My Encounter with the "Precarious and Service Workers Assembly" of Occupy Oakland
In early spring of 2012, announcements appeared at various internet sites calling for a “Workers Against Work -- Precarious and Service Workers Assembly,” ostensibly connected to or an outgrowth of the Occupy movement in Oakland, California.
The first leaflet I saw for it said this:
“As service workers, we are often both overworked and underpaid; with Management forcing workers to work ever faster in an ever shorter amount of time. Productivity and speed-of-service requirements increase while hours per week are slashed. It’s clear: The harder we work, and the less we get paid, the richer they get! Many of us are already in tough situations as parents, immigrants, young people and students. Racism is blatantly apparent at many of our workplaces, with Latino and immigrant workers confined to back of the house positions, maintaining a racial hierarchy to keep us separated. For some, a job at a restaurant or a café is a 2nd or even 3rd job, a result of the declining wages of other careers. Even worse, we often find ourselves forced into student loan and credit card debt because of low pay. All the while, rent, food, and transportation costs climb through the roof.
“As frustrating as it may be for us to admit, our labor is useless. We produce nothing of lasting value. Whether its serving coffee, preparing food, or manning a cash register and being nothing other than an accessory for cash transactions. We are part of a massive sector of work, a whole generation that does little more than fill very temporary roles. We are the ones who put a smiling face on circulation. But we don’t need to tell you: Work fucking sucks and we all know it, so let’s do something about it!…”
This statement and the trajectory of action it implied were an excellent first step. As someone with a multiple decade-long track record of low wage temp and service sector gigs, I have an intense personal stake in seeing sustained, collective resistance to exploitation emerge among my fellow wage slaves in the service sector.
And this pertains to matters bigger and badder than anything as trivial as my isolated individual situation. As noted here:
“Some depressing facts: (In the US) Nearly half of people ages 16 to 29 do not have a job. A quarter of those who do work in hospitality -- travel, leisure, and of course food service. A study of 4 million Facebook profiles found that, after the military, the top four employers listed by twentysomethings were Walmart, Starbucks, Target and Best Buy. The restaurant industry in particular is booming; one in 10 now work in food service – 9.6 million on us. These numbers are growing each year.
“Food and retail jobs usually don’t pay a living wage -- let alone enough to pay back student loans – and they’re supplanting jobs that do. The average restaurant worker made $15,000 in 2009, compared to $74,000 for a manufacturing worker. Factory work, once the default employment choice for newly minted adults, was backbreaking and monotonous. But, if unionized, it was also stable, full-time, and decently paid.
“None of these things are true of the modern service industry, and shockingly few people are working to change that. Only 2 percent of food service workers are union members. Big unions like the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union opt to organize health care workers and teachers instead of the folks behind America’s bars and cash registers…the restaurant workforce is changing. Whereas in the 1970’s you could visit a steel mill and declare all the metal pourers “working class” today philosophy majors from Brown are making lattes alongside folks who grew up poor and assumed they’d sling drinks for life…” (“Minimum Rage,” Nora Willis Aronowitz, ‘GOOD’ Magazine, Spring 2012, taken here from the July-August 2012 issue of the UTNE Reader)
No tendencies exist within the American political system to slow, let alone halt, much less reverse massive accelerating structural social inequality. The buying power of most working people’s wages began losing ground to the cost of living in the 1970’s, and this has occurred in tandem with a battery of social, tax and regulatory policies that have brought about a constant massive redistribution of wealth upwards into the hands of an ever smaller number of the rich and the ultra-rich. The spontaneous rapid emergence of the Occupy movement was a response to pandemic inequality. Occupy has subsided, but Occupy was probably the first in a series of popular resistance movements to come. Workers in a vast expanding service sector are not in the strategically central position to fight back that employees of the transportation, communications and power generation sectors are, but the sheer numbers of people in low-wage dead end service sector jobs can make the service sector crucial in the rise of a wider and deeper working class hostility to capitalist America.
As Aronowitz points out, unions largely ignore the service sector, and in any case union membership numbers have been declining for decades. Capitalist business organizations of the AFL-CIO and SEIU stripe are losing their ability to buy social peace for the capitalist class by integrating a significant percentage of the wage-earning class into a lifelong stable system of exploitation. Unions do not command the material, ideological or emotional allegiance of most wage earners in the US and from an aggressive anti-capitalist perspective this is good news.
The gap Aronowitz notes between conventional upwardly mobile expectations of mainstream college graduates and the abysmal realities of the job market can be the fertile soil in which an antagonism to this social order grows. And bad news faced by college grads at Starbucks or Trader Joes is worse news for hardcore working people, for whom escape into the professional strata via college degree is not an option, and who are acutely threatened by lumpenization, criminalization, and complete dispossession. Decades of declining wages, the absence of any credible work-with-the-system option for profound structural reform, the decline of the unions and the attendant fortunate disappearance of the union’s Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist camp followers have created preconditions for a 21st century anti-wage labor politics in the spirit of the old IWW. A proliferation of “Precarious and Service Workers Assemblies” initiated by energetic, inventive, determined and persevering enemies of capitalism could be a huge step towards catalyzing nationwide resistance among an expanding hard-pressed sector of the contemporary wage earning class. Social inequality may become the fatal Achilles heel of capitalist America.
In statements on http://www.indybay.org, Facebook and elsewhere, the people initiating the Precarious and Service Workers Assembly were clearly animated by authentic anti-capitalist/anti-work and ultra-left sentiments now fashionable among some twentysomethings in the Northern California anti-authoritarian subcultural identity scene. While it is pleasant to see a great availability of authentic communist/ultra-left documents and analysis on the internet, what happens on the internet stays on the internet, exists only on the internet, and never makes the leap to the non-virtual, indisputably alive, corporeal world, the world we actually live in, and the only world that matters.
I’ve been around the Northern California anti-authoritarian subcultural identity scene since the fall of 1982. In this 30-year span of time, with the very partial exceptions of Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails, I do not know of a single case where anarchist scenesters have produced a credible, ongoing, collective public manifestation of what they claims to be about in the world outside of their hermetically sealed subcultural cocoon. Activities of the Northern California anti-authoritarian/anarchist scene exist solely to reproduce the scene’s existence as an abject, passive, terminally disengaged drop-out culture phenomenon, and these activities only take place in the very safest of safe settings.
My gut instinct was that none of the people calling for this Assembly of Precarious and Service Sector Workers had ever been involved in a real-world attempt to assert the ferocious insurrectionary sentiments that they express on their Facebook pages. However we all have to start somewhere, and the new opening and energy provided by Occupy gave reason to think this effort was not going to be another self-indulgent drop-out culture trip, but a sustained attempt to spread resistance and unrest among mainstream working people. My hope was that this could be part of the next step for Occupy -- to move from being a protest ghetto phenomenon into becoming an actual proletarian social movement for our time, sinking deep roots in the everyday life struggles of the vast majority of wage earners who pay no attention to the left, and who never go to protest ghetto events.
The first meeting of the Precarious and Service Workers Assembly was in early March 2012. The meeting that I attended was some weeks later in April. I arrived on time at a park near downtown Oakland. I was the first person there. Some minutes later another person appeared, an individual who I had encountered on previous occasions at the subcultural scenester space Station 40 in SF’s Mission District. This person told me with some embarrassment that the Assembly was probably not going to happen that day, since most of the people involved were bailing to go to a barbeque. This didn’t fill me with confidence, but we remained, and more people trickled in. With the passage of an hour or so a group sizable enough to conduct a meeting was present.
After meeting several times this “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” still had no focus or sense of forward motion. There was vague talk of getting revenge on some obnoxious insignificant small business owner who had been mistreating friends of the assembly members but even this led to no specific proposals for action. I got the impression that the real focus here was not on temp and service sector employees as such, but on anti-authoritarian subculture scenesters who currently had service sector gigs, and were apparently discovering for the first time in their lives and to their tremendous awe and amazement that working for a living is not endless fun fun fun. Food kyped from workplaces was shared at the meeting. I am as fond of high quality Bulgarian yogurt and French Roast from Peets as the next downwardly mobile bohemian déclassé, but I also tried to make a point here that the emphasis of this Assembly should not be on the satisfaction of our individual petty survival needs, but on using the wind at our backs from Occupy to try to catalyze some larger movement of resistance into being. Taking stuff from the boss is fine, but we can never remotely get back what’s taken from us in wage labor with this. As with large-scale urban looting, these “molecular attacks on the commodity-form” are subatomic in the scale of their insignificance. This effort needed to focus on mainstream working people in the larger society around us, and not on indolent slackers who were out to get kicks from fleeting acts of rebellion and who were into industrial strength hanging out.
One long-time subcultural philosopher at this meeting proposed that future meetings should be even more like a social gathering. He may have even used the word “party,” and he didn’t mean the class party, either. Against this I asserted that the point of an effort geared to the real world struggles of service sector proles was not to provide scenesters with a social life. I wanted this to be less like a social gathering and more like a social movement.
Time was of the essence in this matter. This was not because the world revolution was about to break out, but because any initial enthusiasm was fast giving way to characteristic anti-authoritarian entropy. I strongly suggested this Assembly should begin some kind of ongoing effort among employees of Whole Foods Market. This wasn’t simply to give us something to do, although this was clearly needed. It would give us a tight focus on a specific target.
As of spring 2012, Whole Foods Market had more than 300 locations. A 2010 estimate on Wikipedia was that Whole Foods employed more than 58,000 people. Whole Foods is one of the largest green capitalist service sector employers. As at other low wage service sector companies, employees are expected to enthusiastically employ the plural-possessive “we” form in regard to their employer, and Whole Foods has become notorious for its Church-of-Scientology-meets-the- Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers creepy workplace management style. Two years earlier Whole Foods Market’s Creep Number One, John Mackey, had been the subject of a borderline sarcastic profile in the haute bourgeois 'New Yorker.' The 'New Yorker' piece took jabs at Mackey’s enthusiasm for the philosophy of the bad novelist and Nietzsche-of-mediocre-people Ayn Rand and noted that Mackey is an avowed global-warming denier. I don’t want to pander to vulgar populism, but a ripe target can make extremist communication tasks much easier, and Mackey of Whole Foods is like a buffoon plutocrat out of a Three Stooges short, garbed in earth-toned drawstring hemp dungarees and Birkenstocks instead of tuxedo tails and silk top hat.
I don’t work at Whole Foods. I’ve never worked there. I don’t shop there. I have no personal feelings about that company. I am not out to “get revenge” against them. Whole Foods is solely a means to an end. In 21st century class conflict terms any and all employers are nothing but a means to an end, that end being to abolish market society and replace it with a society worthy of the human beings who live in it. Efforts inside and against a large high profile employer whose antics allow it to accumulate visible ill will can spread similar actions in similar and less noticeable workplaces. Agitation, propaganda and more complex forms of action that would develop out of an initial targeting of Whole Foods could potentially spread into other service sector companies, both big and small, akin to the way that concentric rings flow outward after a pebble breaks the surface of a pond.
One of the people at the meeting was employed at the Whole Foods in the Haight. This person told of hassles he’d endured there and of how friends and co-workers had been fucked over at Whole Foods as well. In theory he could use his insights to help in a bigger ongoing effort. But an anti-Whole Foods project that would demand a real commitment of time and energy drew only the usual anti-authoritarian passive nodding sympathy. The Whole Foods employee sat on his hands grumbling but exhibited no motivation to use what he knew to raise sustained hell against the employer. If this individual’s supposed subjective radicalism and first hand experiences at Whole Foods weren’t going to be a foot in the door for sustained, credible, real world activity among precarious and service sector employees on the part of this self-styled “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” then it was a big question what would.
This meeting of the “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” was taking place a few weeks before May 1, 2012, the date of the second “General Strike” called by Occupy Oakland. The first “General Strike” the previous November 2 had been called with barely two weeks to spread the word, and although the day of that “General Strike” saw a large, festive and enjoyable rally downtown and a march to and shutdown of the Port of Oakland this event cannot remotely be described as a general strike, since less than two percent of the city’s wage earners opted out of work that day. In the Nov. 2nd “General Strike” almost all missing work in connection with the “strike” were either using their sick days or got permission from employers to participate. By all salient indicators the Nov. 2nd “General Strike” was not even remotely a general strike, let alone a successful general strike. This wonderful-world-of-make-believe approach to the complex and depressing larger realities around us is embedded in the DNA of the harmless and disengaged anarchist subculture as well as in the larger SF Bay Area leftist protest ghetto, and it bled into Occupy Oakland as well. For example, some self-indulgent fantasists insisted on calling events in front of Oakland’s City Hall and related phenomena the “Oakland Commune,” blithely oblivious to the fact that work and commerce continued as always everywhere in the city among virtually one hundred percent of the city’s populace, starting with the cafes and boutiques a few yards from the outer perimeter of Occupy Oakland’s stinky hippie tent encampment.
Apparently nothing had been learned from the general-strike-that-wasn’t of Nov. 2nd, since to the best of my knowledge there was no effort to get the word out to the city’s wage earners at large, and in easy to understand language, in the lead up to the second “General Strike” of May 1st, 2012. The phrase “General Strike” means about as much to contemporary mainstream US working people as the possibility of ammonia-methane based life on Saturn’s moon Titan does. A more effective and intelligible way to reach our fellow wage slaves was going to be to call for everyone to call in sick on May First. Everybody who has to work for a living knows what calling in sick means. A mass call-in-sick-to-work day on May 1st was going to interrupt the flow of surplus value more effectively than a call for a phenomenon that implies a level of collective identity, historical memory and connectedness that does not at present exist in the US. And with a little luck it might establish a precedent for a mass calling in sick on many May Firsts to come. Why did this simple and obvious step not occur to anyone connected with Occupy Oakland?
With nothing more pressing in the works, people in the “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” were up for wallpaper pasting posters and leaflets for the upcoming “General Strike.”
I committed to drafting the text of a poster for May 1. It read like this:
"WORK: It takes everything from us. Other than headaches and hassles it gives little back. And wage slavery isn’t just an unavoidable evil; selling our labor power to get money to buy back our survival is the source of all the other accelerating social problems we see around us.
This Tuesday May 1st, join tens of millions of other wage slaves on all seven continents and register your discontent. Give yourself a break.
Workers of the world, relax…
TUESDAY MAY ONE is GLOBAL CALL-IN-SICK-TO-WORK DAY
On Tuesday May 1st vast numbers of people across the industrialized world will be taking the day off. You can do it, too. Pick up the phone and give yourself a one-day holiday. Call in sick to work on May 1st. You’ve earned it. The boss owes you."
Others in the group did a good job of laying out a leaflet version of this text with a cartoon graphic of an office worker. People in the "Assembly" supposedly hung them around Oakland in the days leading up to May 1st.
A few days after May 1st I walked the length of Oakland's Telegraph Avenue, from near City Hall downtown to Berkeley and to the UC campus and saw a small handful of the "Call In Sick" poster in 8.5 by 11 inch flyer form. I know something about communicating with posters. To be effective you have to hang so many of them that your message becomes repetitive and impossible to miss. I was making an effort to find these, and found fewer than two dozen along a multiple-mile long stretch of Telegraph. Did these fans of The Invisible Committee do a less invisible job hanging these anti-work flyers elsewhere? I was struugling against the usual mounting obvious evidence to keep giving these Circle-A-scenesters the benefit of the doubt.
Due to conflicts with my schedule at my new low wage service sector gig I wasn’t able to attend the next several meetings of the “Assembly.” In their online internal discussion list the Assembly members suddenly evinced a big interest in relating to hookers on the Mission District’s Capp Street stroll as sororal comrades in the precarious workers struggle. Attendant proposals included a “fuck work party” -- a logical event to invite prostitutes to -- at the scenester space Station 40, and holding a “forum” where people who don’t like their jobs could figure out how to find another job. This last proposal was worthy of a temp agency, and drove home the obvious fact that there was not even the faintest hint of an ethos of outwardly directed real world social struggle here.
All online chatter now focused on “sex workers.” This grandiloquently titled “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” had made no credible effort to engage with mainstream workers in the service industry -- note that I say “credible,” as opposed to slapdash, half-assed, juvenile and desultory. With no actual orientation toward mainstream working people, and as always too timid to stray from their comfort zone, the scenesters had conveniently shifted orientation, with prostitution described by one fool -- the probable author of the ridiculous, later-day Black Panther groupie "Bay of Rage" web page -- as “a major source of precarious employment.”
Only a little boy who has just moved out of his mommy’s house and spends too much time online can claim that “sex work” is a “major source of precarious employment.” Conditions are bad in the United States, but we are not as unfortunate as people in the post-collapse territories of the former Soviet Union. People who earn money selling sex acts are wage slaves, and prostitution is in all ways a “precarious” way to make a living, but that doesn’t add up to sex workers being a significant percentage of the wage slave class, let alone a significant potential combative segment of the class. A real world, focused-on-the-working class, subversive effort cannot be geared specifically around sex workers any more than it can be geared specifically around left-handed gas station attendants who have a harelip. This isn’t because left-handed gas station attendants with a harelip are not authentically a part of the working class, but because there simply aren’t enough of this extremely specific category of exploited and dispossessed person to merit specific attention. You have to choose your battles wisely and strategically and there are only so many hours in a day.
A movement of mass working class resistance is never going to begin among streetwalkers. Why do I even have to make such an absurd and obvious point? A lack of opportunities for ongoing mass direct action adds up to zero class struggle. Double entendres aside, what collective leverage do sex workers have against their exploitation? What kind of mass job action can they energetically use to bring pressure against their bosses, and squeeze a better deal out of them? To say this is to say a mouthful. I have now slid into a role that would be better played by John Cleese or Graham Chapman in a Monty Python sketch. This happens with preternatural alacrity when attempting to relate to a phenomenon as ridiculous as the Northern California anti-authoritarian subcultural identity vortex on anything but tongue-in-cheek terms.
I was out the door of this “Assembly” of inert gas. This effort had never been about actual working people in the real world. I am not a John or a social worker so I have no interest in running around after street ‘hos. My humor chops weren’t nimble enough to continue with a non-effort that had sailed beyond the point of comedy. With nothing to gain and less to lose I posted my opinion on the online discussion thing, saying that that unless you have a Superman cape, and expect everyone else to wear one as well, and presume that with this that you can immediately cure all of the ills of contemporary society a “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” has to have a very clear and narrow focus. An ongoing agit-prop effort exclusively geared toward low wage service sector employees, as this effort had initially billed itself as being, will have a greater potential in the larger society around us than focusing on the difficulties of Capp Street hookers.
I suggested that those fired with an exclusively-focused-on-street-prostitutes enthusiasm should form a distinct and separate effort to rescue the hookers of the Capp Street corridor.
A characteristic anonymous response from one of the professional victims in the "Assembly" was this:
“As one of the many sex workers who are involved in the precarious workers assembly, I do not think that Kevin Keating should be welcome, based on his obvious disdain for us and our involvement in the project. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but being that at times the meetings are between 1/4 and 1/2 sex workers, I think it is safe to say that his opinions on the matter are bullshit and that there shouldn’t be a place in the assembly for him.”
This hissy fit conveyed with the concision of a haiku what’s found on the rare occasions when inhabitants of the anti-authoritarian subculture venture out of their hermetically sealed feedback loop into the big bad outside world.
Here’s my translation:
1. “The world revolves around me, and around whatever is of microscopic immediate interest to me. As soon as the rest of the world acknowledges this obvious fact, we’ll all get along fine.”
2. “I get a charge out of my pose as a great rebel and threat to the social order. But my lack of conviction and corresponding emotional fragility are so pronounced that I can’t stick up for what I claim to believe in, comport myself in an upright manner, and wage an articulate argument against an opponent. It’s always easier to run to mommy. Luckily all of my fellow scenesters are members of the run-to-mommy crowd. And --“
3. “I play the victim card whenever possible. This gives me a credibility that my paucity of acts might deny me. Upper middle class white guilt is often a significant component of the personality structure and motivations of the anti-authoritarian scenester, so playing the victim card is almost always a winning move.”
“To the degree that there is any substance at all beneath all that posturing and gas we all know that most U.S. anti-authoritarians are in fact weak liberals. Our response to the world outside of our hermetically sealed subcultural feedback loop is limited to throwing temper tantrums at protest ghetto events and engaging in either charity activity or volunteer social work. Since no one can cop a nitrous buzz off acknowledging that they are in fact just a weak liberal we go for a more exciting, scary word, like ‘anarchist.’ We do so love that frisson of danger -- all the excitement and sense of menace and none of the time-consuming commitment and inconvenience! It’s the perfect form of risk-free radicalism in a society where everyone wants to be entertained all the time!”
As long as I’ve got my sarcasm checkbook out, dare I ask what concrete acts of solidarity our mighty subculture weenies could have engaged in with the Mission’s ladies of the evening? It‘s not likely that hardened hookers run by pimps from Richmond would allow themselves to be condescended to by these achingly naïve, coddled and clueless offspring of relative class privilege. Maybe the “Precarious Workers Assembly” would help a tiny number of young women to individually opt out of a wretched situation where they turn tricks to make a buck. If so, the totally politically righteous comrade pimps might object. A single predatory tough guy from Richmond could mop the floor and the inside of a garage pail with the entire San Francisco Bay Area-plus-Modesto-and-Santa-Cruz anarchist scenes while keeping one ring-bedecked hand behind his back. Maybe “insurrectionists” who dabble in sex industry work to piss off their bourgeois dads would take a more sex-as-commodity-positive direction here and help facilitate the Sisterhood-is-Powerful vocation of authentic impoverished girls doing car dates on fat, bad-smelling, butt-ugly Johns in the vicinity of 21st and Capp. This is all speculation. It doesn’t appear that this Prostitutes-as-Precarious-Workers trip was pursued with any more vigor or diligence than the early pretensions in relation to mainstream service sector workers were. It was just one more slumming streety pose briefly adopted for the titilation of sheepish subculture slackers.
What subsequently became of this self-styled “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” is a mystery to me. It sank without leaving a trace. The scenesters of this “Assembly” have never produced a post-mortem account of what they thought was useful or could have been avoided in their efforts. The “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” connected to occupy Oakland did nothing. It communicated nothing. It went nowhere. It amounted to nothing. But at least it still has a Facebook page.
By the same author:
Some Critical Notes on Occupy Oakland's Attempt at a General Strike http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/36566
In San Francisco's Mission District, the Black Bloc Breaks Some Windows and Fails to Make an Impact http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/45670
Other docs: http://www.infoshop.org/myep/love_index.html