There was a time when I was beating my head against the brick wall of Capitalism full force. I had to imagine, as someone once told me, that it was slowly crumbling on the other side, but the reality of the situation is that there is an army of people over there with bricks and mortar as far as the eye can see, shoring it up. One person is not a movement.
I learned quite a bit in my years of being a labor vigilante. I can’t say “organizer” because I didn’t succeed in organizing anything. Maybe I was an activist. I wrote emails and made phone calls. I dropped off literature. I was mostly ignored because I live in a “right-to-work” state. This was confirmed by the fact that, when I could find people who would talk to me (the IWW was the best about communicating), they were absolutely terrified about what I was trying to do. I remember one guy specifically who told me to “delete everything” and protect myself. While I was protected by Federal law, I didn’t have a lot of recourse if I was fired, other than an expensive court battle.
He said that “you are at war now. It will never be over,” and although I feel that I have surrendered in a way, he was correct. It’s never over when you’ve given up and you’re living under occupation. If you don’t win, and you don’t die, you’re enslaved.
I know that I didn’t just worry strangers in more labor-friendly states. My friends and family began to stage a sort of intervention. I love them for that, because while I do care about my fellow workers, I was also throwing myself into a meat grinder without much support or chance of success. I was surrounded by people who were sympathetic but afraid. They had bills to pay. They had families.
It was also a self-serving action on many fronts. Here I was, a guy who had worked retail for years. I’d finally graduated college and I felt like I had nothing to show for it. The “recovery” after the Great Recession wasn’t an actual recovery for many, and this was where the whole “angry millennial” meme began. Welcome to the Dystopian Present. The precursor to climate change disaster Mad Max. When were we, as Americans, ever faced with so little hope? I guess apocalypse always loomed, whether it was the great wars of the 20th century or the specter of nukes falling, but the new assessment seems different. More final. When there’s a famine coming at the end of the century that no one seems to be trying to avert, I don’t have much hope for anything.
Over the course of my life I recall this idea of “progress”, that the human race was marching towards something better. As the years have dragged on those Star Trek dreams have been wrecked. The seemingly endless prosperity of the 1990s led to the Forever War of the 2000s onward. The current political climate doesn’t help, but that’s something I refuse to comment on other than making shitty jokes.
Maybe this is just my American mind getting a taste of Globalization. It’s always been pretty shitty everywhere, for most folks. Now that we’re getting a taste of toiling away our entire lives for not much gain, which has been the human experience forever, we’re recoiling in horror. All the more reason to try to improve life for everyone.
Here is the worst thing, though, for us who work to keep ourselves housed and fed and clothed: the same system that eats the world, and tells us we have to as well, calls us shitty losers for supporting it. It’s the abusive cycle of a brute who comes home every night punches his wife in the face and calls her cooking shit and tells her that no one else will ever love her. The company would pay you as little as it could, but it pays you this much because it has to. Love us or we’ll move overseas where we can really have fun!
Some of you are proud of a job well done because it is ingrained in you. Call it Protestant Work Ethic or whatever you want. I love working with you because you carry me when I am down. There is still plenty of that in me, but it’s crushed every time I’m treated unfairly. It gets choked out every time someone tells me they were forced to attend a meeting without pay, or that their company is dodging overtime with loopholes.
They abuse it. They schedule you for breaks you don’t have. They understaff you and then some, until the Skeleton Crew isn’t even a skeleton anymore, just a heap of discarded mismatched bones. Then, something happens. Your frustration turns you on the customers. The customers get frustrated by slowness or inaccuracy and turn on you.
There’s something I tried to impress on restaurant workers for a long time, when I was agitating. I talked to some workers who were being forced to attend meetings without pay. They were also woefully understaffed and they told me that they were sabotaging orders. This flies in the face of unity because those customers are workers too. They’re retail employees, cooks, teachers, nurses, gas station attendants, spending their hard earned dollar on a night out and you’re ruining it because some rich fuck won’t spend more on payroll? I turned it around. I said “if you’re going to harm someone, take it the other direction. Maybe they ordered the 6 oz. steak. Oops. Now it’s 12.” I can tell you right now that it didn’t work. Shit always rolls downhill.
And this! This is the frustration. That we are impotent. We literally cannot do anything in these states where, by law, we are hampered in our actions to organize. What are our options? Sure, go back to college. Again? Fuck. Please check and make sure you are in a field that almost guarantees employment. Nursing is hot right now, and probably always will be. Be prepared to get thousands of dollars more in debt, and work to support yourself while doing it. I will shit on universities all day for being life-mangling debt mills that leave people working at Starbucks with their fancy diploma, but there’s still value to an education, especially where professional skills are required. Tech is still doing well. Don’t forget the trades! We will always need electricians and plumbers.
Until then though? Until you slog through life with whatever action plan, until you make it as that actress or writer, until you land a job with a big airline, until you get your alternate teaching certification, until your adjunct faculty job turns into full-time, until you die ten minutes after putting together your last crunch-wrap-supreme, until then, what? Rage until your heart explodes? We can’t all get fired having a strike in a state where those are illegal.
This has been brewing inside me for a while now. We need a sign. Not a flag or a banner or a button or a pin. We need something we can put anywhere, any time. A symbol that no one else uses. A symbol of distress and protest. A symbol that lets other people know the situation without flying a red banner or telling our boss to go fuck themselves.
For example, there’s a debate, constantly, about how late you should enter a business that is about to close for the night. I mean, heck, if their hours say “open until 9pm” then you should expect service until 9, right? Some people even expect that if they make it in the door, olly-olly-oxenfree, they should be able to hang out as long as they want. In a perfect world I would agree with this.
Thing is, you have a shift that should be staffed with three that’s only staffed with two. Or one. Maybe it’s as simple as a flu outbreak or as complicated as one guy just got done working from 5 am to 2 pm at his OTHER job, because no one pays enough for people to get by on just one job, and came in to close the shop here, at his second job, and he’s physically exhausted. Maybe the other employee is a single mother working her way through college who didn’t sleep last night because the toddler kept her up. Maybe they’re not even allowed to put out a tip jar. Maybe they’d be out of there by 9:30 pm but your church youth group is going to have them there until 11. Hell, they’re getting paid, right? Maybe. Depends on where they work. Maybe they’re in overtime and they “had to” clock out because someone impressed that upon them.
Maybe you’re at a restaurant and the staff has had to endure multiple unpaid staff meetings. Maybe you’re at a clothing store and the person assisting you is off the clock because they’ve worked over forty hours and the company wants to dodge overtime by giving them comp time next week. Maybe the person finding your book for you has had so many missed breaks over the years that their company owes them thousands of dollars. Maybe you’re just an Intern! Maybe you’re salaried but you don’t even fit the legal description of a supervisor and are owed overtime. Maybe you’re given “special projects” to do, unpaid, at home. Maybe you can’t get your work done in the office because of bad staffing so you take it home with you. Maybe people on your floor are FUCKING DYING because there aren’t enough nurses.
What if there were a way to communicate to our customers, our coworkers, our students and our faculty, our patients, that we are in distress and we have no voice? That we cannot organize or better the situation? How can we communicate, at least communicate, to our fellow humans, that we are not being compensated. That we are understaffed, sometimes dangerously understaffed depending on occupation. That we are a door-to-door salesman that hates their job but has to pay child support? That we are shoving this credit card application down your throat because we’ve been threatened with unemployment and we weep at home because we thought we stood for something but you need to know that we don’t mean it when we say you’re going to get all these “benefits”.
How can we communicate that we want to teach your kids to be creative and curious and not practice for tests all day every day but we have to?
A symbol is something anyone can do. They don’t need special tools. Any object that will make a mark, and a surface. Chalk or marker to board, pen or pencil to paper. You don’t have to wear it. You wouldn’t want to because this situation is caused by lack of power. I have had the worst time organizing people because they are afraid of losing something.
There’s something that people do as a sign of distress all over the world. If it is discernible, they fly their flag upside-down. If it’s the same either way, they tie it in a knot.
What if there were a way to tell people “I’m doing the best I can but the system has me under duress. I want to improve things but I cannot because of my station,” but without the flag?
Some sort of Peace Sign for oppressed labor.
I’m not a graphic designer, but to me what is most striking is a backwards dollar sign.
It’s not in ASCII code so it can’t be typed. It would give corporate types fits trying to include it in emails. I’ve seen those warning emails. “Starbucks union may be in town! WATCH OUT!”
It’s not hard to draw. It can be put anywhere. A post-it. Receipt paper. Easy to create, conceal, destroy.
The thing about a symbol is that it has to be free and people have to use it. Well, as far as I can tell, this one doesn’t currently carry meaning. I’m not up to boiling this down into meme format.
We all still have to work. We have to interact with other humans who tell us not to be proud. We are forced to do things we don’t want to do in situations we’d rather not be in because we have to feed ourselves and our families.
If you can’t wear a union pin, maybe, at least, you could scrawl that somewhere by your register, or on that paper tablecloth.
Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s like entering “sad face” on the latest clickbait.
As a “help me” and a “fuck them” and an “I’m sorry” all rolled into one, though, I think it could work.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled Hot Pocket.