degree are we repeating history? We meet a man who motivates the unemployed in library basements, get experts to respond to Chairman Bernanke’s recent claims that unemployment will fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015, discuss the finer points of Beveridge curves with economics professor William Dickens, chat about how the last four decades of labor developments have contributed to the unemployment crisis with Down the Up Escalator author Barbara Garson, discover a company that protected the unemployed against discrimination with the National Employment Law Project’s Mitchell Hirsch, and learn about discrimination and how local labor policy reveals national labor policy with Dr. Michelle Holder of the Community Service Society of New York.


7a

I Really Want This Job

Barry Cohen is a well-dressed man with impressive cheekbones and an indefatigable smile. He reminds me of some 20th century titan who wants you to sign on the dotted line for a set of steak knives. On hot summer nights, he can be found in the basements of public libraries addressing the unemployed on how to find and get the jobs they really want. We talk with Barry and the people who look for confidence and guidance in his words. It turns out that Barry is working from an unexpected vicarious place. (Beginning to 9:40)


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Curves and Predictions

Last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters that we were at the beginning of the end. He predicted that unemployment would fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015. But William Dickens, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Social Policy at Northeastern University, feels that Bernanke is being overly optimistic. He also demystifies Beveridge curves for us and elucidates a policy paper he co-authored with Rand Ghayad that caused at least journalist to freak out in the final moments of 2012. (9:40 to 18:37)


7c

Down the Up Escalator

Barbara Garson, author of Down the Up Escalator, offers a more sociological view of the unemployment problem. She tells us that it’s not so much the recession that reveals the causes of unemployment, but the American worker’s dwindling prospects over the past four decades. We discuss the Pink Slip Club, the “new normal” of unemployment, and consider how the unemployed can contribute to society as they pine for nonexistent jobs. (18:37 to 29:10)


7d

Discrimination

It’s difficult to feel inspired and real when the deck is stacked against you. One little discussed truth about being unemployed is the rampant discrimination against job seekers who are not presently employed. The situation is so bad that New York City was forced to pass Introduction 814, a groundbreaking piece of local legislation that made it illegal under the human rights law for an employer to base a hiring decision on an applicant’s unemployment. We speak with Mitchell Hirsch, the Web and Campaign Associate at the National Employment Law Project, to get a handle on just how bad discrimination against the unemployed remains. It turns out that Introduction 814 doesn’t go far enough. We also meet Dr. Michelle Holder, Senior Labor Market Analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, to determine why New York is a good microcosm for American unemployment. The conversation reveals how local policy reflects national policy and gets into problems with the Georgia Works program and “business-friendly” politicians. (29:10 to end)


Loops for this program were provided by BlackNebula, danke, djmfl, drmistersir, EOS, JorgeDanielRamirez, kristijann, KRP92, MaMaGBeats, Megapaul, morpheusd, and ShortBusMusic. Follow Your Ears Theme (licensed) by Mark Allaway.

Follow Your Ears #7: Unemployment (Download MP3)

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Elizabeth Cline Author Portrait

Elizabeth L. Cline (The Bat Segundo Show)

Elizabeth L. Cline appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #462. She is most recently the author of Overdressed.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Rubbing his hands over a personal project: a tequila haul video now in development.

Author: Elizabeth L. Cline

Subjects Discussed: The disposability of clothes, why so many clothes at the Quincy Street Salvation Army gets thrown away, fast fashion industries eyeballing China, comparisons between the fashion industry and the food industry, selling high volume product for low prices, Forever 21’s markup, Vebelenian consumption and free choice, the psychology of cheap, the haul video phenomenon, Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics, discomfort with the clothes that you’re wearing, being an “expert consumer,” Sex and the City, wanting quantity over quality, overconsumption, buying cheap items that fall apart, H&M’s addictive qualities, a 2011 Well-Spent comment thread with consumers and fashion designer Eunice Lee, what remains of domestic manufacturing, consumer price expectations, unemployment and the collapse of the garment and textile industries, how the increased price of labor in China has affected the U.S. manufacturing base, Dalma Dress Manufacturing Company, Michael DiPalma’s “labor is labor,” the Dynotex factory in Greenpoint, domestic gown markets being pushed into the luxury gowns, finding the compromise between a luxury gown and mass-production, Levi closing its last U.S. factory in 2003, the new definition of “high-end,” premium denim produced in Los Angeles, very small Los Angeles factories vs. very large Chinese factories, playing the blame game, frustrated fashion designers, the bottom line of budget fashion chains, why H&M pins the blame on consumers, the Hubbert’s Peak of fashion, new efforts to hook Chinese consumers on disposable fashion, the impact of NAFTA and the expiration of the Multi Fibre Agreement, massive imports of Chinese cotton trousers, garment protectionist measures, the unskilled labor market, spinning heads, New York’s crackdown on soft drink sizes, the cultural impact of Michelle Obama wearing a Target dress, the Slow Clothing Movement, Kate Middleton being chided for wearing the same dress twice, the rampant copying within the fashion industry, the Design Piracy Protection Act, low wages paid to Chinese workers, the impact of labor exploitation on fashion, encouraging people to sew, traveling seamstresses, and raising an army of fashion alterers.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Cline: I would say we’ve got a First Lady who is running around bragging about the fact that she wears Target and people applaud her for that. And our garment industry declined. We made 50% of our clothes here in 1990. And now we make between 2 and 3%. So the fact that we have someone in office and we’re clapping whenever they wear imported clothing. And then you’ve got this flip side reality of giving away an entire industry. That to me is what is perhaps most shocking in this situation. I mean, there are other kinds of consequences of cheap fashion. But, for me, a lot of it comes down to what’s happened to the economy. And I talk about in the book how the clothing industry is a good economic indicator. It’s like, if there’s not a middle market in the fashion industry, that usually means that there’s not a middle-class in society. And we saw this in the 1920s as well. The ready-to-wear market was split between high-end and super cheap. And that’s because there were really rich people. So when you see the fashion industry without a middle market, that’s usually a good sign that there’s not a middle-class. And the two are so tied together, it’s kind of scary.

Correspondent: You were chiding me earlier about seeking someone to point the finger at. But it seems to me that you’re doing the same thing by saying, “Wow, we now celebrate the fact that Michelle Obama wears Target.” Only fifteen years before, we would point the finger at Kathie Lee Gifford and say, “You complete hypocrite. You’re producing this clothing line and these kids are doing backbreaking labor to provide you with your clothes.” Obviously, we’ve advanced far along the lines in a matter of fifteen to twenty years. Do we have to punish someone to actually solve the problem? Do we have to find a scapegoat? Or is there a more constructive, less vigilante mob way with which to encourage consumers to use whatever rights they still have to not opt for disposable clothing? Perhaps something along the lines of The Slow Clothing Movement that you outline at the end of this book. Or perhaps encouraging people — even people who are bad with sewing machines like myself — to go ahead and replace their particular clothes.

Cline: I mean, I think that people are in the spotlight, whether it’s someone like Kate Middleton, who’s always in the news because she wore the same thing twice in ten days. I think that that does as much for the issues that I’m talking about as a book like mine does. Just because she’s such a high-profile person. And Michelle Obama, the reason why I single her out is because her fashion has probably been the most talked about aspect of her reign, if you will, as First Lady. And people take their cues from her. She is reinforcing this high/low dichotomy that we’ve got in the fashion industry now. What you’re supposed to do, according to the fashion magazines, is you splurge on your Louis Vuitton bag, but then you wear a Target dress. And that’s American fashion. That’s considered American fashion now. Where is any of that made? And why did you overpay for a pocketbook? And why did you underpay for a dress? That’s not helping anything.

Correspondent: There’s also one interesting thing that I didn’t really know about until I read your book. And that is this fascinating copyright problem in the fashion industry. I mean, it makes total sense once you lay it on the line. Of course, there have been spies at fashion shows. But we’re dealing with an industry in which everybody copies everybody and there is no absolute control over this. You point out Ralph Lauren’s quote, that he owes his career to forty-five years of copying. There isn’t copyright protection. Tom Ford, Guy Trebay even had to confess that there would be no fashion if you adopted legal rules. Now you have the Internet today. You have high-def cameras that are instantly taking in any fashion show, any exposition. You have tailors on the ready, ready to reproduce whatever it is that is being made somewhere else in the world. And that to me is absolutely fascinating. It’s a magnificent counterfeit industry. There were efforts to pass varying versions of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act. They didn’t take, however. And what was interesting about that is that with the bill’s supporters, a few of them were actually caught copying clothes made by independent designers. I thought that was hilarious. I’m wondering. Are there any signs right now in 2012 — it’s been a while since you wrote the book, maybe about a year or so — are there any signs now that this additional copying has had a drastic effect on the fashion industry? That it’s actually becoming more a problem? Or are things relatively stable? And how does this compare to some of the globalization concerns we were just talking about?

Cline: I think copying is a problem. Because it feeds this surplus of clothing. I mean, copying is what creates trends, right? Trends sell fashion today. So it just enables this speeding up of the fashion industry. So it’s like, even if you’re not copying exactly, if you’re copying something almost exactly — and every store does that. So this copyright protection bill that’s moving through Congress is really only going to eliminate exact copies. Exact replicas. And that should happen. But that’s not really going to stop the fact that you can change a button or a stripe or something and then that’s totally fine. So my whole point in bringing that up was that all these retailers are looking at each other and copying each other, and the system is just moving forward faster and faster and faster because of that.

Correspondent: But, Elizabeth, the fashion information wants to be free.

Cline: (laughs) It does. It does. You know, when I was in China, a lot of the factories there, they would — I would go into a sample room, which is where they have all the designs that they’ve made hanging up on a rack. And they would take something off the rack and be like, “Do you want us to copy this?” That’s how easy it is. And one time that happened, it was actually a Forever 21 garment. Which I thought was hilarious. I was like, okay, I’m being given the opportunity to rip off the ultimate ripoff artist. Because I went undercover as a garment buyer. I guess I should have said that at the beginning. So they were trying to sell me designs. And it can happen on that level. But it can also be as easy as someone in the U.S. in a design office emailing a photo to the factory and the factory just copies it there. It’s so easy to do now. And Forever 21 copying these other companies’ stores that copy designers, I think it’s really mostly a threat right now to independent desginers, as you were saying. I really try and support independent designers. And they’re having a hard time. Because consumers think that their price points is too high. Because they don’t understand the ways and the mechanisms of the fashion industry. But they’re also like, “Why wouldn’t I just go to Forever 21 and get it for $20 instead?”

Correspondent: We should really talk about some of what you observed in China. Especially the labor exploitation and so forth. You say in the book that they have these facilities that they offered, and your impression was that this was part of the whole drill whenever any American comes to visit. Do you feel that you got a sufficiently accurate idea of what was going on there? What do you feel is the takeaway, laborwise, from what you saw?

Cline: I actually decided when I knew I was going to write the book that I wasn’t going to write a sweatshop book. Because so many of them have been written. And I feel that people know more or less what’s going on. That I didn’t really have a whole lot to contribute to that story. I was really there to see how the business side operates. And absolutely, I think I got an accurate reflection. Because there was no reason for them to hide those things from me. What I would say about the labor conditions is that the fashion industry has been in the spotlight now for almost twenty years for labor abuses overseas. Domestically, going back to 1911. So the factories in China that I saw — and again they knew I was an American; I’m sure I was shown the better factories — were clearly products of a lot of, I guess I would say, cleanup. Because people are really afraid of getting busted for sweatshops now. Compared to American factories, the Chinese factories are very clean. Very organized. They have the latest machinery. All the fire exits are properly marked. There are fire extinguishers on the walls. So that kind of stuff, they’ve got their ducks in a row. And you can really tell that they’ve had to do that in order to do business with the West. I think instead of people looking for really extreme examples of human rights violations, they should concentrate on the wages being paid to these people. And in the garment industry, that’s poverty wages everywhere, except for in the West. So to me, that’s what’s not acceptable. I mean, you can pay someone the minimum wage in China and that’s a poverty wage. And that’s perfectly legal. That would not be considered a sweatshop story. But that’s the reality.

Correspondent: So how do we get some of these young women who make these haul videos to understand that there is tremendous poverty attached to what they get to enjoy at an H&M or any one of these particular stores?

Cline: I would like to think that people, especially people of the generation behind me — I’m 31 — a lot of them are already conscientious consumers that care about the environment and they care about human rights. But it’s like they need to be given a way to vote with their dollars. For example, if H&M had a fair trade section or a living wage tag on some of their clothes, I think that they would support that. So I think that hopefully, with a book like mine, more stories will come out. And they’ll start to say, “Go to these retailers” and “Hey! I like the designs. I want to keep shopping here. But you guys have really got to do more to earn my loyalty.”

Correspondent: I am fascinated by the idea that everything has become more disposable. That it’s a matter of buying something. It’s not going to last. And it’s going to be thrown away. And we were alluding earlier that one of the solutions to this is encouraging people to sew, to fix up their footwear, to fix up their clothes. On the other hand, I look to something like that and I say to myself, “Well, aside from the fact that sewing a button for me is something equivalent to Euclidean geometry…”

Cline: (laughs)

Correspondent: I can do it! But it takes a long time. There’s also the time factor. If I want to go ahead and fix up clothes, let’s say that’s ten hours of my time. If I value my time at $15 an hour, that’s $150. I could easily go to a store and instantly pay less for my time. What fundamentally needs to change in order to get us into this durability mode? Is there any kind of natural place for us to stop short of all of us wearing cardboard clothes or something? Or stuff made out of paper that’s going to fall apart? I guess, the no iron shirts would be close to that, right?

Cline: I know. It’s amazing how everything’s wrinkle free. You don’t have to do anything. It’s just bionic at this point. But sewing is definitely not about saving yourself time or even really about durability. People are getting back into sewing because it’s satisfying. And it’s not for everyone. But the people who do it love it because it’s just a way to connect with your clothes. We live our lives in clothes. So I don’t think it’s that surprising that people are looking for ways to interact with it in a more satisfying or meaningful way. And sewing is one way to do that. And I certainly do not have the skill. I will never be able to make most of what I wear. But I do enjoy being able to alter and tailor the things that I wear, and customize the things that I wear. And I think that that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to expect more people to get into. Just because it feels good. And it makes you like your clothes better. It honestly does.

Correspondent: So what we really need is an army of fashion alterers to go around and knock on people’s doors and say, “Are you happy with your clothes? We can alter these clothes to fit you for a small, modest fee.” And then people realize, “Oh! Well, I like these clothes better!” Maybe this is part of the solution? Maybe this is the way to durability?

Cline: Yes.

Correspondent: I think we have an idea here!

Cline: I just found out about a traveling seamstress in Williamsburg.

Correspondent: Really?

Cline: I was like, “Thank you!” Because I’m really lazy. Come to my house and fix everything of my own.

Correspondent: (laughs) So we have to bring the seamstresses and the tailors — it will be like how the old doctors used to show up to your home for in-house appointments. I guess this is the way to do it?

Cline: Maybe that will be my next career move.

The Bat Segundo Show #462: Elizabeth L. Cline (Download MP3)

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reutherlabor

The Bat Segundo Show: Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #458. He is most recently the author of The Great Divergence.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Holding onto the remains of his wallet.

Author: Timothy Noah

Subjects Discussed: The 1984 “Morning in America” ad, why the American public gets suckered into the American Dream panacea, the Kuznets curve, the decline of the bank teller, Obama’s 2012 State of the Union speech, closing the skills gap as the present Democratic position for increasing jobs, the WPA, high school graduation rate decline and skilled labor demand in the 1970s, universal early education, the high school movement, Richard Vedder’s notion of janitors with PhDs, college tuition being priced out of reach for the middle crisis, the 1% vs. the 99%, the American inability to grapple with income inequality, overseas jobs, Germany’s ability to hang onto its manufacturing sector, the decimation of the American labor movement, Alan Blinder’s ideas about an increase in skilled overseas jobs, the Lewis Powell memo, Bryce Harlow, Wal-Mart’s war upon unions, the dismal dregs of union culture in 2012, Occupy Wall Street and anti-activist regulations, Walter Reuther, the gender gap in higher education and with job income, decline of the male median income, closing the gender gap in income, sexism’s strange legacy, how women have exempted themselves from the great divergence, how immigration developments during the 20th century impacted 21st century labor, Paul Samuelson’s views on immigration, the benefits of unskilled labor, high school dropouts and declining wages, the recent Mexican immigration dropoff, checking up on Jim and Ann Marie Blentlinger, Bob Davis and David Wessel’s Prosperity, upward mobility and government jobs, the collapse of the US Postal Service, the brief benefits of computerization, being honest about the decline in upward mobility, and the expiration date of American exceptionalism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What about overseas jobs? I mean, two-thirds of all the people who made or sold iPods in 2006, as you point out in the book, were located overseas — most in production jobs. One of your solutions in the “What to Do” section at the end is to import more skilled labor. What of these Apple production jobs? I think I’m returning to what we were talking about earlier, about the difference between skilled labor and unskilled labor and moderately skilled labor. Surely, there needs to be some sort of infrastructure in place. Some patch till we actually get to this great skills gap solution which we seem to be talking about. I mean, it just seems to me that we’re trying to fight a very difficult problem with a form of idealism that is just incompatible with that reality.

Noah: Well, it’s very hard to compete globally for low skilled jobs. Because it’s a race to the bottom. You end up engaging in wage competition with some of the poorest countries in the world and that’s not going to make anybody prosper. If you look at a country like Germany, they’ve managed to hang onto their manufacturing sector. But the way they’ve done it is they have gone after the highly skilled manufacturing jobs. Of course, they also have a much more healthy labor movement. Here in the United States, we’ve had the labor movement been decimated or down and out. 7% of all employed workers. So another part of the solution is to rebuild the labor movement. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy to address these problems. But in talking about ways to address them, I decided there was really very little point in pretending that tiny little solutions were going to do much. I think it’s time to start a discussion about some of the more ambitious things we can do.

Correspondent: But as you also note, “If you have a job that you can perform from home, it’s worth asking yourself whether an English speaker could perform the job tolerably well from halfway around the world at one thirtieth the pay.” Do you think that America has the obligation to give everybody a job? That that might actually be the solution in some way? Or do you think the labor force really needs to revert to its inherent skills? Or skills that they can actually acquire to get those jobs? I think I’m trying to get an answer from you in terms of whether it’s actually the corporations’ fault or whether it’s education’s fault or whether it’s the people who are unskilled — whether it’s their fault.

Noah: Well, I don’t know whose fault it is, per se. I mean, I think our workers need to acquire those skills one way or the other. And anything we can do to encourage that would be good. Because offshoring is a real problem. Although interestingly, the projections from here forward are that offshoring will have a bad impact on our economy. But it won’t continue probably to have a very bad impact on income inequality. And that’s because those other countries are now coming after the skilled jobs. And it will be very interesting politically to see how that plays out. There are a lot of affluent people who, when you talk about other countries eating our lunch in manufacturing, they say, “Well, we need free trade. You have to have capital flow across borders. Otherwise, we won’t have prosperity.” Well, I wonder if they’ll still be saying the same thing when suddenly you have, for example, American radiologists competing with radiologists overseas. You’ve already got a bit of that. And there are any number of very highly paid jobs that could be performed offsite. And Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton, he says that he actually thinks that slightly more of the offshore jobs of the future will be skilled rather than unskilled.

Correspondent: Wow. Well, in 1971, Lewis Powell wrote a memo: “The American economic system was under attack from Communists, New Leftists, and other revolutionaries,” as well as “perfectly respectable elements of society.” So this memo results in this tremendous flurry of pro-business lobbying from organizations and so forth. Various consumer-oriented laws are killed through this effective lobbying. And that was forty years ago. Now pro-business lobbying today is arguably more pronounced than then. You point out in the book the figure — that the Chamber of Commerce spent $132 million in 2010. As you point out, not a single labor union could be found among the top twenty lobbyists. So how then can any pro-labor organization make a serious dent with these particular states? I mean, what hope is there for a modern day Walter Reuther in this post-Taft-Hartley age?

Noah: Well, it is true that the corporate power in Washington has vastly increased. And it increased not just because of the Powell memo, but really throughout the late ’60s and the 1970s, you had corporations absolutely flipping out at the rise of the regulatory state and counter-culture politics and Ralph Nader. And one person I write about in the book a great deal is Bryce Harlow, who is best known as a White House aide in the Nixon White House, where he was kind of a good guy. He was trying to keep Nixon honest. Failed at that, but he was considered one of the few honorable men in the Nixon White House. That’s all true. But he had a separate role where he spent most of his career post-1960. And that was as the Procter & Gamble representative in Washington DC. In 1961, when he came to work for Procter & Gamble, there were just a handful of corporate representatives in Washington DC. And Harlow looked around and thought, “We need troops here.” And he started going around the country and evangelizing and giving speeches saying, “We need to build up corporate power in Washington.” And one of the things I really like about Harlow is that he didn’t mince words. He identified the enemy as a movement towards greater equality. Sometimes people say, “Well, what does the rise of corporate influence in Washington have to do with equality?” Well, Harlow himself made the connection. And he succeeded. And Lewis Powell wrote that memo in ’71. Succeeded. Over time, corporations were bestirred to increase their presence in Washignton. Increase their lobbying. And they get a lot more done actually through lobbying than they do through campaign contributions. And as a result, you saw a change in our politics. It hurt the consumer movement. And it hurt the general movement towards greater equality. So, yes, that makes the task a lot more difficult. But I don’t think there is a bigger, more important challenge to liberalism right now than to find a way to rebuild the labor movements somehow.

Correspondent: Do you have any ideas on this? Because it’s pretty decimated and gutted. As you point out, the Walmart situation is terrible.

Noah: Yes. In part of the book, I have a narrative about the attempt to unionize a Wal-Mart in Colorado. And the extent to which the deck is stacked against labor is not to be believed. It is literally true that nobody has ever managed to unionize a Wal-Mart, except for once when the meat cutters in some place in Texas managed to get themselves declared a bargaining unit. And they voted to unionize. And what do you know? About a week later, Wal-Mart said, “We’re not going to be cutting meat anymore. We’re just going to be selling prepackaged meat.” So it is very, very difficult. But there’s an interesting idea that’s been put forward by Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation. Part of the underlying problem is simply a matter of law. I mean, laws favor management over unions. And the ultimate source of this is the 1947 Taft-Hartley law. Which was passed right before the peak of the union movement. But it acted as a slow-acting poison on the labor movement. So you need to roll back Taft-Hartley. And you need to revitalize the National Labor Relations Board. And Kahlenberg’s idea is: he says, “Look, nobody seems to really — it’s been multiple generations since anybody got really excited about workers’ rights. So rather than frame this as labor rights, why don’t we frame it as a civil right? Why don’t we pass a law saying that it is a civil right protected by the Civil Rights Act to organize a union?” It is actually illegal for a boss to fire somebody for trying to form a union. But the law is so weak that, as Kahlenberg says, it’s actually economically irrational for bosses to obey that law. But if you were to extend protection of the Civil Rights Act, then workers would be able to take their bosses to court and sue them. And that might change the equation. That might help.

Correspondent: I agree with you. But unfortunately, as we saw with the healthcare debate, framing anything as a civil right creates a protracted battle and constant gridlock and endless concessions. And as you pointed out with the Wal-Mart example, businesses are pretty much free to do whatever they want. If someone’s going ahead and being an irksome worker, well, we’ll go ahead and whack that part of our operations out. So is there any hope for labor when you have legislation against them and you also have this anything goes, unfettered approach from Wal-Mart and the like?

Noah: Sure. There’s always hope. There’s always hope. There was a time. If you go back to 1932, things were looking pretty bleak then too. And we got a government that was pro-labor And really the growth of labor unions was largely a result of the New Deal. So government could make it happen again. It’s very difficult in this environment, I will grant you. There is a huge amount of demonization of labor. I was talking with a liberal economics writer the other day. And he was saying, “The problem with labor unions is that labor unions in America, they have this culture that’s so adversarial.” And I said, “Culture? Culture? They’re down to 7% of the private sector workforce. You can have any culture you want. Because they’re going to be starting from scratch.” So I think there needs to be — as I say, it is the most difficult challenge. But I don’t think you’re going to see any substantial improvement towards equality without empowering workers. There’s just no reason for bosses to pay workers a lot of money if they don’t have to.

Correspondent: Do you think any movement that would actually amend some of these problems is not being adversarial enough? I mean, even Occupy Wall Street has to be careful. Because you have the police issuing all of these crazy regulations, as we saw with Federal Hall. And now you have competing statutes of how they can protest. The world’s most exclusive club at 25, as we saw. So the question is, well, they have to remain calm. Which is totally unprecedented if you look at our history. If you look at bombs going off in Wall Street decades before. So maybe the economics writer who you were talking to might, in fact, be right. That the problem is also cultural as well. Do you think that?

Noah: Well, you just need to be strategic about the proper methods to use. I think there are certain situations where an adversarial approach is called for. There are other situations where a cooperative approach is called for. One thing that distinguishes European — Western European — labor unions from American ones is they are more cooperative. They have a part of a three-part partnership between industry and labor and the government. Walter Reuther, who was I think maybe the greatest labor leader who ever lived, was the president of the United Auto Workers in the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s. And he tried very hard to establish something like that European model here. And it’s fascinating. He was a brilliant man. And he was constantly proposing things to management that would actually help the company. He would say — for example, after World War II, he said, “My workers will sacrifice some pay because we need to worry about postwar inflation. They will sacrifice some pay. But they have to see that management will show some restraint too by not raising the price of cars.” And this was a time when auto sales were oligopolistic in the United States. It didn’t have a lot to do with supply and demand. So you could knock the price down of the car and still have plenty of profit. Reuther would say — there’s actually one instance — I can’t remember if it was that instance or another one — where he was actually told, “You know, Walter, that’s a really good idea. But because it’s your idea, we’re not going to do it.”

The Bat Segundo Show #458: Timothy Noah (Download MP3)

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interns

The Bat Segundo Show: Ross Perlin

Ross Perlin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #393. He is most recently the author of Intern Nation.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he somebody signed him up for an unpaid internship.

Author: Ross Perlin

Subjects Discussed: Economic origins of the intern, Gary Becker and human capital theory, how economics contribute to intern culture, humane paid internships and varying definitions of “investment,” spending money to work for free, theological comparisons between internships and indentured servitude, free will and the virtual requirement of internship, Max Weber, the Fair Labor Standards Act, legal exemptions for trainees that permit unpaid internships to run rampant, Walling v. Portland Terminal, “employee” vs. “trainee,” the Department of Labor’s failure to enforce the FLSA, the loss of union and labor power in the last several decades, the six criteria for unpaid interns, why the internship phenomenon is largely white-collar, the many permutations of “perma,” college students who sacrifice considerable money but don’t get the college credit, education institutions who outsource oversight to corporations, the myth of academic credit in college interns, the assumption that college students know what they’re getting into, Lippold v. Duggal Color Projects (link to PDF), Lowery v. Klemm, sexual harassment of interns, discrimination and civil rights, interns forced to prove to the courts that they are legitimate employees before they can pursue grievances, power dynamics between interns and employers, the false sentiment that you can’t be a student and a worker, Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works, addressing correlation between increased wages and economic cycles, unpaid interns as the new temps, how short-term economic logic galvanizes present employment practice, middle-class hypocrisy as epitomized by Benjamin Kunkel, living wage movements, apprenticeships as both a legitimate alternative to internships and “the best kept secret,” the Fitzgerald Act, interns as the subject of cultural ridicule, the complicated class dynamics of internship, being privileged and exploited at the same time, interns and the working poor, the “winner take all” nature of the white-collar world, US vs. UK attitudes about interns, the difficulties of corroborating a secret world, and journalism as the first draft of history.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Perlin: It’s really clear that interns are used to plug holes. They’re used to plug operational holes. They’re used when there’s a hiring freeze. Whenever the wall has been hit in terms of labor costs supposedly for the employer. So that much is clear. In terms of the businessman who says, “Well, economically I can’t pay these people. I can’t do this. I’ve got a business to run,” I would say that is short-term economic logic at best. And at worst, it’s kind of a dangerous move.

Correspondent: Well, elaborate on that. Short-term, dangerous — what do you mean by that?

Perlin: Short-term in the sense that, by every measure, paid internship programs are better than unpaid. And so cycling back to something we had mentioned earlier, taking the long-term view — investing in people, investing in interns, investing in your newest employees in general — is something that has been shown to pay great dividends. To make it more concrete, I mention one example in the book of an employer that saves substantial money through a paid internship program. Because they save on recruiting costs. It’s used as a talent pipeline. Their success metric — something like over 50% of their interns can be hired in full-time roles. They basically calculated that their costs, as opposed to just having to go out and recruit new full-time employees — would be lesser if they could bring people in as interns. Interns are always going to be lower paid than regular employees. The costs are not that great. I mean, if you’re just talking about minimum wage for interns, this is not something which is really going to affect the bottom line that much. I mean, in a huge number of companies, you can have 1,000 interns for the price of one executive. I mean, that is the kind of spread we’re looking at these days in terms of salaries. So a company like this sees the economic sense. They do hire people. So, of course, if you don’t hire people at all, then maybe this sense would break down. But there’s a huge difference between the company which just uses interns on a short-term basis — unpaid. They have access to a narrower applicant pool for their internships. They don’t have access to the widest array of talent. A number of people I talked to reported that when they were going from paid to unpaid, or unpaid to paid, the quality of the people you get changes a great deal. Because if you have a paid internship program, just about anybody can apply, relatively speaking. Also, if you advertise it transparently, if you put it out there kind of like a job more or less, you’re going to have access to a broad talented pool of people.

Correspondent: Well, I was going to say that just having a short-term viewpoint isn’t enough. I want to give you a very good example. It’s right on the cover of your book. You have Benjamin Kunkel. He is one of the editors of n+1. He’s blurbed this book and he’s called it “a fascinating and overdue exposé.” But n+1, they, by the way, have interns who are not paid, who are involved according to the n+1 website with “printing, distribution, publicity, subscriptions, web administration, transcription, carrying boxes, and bartending.” So, in other words, it doesn’t sound all that different from say the Disney College Program or even a government internship, which we haven’t even talked about. There’s even an alleged Twitter feed of the n+1 interns. And I’m not sure if it’s a joke or if it’s actually them. But if Kunkel can commend your book and call it a muckraking exposé, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the fact that, well, he’s not going to be able to keep n+1 going without his interns, isn’t there a certain hypocrisy in this? I mean, if middle-class society uses and exploits interns, then what hope is there for changing people’s minds? Will they ever even see beyond the short-term? I mean, I agree with you that they probably should. But Kunkel, liberal-minded gent, look at what he’s doing.

Perlin: The publishing industry is one of the worst. It’s one of the worst offenders. The publisher of this book, Verso, has announced, making me very happy, that they have a well-paid, well-structured program. And I know they’re trying to spread that model in the world of independent, even left-wing publishing. But truly this has been an unpoliticized issue that it doesn’t rise to the level of consciousness. All kinds of people who see themselves as championing workers’ rights or who see themselves as liberal completely ignore this issue. Or they figure that all these interns are rich kids. So they can afford it. “It’s not a big deal if we don’t pay them.” Well, that’s an interesting statement. But, first of all, I would uphold the right of everybody to be paid for labor no matter what their background. And so I think to introduce a double standard is actually a dangerous idea. Even though people informally air that kind of opinion all the time. But, second of all, if indeed they are kids born with a silver spoon in their mouth, the question is: Why are those your interns? Well, because they’re the only ones who can afford to work for the non-pay that you’re offering. There probably are some smaller organizations getting off the ground that would have trouble surviving if they didn’t have interns. But in most cases, whether it’s a small liberal magazine in Brooklyn or a startup in the Midwest, whatever it is, they use interns to extend what they can do. To build up their capacity. To try and do more. They do it because they can. Because it’s there. And they haven’t questioned it. And one thing I’m hoping to do with the book is to politicize it such that anybody who wants to get up on soapboxes and say, “This or that is liberal. We should fight for workers. Protect workers and social mobility and social justice and talk about these kind of things,” will also look at their own workplace practices. But this is a much larger issue of people practicing what they preach, right?

Correspondent: Yes.

Perlin: In terms of work. In terms of labor. There’s so often a disconnect. Look at college campuses. Supposed hotbeds of liberalism. You walk into the lecture halls and you have Marxist professors elaborating on this or that. Until a few years ago, and this has only been in a limited kind of area, the people you had actually picking up the trash and keeping a campus running, cooking the food, etc., there was often very little connection between those big picture ideologies which are going on in the classroom and the treatment of those workers. The living wage movement on some campuses tried to rectify that and made a connection, but often you had people on those campuses theorizing about things that were happening in China or around the world, but not noticing the realities of work on their own campuses.

Correspondent: Well, interns — not only are they invisible to even the liberal-minded, but they also are something that people don’t want to see. I mean, you have people who are the working poor who are invisible. What is the solution to making them more visible? They are people too. They have debts they must pay. On the other hand, you also bring up apprenticeships in this book. But even electrician Don Davis tells you that apprenticeships remain the best kept secret. The interesting thing about apprenticeships is that they do pay an hourly wage. Some of them even provide healthcare, pension plans, day care, and the like. Is it really a matter of trying to make people more aware of something that’s secret? And if people in a business become more aware of something like apprenticeships, well, they may very well declare war upon them in the same way that they keep the concept of an intern invisible within their own folds. So do we start replacing internships with apprenticeships? Not necessarily just with books, but with people raising pitchforks in the streets?

Perlin: It’s amazing the extent to which apprenticeships — these are trade apprenticeships; blue-collar apprenticeships — are invisible to people who are not in that world, who are not in the trades. Especially in construction, which accounts for generally about 60%. 60% of all apprenticeships are engaged in construction overall. So unfortunately, yeah, if you raised more awareness about apprenticeships, it’s possible that there could be more of an attack on them. That there is legislation relating to it — the Fitzgerald Act, which established a registered apprenticeship program and standards that I see as a kind of model. Again, not incidentally, in the 1930s, as part of the golden age of labor legislation. I think that the reason apprenticeships have remained as they are is because these are generally heavily unionized fields where there are certain standards about what work should look like, what the humane experience is like, and because they work in a longer-term mentality. It’s something that’s been going on for seventy years. And from the employer’s point of view, a lot of employers welcome apprenticeships. And, in fact, the battle often is between the union and the employer over overuse of the apprentices by the employer. Because, even though apprentices are being well-paid and have a lot of benefits, as you say, relatively they’re still cheaper than using a post-apprentice union member worker. Which to me is indicative of the fact that internships would survive quite well, even if there was more regulation. Because again, interns will still represent quite a cheap reasonable solution for businesses to bring on new workers and to accomplish certain work. Even if they have to pay minimum wage, there will be quite a lot of scope for internships.

In terms of raising pitchforks in the street, I think apprenticeships are a real model for internships to look to. But it’s a huge hurdle to bring a blue-collar practice into the white-collar workforce in an era when the white-collar workforce is seen as the norm and the vanguard and setting the standard. It was shocking to me. And I think it’s shocking to a lot of people that here’s something that the blue-collar world is doing so much better. Training and bringing in young people and having a humane program. Invisibility? Yeah. I think there’s an invisibility about labor more generally. Interns are not invisible in the same way that apprentices or the working poor are. They’re featured in pop culture. Everybody sees them around. It’s known who’s the intern. They might wear a certain badge. Like in Washington DC, there’s a particular intern badge everybody knows on Capitol Hill. And people like to talk about interns. And it’s funny.

Correspondent: But they’re also the subject of ridicule.

Perlin: But often that visibility is that they’re kind of a laughing stock and that they’re figures of fun. But I think people do look at interns and they see middle-class kids. They see people who might become them, who they might work with later on. So there’s an atmosphere of civility. And there’s not the class distance often that there is with the working poor or with blue-collar workers, where there’s this feeling like, “Oh, that’s almost the other.” That’s a different somebody else. So that, in itself, represents an interesting problem. The class dynamics of internship are complicated for that reason.

Correspondent: But you’re dealing also with a certain dichotomy of perception. Wisconsin. People are really supporting the unions there. Interns? Not so much. Because of this idea: “Well, they knew what they were getting into.” It’s fascinating to me that there would actually be a strange inverted disparity with the unpaid white-collar worker versus the paid blue-collar worker. Or the paid social services worker. Do you think that’s part of the problem too? I mean, is there any way you can change that cultural perception? Especially since you have it supported not just by media reinforcement, but also by the fact that the U.S. government alone uses a lot of interns in various capacities. And it’s highly competitive. For the reasons we talked about earlier.

Perlin: Well, I think it’s hard to know what the degree of public support for interns is. In the UK, the public has been polled on the issue. And there’s a very strong feeling that interns should be paid. And a very strong majority feels that what goes on now is wrong. In the U.S., it’s hard to know. But I suspect you would still see most people thinking interns should be paid. But there are complex feelings. And I think that part of it is because there is, as you say, a strange dichotomy. Interns are both privileged and exploited at the same time. They’re privileged in the sense that they do have access to this experience that might put them over the top. That they can get into the white-collar workforce. They’re not in as bad a situation, arguably, as people who simply cannot pay to play and will never break into the white-collar workforce.

(Image: “The New Interns” by Nik Wilets)

The Bat Segundo Show #393: Ross Perlin (Download MP3)

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jej

The History of Verizon, Part Two (August 2000)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a continuation of my ongoing history of Verizon. Part One, which covers the months of April through August 2000, can be found here. Part Three, which covers the months of September through October 2000, can be found here.]

James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader, became the voice of Verizon. Jones had proved popular as the voice of Bell Atlantic and his services were extended to talking up this new brand with his instantly recognizable baritone. But the Baltimore City Paper‘s Joe MacLeod was having none of this. “You never once in your whole entire life said the word, ‘Verizon,’ I’ll bet, unless you knocked back too many highballs or were wacked out on that Special K or Vitamin C or one of those other letters, but now you’re going to say ‘Verizon’ all the time like it’s a real word, and you’re going to write checks to Verizon and call Verizon, and say stuff like, ‘The goddam Verizon’s on the fritz again.’ But it’s not. There’s no such thing as a Verizon. Don’t believe James Earl Jones. It’s a made up bullshit word, and they (and you know who ‘they’ are) probably paid James Earl an ass-load of money to pitch the Verizon on the teevee.”

Whatever “ass-load of money” was paid to Jones, eight years later, Verizon’s name now trickles across the cochlea without cognitive dissonance, thanks in part to Jones’s efforts. The campaign, overseen by Bozell, ensured that the last dregs of Bell Atlantic would be cast asunder for this great leap forward. Jones would later use his position at Verizon to siphon off a hearty combo of Verizon and NEA money for a Magna Carta exhibit, present a $25,000 literary-tech grant to a San Ysidro school, present literary grants, and hand off awards to Russian cinematic talent. In 2002, Jones, testifying before a House Subcommittee on Education Reform, would declare, “I could not be more proud to be associated with an exceptional company like Verizon.” Even when speaking at the 2007 Buffalo Book Fair on literacy, Verizon was indelibly attached to Jones’s words.

In 2007, Jones walked away. While Jones served as a pitchman, Verizon’s contract had restricted Jones from any long-term commitments. Jones’s contract kept him off the Broadway stage until 2005. Jones, in fact, would not appear in any films between 2001 and 2004. In an interview with NWA WorldTraveler, Jones explained, “[Verizon] let me be silly for 15 years on camera — breakdancing and all that. I was as silly as I dared get. They understood that this guy usually is taken as dignified, with a big voice, so they said, ‘Let him be silly,’ and it’s worked!”

But was this really a position for an actor of Jones’s dignified stature to be in? How many dramatic presentations or Broadway performances were lost because Verizon required his services? With a strike heating up in August 2000, the Workers World News Service went further: “Who’s on the board of directors? Not James Earl Jones.” The WWNS proceeded to name names. “Your may not see these folks in the Verizon ads. You may not see their faces on your telephone bill. But these corporate interests are part of the system of exploitation that dominates our lives from telephones to political offices.”

But was Verizon really maintaining a system of exploitation? Or was it just practicing the most ruthless business practices necessary to get ahead?

With the Bell Atlantic-GTE deal receiving FCC approval, Verizon began making quiet payments to ensure its continued expansion. GTE paid $2.7 million to end an inquiry concerning allegations that it had refused to let local phone equipment in GTE offices without the construction of special facilities. Even though the FCC permitted local phone companies to place equipment at their central offices, GTE had insisted upon special equipment cages. The FCC had permitted the local phone companies to place their equipment in COs without the cages, but that hadn’t stopped the phone companies from complaining. Thankfully, money was one of those magical mechanisms that helped end such gripes.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming strike threatened to halt Verizon operations. More than 86,000 telephone workers from Maine to Virginia planned to walk out. On August 4, 2000, Verizon submitted a proposal to the unions. Verizon agreed that it would increase wages by 3 to 4 percent a year for union employees and improve pension plans. But with the income disparity between union and nonunion workers still unaddressed, and the details on job security and very specific demands still unclear, the unions balked. As one particularly prescient Verizon worker said, “Because the company would rather farm out work, this means one company installs the line on the outside of the building, which is us, and another on the inside, which is them. This results in a big headache for the customer, who has to be at home for two days instead of one, and a loss of income to a nonunion company.”

There are other interesting figures to consider here. In 2000, Verizon’s wireless operations generated $532 a year in revenue from each customer. A telephone company customer earned a meager $324 a year. Verizon’s wireless employees were nonunion and its telephone company employees were union, thus resulting in considerably more revenue from its wireless operations. In other words, Verizon had a vested interest in ensuring that its wireless employee basis would remain nonunion. In a competitive market and a declining economy, profit was king. And one Wall Street analyst, speaking to the New York Times under anonymity, suggested that if Verizon’s wireless unit were completely unionized, it would cost the company $300 million a year.

On August 7, 2000, with no negotiations in sight, the workers walked out. Basic services were not affected, but repairs and installations were. Verizon created a stopgap by deploying 30,000 managers — all working 12-hour shifts — to cover services that were normally performed by employees. One technician opined of the managers, “‘I think none of them are qualified to do what we do. Most of [the managers] were educated in college, but they’re not technically inclined.”

The union members were dressed in red, picketing in solidarity. One customer service reporter told the New York Times that she was “tired of being treated like a second-class citizen within the company,” but declined to give her name. Verizon had informed employees that they would be fired if they discussed joining the union at work. Most of the striking workers were former Bell Atlantic workers. The GTE units were not directly involved.

News of the Verizon strike hit many outlets, but some overlooked the company’s considerable expansive efforts. As The Motley Fool‘s Chris Rugaber reported, “While that story is important, investors interested in the telecom sector should pay just as much attention to the company’s announcement yesterday that it has already signed up 1 million long-distance customers in New York.” The company’s goal was to reach the one million mark by the end of 2000, but Verizon was five months ahead of schedule. Verizon pledged to donate $1 million to New York charities to celebrate this achievement.

By August 8, 2000, the strike had gone on for three days, with neither side coming to an agreement. “We continue to frankly plug through some of the more difficult issues that confront us,” said Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe. “It’s become sort of an intense, exhausting sort of a process.” Rabe claimed that there had been 455 acts of vandalism, violence, and harassment of Verizon managers over the previous six days. Eggs and bottles were thrown at those who crossed picket lines. Verizon offered a $250,000 reward. These acts went further. On August 8, 2000, the New York Times reported that vandals had begun slashing telephone cables in New York, causing thousands of New Yorkers to lose service. But Communications Workers of America vice president Al Luzzi declared, “We don’t condone vandalism; we never did, we never well.” Luzzi suggested that Verizon managers might be responsible for the cut cables. Nevertheless, two striking Verizon workers were nearly electrocuted when they confusedly cut through a power cable that they believed to be a phone line.

James Henry, a Bear Stearns analyst, observed that if the company could maintain service without its 85,000 employees, this would be an effective marketing tool. One that would give the company solvency, so long as the strike didn’t last beyond a week. Indeed, in the early days of the strike, Verizon customers did not experience considerable disruptions in phone service.

That same day, Verizon announced that it would be teaming up with NorthPoint to build a new broadband company. The move was on to shift broadband services to DSL. Lawrence T. Babbio, Verizon’s vice chairman and president, boasted that he was putting in 3,000 DSL lines a day. With the new company under NorthPoint’s name, Verizon was looking at a service capacity of 600,000 DSL lines. With Verizon making an $800 million investment in the new company, with $450 million of these funds allocated to network expansion and product development, NorthPoint only needed federal approval, which was expected in mid-2001. NorthPoint was an appealing acquisition because of its business customer base. Business customers could be counted upon to generate more revenue than the garden-variety consumers that Verizon had within the Bell Atlantic network.

But in November, Verizon decided to pull out. Verizon claimed that it terminated the deal because it didn’t care for NorthPoint’s deteriorating business and operating conditions. NorthPoint, counting upon the $800 million, was apoplectic. Said Liz Fetter, NorthPoint’s Communications President and CEO, “I am stunned to get the news after months of conversations with Verizon on the strong business opportunities available to the combined entities. Verizon was not entitled to terminate these agreements, and we are exploring all our options, including funding options and legal remedies.”

There was no breakup fee for terminating the deal.

NorthPoint had seen its stock decline from $39.12 a share to $2.50 a share in just under a year. The Verizon setback caused NorthPoint stock to plunge to a mere 75 cents per share. Verizon’s stock, by contrast, gained 81 cents that same day. Brown analyst Michael Bowen said to CNN, “If they lose Verizon they don’t have much of a future.” Sure enough, Bowen was right. After a round of lawsuits that NorthPoint had filed against Verizon, a NorthPoint shareholder sued NorthPoint about accounting malpractice. Because of these circumstances, 19% of NorthPoint’s workforce was laid off just before Christmas. In March 2001, NorthPoint would eventually file for Chapter 11.

Did Verizon have every intention of backing out of the NorthPoint deal? It is difficult to say with any accuracy, but I do intend to investigate this.

It should be pointed out that NorthPoint enjoyed a great success between 1999-2000, with its stock rising 68% on its first day of trading (like many dot coms) and alliances brokered with the likes of Microsoft. Led by CEO Elizabeth Fetter, a 41-year-old antique collector with a penchant for restoring historic homes, NorthPoint had relied on the Baby Bells to install DSL, but was often dissatisfied with the speed at which it could roll out its service. And although the future looked bright for NorthPoint (and fellow competitor Covad) in light of recent regulatory advantages, NorthPoint had been hit, like many, by the downturn in the economy. Verizon’s cash influx was just the kickstart that would help NorthPoint expand. But NorthPoint, expecting a fair deal, relied on the money instead of questioning it.

So why did Verizon go after NorthPoint? Did it make similar overtures to Covad? Was NorthPoint simply too hungry to expand? And why didn’t NorthPoint’s counsel ensure that the Verizon deal was airtight? Did Verizon see NorthPoint as a competitor it could whittle down? Or did it have even some intention of cooperating with Verizon all along? These questions will require investigation.

On August 9, 2000, the New York Times reported that Verizon and the unions were nearing a negotiation that “might make it easier for the unions to organize workers” at the Verizon Wireless unit. But the strike had heated up. Verizon reported 455 strike-related incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism to the police in twelve states. With the New York summer heat rising, tempers were too. A Verizon maintenance truck run by a nonunion Verizon contractor was battered and remained stuck under a maintenance gate when a striker gained access to the gate’s remote control. New York State Supreme Court Judge Louis York granted a temporary restraining order that barred picketers from preventing workers and managers from conducting their work. Verizon increased its $10,000 bounty to $25,000.

On August 8, 2000, Verizon’s shares plunged, dropping 14%. It was Verizon’s sharpest one-day freefall since 1987. The NorthPoint deal hadn’t helped. Nor had Verizon’s bid to acquire OnePoint Communications. The terms of the OnePoint sale were not disclosed, but OnePoint was known for the DSL services it provided to apartments and office buildings in nine major U.S. metropolitan markets. Unlike NorthPoint, OnePoint had remained private.

Back on the picket lines, the struggle remained tense. 24 union members had been arrested. Waste and birdshit were tossed upon five Midtown South Precinct officers monitoring picket lines, dumped from the top of Verizon’s 41-story headquarters. The police did not plan to rule out management or strikers. And the 8,000 workers protesting outside Verizon’s headquarters participated in a rally the next day that spilled over into Bryant Park. Even presidential candidate Ralph Nader made an appearance on the Fall Churchs, Virginia picket line. Meanwhile, one advertisement featuring a Verizon worker in a hardhat with the slogan, “Bell Atlantic has a new name,” remained in circulation.

Some commentators, such as the New York Times‘s Mary Williams Walsh, suggested that the customer-service complaints had become a new labor issue. Walsh pointed to Verizon’s requirement by CSRs to ask customers, “Did I provide you with outstanding service today?,” which made at least one feel like an idiot. But if the CSR did not answer the question, then a supervisor listening into the call would deduct points from the performance score. Was the burden of having to be nice all the time something to fight over? Walsh depicted the typical Verizon worker working four hours in the morning, four hours in the afternoon, with an hour off for lunch and two 15-minute breaks. But the stress arose because a supervisor kept track of every workstation using a color-coded grid. In one glance, the multihued squares would reveal whether a CSR was keeping someone on hold for too long and when a CSR signed on and off. One CSR named Patti Egan pointed out that there was only a two-second window between calls, without time to type up the order of the last caller. Often, unfinished orders were set aside, to be presumably completed during one spare two-second moment. Factor in the pressure for CSRs to upsell callers on features and the incentive for a call center to sell $60,000 worth of products a month if the CSRs want to move out of customer service and into jobs without sales duties, and the pressures that the workers were fighting for became all too clear.

By August 14, 2000, Verizon had made a new offer to the unions. But Communications Workers of America spokesman Robert Master declared it “old wine in new bottles.” But the picketeers has started to thin. The thousands of workers who had struck in the previous week had been reduced to 750. Nine days into the strike, employee Danny Marino remarked, “I didn’t think that it would come to this, definitely; I thought this would last only two or three days.” He had been married the previous month. Meanwhile, managers continued to take care of the 80,000 requests Verizon was receiving each day.

On August 16, 2000, the unions declared that they would break off negotiations with Verizon if they could not reach an agreement by midnight the next day. Mandatory overtime and job security remained the two 900 pound gorillas swinging in the room. But the next day, the workers continued talking past this deadline

As the strike took a considerable toll on Verizon’s stock share and federal rules prohibited companies from owning more than one license in a metropolitan market, Verizon unloaded wireless franchises in Chicago and Cincinnati to an investment group led by J.P. Morgan.

Finally, Verizon and the unions reached a tentative agreement. Nonunion wireless employees were permitted to organize. Two-thirds of the strikers settled on a contract two days later. The workers agreed to a three-year contract, procuring a 12% wage increase over three years. And Verizon had imposed a condition upon wireless union organization: if 55% of the employees at a work location agreed to sign cards, they’d have a union. Union telephone workers won the right to conduct more work, such as the installation of high-speed Internet lines. Mandatory overtime would be reduced, but it would still be mandatory. On the work stress issue, the unions were given five 30-minute periods each week whereby the CSRs could perform work that didn’t involve calls. But the two-second window between phone calls had gone unacknowledged.

Three years later, when the contract ran out, there would be another strike. But the next time around, Verizon would not cave. Verizon and the unions would agree to a new contract in September 3, 2003, with a one-year wage freeze, new hires not covered by the job security provisions, and one that would last five years. Five years. The precise length that Verizon had insisted in 2000. The precise length that had worried the unions because of the rapid changes in the telecom industry.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the unions were preparing to strike again. The numbers now? 86,000 in 2000. 65,000 in 2008. I will examine how this workforce figure was reduced and go into the 2003 strike in forthcoming installments. But for now, I’ll simply observe that the renegotiated five year contract expires on August 2, 2008. Whether the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will learn a few lessons from these previous two strikes remains to be seen.

The Bat Segundo Show: Steven Greenhouse

Steven Greenhouse appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #213. He is the New York Times labor reporter and the author of The Big Squeeze. My review of the book can be found here.

Condition of the Show: Reporting upon the darker truths of America.

Author: Steven Greenhouse

Subjects Discussed: Whether economic factors of the 1970s or Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous maxim caused the current strife between corporations and workers, the social contract that came from 20th century labor negotiations, why workers settle for less, temps exploited by HP, being treated like dirt, mock memos circulated to cope with downsizing, The Office, why workers aren’t revolting, Bowling Alone, The Pursuit of Loneliness, how what we do for fun has transformed in the past few decades, the worker-friendly company policies of Patagonia, prodigious cafeteria options for workers, the shocking disparity of parental leave policies in different nations, tracking the lunch hours of workers, computers vs. martinet managers, call center workers, workers who slack off vs. a robust economy, Cooperative Home Care Associates and the benefits of workers on the board of directors, independent contractors, job security, the New York Times hiring freeze, Neutron Jack Welch, The Disposable American, companies who display “too much loyalty” to workers, workers who “get used to” hard and immoral company tactics, climbing the Wal-Mart ladder, the workplace as a cult, unrealistic American dreams, billable hours, the allure of promotion, Greenhouse’s proposed solutions, and a living minimum wage.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Look at Jennifer Miller, who is this woman who worked at HP for ten years. She didn’t have to work as a temp for that long. She could have easily cut out. She could have gone and demanded more from the HP managers. So I would argue that the workers who have allowed themselves to be placed in these particular conditions are perhaps just as responsible as these businesses and these corporations that are trying to squeeze out more profits and also trying to combat the influx of low-cost imports.

Greenhouse: Again, Ed, you ask a good question, and it’s hard to say. Jennifer Miller was a worker at HP. High school graduate. Very little college. She started as a McDonald’s worker. She became a McDonald’s manager. She got tired of that. Then she got a permanent job at HP. That job was sent overseas. So she was kind of bought out. Then a few months later, she was approached. “How would you like to return to HP as a temp?” She thought it was going to be a two-month gig. And as I explained in the book, she was there for ten years as a temp. She said that the job was good. It used a lot of advanced skills. She was often treated with respect, but she said the bad thing was she was a temp and didn’t get the same benefits as HP workers. She didn’t quite get the respect. So you ask why didn’t she quit?

Correspondent: And I should point out that she was even barred from the company parties. I mean, this is a key indicator. In my view, I would say, “Well to hell with this. I’m going to find someone who I can be on staff with.”

Greenhouse: It wasn’t just she. But all temps were barred from the company — you know, they might create a wonderful new piece of software, created a wonderful printer, and all the regular permanent employees could go to the party and celebrate and go for the two-day ski holiday to celebrate. But the temps who work alongside the regular workers in a crazy situation, they weren’t invited to the parties. So yeah, for someone like Jennifer, there was some eating humble pie there. So the question is why didn’t she quit? She said, “For me, Jennifer Miller, a mere high-school graduate living in Idaho, that was a terrific job. I was making $30 an hour. I was really using my brain. I was often working alongside terrific people. Sort of semi, somewhat treated as an equal. But on the other hand, no.” And she said, considering what else was out there, going back to McDonald’s working as a manager, which isn’t such a bad job, but she said working at HP as a temp was better. Her argument was HP was good in many ways, but there was this one big negative. That she was treated as a temp.

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