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Introduction: Work or Die

Although we spend most of our time working, there is a strong taboo against open discussions of problems we have at work.
Annalee Newitz, Kim Nicolini, and Steven Rubio

Issue #32, April 1997

Although we spend most of our time working, there is a strong taboo against open discussions of problems we have at work — particularly if those problems involve status or income. When we experience injustice at work, it's usually related to these problems, and it's very tempting to believe that we're in the wrong. After all, most people won't acknowledge these problems, or talk to us about them, and perhaps that means that we deserve to be treated badly. Especially in the United States, we tend to confuse bureaucracy with meritocracy, virtually blinding ourselves in order to believe that the people above us who are being rewarded actually deserve it. If you're upwardly mobile, it's particularly difficult to believe that your success may be arbitrary, that somebody you passed on your way up to the next income bracket might have done your job just as well as you do. And if you're downwardly mobile or stuck in a low-ranking job at your work, it's easy to internalize your position, thinking that perhaps you're not good enough to get paid better. When people do speak out against injustices, they do so with restraint, knowing that they can only speak so loudly until their words become a threat and they lose their jobs.

One reason some workers in the United States suffer our silences in private is that we are simultaneously cut off from other workers because of class stratification, and we are refused permission to talk about class as a legitimate concept for discussion. Workers on the bottom tiers of the hierarchy have precious few opportunities to communicate honestly with workers in higher-level positions, and vice versa. Each group suffers their work-related problems in isolation, and people at or near the bottom are expected to blame their own lack of skill or will for their position, rather than any inherent class structure within the system. The people at the bottom blame the people in the middle, the people in the middle blame the people on the bottom, no one blames the people at the top because we all hold out hope that one day it will be us ruling the roost, and all of us blame ourselves for not already making it to the top. There is little solidarity amongst the workers toiling beneath the bosses, because the unspoken assumptions about class encourage the workers at various levels in the hierarchy to believe that they have more differences than similarities with other workers of different classes.

scaryfiles One of the biggest reasons people do not speak out, do not organize, and force themselves to bear injustices in silence is because of fear. They are afraid if they speak out, they will lose their jobs. Once a person has been labeled as a "trouble maker," it makes it harder for her/him to find a new job. People need their jobs to live, first and foremost. In these days of downsizing and high unemployment, those who have jobs count themselves "lucky." The reality of the work world combined with media coverage of lay-offs, takeovers, and company relocations to overseas all work together to instill an overwhelming sense of paranoia in the worker. So what if my job is horrible, if I'm underpaid, overworked, and suffer injustices. A shitty job is better than no job. If I lose my job, I'll lose everything. Sadly, the truth is that if a worker loses his or her job, especially here in Northern California, the chances of finding new full-time work with benefits are pretty slim.

In this issue, we explore and criticize a variety of work-related experiences. Articles like Cynthia Hoffman's, and Freya Johnson and Annalee Newitz's, explore the relationship bewteen money, bureaucracy, and victimization. Others, such as Mark VanProyen's and Tim Jackson's, look at the ways professional workers can come to terms with their privileged position in a class-divided society. Kim Nicolini focuses on what it means to recognize the work that people do in our daily lives that we don't normally notice, while Steven Rubio writes about his own reaction to working in the eloquently titled "In Defense of Fucking Off." Finally, Noodle McDoodle talks about being a factory worker and day laborer, and how that changed the way he imagined his future.

Work is the most powerful force in most people's lives. Not God. Not family. Not art. Not education. Work. Getting up to go to work; waiting for the next paycheck; problems and anxieties at work; Decreasing benefits and increasing workload at work. The average worker spends over half his/her waking hours at the workplace. Those hours do not include the time spent "getting ready" for work, commuting to and from work, unwinding from work, and thinking about work. How can the worker reclaim her life?

Copyright © 1997 by Annalee Newitz, Kim Nicolini and Steven Rubio. All rights reserved.