Shaping Up the 21st Century
By Bob Simpson at Jun 24, 2011
On the docks of the USA it was called “the shape up”. Each morning hundreds of desperate men would assemble to compete for a day’s work unloading ships. Whoever would work for less or gave the biggest kickbacks to the port bosses was hired. The rest were sent away. It was a system rife with corruption, bribery & favoritism. Every day was a race to the bottom. Watch Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” to get an idea of how bad it was.
The worst abuses of “the shape up” ended when longshore unions forced a series of reforms from the reluctant port bosses. It was a long bloody struggle as typified by the 1934 San Francisco General Strike; but longshore workers won a modicum of dignity and could carve out a better life for themselves and their families.
But now in our Brave New Economy, “the shape up” is back, but in a 21st century form. This time it is not just blue collar guys in cloth caps fighting one another for a day’s pittance. It’s college students and graduates competing not even for a pittance, but for the right to work for nothing. They assemble at job fairs and college recruiting days, armed with little more than their resumes, their thrift store business attire, their frozen smiles and their heads full of anxiety.
They are the interns. Facing a dismal economy, a mountain of debt and a society enamored with Social Darwinism, their struggle for survival in a harsh environment is hardly noticed by most of us. In his new book Intern Nation, Ross Perlin concludes that most free internships are probably in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. But of course authorities here in the USA pursue parking tickets with much greater zeal than they do labor law violations.
Corporate scofflaws are well aware of this and thus see gold in those piles of resumes.
“People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they’re going to outperform, they’re going to try to please, they’re going to be creative,” says Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist, a Toronto and New York-based startup that provides Web-based interior design services. “From a cost savings perspective, to get something off the ground, it’s huge. Especially if you’re a small business.”
Yes indeedy, Ms Fallis, hunger and desperation are motivating forces. But if they are such great motivators, why do CEO’s of companies both big and small seek to be so well fed and comfortable? Why do corporations throw such huge salaries at their leaders to “get the best people”, when according to analysts like Ms. Fallis, it’s the hungry and desperate who outperform and are the most creative?
This kind of public hypocrisy is the coin of the realm. Our Brave New Economy demands it from its leaders. If you can live comfortably with lies, you too may yet gain entry to the halls of power. Of course there are only so many halls of power and only so many job openings for kings and queens.
What about the rest of us? The proliferation of free internships is only part of a longterm trend in the global economy. Economists call it the “informal” economy. The informal economy used to mean paying nannies, landscape workers and home repair experts cash under the table. It also referred to criminal activites like fencing stolen goods and black marketeering.
According to John Russo of the Center for Working Class Studies, the formal economy is being informalized.
“Increasingly, the conditions of the informal economy are being experienced in the formal economy, though they are generally ignored or hidden by such glossy terms as consulting, internships, subcontracting, and privatization.”
Look at it that way and you can see that free internships are an excellent way to prepare for a working life with no security, no retirement, no longterm co-worker relationships, no paid vacations, no paid sick leave or any other once common amenities.
The traditional working class solidarity of getting to know your co-workers over time and knowing who will join common struggles to fight oppression and exploitation will no longer exist.
Instead, you will be part of a global “shape up”, a war of all against all, as each individual fighting for a temporary job prepares to stab the person next to them in the back (hopefully metaphorically, but you never know).
Or maybe not. If this is the New Normal according to the pundits, there is a New Abnormal that is being ignored in the corporate-owned media. The New Abnormal is the rebellion against the New Normal.
According to John Russo of the Center for Working Class Studies:
“A number of labor and social justice organizations have formed the Excluded Workers Congress with goal of organizing workers in the informal economy, connecting them with grassroots movements, and developing strategic responses to informalization. They aim to challenge discrimination in the current labor market, build support for ongoing campaigns to improve working conditions, expand labor rights for excluded workers, and advocate for policies that support all workers’ right to organize.”
Blue collar workers in the informal economy have been fighting back for a long time. Across the nation there are workers’ centers that bring immigrant workers together for job training, legal counseling and strategizing how to improve their working conditions.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has been organizing food service workers at places like Starbucks and Jimmy John’s Sandwiches where turnover is high and the pay is low.
Graduate students across the nation have organized unions to fight back against colleges and universities who see them as disposable and easily replaced cheap labor.
Within today’s unions are examples of workers in communications, media and construction who may work on a number of different projects over the course of a year, but who enjoy at least some protections.
The message is,”You are not alone.”
Let’s face it though, these efforts and others affect only a small number of people. With more workers being drawn into “the shape up”, we face a situation with no easy answers and lots of difficult questions. Modern devices like mobile phones and laptops make communication possible among people who can not talk face to face on a daily basis. That’s great, but do we even know what to say to one another through Facebook, Twitter and SMS?
Our colleges and universities are being corporatized and privatized. The mass media is largely off limits to us. Long work hours and exhausting days searching for new projects and short term employment leave little time for anything else.
But against these obstacles, we still have to make time for some deep thinking about the challenges that face us. Unless of course we want a lifetime in “the shape up”, losing all hope and humanity.