Diary of a Dishwasher: 3

lunch-break

In response to my previous diary, where I talked about working twelve hour days without a lunch break or a coffee break, one of my followers on Twitter wondered whether or not my employers were breaking the law. It gave me pause. If they were, by not quitting, I would be complicit, not only in my own oppression, but in the oppression of others. I would be enabling wage theft. Fortunately, since I want to keep my job without that extra little bit of guilt hanging over my head, but unfortunately, since working twelve hour days without a break really does suck more than all you nice middle-class people can imagine, they are not. New Jersey doesn’t require lunch or coffee breaks for anybody over the age of 18.

Q. Are breaks and lunches required by law?

A. The mandatory break law only applies to minors under the age of 18 and they must be given a thirty (30) minute meal period after five (5) consecutive hours of work. Company policy dictates break and lunch periods for anyone over the age of 18.

Nevertheless, any company that makes it a policy not to give lunch breaks and coffee breaks is not a company any self-respecting individual should agree to work for. The answer of course is to find another job. Perhaps I’ll work as a dishwasher through the Summer, quit on Labor Day, then use the money I’ve saved up for cloths for interviews, and train fare into the city. I’ll send out resumes through the Fall. By Christmas, I should have a “real” job with health insurance, lunch and coffee breaks, vacation days, stock options, regular hours, and an office Christmas party. But who do I think I’m fooling? The first two diaries in this serious have been, what for lack of a better term, I could call a “humble brag.” I’m an intellectual with a shitty menial job just like Charles Bukowski and George Orwell, the implication being that I’m too moral for the world of the bourgeoisie. I may be fooling you dear readers, but I’m sure as hell not fooling myself. I’m not working as a dishwasher because I’m too much of a rebel for a white collar job. I’m working as a dishwasher because I have huge gaps in my resume, no references, and a history of quitting jobs in anger. It will be no different in the Fall than it is in the Summer.

I honestly don’t even know what kind of “real job” I even want to apply for at this point in my life. In my 20s, I worked for a publishing company in Manhattan. I stayed at the same entry level job until I got fired, never showing any inclination to get promoted, doing only as much work as I had to to my check at the end of the week. In my 30s, after a few years of menial jobs like the one I’m working at now — Starbucks barista, fish gutter, office temp – I managed to work for a few years in the IT industry. The economy was good. They were hiring just about anybody, and I knew enough Unix commands to get hired as a systems administrator for a series of marginal, always poorly managed, and always failing tech companies. After 9/11, when the economy went back into a long, low-level recession, I went back to working at low level office jobs. Then I finally said “fuck it. I’ll do what I have to do to write full time.” I failed at that too. Now I’ve hit bottom. I’m a middle-aged man with a spotty work history and a long stretch of, mostly voluntary, unemployment. Attempting to justify my decision to work with for nine dollars an hour no lunch breaks or coffee breaks with the argument that “well it’s not the kind of job I’m going to do for very long” doesn’t make me a rebel. It makes me nothing more than another sucker who can’t wake up from the “American Dream,” a prisoner who doesn’t feel his chains because he’s grown numb with conformism and obedience.

If capitalist societies like the United States don’t “need” secret police – note that I didn’t say they don’t “have” secret police – it’s mainly because they have job interviews and credit checks. Most people understand, at least on some level, that a labor union is a combination of employees against employers. A group of workers band together and make it impossible for any corporation to hire anybody in their field under a certain level of pay. Strikes, intimidation, even violence, it’s all part of the game, part of the reason why so many capitalists want “right to work” laws giving the state the power to enforce the “right to undersell” your fellow workers. Most people also understand that a socialist party is a political organization dedicated to representing the interests of the working class as a whole. The British Labor Party, before it turned to neoliberalism in the 1990s, once used the democratic process to nationalize large industries, build council housing, and insure that all British citizens had the right to health care.

What most people don’t understand is that the “hiring process” in any capitalist, and even in many socialist countries, is the final result of a long and well-entrenched combination of bosses against workers. A resume is the secret policeman’s report every proletarian writes about himself. References are the people we give permission to snitch on us to our potential employers. Upward mobility is the behavior a good wage slave is expected to conform to as a productive member of (capitalist) society. It is a process so deeply entrenched in our culture that even people on the “left” rarely question its genuine purpose. I once knew a self-proclaimed “anarchist,” for example, who bragged about how he kept two resumes, one for his “career,” and another for his “activism.” The resume of someone like me, a 50-year-old college graduate who has demonstrated no inclination to climb up the corporate ladder in any particular “career,” who has jumped around haphazardly from field to field, who has always thought of work as “something you hated but you needed to do to survive,” is the most damning secret policeman’s report imaginable. It is a black mark stamped on top with the classification of “social undesirable, fit only for low-level, menial jobs, and perhaps, eventually, a FEMA camp.”

It is the price I have to pay for not having followed the rules back when I was young enough for it to matter, and even then it might not have mattered. There are, after all, plenty of 50-year-old college graduates who followed all the rules in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, only to have gotten kicked out of the economy during the “great recession” after the financial crisis of 2008, and in spite of all their “good behavior,” wound up in exactly the same position I’m in today. Nothing will change until we begin to organize together as a class. I have no option, therefore, but to stand and fight for my rights right where I am. Sadly, I don’t know how to to it. I don’t have the guts to do it, and if I tried it, I would probably get myself fired. So for the foreseeable future, therefore, I will almost certainly continue to work twelve hour days with no coffee or lunch breaks and for nine dollars an hour. I’m not doing it because I want to be. I’m doing it because I’m stuck.

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6 comments

  1. Temporarily, perhaps. Writing from the heart, as you are doing now, is excellent training and taps into the frustration of more people than you know, including mine. I’ve made a career of spotty work history, because I can’t imagine being stuck in a salaried job until “retirement.”

    I wish you would quit claiming our society is “capitalist.” It’s not. It’s a police state overburdened with inequitably enforced rules. The only thing “capitalist” about it is that it exploits human capital under the umbrella of institutional “job security” and forces individuals to give up creativity and initiative in order to fit into pre-determined slots.

    It sets up the stratification of society that everyone knows instinctively is wrong, but they play into it because there are few alternatives. The federal government is a monopoly dedicated to squelching individual freedoms in order to destroy competition.

    Ideally, employers and employees are on the same team, with each reinforcing and supporting the other. Ideally, your employer would know that he would profit more by treating employees right. How much does staff turnover cost him?

    There’s a big difference in attitude between the self-employed and the salaried jobbers who are slaves to the institutions they work for. The current structure dehumanizes individuals and is, according to me, the primary reason so many people are giving up and dropping out. It’s a sado-masochistic society, in which the “victims” are fighting back in the only way they know, by passive-aggressive and passive-resistant retaliation against power abuse by false authority.

    This election year shows how top-heavy our system has become. The foundations (the “proletariats”) are crumbling under the weight. Donald Trump has made a career of gaming the system. He made bundles of money through his casinos, after all, probably laundering money, just as Wall Street launders money. They could not do this except that the federal government has created drug laws and the police state to protect its artificially elevated elite. For instance, think about how much of the so-called “elite” profited from Prohibition, and how much they profit from war.

    Much more to say, but I should probably put it on my own blog.

    1. I don’t think you distinguish sufficiently from what for lack of a better word might be called “utopian capitalism” and “actually existing capitalism.”

      Has there ever been a capitalist country without an oppressive class system and a huge, repressive state?

      Since I just finishing reading the entire 1200 pages of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, I can speak to the question with perhaps some authority. Smith, the philosopher of classical, liberal capitalism criticized feudalism and mercantilism in the name of an ideal, “free” society” where the market (much like natural law set up by a deist God) would manage human affairs better than the government.

      But it never quite worked out that way. Classically liberal British capitalism never completely defeated British feudalism and eventually transformed itself into British imperialism. Actually existing capitalism bears as much resemblance to Adam Smith’s ideal as the Soviet Union bore to Marx’s.

      FWIW, Adam Smith was no modern “libertarian” and supported a higher minimum wage. Today, he probably would have been a democratic socialist, and supported Sanders over Clinton or Trump.

      In reality high profits tend much more to raise the price of work than high wages. If in the linen manufacture, for example, the wages of the different working people, the flax-dressers, the spinners, the weavers, etc., should, all of them, be advanced twopence a day; it would be necessary to heighten the price of a piece of linen only by a number of twopences equal to the number of people that had been employed about it, multiplied by the number of days during which they had been so employed. That part of the price of the commodity which resolved itself into wages would, through all the different stages of the manufacture, rise only in arithmetical proportion to this rise of wages. But if the profits of all the different employers of those working people should be raised five per cent, that part of the price of the commodity which resolved itself into profit would, through all the different stages of the manufacture, rise in geometrical proportion to this rise of profit. The employer of the flaxdressers would in selling his flax require an additional five per cent upon the whole value of the materials and wages which he advanced to his workmen. The employer of the spinners would require an additional five per cent both upon the advanced price of the flax and upon the wages of the spinners. And the employer of the weavers would require a like five per cent both upon the advanced price of the linen yarn and upon the wages of the weavers. In raising the price of commodities the rise of wages operates in the same manner as simple interest does in the accumulation of debt. The rise of profit operates like compound interest. Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

      https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-adam/works/wealth-of-nations/book01/ch09.htm

      1. I’ve read “Wealth of Nations,” too, and can use it to make the opposite argument. While Adam Smith is considered the “father of modern capitalism,” he is the epitome of what’s wrong with our current understanding. The book was written from a tax collector’s point of view, and was a study into how the government can raise more tax revenues to pay debts from the Seven Years’ war. Also he was looking for ways to fund the expanding British empire.

        I thought his approach as cold-blooded as any reptile, because the upshot was that workers should be paid only enough to keep two children alive, so the workers could replace themselves. He assumed a ten percent profit for “shareholders” but doesn’t ever define who these people are. He also talks about the “idle,” leaving the reader to assume these are the street people, but never admitting that most of the “idle” were the wealthy who lived off other people’s labor and the king’s favors.

        He doesn’t mention that slavery is the ultimate in exploitation of labor, or that Roman and British empires were both founded on slavery and the slave trade.

        My contention is that human capital is the only viable capital and should be respected as such. The wheels of “capitalism” grind to a halt when the laborers can’t afford to buy the products they make, as is happening in China (and other places) now. The glut of products on the market is the direct result of replacing human labor with machines that cost money but don’t make or spend money. Also, machines represent huge overhead that must relentlessly churn out the same monotonous products to justify their cost. But those products are not selling. That’s why we have thousands of cars rusting at the LA port, and storage units being built by the hundreds here at the Savannah port.

        Both Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand wrote about the value of “human capital” but did not carry the idea far enough to recognize that human capital is the most essential ingredient in any economic system.

        So I define “capitalism” as human capital, which is the most neglected and unappreciated link in the economic chain. Maybe I should choose a different word.

  2. Whereas totalitarian regimes in name have secret police spying on people and its people, get used to it or get around it one way or another and those that don’t can’t or won’t defect, the US is more sneaky, there’s no real secret police (not in the Soviet sense), we live under the false guise we are free to do as we please, say what we please without being arrested or imprisoned, but in a ‘capitalist’ society, the punishment is social banishment from the corporate hierarchy, making you unemployable, which means you live on the margins of society and in poverty, someone who can see the fruits but can’t reach it. Those with true freedom, are the people at top, the rich and powerful, they commit crimes and get away with it, except we don’t even call them crimes. The Wall Street Bailout wasn’t a ‘crime’, it was a ‘bailout’, citizens who are too poor to afford life’s basics who cheat welfare system or resort to petty stealing to survive are criminals.

    1. there’s no real secret police (not in the Soviet sense)

      Unless you’re black or Muslim. Then you get a communist secret police force without communist job security. A good example would be the NYPD spying on Muslim students at Rutgers.

      The caller, Salil Sheth, had stumbled upon one of the NYPD’s biggest secrets: a safe house, a place where undercover officers working well outside the department’s jurisdiction could lie low and coordinate surveillance. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the NYPD, with training and guidance from the CIA, has monitored the activities of Muslims in New York and far beyond. Detectives infiltrated mosques, eavesdropped in cafes and kept tabs on Muslim student groups, including at Rutgers

      http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/07/new_brunswick_building_superin.html

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