March 13, 2005

Someone is stealing your life

Posted at March 13, 2005 10:07 PM in Daily Life .

I've always really liked this essay by Michael Ventura. I think it speaks to the experience of a lot of people in this world. I posted it on a weblog a long time ago but I felt like doing so again.

Someone is stealing your life

by Michael Ventura

(Excerpted from LA Weekly 26-Jan-90)

Most American adults wake around 6 to 7 in the morning. Get to work at 8 or 9. Knock off around 5. Home again, 6-ish. Fifty weeks a year. For about 45 years.

Most are glad to have the work, but don't really choose it. They may dream, they may study and even train for work they intensely want; but sooner or later, for most, that doesn't pan out. Then they take what they can and make do. Most have families to support, so they need their jobs more than their jobs admit to needing them. They're employees. And, as employees, most have no say whatsoever about much of anything on the job. The purpose or service, the short and long-term goals of the company, are considered quite literally "none of their business" - though these issues drastically influence every aspect of their lives. No matter that they've given years to the day-to-day survival of the business; employees (even when they're called "managers") mostly take orders. Or else. It seems an odd way to structure a free society: Most people have little or no authority over what they do five days a week for 45 years. Doesn't sound much like "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Sounds like a nation of drones.

It used to be that one's compensation for being an American drone was the freedom to live in one's own house, in one's own quirky way, in a clean and safe community in which your children had the chance to be happier, richer drones than you. But working stiffs can't afford houses now, fewer communities are clean, none are safe, and your kid's prospects are worse. (This condition may be because for five days a week, for 45 years, you had no say - while other people have been making decisions that haven't been good for you.) I'm not sure whose happiness we've been pursuing lately, but one thing is clear: It's not the happiness of those who've done our society's work.

On the other hand - or so they say - you're free, and if you don't like your job you can pursue happiness by starting a business of your very own, by becoming an "independent" entrepreneur. But you're only as independent as your credit rating. And to compete in the business community, you'll find yourself having to treat others - your employees - as much like slaves as you can get away with. Pay them as little as they'll tolerate and give them no say in anything, because that's what's most efficient and profitable. Money is the absolute standard. Freedom, and the dignity and well-being of one's fellow creatures, simply don't figure in the basic formula.

This may seem a fairly harsh way to state the rules America now lives by. But if I sound radical, it's not from doing a lot of reading in some cozy university, then dashing off to dispense opinion as a prima donna of the alternative press. I learned about drones by droning. From ages 18 to 29 (minus a few distracted months at college when I was 24) I worked the sort of jobs that I expected to have all my life: typesetter for two years, tape transcriber for three, proofreader (a grossly incompetent one) for a few weeks, messenger for a few months, and secretary (yes, secretary) for a year and a half. Then I stopped working steadily and the jobs got funkier: hospital orderly, vacuum-cleaner salesman, Jack-in-the-Box counterperson, waiter, nail hammerer, cement mixer, toilet scrubber, driver.

It was during the years of office work that I caught on: I got two weeks' paid vacation per year. A year has 52 weeks. Even a comparatively unskilled, uneducated worker like me, who couldn't (still can't) do fractions or long division - even I had enough math to figure that two goes into 52 ... how many times? Twenty-sic. Meaning it would take me 26 years on the job to accumulate one year for myself. And I could only have that in 26 pieces, so it wouldn't even feel like a year. In other words, no time was truly mine. My boss merely allowed me an illusion of freedom, a little space in which to catch my breath, in between the 50 weeks that I lived that he owned. My employer uses 26 years of my life for every year I get to keep. And what do I get in return for this enormous thing I am giving? What do I get in return for my life?

A paycheck that's as skimpy as they can get away with. If I'm lucky, some health insurance. (If I'm really lucky, the employer's definition of "health" will include my teeth and my eyes - maybe even my mind.) And, in a truly enlightened workplace, just enough pension or "profit-sharing" to keep me sweet but not enough to make life different. And that's it.

Compare this to what my employer gets: If the company is successful, he (it's usually a he) gets a standard of living beyond my wildest dreams, including what I would consider fantastic protection for his family, and a world of access that I can only pitifully mimic by changing channels on my TV. His standard of living wouldn't be possible without the labor of people like me - but my employer doesn't think that's a very significant fact. He certainly doesn't think that this fact entitles me to any say about the business. Not to mention a significant share in ownership. Oh no. The business is his to do with as he pleases, and he owns my work. Period.

I don't mean that bosses don't work. Most work hard, and have the satisfaction of knowing that what they do is theirs. Great. The problem is: What I do is theirs too. Yet if my companion workers and I didn't do what we do - then nobody would be anybody's. So how come what we do is hardly ours? How come he can get rich while we're lucky to break even? How come he can do anything he wants with the company without consulting us, yet we do the bulk of the work and take the brunt of the consequences?

The only answer provided is that the employer came up with the money to start the enterprise in the first place; hence, he and his money people decide everything and get all the benefits.

Excuse me, but that seems a little unbalanced. It doesn't take into account that nothing happens unless work is done. Shouldn't it follow that, work being so important, the doers of that work deserve a more just formula for measuring who gets what? There's no doubt that the people who risked or raised the money to form a company, or bail it out of trouble, deserve a fair return on their investment - but is it fair that they get everything? It takes more than investment and management to make a company live. It takes the labor, skill, and talent of the people who do the company's work. Isn't that an investment? Doesn't it deserve a fair return, a voice, a share of the power?

I know this sounds awfully simplistic, but no school ever taught me anything about the ways of economics and power (perhaps because they didn't want me to know), so I had to figure it out slowly, based on what I saw around me every day. And I saw:

That it didn't matter how long I worked or what a good job I did. I could get incremental raises, perhaps even medical benefits and a few bonuses, but I would not be allowed power over my own life - no power over the fundamental decisions on which my life depends. My future is in the hands of people whose names I often don't know and whom I never meet. Their investment is the only factor taken seriously. They feed on my work, on my life, but reserve for themselves all power, prerogative, and profit.

Slowly, very slowly, I came to a conclusion that for me was fundamental: My employers are stealing my life.

They. Are. Stealing. My. Life.

If the people who do the work don't own some part of the product, and don't have any power over what happens to their enterprise - they are being robbed. And don't think for a minute that those who are robbing you don't know they are robbing you. They know how much they get from you and how little they give back. They are thieves. They are stealing your life.

The assembly-line worker isn't responsible for the decimation of the American auto industry, for instance. Those responsible are those who've been hurt least, executives and stockholders who, according to the Los Angeles Times, make 50 to 500 times what the assembly-line worker makes, but who've done a miserable job of managing. Yet it's the workers who suffer most. Layoffs, plant closings, and such are no doubt necessary - like the bumper stickers say, shit happens - but it is not necessary that workers have no power in the fundamental management decisions involved.

As a worker, I am not an "operating cost." I am how the job gets done. I am the job. I am the company. Without me and my companion workers, there's nothing. I'm willing to take my lumps in a world in which little is certain, but I deserve a say. Not just some cosmetic "input," but significant power in good times or bad. A place at the table where decisions are made. Nothing less is fair. So nothing less is moral.

And if you, as owners or management or government, deny me this - then you are choosing not to be moral, and you are committing a crime against me. Do you expect me not to struggle?

Do you expect us to be forever passive while you get rich stealing our lives?

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