John G Bell


Winter '03 - Hill

Book Response: “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenriech

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    There isn't any power when the chance for dialogue is stripped away. Prohibition against human interaction is a tool of control. It's a tool used to stop workers from organizing, an act that is supposedly protected by the Labor Relations Act. It's a tool to create the kind of punishing environment where the worker feels worthless and is easier to manipulate. It's a tool used to create an authoritarian hierarchy where dissent is treason, punishable by what amounts to a slide down the final inches into a kind of soul death.

    The time and place for dialogue isn't just a nice idea, it's a dire necessity. It's the safe harbor for humans to be humans. It's the place where culture is created, in the free time afforded to people in tribes. It's the place where labor is free to organize and become strong. It's the place where human worth is supported by a framework and network of other compassionate humans.

  1. American or world society

    On p179, Ehrenriech says “where ever you look, there is no alternative to the megascale corporate order.” So much of the ills I see, I've attributed to the invention of the interstate corporation during the industrial revolution. In the Senge video, he seems to even suggest the same thing, that the corporation was a social structure instead of an institution of biological machines previous to a hundred or so years ago. However, with an even broader perspective, the current state of labor is not that different than it has ever been. The worker has tended to become and be treated like a serf or slave since time immemorial. I wonder if there's any hope.

    If Senge's ideas about systems thinking suggest anything to me it's that the worker is caught in a system that hasn't been revealed yet, that the behaviour of society is being determined by some vicious cycle. Where's the point of leverage that creates humanity? I'm beginning to think that what I think of as humanity is a new thing entirely, something not to which a return can be made, but that has to be create fresh and actualized a world that has functioned in such a way to provide increase to far too few.

  1. these specific groups

    The corporation is unlikely to be serious about the ideas in Senge. Perhaps some of the workers will be provided with real opportunity to learn especially those that are both in short supply and therefore have more leverage, and that already have needed skills. However, the vast majority of the work forces is essentially forbidden from exhibiting signs of humanity on the job except as it relates to appearing servile and submissive to the customer, a vicious cycle of deceit since the customer is merely another being forced to be servile and submissive elsewhere in life.

    The corporation is not new at this, but it's the inheritor of a rich legacy of suppression and oppression. It would indeed be a noble and brilliant thing for the corporation to embrace the principles of the learning organization and be supportive of human development and advancement. However, how vertically integrated are these efforts really? In these corporations, like the large oil companies mentioned in Senge, I wonder what the whole story is for all the workers. Are the corporate elite the same as the dock workers or the oil drillers? Do the drillers on the oil rigs have the kind of support and attention provided to develop learning community? How can it be said that a corporation has embraced the ideals of personal mastery and systems thinking when they are simultaneously working to dismantle legal protections for the environment and for the workers in which the workers live?

    Ehrenriech's book seems to make the case that Senge's Fifth Discipline is a chicken and the egg dilemma. Which came first: the fruits of enlightened corporations or the enlightened corporations? The answer Ehrenriech seems to suggest is that enlightened workers come first and she expresseed on the final page in the final paragraph the hope that the enlightened worker will of age. There is already “a lot of anger” and the “strikes and disruptions” are already happening and have been happening. The problem is that the techniques of command and control have become robust and powerful over the last several thousand years of development. They are supplemented with powers of distraction and and understanding of the way in which humans can be controlled by manipulating basic needs and creating addiction to the dysfunction.

    It's more than just the Buddhist monk that needs to wake up.

  1. myself

    Reading this book I'm realizing I have a great deal of anger and resentment about the way the corporate work environment treats workers. This comes from direct experience. I was constantly remembering events from my own life that mirrored parts of the experience narrated in this book. Maybe the experience of the low wage worker is not so very alien to me after all. This is not a cause for celebration, but an opportunity for reflection that the experience of the low wage worker is not so alien to any of us. Perhaps some of us are more enabled, but that's not the same as being empowered.

    I still need to wake up too. Once I'm awake, I need to stay awake if I can. I'm realizing, contrary to the point in one of the class poems, that there really is a snooze button to life. Not only is it there, but we keep collectively hitting it and then dreaming that we're awake. If anyone seems like they are waking up, we collectively hit them until they are asleep like the rest of us and then go back to mashing on the snooze button.

B. Talking points

  1. Gossip and human relations

On p23 Ehrenriech talks about the prohibition against “gossip” or in other words relating to fellow humans on any topic other than task specific topics. This reminded me of several of my experiences.

When I worked in retail at Natural Wonders, we were actually forbidden from spending any time with each other outside of work. They attempted to regulate our behaviour outside of the work environment as well as in the work environment. When ClearData took over at Telisphere, there was a clause in the employment contract, which I refused to sign for various reasons, that prohibited speaking with other employees about wage rates, which is something that is explicitly protected by the Labor Relations Act, as mentioned on p207 also.

On p77 Ehrenriech talks about how her promised 30-minute lunch turned into a “five-minute pit stop at a convenience store.” She'd previously talked about the disconnect between the expectations of controlling one's own body functions between higher paid jobs and lower paid jobs. I also remember something about some of the sweatshops where women would be locked into the room where they worked without any way to get to a bathroom facility. Somehow this smacks to me of the same kind of bodily control, or rather authoritarian control over another's body that is used in the military and in prisons to weaken the psyche of the recruit and prisoner.

On p41 Ehrenriech talks about how “... people shed their courage ... maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieau of the low wag American workplace.” Also on p46 she says, “... there is simply no 'I' left to do the tiredness monitoring.” All of this is the kind of syncopation to circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation used to brainwash or to interrogate.

On p117, Ehrenriech mentions the link between the worker need for approval and the chronic deprivation of human contact and interaction. This links to the inability to connect, or rather to prohibition against connecting, and makes the case that this is by design. The low wage work place has evolved into a machine for crushing the human spirit.

On both p135 where Ehrenriech talks about how there's “no room for non-conformists” and on p178 where she talks about drug tests and surveys, it becomes clear that these are designed to create “a uniformly servile and denatured workforce content to dream of the distant future ...” These drug tests and surveys act as a method of exerting control over the worker outside of the work environment. They also are not so much testing the worker's personality but preparing the worker for the role, creating the rules by which they must abide as present in the mind. The process oppresses feelings of worth and also creates barriers to mobility between jobs, both physical and psychological.

This is important when on p149 the point is made that the worker is never given the opportunity to act as a free agent, as if they have a choice or are in the position of making a choice. They are put on a treadmill, like in the opening scenes of the Jetsons, where they are clearly out of control both being pulled forward and knocked off balance by the forces of need and conformity.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

On p140 Ehrenriech talks about how “more and more working poor have been reduced to living in motels.” This is contingency housing for contingency workers. This is just another step in the process of dehumanizing the workforce as a simple resource, a factor of production. The working poor are in slavery. It's a structural, physical and psychological prison.

The absurdity was made so incredibly clear to me by an almost offhand statement on p145 of how the workers could wear jeans to work on a specific day, Friday, but had to actually pay the employer for the privilege. This is disgusting and of a level of evil that I can barely find the rational words to describe. The employer is requiring that the employee pay for the privilege of working in their own clothing. Not only do they have to purchase clothing with money from their pay to match the dress code, but they have to pay extra to wear the clothing that they would otherwise wear. This is making it a privilege to pay a fine for wearing forbidden clothing. Instead of this being a punishment for breaking the dress code, it's a privilege. This is the kind of sideways legislation mentioned in “Learning to Be White” that proscribed the behaviour of the nominally free workers, the turning of a punishment into a privilege.

These punishing, inhuman conditions of labor are turned into a privilege for which they return earned pay back to the corporations and this pleasure is provided by the corporation out of the kindness, or should I say nobility, of their hearts to the subjugated working poor, or should I say serf?