Sunday, October 09, 2005

Bait and Switch

By Danny Alexander

On my drive this weekend, I listened to both Kanye West albums over and over again (really clearly two chapters of the same book), which were perfect counterpoints to the toxins Barbara Ehrenreich explores in her brilliant Bait and Switch.

I've told Daniel Wolff that his 4th of July, Asbury Park tells the story of my hometown, but Ehrenreich gets at that particular quality of my hometown that was distinguished by the fact that it was, essentially, white collar and corporate. I was just writing elsewhere how I used to stand outside of the Phillips Petroleum headquarters as a kid and sell newspapers to the employees as they headed for the tunnel that led to their cars.

From 4:30 to 5:00, certain people would leave early every day, and the general mass of people leaving were blue collar people who worked in maintenance and on the headquarters’ docks, etc. They were not a happy bunch, but they tended to walk in groups, swinging lunch pails and cutting up. They had some life to them. By 5:15, when the white-collar folks started drifting out of the buildings, the sense of camaraderie was all but gone. Gray people in gray clothes who smelled of coffee and cigarette smoke funneled into the tunnel for the next 45 minutes. My father, being a borderline workaholic, spent much of his time battling the same kind of soul death and frustration I saw in these faces. Since I lived alone with him, and I was at an age where he could, I guess, he talked to me a lot about his lack of fulfillment in his work, and I knew that I never wanted to work in that environment even without seeing that vague helplessness reflected in so many others. (Ironically, I do work in that sort of an environment in many, many ways--combined with school, which also seemed to be out to kill my soul and the souls of my teachers all through those same years.)

Anyway, Ehrenreich's journey into the white collar world-- particularly the "transition industry" of desperately underemployed people selling career planning advice to other desperately underemployed and unemployed people--captures more of what I grew up around than I can easily quantify. It speaks directly to my dad's story in particular.

He worked his way from engineering into an area where he could find more satisfaction--systems management. He liked working with people, and he brought a lot of problem solving techniques and collaborative methods with him from a social movement he was involved in, and he constantly worked to reform the organization to be a more human, responsive environment. He believed in ideas like "Quality" and "The Learning Organization" and so forth with the most uncynical eye imaginable. He had to. It was the way he was finding meaning in his job. And he was good at it. I used to hang around his office quite a bit, and his people genuinely had a great deal of affection for him.

But the company where he taught teamwork for over a decade (he was there about 30 years overall), had no problem cutting him or anyone else from the team in the 80s. Like thousands of other Bartians (what we call people from Bartlesville, Oklahoma) in that decade, he grabbed early retirement to avoid losing his job and his benefits down the line. He was going to go into consulting. It would be hard at first, but he'd find his niche. He had a great record, he was passionate, and people liked him.

You know what happened--not that. He tried going back to school and learned that management professors thought all of his experience was anecdotal irrelevancy, and he wasn't good at kissing prof ass, and though he finished the course work, he lost interest in the dissertation. Occasionally, he gets some short term job, but he's never been able to make a living at what he did again.

Ehrenreich captures the way the very ideas my father promoted have been twisted. He spent his life selling the way a humane, rational system should work and found those ideas used against him as the system's fundamental drives took over. Unable to actually land a job above commission sales, after spending $6000 on workshops and career coaching, Ehrenreich never gets into the white collar workplace, but she gets to know the gray, confused and/or falsely chipper people who have been cast aside (many of whom run the transition industry workshops to "help" others find their way in the marketplace).

Bait and Switch needs to be read for a wealth of worthwhile particulars, but the overall picture is one of a system taking care of itself by selling its victims a million reasons to blame themselves and keeping them from ever even considering the option of organizing as a class. These are the twin betrayals my father and so many other workers face. All of their lives, they stood up for the Democratic Party in a hostile environment. In my father’s case, he also spent the better part of his life trying to bring his compassionate, humanistic ideals into the workplace. Believing that people could organize around such ideas rather than class interests, these workers found both turn against them, and they can’t let go of the dream they spent their lives trying to fashion out of their surroundings.

Ehrenreich's book provides countless insights into the vagaries of the white collar worker's inoculation against his or her interests but also the enormous untapped potential of organizing these workers with all of those lower income workers who have already been cast out of the system. 4th of July, Asbury Park, Luis Rodriguez’s new novel Music of the Mill and Ehrenreich’s book all hold important keys to this transformation.


Blogger Lauren said...

i hear ya. It is such a touchy subject when talking about people's whole life's work and all their dreams and ideals not turning out quite like they wanted. There is probly millions of other "gray" people out there dealing with the same thing but it is in comprehensible for them to believe they really might have been burned so bad. Thats just really hard.

11:59 PM  
Blogger bartian63 said...

Yeah, as a father myself, knowing my daughter is going to be summing my story up all her life, I suppose we need to accept that we are not the story but a part of a bigger story....

And take heart in our part of it. It can all be called failure until we succeed, but that's not the real deal. The real deal's not giving up on the bigger picture though we may have to give up on a whole line of work.

1:24 PM  

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