I was admonished recently for creating diatribes that were, at heart, counter-propaganda: That is to say, I was reacting to some talking point or some newfound policy in the news and criticizing its framework and its references and its assumptions, but in addressing it on its own terms I was still allowing its progenitors to dictate the public conversation.
Alright, I can see that. To say “this particular piece of legislature – let’s say, the battle in the New York State Congress over new restrictions on welfare – is another notch in the ‘welfare queens/young bucks’ racialist/classist line of discourse” is to play into the hands of the GOP because the discussion immediately starts on the defensive when it comes to moralizing about welfare recipients. This sort of political touchstone, where certain topics are discussed only within certain frameworks – such as Black-on-Black crime, or Black criminality in general being referenced in the same breath as civil rights – can’t be fought by simply putting one’s nose to the grindstone and refuting everything. The framework itself must be transcended.
It occurred to me, however, just how well the wrongheaded terminology had sunk in. Propaganda is the right word for it, and the difficulty in simply creating new frameworks of thought is that people don’t recognize them at all. To wit:
My last full-time job was in a non-union private sector tech firm in New Jersey run by two families of orthodox Jews. There was a clear divide in hiring practices and compensation between those in the family or connected to the family, and, to put it euphemistically, the non-chosen. My supervisor was the highest ranking goy and had attained his position by being the face of bad news – the liaison for information filtered downwards. The staff under him ran largely on a Klingon promotion system except the salaries were flat and the college recruitment fairs were a constant threat to job security.
The largely Latino and Indian technical staff grumbled under this yoke. They complained that the money wasn’t enough to live on, and every last one of them either had a second job, lived with their parents, or was struggling in a two-income household. Coming from a union shop prior to this job, I suggested what they needed was collective bargaining. To a man, they balked. “Unions are evil and corrupt; they take your money and don’t do anything.” A senior technician conceded, “they may have had some use before, but they’re obsolete nowadays; we don’t need them.”
And yet the stories continued: So-and-so got fired for talking back to the general manager. Plum job positions that many members of the technical staff were eminently qualified for weren’t open for application except by family. The health coverage would have bankrupted anybody who tried to use it because of the high deductibles, and indeed was a separate plan than what the family received. The costs of the Affordable Care Act and the payroll tax hike were simply taken out of the employees’ wages. The company cried poor when it came to annual cost-of-living increases but had as many “paper” employees as real ones.
This came to a head a year into my employment when the same lead technician who dismissed the idea of starting a union became the de facto shop steward when he summarily called a staff meeting and spent thirty minutes giving a list of demands to the general manager, having notated practices of the last six months as well as passages within the new employee manual that went against New Jersey state law. Ah! I thought: Here we have collective bargaining, where all the staff are nodding and grunting in assent as our representative runs through his list of grievances, but we just can’t call it “collective bargaining.”
So I asked the senior technician, if this is to be the case, what’s stopping us from having meetings to discuss when we’re going to follow up on whether the general manager addresses the problems put before him? Ah, well, they’ll “put you on a list” if you do that, he replied. Sounds like unions aren’t the problem, then, does it? Sounds like unions are just being suppressed. So I went further and started talking with my fellow grumblers.
This time, however, I didn’t use the word “union” or “collective bargaining” or any such loaded terms. I started by asking if it was fair what they were paying – no, was the answer – and would we be more inclined to work harder if we got paid enough not to have to worry about overtime or moonlighting – yes, was the answer – and whether it would make sense to keep people who know how to run the systems – yes – and whether the managements’ answers thus far were fair – no – and were they working in good faith – no – and whether we should bring it to their attention together – yes. Well then, open and shut case: The staff hate “unions,” but they love unions.
What of their arguments prior? Little more than received wisdom. Half libertarian fantasy – “all I need are marketable skills and I should be able to command a decent wage, society and the economy notwithstanding” – and half Rush Limbaugh talking points – “screw those thugs with their pensions that they paid into over a quarter century of working.” They were, to put it simply, intelligent if apolitical people who yet still bought into the bullshit because they didn’t work it out for themselves: The grooves of the pre-formed reasoning were well worn and they simply sank into them. How, then, did they blame their lot?
Almost all of them took night classes along with moonlighting, as if the issue wasn’t a dead-end job but a simple lack of skills, playing into the narrative of “oh, this is just a temporary position; you’re expected to grow out of it.” However, the more senior technicians all had a list of credentials that should have seen almost twice their salary, which was yet on par with new hires. They blamed their continued rut on complacency rather than a lack of options, though the administrator position that was not offered them was a bit of a wake-up call.
They knew the programming staff were fired en masse due to complaining about wages, but they reasoned that such wouldn’t happen to them so long as they kept their mouths shut. Instead, they whiled their days mulling over petty issues. The Indian employees blamed the Latino employees for being lazy and shirking work, because apparently nobody heard of dividing and conquering. Because they were this disorganized, the management could deflect a concerted backlash and focus on drumming out outspoken detractors, myself included.
They liked to view themselves as independents, and yet they were the most dependent people I can think of: Caught up in a zeitgeist that reviled them, and made to learn and speak the language of their opponents, such were they were partly complicit in their own misery. They have, in a very real way, allowed their bosses to dictate the very means by which the discourse would run, and thus have implicitly accepted the terminology and logic there-in. Made to set the framework of their own sorry lot under the lie of meritocracy, they learned that they were responsible for their wages, which reflected what they were worth. If the wages were low, it’s because they weren’t worth as much. That wasn’t logic: That was a threat made into logic, and they ate it for lack of an alternative viewpoint. It’s a lesson I shall internalize as best I can.