Withered aristocracy #1
(c.i.s. nyc – guest post: Max. K. Schwarz)
I’ll begin this new blog with an anecdote:
It was a hot summer morning several months into my apprenticeship within the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. It was also two weeks since I had ‘broken into’ (that is to say, gained consistent employment with) a large scaffolding and hoist company based in Queens, New York. I had gotten a text from the General Foreman the afternoon before that I was to report to the company yard at 7:00am. I arrived early with my coffee and bagel, prepared for my first day of shop work.
Shop work! Both a blessing and a curse – at once freed from the glaring sun and psychological abuses of toiling on the busy streets of New York, while at the same time toiling under the constant surveillance of the company brass.
The shop foreman, a younger Greek-American guy with a penchant for alternating rapid-fire, cynical humor with full-throated tirades of anger at all and sundry, directed me to the area of the dusty old building he had set up for me to work. He gave me hasty instructions on how to build a wooden parapet (the ubiquitous, green, wooden panels that surround every work site in New York City) before leaving me with the tools and materials I would for eight hours of work. He then ran off to yell at somebody about something. I was too morning-dazed and overwhelmed by my three minute tutorial on parapet making to acknowledge what that might be.
“Ok,” I thought to myself, “let’s get to it.” As a first year apprentice I knew I had to bust ass to keep my job and I knew that this task would require me to discover a system that would increase my output quickly. As a radical who disdains wage labor and the toll it takes on mind and body, I looked forward to getting to that point where I could work on auto-pilot: letting my muscle memory do the work while I could let my mind drift to anything (ANYTHING!) besides the visceral tedium and indignity that derives from the commodification and alienation of my labor.
After making a few panels I felt like I had a pretty good system going: cut a bunch of 54″ pieces of 2′ x 4′ with shop saw, insert studs and braces into metal frame, square and plumb, use the big nails in the nail gun to affix studs, lift and position plywood on top, change nails in gun to smaller ones, square and tack the plywood, run a line of nails around the outside and middle of the panel, place completed parapet onto a nice stack accessible to the forklift.
As the morning went on I was feeling good about my progress and even better about the fact that nobody had come by that corner of the shop to break my balls about work or anything else. I plugged away and began to get into the zone where I could think about politics, my social relationships, or life in general. I even zoned out enough to get a good soundtrack of my favorite songs going in my head. “Yay shop work!” I thought to myself as my stack of parapets grew higher and my muscles, sore from the day before, loosened up and my thoughts drifted pleasantly.
And then it all changed. The number one, Billy, and number two, Guiseppe, in the company’s union hierarchy walked into the shop loudly arguing about something. I was immediately brought out of my daze. My mental mixtape morphed instantly to the white noise of anxiety and dread. I was hoping the General Foreman and Safety Foreman wouldn’t notice me as they entered, that they would walk on by and leave me to work in peace. My hopes were instantly dashed as they made a bee line in my direction.
“Hey, kid! You getting anything done over here or what?” said Billy, in his typically sarcastic, hyper cant. This guy was the kind of union ‘brother’ who would work you like a dog. His loyalty was to the company and his paycheck and nothing else. Billy hustled over to my completed stack of parapets (one thing about Billy, he always hustled) and counted them up. “Eleven, eh? You’ve been here three fucking hours and you’ve made eleven goddamn panels?!”
I looked at the stack and started muttered something about how I just learned how to do them and how I was getting faster and better at it… He cut me off: “Four fucking panels an hour! Wow, kid, have you been working or playing with your dick all day?” The number two union guy, Giuseppe, made brief eye contact with me then looked away with a wry smirk on his face.
Billy continued, “Come on, now, you should be making ten or twelve of these an hour! Do you even know how to use a nail gun? Are you a carpenter or what? What the fuck are you good for…” et cetera et cetera, as I just nodded at him tight-lipped and terrified. Meanwhile, I thought of how I’d gained confidence in my work all morning. But within thirty seconds, all this confidence was dashed as Billy assaulted me with a torrent of abuse coupled with confusing, rapid-fire tips on how to produce more, faster. He grabbed some tools and knocked them around a bit, waved his hands around and then as quick as he came to ruin my day, he was off to break somebody else’s balls.
I was paralyzed for a minute or two, both physically and psychologically. I reached for a cigarette, perhaps the most destructive ways I, and many others, find momentary chemical solace in this fucked capitalist world. A couple of drags and my anxiety receded enough for me to regather my wits. Half of my wanted to throw up my hands and tell Billy to go fuck himself. But the more reasonable (and desperate) half of me knew I couldn’t afford to burn any bridges this early in my career or to be laid off for even a day. Hell, my rent was a week late already.
So I just plowed into it. This was the familiar speedup. The speedup exists everywhere in capitalist society, in its circuits of money, its movements of commodities and its exploitation of labor. Speed, productivity, profit – mental exhaustion, aching muscles, and a shitty paycheck.
Instead of placing the plywood on the studs, I heaved it off the pile and half threw it in place. Instead of meticulously inserting nails to insure the integrity of the panels, I lined myself up and let the recoil from the explosive power of the nail gun quickly pop the head into next position until my right hand was cramping and blistered. Instead of using the proper ergonomics of manual lifting, I let the boss’s drive for speed take over, tweaking my back in the process. On and on until lunch, I found further ‘efficiencies’ and increased my rate of production as the boss would come by periodically to count my stack, shake his head, and silently walk away.
As I stumbled into the break room (blessedly air-conditioned) four or five guys in the Operating Engineers union were sitting around eating their packed lunches and playing dominoes. They looked at me, covered in shop filth and sweat, and started slapping backs and laughing.
“What’s up, fellas?”, I croaked out as I reached above the lockers for my cooler. The Greek Shop Foreman chuckled and yelled “Yo, the kid’s run down! Whats’ammata did Billy get to ya?” More laughter. I just smiled in a wry way and took a brief round of half-joking abuse from each one of them. Thankfully, for my sake, I come from a large family of jocular pricks, so I can take this sort of thing pretty well.
Guiseppe, the number two, was sitting at the table with his sandwich. He is a quiet Italian-American guy with a constant aura of harried, hangdog exhaustion. With a sideways glance to the rest of the guys he said, “So, Billy says to the kid to make ten to twelve panels an hour.” He waived his hand in my direction, “How’s that working out for ya?” I told him that I was working as fast as I could, but I only had fifteen done by lunch. More laughs! Were they laughing with me or at me? My confusion was utter and complete.
Then the mood changed in an instant. The Greek stood up and slapped me on the shoulder, “Yo why the fuck you listen to Billy,” and chuckled. Smiles and knowing glances all around. “This kid’s breaking his ass trying to make twelve and hour!” Guiseppe looked up from his sandwich and explained wearily, “Hey look. We used to have a guy that made those things all day, all week. His job, ya know? His only job and fucker was twice the size of you. You know how many he made a day, kid?”
I quickly did the math, but before I could blurt out, “SOMEWHERE BETWEEN EIGHTY AND NINTY SIX,” Guiseppe answered his own question. “Fifty.”
“Yeah fifty fucking panels a day, kid, and he asks you for twelve an hour.” Everyone cracked up at this and I was starting to figure out what was going on.
So, shaking my head, I asked Giuseppe, “Is that, um, Billy’s way of motivating me?”
It was my turn to join in the bitter laughter when Giuseppe replied, “No. You got it all wrong, kid.”
(pause for effect)
“That’s Billy’s way of BEING AN ASSHOLE.”
End of anecdote.
The above story represents a mere half-day in the life of a building-trades apprentice in New York City. But each workday of the last four months has provided me some lessons on how the construction industry operates.
This is true on the micro level, in the day-to-day social interactions, the physical wear and tear, the cynicism and despair, the implicit and explicit power dynamics at work, and the contradictory marriage of my own drive to learn and succeed in my trade coupled with my disdain for the wage system and our place, as workers, within it.
On a macro level, the building trades are situated within a powerful, but tenuous, nexus of profit. So each day teaches me more about its political economy, the perverse logic of business unionism, and the familiar struggle between capital and labor. Along with this I’ve found a surprisingly overt and disturbingly intense struggle within this privileged fraction of the organized working class to maintain a relatively decent standard of living, largely by undermining basic principles of even conservative unionism and disregarding any notion of solidarity with fellow unionists, let alone the class-at-large.
And while I hope to bring my personal experiences and outlook to these writings, my precarious position as an apprentice in a highly conservative, exclusivist, and often corrupt craft union forces me to maintain strict anonymity. This means I must skirt around many autobiographical details and be purposefully vague when sharing workplace or union stories. For example, any names that appear in the above story have been changed and I would be loath to mention the name of the company or even what neighborhood it’s based in. This could possibly change in several years when I’ve ‘booked out’ into journeyman status and gain a degree of protection, but in the meantime I must avoid revealing too much lest I jeopardize my union card or my ability to find work.
After all, as they told us in our first orientation at the union hall, “Never forget that as first year apprentices you’re the lowest of the low. In fact, you’re so low you’re lower than whale shit.” Duly noted…
One thing I can say is that I am a newly-minted union carpenter with a college degree in the liberal arts who has even attended some graduate school. For five generations both sides of my family were blue-collar unionists in New York City, but, with the exception of a couple union carpenter uncles, my parents and most of my extended family have risen to the ranks of the home-owning, suburban middle class American ‘ideal’. In fact, until recently I myself was part of the educational workforce (albeit highly contingent) and have done work in publishing and other white-collar fields.
Now, ten years ago my education may have made me a complete outlier in the building trades. But it says a lot about the state of the local and national labor market that when the roughly 150 new apprentices were asked in initial orientation were asked who had a college degree, nearly half raised their hands!
Thirty years of the globalization of production, along with capital and the state’s war on unions, had made college the key for a chance at a decently-paid job in the United States. Now, after six years of generalized capitalist crisis and an ‘education bubble’ on the verge of busting, the college degree is failing to provide what it once did, especially as so many tertiary and ‘creative-class’ jobs now assume a shocking level of precarity.
Many in that room in the union hall were probably thinking the same thing as me: fuck my degree, where else could I earn a great hourly wage with full benefits and have the possibility to retire at 55 with a full, defined-benefit pension?
And so it goes. When I told my family they were pretty shocked, but understood my need to finally have a decent career as I pass into my mid-30s. When I told my white collar coworkers, who were well familiar with my class struggle radicalism, they couldn’t get past the assumption I was engaging in some kind of Trotskyist ‘turn-to-industry’. I kept telling them that, while intend to continue with vigor my political work inside and outside of the workplace, I really really really just needed a shot at not being broke and completely insecure for the first time in my adult life. The older and established ones, especially the more left-leaning ones, just couldn’t wrap their heads around it, but those of my age cohort mostly understood. They have real experience in how brutal the capitalist labor market is at the moment for so many younger people in this city, this country and the world.
So I am starting this blog firstly because I need an outlet to pull together and try to make sense of my own experiences as I embark on this new phase of life. The day-to-day grind of heavy construction has sapped a lot of my critical faculties and I need a forum for encapsulating the lessons I’ve been learning.
Secondly, and more importantly in my opinion, I wish to document and analyze the political economic aspects of the building trades industry in a forum where my experience might be valuable to other class-struggle militants in this sector or any other sector of capitalist labor market, and where I might be able to share ideas and strategies on how to confront exploitation, and discuss with others ways to make libertarian communist practice even a slight force within a largely conservative and moribund union structure.
And, let’s be clear, my union and all the others in the industry are in a fight for their lives. Until 1978, construction in New York City was nearly 100% union. Today that figure hovers between 30-40%, while, unsurprisingly, profits for contractors and developers are at an all-time high in the middle of a huge local construction boom. The conditions for a return to labor militancy in the trades could not riper, but instead we continue the exclusive business union strategies that have failed the rest of our class, and are in the course of failing even on their own ‘pure-and-simple unionism’ terms. But there are bright spots I will explore as well, such as the increasing integration of black and latino workers (and a small, but increasing, number of female workers) into what has traditionally been a citadel of reactionary, racist and misogynistic unionism.
I will attempt to explore these and many issues as time and energy allows. I’m indebted to and influenced by the great work done by prole.info in its publication The Housing Monster and the great analysis produced by NYC carpenter Greg Butler at Gangbox News. I hope to add to their insights in some small way. As I sign off on this post, I invite my Libcom comrades to provide any links or book suggestions in the same vein as those. I would also love to receive any questions or comments (or much-needed encouragement) people might have related to this introductory post. Thanks for reading!
Max K. Schwarz,