Colin Kaepernick, Patriotism, and the Owning Class

Colin Jenkins

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Colin Kaepernick took a courageous and principled stand this past season by kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games. This was done in response to a society that continues to systematically, culturally, and institutionally devalue non-white lives. This devaluation is played out in many areas, including politics, economics, housing, employment, and perhaps most notably, within the criminal justice system. Non-white lives are routinely extinguished by police in the streets without recourse, in the courts without pause, and in the prisons without hesitation. Entire generations of non-white Americans have essentially been destroyed through the “school-to-prison pipeline” and a system of mass incarceration.

Kaepernick recognized this and felt compelled to bring attention to it. He openly protested the national anthem, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to community agencies, and started a national youth camp program to teach children from marginalized communities about self-empowerment.

He is now a free agent, in the prime of his career, and without a job. By all “measurables” (and the NFL is big on “measurables”), Kaepernick should have a starting job somewhere. Despite playing for one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2016, he still managed to put up impressive numbers in only 12 games: 2,241 passing yard, 468 rushing yards on a 6.8 yards-per-carry average, a 16/4 TD/INT ratio, and a passer rating of 90.7. His passer rating was higher than that of 13 other starting QBs, including Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, and Joe Flacco.

The only reasonable explanation for Kaepernick’s newfound unemployment status is that he’s being blackballed by billionaire NFL owners. We’ve seen this before. Muhammad Ali, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Craig Hodges, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos all faced similar treatment after using their platforms to take principled stands. Kaepernick has made millions of dollars in the NFL, so he will be fine either way. But there are many lessons to be learned from this situation.

One important lesson is how the capitalist class relies on patriotism to help protect and secure its position in society. The notion of patriotism is one that tells the working class within any given country that they have a deep, common bond with the owning class. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, the owning-class minority drives the working-class majority into widespread deprivation in order to secure more and more wealth for itself. One way to hide this reality is to create an artificial bond based in geographic nationalism — patriotism.

While globalizing its capital, the owning class calls for “national unity.” While laying off American workers in mass, it airs multi-million dollar ad campaigns celebrating patriotic loyalty. While employing foreign workers for slave wages, it parades its brand name during celebrations of national independence. While driving wages down and forcing American workers into welfare programs, it asks that you celebrate “American values.” While systematically exploiting the majority, it demands that this majority remain loyal to its nationalistic ties.

Patriotism is a crucial tool for the owning class. To them, Kaepernick’s refusal to submit to this nationalistic ritual was not merely “disrespect”; it was a potentially damaging challenge to this incredibly important tool that is wielded in their quest to extract all of society’s wealth. For this reason, it is vitally important that Kaepernick be taught a lesson. The NFL’s billionaire class is in the process of carrying out this lesson.

In solidarity.

 

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From Solidarity to Trump: White Working-Class Culture in the Rust Belt

Michael McQuarrie

 

Before embarking on my current career, I worked as a labor organizer, mostly in West Virginia and Ohio. In the course of doing that work, I probably did two thousand “housevisits” with people I was attempting to organize. The purpose of these meetings was to understand people’s motivations and interests in order to assess how they would vote in a union recognition election (as the union president once said to the organizers: “I don’t care if you lose, I care if you can’t count”) and assess their leadership potential for either the union’s organizing committee or for management’s anti-union efforts.

The work entailed a never-ending confrontation with the slow social death of a region. Proud people-who once possessed the social honor that came with hard work, supporting a family, and meeting one’s civic responsibilities-were confronting the fact that their skills, their values, and their mores were not only no longer valued, but had become an object of ridicule. This is on my mind these days as I look at my RSS feed, awash as it is in horror that populist revolt, which has already claimed Brexit, Poland, and Austria, will soon claim the American presidency.

I sympathized, and I understood the people I visited. Not all of it, of course; not the racism, misogyny, or jingoism-all often coded in the language of merit and worthiness. What was refreshing about it was that it amounted to a rejection of the material calculus that dominates in so much of our political culture and in academic theories of action. In school I learned that politics was about delivering material incentives to people in order to win their support. Democrats win because they deliver the welfare state. When they vote for Republicans, people are being fundamentally stupid in a way that warrants intrepid journalistic explorations of how it is that people can have motivations they do (what’s the matter with Kansas?). But of course, Republicans have much to offer too: assertive nationalism, moral righteousness, and validations of white privilege and heteronormativity, to name a few.

The working class of the Rust Belt has been in its death throes for decades. Deindustrialization first began to take hold with the “Southern Strategy” of American manufacturers who moved to the southern United States where “right to work” laws ensure an environment that is hostile to unions. But Japanese competition accelerated the problem. Then there was Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who abandoned the working-class base of the party in his pursuit of free trade agreements. Companies received tax breaks for moving jobs overseas. Then there were the tax preferences for financial investment over manufacturing investment, practically guaranteeing that money would flow out of the industrial economy. In a valiant defense of their social order, workers in Youngstown and Wheeling tried to stem the tide by purchasing their plants and hoping that they would remain viable if only profit could be subordinated as a motive. The plants closed anyway.

Wages stagnated and even shrank for many. It was open season on unions not just because of deindustrialization, but aggressive union-busting. Today, the United Mine Workers, which once had 800,000 members and the fortitude to strike in the middle of World War Two, now has 60,000 members. My partner, also a former union organizer, recalls the elderly retired miner she met on a housevisit who bragged about happily paying union assessments to cover John L. Lewis’s legal fees when Roosevelt had him thrown in jail. Lewis, unlike many labor leaders today, was happy to fight a losing battle in the name of a principled defense of working-class autonomy and dignity. His combativeness earned loyalty. But West Virginia workers don’t have unions anymore to help them fight the decline of their communities.

With income stagnation the norm in the 1990s and 2000s, Democratic policy often focused on helping people maintain their standard of living through the possession of assets. Policy encouraged homeownership and investment in securities. Predictably, people lost their pensions or retirement savings in the tech bubble, and then lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis. The Democratic President, Barack Obama, chose to bail out bondholders while leaving homeowners to rot. He then pursued more free trade policies, expanding the number of countries that American workers would have to compete with. Cities like Cleveland had a windfall in their stock of postindustrial porn. In addition to rusting plants they now had naked and rotting houses. Suburban houses lost as much as 75% of their value in postindustrial Ohio. They were never worth anything to start with in West Virginia. Since that time, the problems of disinvesment and unemployment have been compounded by drug addiction. These are problems that, thanks to scholars like William Julius Wilson, we once associated with the urban black working class. They are now the problems of white, small-town America too. It turns out race isn’t the relevant variable for explaining the crisis of the family.

Young people are rare in many of these communities. Nursing homes have replaced mines and mills. Working as a nurse’s aide is a young person’s work, but not in this part of the country, especially in rural areas. The nursing homes I encountered were staffed by women who went back to work when their partner lost his job as a miner or a steelworker. Back then it wasn’t surprising to encounter a forty year-old nurses’ aide working two jobs, “one for the bills and one for health insurance.” Not only is the structural decay of towns a constant reminder of the demise of a way of life, but the decay of the people themselves is as well. It is hard to sustain optimism when the young people most imbued with the characteristic are gone.

Men lose their breadwinning jobs, making the justification for their authority in the household precarious. Women return to work. I was organizing at a moment when women carried with them an attitude towards bosses and unions that their husbands had learned in decades of struggle in their workplaces. This wasn’t all good, workers had plenty of fights with their union representatives too. But it did sustain a culture of combativeness and solidarity that was possible to transfer into healthcare, with modifications, of course. Patients had a different significance for healthcare workers than rivets did for autoworkers. Healthcare workers wanted to use unions to defend their patients against the depredations of the profit motive, though they probably didn’t mind the health insurance and wages they won in the name of patient care. As for the men, pride and combativeness can easily become authoritarianism and misogyny when they’re dependent on a female breadwinner. A shibboleth in the local I worked for recounts ex-UMW members opposing the unionization of their wives and girlfriends: “We know that if you teach them to fight the boss at work, they’ll know how to fight the boss at home,” they said.

In order to stave off the indignity of dependence on their wives and girlfriends, some men would go to extreme lengths that illustrate the value of white working-class identity for people who haven’t known anything else. I’ll never forget the autoworker I encountered on a housevisit to his wife, a nurse at a local hospital. He liked unions and what they stood for. He told me about the notorious Lordstown Strike against GM in 1971. He participated in the torching of a motel that was housing strikebreakers. He didn’t seem to regret it. When I met him he was still working as an autoworker. His UAW contract meant he could bid on jobs in other plants with seniority rights. Laid off at Lordstown, three times per week he would carpool with friends for the five-hour drive to another plant in order to maintain his income and, one had the sense, his working-class identity. Other men figured out that staying at home and maintaining their income meant a switch to healthcare and nursing, but that work didn’t confer status in the same way as manufacturing work did, it was “women’s work.” A Youngstown-area hospital I was organizing had a huge number of male nurses (nationally, about 12% of nurses are men, in Youngstown back then it was more like 25%). Obviously for them, the money was worth more than working-class pride.

The serial destruction that has faced the Rust Belt has not occurred without a struggle. “Fighting the good fight” was extremely important to many Rust Belt workers, as if it were a matter of social honor and recognition. And fight they did, often enough anyway. Why did they fight? Was it for material gains as so many assume? Sometimes. There is always the nurse that will throw some Randian entrepreneurial freedom stuff at you (workers read too), but that particular ideology wasn’t that common, despite the assumptions of economists, pundits, and union busters.

Union busters use a kit, a sort of paint-by-numbers sequence of things to talk about and do in the run-up to a recognition election. One standard item is the checks. This is a mock-up of a check with the worker’s name and current weekly pay. Next to it will be a comparison check with the costs of a strike deducted. How do workers react? Certainly some were influenced. People have different economic circumstances and different reactions to them. But often enough the response was something like: “that’s a small price to pay to tell the boss to fuck off.” And there it is. The value that many workers place on being able to express their opinion or fight just for a chance to speak is an awful lot higher than many expect. Workers stage sit-down strikes, even though they are completely illegal and could result in the bankruptcy of the union. Transit workers did this in New York in 2006, but nursing home workers were doing it in Ohio too.

Perhaps such a fight is worth a few dollars, but surely there is an underlying material instrumentality, isn’t there? Union staff often told the story of a contract fight for county mental health workers in Mentor, Ohio. The county had told the workers that if they refused to accept the contract the county would simply stop funding mental health altogether, costing all of the workers their jobs. As the votes were counted, it became clear that the workers had placed more value on their right to protest the behavior of their employer than they did on their own job. They ratified the contract, told the boss what they thought of his threats, and, presumably, headed for the unemployment line.

In 1998, I found myself on a picket line in front of a prison in Lima, Ohio. We represented the social service professionals who worked for the state: doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers. That year the union representing the non-professionals negotiated a concessionary contract with the state. We could either also accept the concessionary contract or fight it despite having very little workplace power. But our members and our president wanted to fight, not least to show everyone what cowards the other union was. Our picket had signs like: “Grandmas shouldn’t have to strike.” Prisoners were jokingly shouting “we want a contract too!” out their cell windows. We won. The threat wasn’t because our workers were off the job, and it certainly wasn’t because the guards respected the picket (though a few did). But the prisoners rioted. State troopers had to be called in to quell riots, including one at the notorious Lucasville Prison. It turns out representing nurses isn’t such a weak hand after all, at least when you’re striking a prison. The culture of solidarity reaches far in the Rust Belt, especially when people choose to fight the boss.

I have long thought that the workers of the Rust Belt and their communities were an underutilized political resource. Unions once did important work holding white workers in the Democratic coalition, despite the fact that Democrats have been ignoring them for three decades. But unions have mostly been destroyed in the Rust Belt. Michigan, the birthplace of the UAW and Industrial Unionism, became a Right to Work state two years ago, joining Wisconsin and soon to be followed by West Virginia. States which once had 40% of their workforces represented by unions now have 10-11%. As a result, the populist outrage of the white working class is available to both the Right and the Left. Over the years various Democratic candidates, Tom Harkin, John Edwards, and Bernie Sanders among them, have attempted to recapture white workers for the Democratic Party and, in the process, reorient the Party away from its deference to finance capital. These efforts have failed. The Democratic coalition is a party of free trade, finance, and tech with a diverse base recruited on the basis of social liberalism and fluency with identity politics. This is not a party of the working class and is especially not a party of the white working class.

Trump has stepped into this political vacuum and it has served him well, enabling him to trounce establishment and Tea Party Republicans in the primaries. Trump seems to be furious at the establishment politicians that long ago wrote off the Rust Belt. He is combative, he doesn’t defer to the political correctness that is sensitive to the feelings of everyone other than the white poor and working class. Trump’s performance emphasizes action as much as words and ideas, which exasperates the educated, but appeals to Rust Belt workers. Ideas and rational consistency are not, academic dispositions aside, particularly important to people without Ph.Ds. Trump performs the combativeness of Rust Belt culture, the lack of deference to odds or the focus-grouped lowest common denominator. He seems as lost playing the politically-coded game of pandering and recognition that people in Portsmouth, Ohio, are. He is a manifestation of the “fuck you” id of the Rust Belt that leads workers to fight their bosses even when they will probably lose. And sure, it isn’t exactly about the working class, but if Trump has been consistent on any issue, it has been trade. He promises to rip up the trade agreements that forced workers to make a choice between their dignity and their jobs, and that forced them onto an unfair playing field against workers with government health insurance or lower housing and food costs. He promises to protect them from immigrants that are somehow simultaneously competing for their jobs and sucking state coffers dry.

Hillary Clinton had a word for the Rust Belt in her convention speech, just like she did for every other constituency in the Democratic coalition. She pointed out that Donald Trump’s merchandise is made overseas. My first thought was that it was a good opener, but that was it. No policy, no recognition, just “That guy is a liar”. Now, granted, Rust Belt workers do get pissed off about stuff like that. For years the draw for the Central Labor Council annual picnic in Dayton, Ohio, was the destruction of a Japanese car with a wrecking ball. Watching a crane destroy a perfectly good automobile is exciting, but it’s downright cathartic when that car represents an existential threat to your existence and an offense to your patriotism. But I fully expect that Rust Belt voters, many of whom are pretty familiar with the dynamics of these issues (thanks unions!) would hear that and think: “ok, she’s taking us for suckers… again”. Just because that stuff worked with patrician Romney (and it did) in no way means that it will work with combative, disrespectful, trade-deal trashing, and immigrant-deporting Trump. Clinton’s move was calculated and condescending. She volunteered for an authenticity fight with Donald Trump, a fight she will lose.

Trump has nailed down populism for the Right. Sanders made a bid to win it back for the Left, but no one named Obama or Clinton is going to win it back for Democrats. Now pundits and Trump’s campaign are plotting a path to the presidency through the Rust Belt. Trump’s (former) campaign manager has said that victory depends upon winning Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania . Trump has talked about extending the map to Michigan and Wisconsin which, after all, are enthusiastic enough about Republicans to vote them into power in every branch of government and watch them pass Right to Work laws and create punitive social welfare regimes. The electoral map might be realigning to situate Democrats as the representatives of the New Economy and Republicans as the champions of Smokestack industries and their workers. Trump has made it clear that this potential political opposition is real.

But the anxiety and the worry is misplaced. There is no Brexit majority here. The path through the Rust Belt is actually a cul-de-sac, not because Trump lacks appeal with white workers, but because there are so few of them left. Cities aren’t filled with factories and working-class neighborhoods anymore; they’re filled with artist studios, tech startups, coffee bars, and criminalized hyper-ghettos. Latinos have been moving to Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, but they sure aren’t voting for Trump. White people have been leaving many of these states which has increased the minority share of potential voters. Trump polled at 0% among African-Americans in Ohio during the Republican Convention. The Rust Belt economy has been diversifying. Unemployment in Ohio and Pennsylvania has mostly been below the national average since the financial crisis. Ann Arbor, Madison, Grand Rapids, Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati, Lansing and others have been increasing in importance. These towns are hubs for tech and pharmaceutical startups, advanced manufacturing, and software engineering. They have concentrations of educated people who are less likely to vote for Trump.

The work of economic transformation has already been done in the Rust Belt and the demographic results are real. Trump missed the window for exploiting the alienation of the Rust Belt as a path to national office. White workers were angrier, more numerous, more combative, and more motivated twenty years ago when they were smashing Japanese cars at picnics. But back then unions had more capacity to hold white workers in the Democratic coalition. Unmoored from unions, racism and terrorism can be exploited to harvest white votes. Trump’s combativeness is the ideal vehicle for effective exploitation, but the harvest is getting smaller every year. Trump can tap into the dispositions of the white working class, and speak to the issues of Rust Belt workers, but it is doubtful that he can overcome the demographically- and economically-determined fact of their declining relevance.
This was originally published at New Politics .
Michael McQuarrie is Associate Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics. Prior to graduate school, he worked as a labor organizer in West Virginia, Ohio, and New York and as a community organizer in the South Bronx.

A Bayonet is a Weapon with a Worker at Each End: Rethinking Memorial Day

Colin Jenkins

 

In 1885, the Knights of Labor organized a successful strike against Jay Gould’s Missouri Pacific Railroad. In response to the strike, Gould famously growled, “I can hire half the working class to kill the other half.”

Gould was right. In any hierarchical arrangement, where power and wealth become concentrated in the hands of a few, this tactic becomes available to those wielding this power over a vast majority. Among the masses of workers, slaves, and impoverished, there will inevitably be many willing to “police their own” in order to be in the masters’ good graces. History is rife with these examples.

In ancient Greece, the “most prized” slaves were awarded authority positions over their fellow slaves, sometimes given special status as overseers. Masses of slaves captured or bought from nearby Scythia were transformed into an official police force, known as the Scythian Archers, and were “brought back to Athens to carry out the laws of the state,” which basically amounted to controlling and strong-arming the slave population in the city. Naturally, their willingness to brutalize their fellow slaves was rewarded with special privileges.

On the colonial American slave plantation there were those who became actively complicit in the subjugation of their fellow slaves. In return for special privileges, these particular slaves agreed to stay close to the master, live among the master and his family, and report to the master any wrongdoings or subversive actions on the part of the masses of field slaves. William Wells Brown, a slave from Kentucky, later described the privileged status he was awarded for his “service”: “I was a house servant – a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after.”

In Gould’s time, referred to by Mark Twain as “the Gilded Age” due to its insidious corruption and wealth inequality, social unrest among the masses of workers became commonplace. “New York City had 5,090 strikes, involving almost a million workers from 1880 to 1900; Chicago had 1,737 strikes, involving over a half a million workers in the same period.” The economic elites of the time, like Gould, had two choices in addressing this unrest: (1) share a bigger piece of the pie with their workers, or (2) use force to beat workers into obedience. They chose the latter, taking Gould’s words to heart, and proceeded to hire much of the working class to beat and kill the remainder into submission. Police forces and Pinkertons were amassed by the thousands to break strikes throughout the country. As consistent with history, Gould and his counterparts found plenty of workers willing to “serve” them in this role.

On a global scale, international warfare reflects this same dynamic. Throughout history, the ruling classes of each nation have utilized their working-class masses as tools of war, sending them off to fight and kill other members of the working class in remote parts of the world. The willingness of workers to follow these orders is preconditioned through various means, all of which stem from the need to maintain systems of hierarchy. The desperation that comes with being a worker in a coercive system creates immense pressure to merely survive. Today, those who find themselves choosing between minimum-wage jobs or unfathomable student loan debt are left with very little options in supporting themselves and their families. Material conditions force many into increasingly subservient positions. The mythological construction of boogeymen – savages, radicals, extremists, and terrorists – is all that is needed to create the illusion of an imminent threat. And grand tales of patriotism and “freedom” are all that is needed to persuade many to “volunteer” as tools of war.

So, we volunteer en masse. We literally hand over our bodies to powerful people whom we’ve never met, whose intentions and interests are not to be questioned, and whose authority over us is to be accepted as the natural order of things. We travel across the world, put our bodies in big metal machines, and take the lives of masses of working-class and impoverished people whom we’ve never met, whose intentions and interests are not to be questioned, and whose perceived threat to us is to be accepted as the natural order of things.

Much like the Scythian archer in ancient Athens, the house slave on a colonial Kentucky plantation, and the worker-turned-Pinkerton in Jay Gould’s private army, we become willing tools of powerful interests. We choose to “serve” our masters. Many of us do this because we have no other options. Many of us do this because we are promised glory. Many of us do this because we hear the boogeyman coming. And many of us do this to simply “get in the masters’ good graces.” Whatever the reason, our unquestioned participation makes us complicit in maintaining the coercive systems of hierarchy that continue to dominate our world. And, despite the pats on our backs and choruses of “thank you” directed at us a few days a year, we remain collectively buried in this system, no different than our working-class counterparts throughout the world who we’ve been ordered to extinguish for the past two centuries.

The best way to honor Veterans is to question the system that creates us, uses us, and discards us. And the best way to honor our service is to ask ourselves who we really served and for what purpose.

“Why Don’t You Just Get a Better Job” and Other Dumb Shit People Say to Low-Income Earners Stuck in Precarious Work

Chloe Ann King

 

For most of my working life I have been stuck in the hospitality industry which is lowly paid, painfully precarious and poorly regulated. In New Zealand, where I live, hospitality employers mostly treat you as nothing more than an easily replaceable unit to turn-over-profit. I have spent over a decade in this industry and as such I have become acutely aware of the fact that no matter how many shifts I work or how many poorly paid jobs I undertake; I will never have enough money to meet rising living costs.

Sometimes, my life is a bit depressing. You know what I mean? I get up, I go and work one of my multiple jobs and I come home. Each week I check my bank balance and I feel pretty put-out about how low my pay is as compared to how hard I worked for it.

Obviously, working hard at minimum wage jobs is never going to land me economic security. No matter how hard I have worked in the hospo industry I have never ever received a pay-rise, not once. The lie of “hard work” serves to convince us that if we fail to achieve happy, healthy and joy filled lives which are economically secure thanks to well paid jobs, it is because we failed to work hard enough for it. Constantly we are told that external factors do not affect us. This type of pervasive ‘positive’ rhetoric isendlessly used by many self-help Gurus such as Tony Robbins, one of America’s most well-known motivational speakers.

The lie of “hard work” is pitched to us – those from the working and lower classes, by not only self-help gurus and spiritualists but politicians and well intentioned high school teachers and even our parents, as being one of the best paths to prosperity. This myth is perpetuated and disseminated by the mainstream media as motivational newsworthy ‘human interest’ stories. However, there is very little which is human about these types of stories. The core of these news pieces has nothing to do with humanity or being human and everything to do with selfishness and individualism and play on insecurities and our need to compare our lives to others who we think or we are passive aggressively told, have it better than us.

A few months ago the NZ Herald (New Zealand’s most read newspaper which controls the national narrative) ran yet another one of these “motivational” articles on a young landlord named Gary Lin. Who has managed to buy up a staggering eleven properties citing “hard work” as a reason for his success. He told the NZ Herald,

“Work hard, work smart, save hard, and invest smart. Wealth creation is not rocket science – perseverance and hard work can get you there.”

As if wealth creation is something we should as young people, be aspiring to. In times of great wealth inequality, we should be demanding wealth dispersal not setting out to create and covet wealth for ourselves. Gary, unlike most of us, was given a hefty “leg up” or what we poor folk call a “handout” by his father in the sum of $200,000 as a wedding gift which allowed him to buy his first home which cost him $175,000. I guess for some people money really does grow on trees.

I hate to break it to you Gaz – can I call you Gaz? But “hard work” had nothing to do with your successes in life.

Gaz got lucky. He won the genetic lottery and was born into wealth – he did not earn the money that helped him buy his first home. It was given to him. Instead of using his unearned wealth to help others he made the choice to punch-down and profit off the growing number of people stuck in the rental trap by hoarding properties. Gaz has engaged in predatory behavior by renting his properties out at market rental rates. In an unregulated rental market the odds are never in favor of tenants. As George Minbiot wrote for the Guardian, Rent is another term for unearned income.”

People like Gaz rarely acknowledge their economic success is at the expense of those from the lower and working classes. To recognize this Gaz, might have to feel a little bit bad about how he came into his millionaire property portfolio. He might have some kind of world shattering epiphany that he is not as smart as he believes and his successes are owed more to an ability to stomach the ruthless actions and attitudes needed to ‘make it’ in a society that is quickly turning into a dystopian one. Which makes The Hunger Games, look like child’s play. Sociopathy and luck had more to do with Gaz’s successes in life than actual “hard work”, talent and intelligence.

Lawyer and anti-poverty activist David Tong, responded to Gaz’s flawed belief that anyone can own property if they just “work hard” enough, with these words:

“Motivational read from the NZ Herald: You too can be a rich property investor. If dad gives you a $200,000 gift”

“Hard work” and motivation don’t mean shit in a broken economy that was built on the blood, backs and bones of the working class and the most marginalized and vulnerable. Increasingly, accessing upward mobility – which buying property can help you obtain as well as a better quality of life, is becoming an impossible task because of low wages, insecure work and a flooded job market. People are just struggling to get off minimum wage let alone save for a house.

***

The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions states that “At least 30% of New Zealand’s workers – over 635,000 people – are in insecure work. We believe it may well cover 50% of the workforce.” No matter how hard you work it is impossible to get ahead when your employer only offers you inconsistent hours and denies your basic right to a guarantee of minimum hours.

Casual contracts are used widely within the hospitality and service industries and state that your employer owes you “no minimum of hours.” But the expectation is that you will cover and come in when needed and if you refuse you are often faced with penalties. Such as having your shifts cut the next week. Having the stability of a salary as opposed to waged work is a far off dream for so many of us. You can’t budget let alone save money for a house when you never know what your pay-check is going to be from one week to the next.

Economic insecurity because of cut shifts and insecure hours has been a major feature of my working life. For example, last year just before Christmas I had my shifts cut in half. I went from working between four and five shifts a week down to only two. I was given six days’ notice and when I pointed out how hard this would hit me economically to a Duty manager I was told, “I should go and find a second job” and reminded that “I was only on a casual contract so there was not much I could do about it.”

For the last few months I had been back-breakingly flexible for this employer. I had come in whenever I was needed and covered shifts at short notice. I had worked hard to make every customer’s experience an enjoyable one, all this for minimum wage. I spent most of December desperately scrounging around for a second job, as did two other workers who had suffered the same fate.

I popped into the same work soon after my shifts had been cut to collect my tips and one of the regulars who had been drinking, accosted me verbally and demanded to know why I was in such vocal support of the recent rolling strikes of Bunnings Warehouse workers. These workers had been subject to Zero Hour contracts, eternal bullying and harassment from managers and no guarantee of shifts or rosters. He said “why don’t these Bunnings workers just go out and get a better job”. This statement coming from a white male Baby Boomer who enjoyed free tertiary education and did not start his working life off in debt. All is crimson and gold in middle class Whiteywood, I guess.

“Why don’t you just go and get a better job?” This singular narrative epitomizes the ignorant attitudes of people like Gaz and the regular from my work whose name is ironically Gary, as well. It also puts the sole responsibility of finding well paid and meaningful work onto the worker, while absolving a government’s responsibility to push for job creation which serves their citizenry and the environment and to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, in New Zealand.

If over 30% of the workforce is stuck in precarious work and large sectors of the workforce earn below Aotearoa’s living wage of $19.25 an hour, finding “better work” is statistically impossible for a vast majority of us. There are thousands of hospitality businesses in Auckland, New Zealand, and only a handful pay a living wage and nearly none offer a guarantee of hours. As such telling people to “get a better job” is like telling them to buy a lotto ticket and live in hope they take out the jackpot.

***

No matter what the Gaz’s, Gary’s and the self-help superstars such as Tony Robbins of this world have to say on the myth of “hard work” and perseverance paying off one day, the reality is our ability to access upward mobility; buy a house; obtain a decent standard of living is tied to what type of work you can access. External factors not only deeply impact people’s lives they oppress those who do not benefit from certain types of privilege. Not all roads lead to Rome. More often than not for us poor folk they lead to roadblocks and hurdles that increase based on the colour of your skin, the class you were born into and/or your gender, how bodily abled you are and your sexuality or a combination of all of these.

People’s situations are complicated and difficult and cannot be curtailed into passive aggressive motivational “one liners” that nearly always punch-down and not up. Our working class struggles cannot be solved by a set of self-help rules or keys or steps which are meant to guide anyone to economic stability and lead you to the life of your dreams and a perfect job. In the book, The New Soft War on Women, the chapter entitled ‘Doing Well May Not Work Out So Well’, Caryl Rivers and Rosaling C. Barnett, write,

“We like to believe that the workplace is fair and that if we do a good job, we will be rewarded. After all, that’s the American way. But this belief is less true for women than it is for men. Indeed, too often women’s performance which is stellar gets fewer rewards than men do – even men who are less than outstanding.”

During a major speech at Wellesley College, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, talked about the role women can play in politics and public life, she said,

“We know we’ve got to keep pushing at that glass ceiling. We have to try and break it… Obviously. I hope to live long enough to see a woman elected president of the United States.”

Encouraging women to break the glass ceiling is all well and good but what if moving off minimum wage and accessing a living wage, is no easy feat? In America alone, 6 out of every 10 women are stuck on minimum wage.

The Glass Ceiling is so high up most of us can barely even see it. Researchers at the non-profit group Catalyst point out, “[…] when you start from behind, it’s hard enough to keep pace, never mind catch up-regardless of what tactics you use.” Both Rivers and Barnett went on to write,

“Doing all the right things to get ahead-using those strategies regularly suggested in self-help books, coaching sessions and the popular press-pays off much better for men than it does for women.”

As women, we do not struggle to “get ahead” because of personal failings but this struggle is born from structural sexism which creates gendered inequality.

Telling white women and women of colour to be more ambitious and just “work harder” if they want to smash the Glass Ceiling and obtain a decent standard of living is almost laughable. Considering many women, in particular, indigenous women and women of colour, are still struggling to make it out of the basement. Still, self-help gurus such as Tony Robbins preach to millions that none of what I am writing about actually matters: race, gender… whatever you were born as, and into, does not have to hold you back. You just have to believe in yourself and follow the Tony Robbin’s step-by-step guide to snagging a life beyond anything you could ever dream of. Which he has called: ’12 Keys to an Extraordinary Life’.You couldn’t make this shit up. He said at a recent event:

“I don’t care if you are young or old, I don’t care what your colour is, what your gender is, what country you come from, if you understand the science of building wealth you can have an abundance of it. If you violate those rules [of the 12 keys to an Extraordinary Life] either because you’re ignorant to them or you don’t apply then, you are going to have financial stress”

Tony, who sounds uncomfortably like Gaz in his belief anyone can become a millionaire, may as well have just said “we are all one”! “Everyone can make it no matter what grinding and economically depressive situations you come from”! And be done with it.

Financial stress is not brought about because you have unknowingly violated one or more of the ’12 Keys to an Extraordinary Life’ which Tony has made tens of millions off. Violating female stereotypes of passivity have a lot more to do with our failure or success in the workplace than how hard we do, or do not, hustle for top positions and top earning brackets. Rivers and Barnett write, “Competent women violate the traditional female stereotype of passivity. And that violation can trigger a reaction of fear and loathing [in the workplace].”

Financial stress is brought about because of injustices such as the pay-gap and the coloured pay-gap. Something Tony, has clearly gone out of his way to ignore. Self-help gurus and people like Gaz and Gary tend to, “displace questions of social justice and frame their rhetoric by the individualist and corporatist values of a consumer society,” as both Jeremy Carrette and Richard King wrote in the book, Selling Spirituality: the silent take over of religion.

Both Rivers and Barnett point out in relation to the American pay gap,

“Hispanic/Latino women have the lowest median earnings, earning just 55 percent of the median weekly earnings of white men; black women have, median weekly earnings of 64 percent of those of white men.”

The pay gap for America’s first nation indigenous women also sits at 55 cents in the dollar compared to white men, as non-profit AAUW reports. Indigenous women are faced with earning nearly half of what white men do in America.

Similarly, in Aotearoa indigenous Maori and Pasifika women, face significant coloured/indigenous pay-gaps compared to white men and women. TheDominion Post, reported last year, “Maori and Pasifika women are more likely to be in the lowest paying jobs, which increases the poverty in their lives and communities.” The Human Rights Commission has been tracking unfairness and inequality at work and cites that Pasifika women on average earn $57,668 while white men earn $66,900. What this datashows us is that, “Men are paid more than women overall and within ethnic groups. The effects increase when combining several factors as is the case between New Zealand European men and Pacific women. These patterns have persisted over time.”

These “patterns” of women of colour and Indigenous women being paid significantly less than white men and women, to do the same damn jobs have “persisted” all over the world from America to Aotearoa. Injustice and oppression is locally and globally connected.

A more accurate description of what the aspirational metaphor of the Glass Ceiling is made out of is to say it is made from lead. So many women are much more likely to fall off what Rivers and Barnett have labelled the “glass cliff” than triumphantly smash the glass ceiling into a million little pieces. Following Tony Robbin’s guide to obtaining some magical, fairy-tale life, or any other pseudo bullshit glittery guides to financial freedom, aren’t going to be very effective for women born into a system which was built to silence and eradicate them.

The only thing I am aspiring to “smash” is white imperial patriarchal systems that at best disempower women and at worst, brutally and often violently oppress them.

***

As workers we are criticized for our behavior whether we are told we need to be “more ambitious” or we “just need to work harder” in response to our perceived failure to land a great job with good pay and consistent hours. I am so tired of listening to people who endlessly tell me to go and get a “better job” or a “real job” (what does that even mean?!). And I have lost count of the times I have been told by people who hold anti-protester positions to “go and get a job” while I am on the picket line or the protest ground. As if the low waged work I do counts for absolutely nothing. As if service industry work is some kind of phantom job.

This is for anyone who has ever told a service worker to go and get a “job” or a “real job”: why don’t you make your own double shot soy latte, flip your own burgers and pour your own damn beer and make your own designer espresso martini, which costs more than I make in an hour.

When as a worker, I refuse to put up with horrible workplace conditions and hit the picket line or call the Union as a form of resistance I have been called a “trouble maker”, “dirty hippy” and an “inconvenience”. I am proud to be all of those things. I am glad I stood up and was brave and risked job loss (sometimes I have lost my job for speaking out) and arrest in an attempt to better my workplace conditions. The only people who are “dirty” are those who seize on disaster capitalism and economically benefit from the oppression of others… I am looking at you Tony Robbin’s and Gaz.

We need more workers collectively rising up and following the lead of Health Care workers, Bunning Warehouse and Supermarket workers and more recently Bus drivers. Who have all relentlessly hit union backed picket lines to demand ‘fair pay for fair work’ and better work conditions, in New Zealand. And less people thinking magically one day their lives will get better if they just play by the rules and perform their duties at work without complaint. This is nothing but blind faith. It is like believing in god: no matter how long you patiently wait he is not going to come and save you.

People from the working classes and those who have been in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, disenfranchised from the middle and upper-classes can save each other. But we need to refuse to allow those who hold power to continue to pit us against one another in some kind of Capitalist Death Match. Where the only prize you get is some demeaning job where the wages are so low you have to pick between buying food or paying the electricity bill. Starving or freezing does not sound like much of a “win” to me. It sounds like bullshit.

The more people who push against injustice in staggering numbers the harder it is for the media to ignore us and distort our messages of resistance.

Many people’s grinding situations have nothing to do with individual ‘bad choices’ or laziness or you know, violating the ’12 Steps to an Extraordinary Life’. No matter how many times we hear rotten rhetoric like this we must refuse – absolutely – to accept these types of pervasive and dominant narratives. At their core these narratives use shame and ruggedly focus on the individual as a method to pacify and silence. We must disrupt language that is designed to disempower and divide workers while seeming to empower. We need to seek out ways to elevate the voices of our most vulnerable and the messages of people of conscience who can envision a better world and whose political imaginations outstretch the dominant reality.

Lastly, we need to fight and stand with other workers against employers who exploit their employees and view them as nothing more than units to turn-over capital. Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, went on to write in their before mentioned book:

“We are never obliged to accept the dominant version of reality (however conceived throughout history) without question.”

Fred Hampton in a Mock People’s Trial

Fred Hampton participating in a mock people’s trial, where he articulates why the Black Panther Party, and he as a leader within the party, was being viciously targeted by the US government.

Hampton suggests the most formidable threat from the BPP (in the eyes of the power structure) was not its willingness to take up arms in defense, but rather its focus on the “proletarian” class struggle shared by “poor people of all descents.” In response to the constant manipulation ofworking-class fears (often directed from above), used to divide the masses through the promotion of racism, Hampton made this powerful statement:

“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”

Threat #1: The promotion of working-class solidarity across racial lines.

Threat #2: Seeing beyond identity politics.

Threat #3: Rejecting the near-sighted goals of assimilating into (as in the case of many Civil Rights leaders at the time) or replicating (as in the case of Black Nationalists) the capitalist system.

A valuable and often forgotten message.
This clip is from the documentary, “The Murder of Fred Hampton.”

In solidarity.