Withered aristocracy #2 – heavy construction and critical faculties

by cominsitu

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An attempt at an explanation for the long absence of the Withered Aristocracy blog

Oh how quickly a year goes by! When I began Withered Aristocracy last summer I fully intended to update this blog as frequently as I could, in my mind at least once a month, or at least when I felt some experience or insight I gained in my union apprenticeship deserved sharing with the libcom community. Alas, it wasn’t so.

I got some nice feedback from my first post, but I’m damn sure nobody was waiting with bated breath for my next offering. Still, I wouldn’t blame anybody who expressed any interest in another installment for assuming either A) I couldn’t hack it in the construction trade and gave up or B) I lost my libertarian communist politics amidst the business union world I’d entered into. Thankfully, I can report, neither of these are the case.

Periodically over the last year I’ve felt the desire to post, but I always ran into writer’s block that I just couldn’t get past. It’s taken me time to figure out why that was so. And the two main reasons I’ve come up with I hope might be interesting in and of themselves to comrades who struggle to find the energy to engage in movements while taking the daily beatings capital imposes on us as workers, and also those who find it hard to take on a mode of detachment when analyzing their lives at work.

Labor-power brain drain

The first reason I’ve been unable to rub two nouns together is really basic and doesn’t take that much explanation. In my 14 months in the union I have worked for five different contractors and, with the exception of a few short breaks of three or four days, I’ve been on the job pretty much straight through. Even during the brutally cold New York winter we had this year, when most sites shut down for a month or two, I was fortunate enough to be fully employed – that is, if one can consider doing heavy construction in 6 degree fahrenheit (negative 14 centigrade) weather a fortunate circumstance!

The last contractor I worked for (which of course will remain unnamed) has a really lousy reputation among union workers as slave-driving, benefit-stealing pricks. Thankfully I was hired by and worked under a very decent super, a union guy actually, who basically ran interference for us against the demands of the contractor and made sure to keep every tradesperson on the site in work through the slow times. And this was a big name, high pressure project, so not only was there steady work, there was TONS of overtime.

Overtime is our bread and butter. Overtime means time-and-a-half pay after eight hours in a day, and any hour worked on Saturdays. Overtime also means double-time pay on Sundays and holidays. As a first year apprentice making a pitiful 40% of the journeyman rate, overtime meant not just keeping my head above water, but actually getting ahead of my finances for the first time in my adult life.

Of course, overtime is also the contractually agreed upon selling of one’s commodity labor-power at a slightly lower rate of exploitation. It is compensation for your overworked hands and back, for the time spent away from your loved ones, for the precious moments of your life stolen away by the profit system, and for the dulling of your critical faculties and your ability to analyze, act and resist.

For the last six months our gang worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, with the occasional Sunday thrown in when a big deadline was approaching. The most days we clocked in a row was 21. This isn’t even close to what some brothers and sisters end up taking on. You hear stories of “7 12s” jobs – seven days a week ,12 hours a day – that last months. When tradesmen talk about this, they do so with a combination of awe (at the astounding money to be made) and horror (at the complete negation of life this entails). That’s why they call it “blood money’.

Now, I wasn’t on the blood money kick, though if I was offered the chance to do it for a few months I’d be hard-pressed to turn it down. But those 6 months took a serious toll on me, not just physically, but also in terms of my relationship with my partner and my social life with my friends. Oh yeah, and if there was a big concrete pour on a Tuesday and it ran behind schedule we’d put in an 18 hour day, commute home for four hours sleep and be back at 6am to do another 12 hours.

Ultimately what I’m trying to get at here is that the utter exhaustion I felt during those months (I’m not just talking physical here, it’s also mentally draining to have to learn so much, so fast under such pressure) made the idea of sitting down on my one day off and pulling together my critical faculties and summoning even the most rudimentary of writing abilities necessary to blog absolutely laughable. Maybe others have the inner strength to do that, but I sure don’t. (Big ups and respect to Greg Butler for being that guy haha!)

Don’t misunderstand why I’m expounding on this first point. I’m not just bitching and moaning: I made good money, good friends and learned a lot. What I’m trying to get at is the way in which wage labor – and I mean that in the broadest way possible: the salaried office clerk putting in 70 stressful hours a week in the office then forced to respond to work emails on Sunday is in a similarly shitty boat – dulls the faculties, drains the creative juices, drowns any critical analysis, and then dumps you on the couch on your days off to fitfully search for some benign or malignant palliative that might reproduce just enough of your labor-power for you to throw yourself back on the subway come Monday morning.

The reader might now be asking herself, “With all that being the case, how come you’re sitting in bed writing this bullshit on a Thursday morning?!” An amazing thing happened a couple of weeks ago: I GOT LAID OFF! The job finally ended, they gave me my lay-off/pay-off check and I’m basking in the glow of blessed unemployment. The sad thing is I’ve been meaning to return to this blog since that glorious last day of work, but I’m only just now relaxed enough in mind and body to pop off this little post here.

Of course, living in the hyper-gentrified seat of international capitalist class power that is New York City is horribly expensive, so my days off are unfortunately numbered. At the end of this week I will start making phone calls to the union brothers and sisters I’ve been fortunate to work with and who know my work. Hopefully, using the networks of solidarity our Local fosters, I’ll have work by Monday. Which leads me to the next reason why I’ve been so remiss in the blogging duties I set for myself a year ago.

The failure of dispassionate analysis

As I mentioned in my first blog entry, I’ve been critical of class society from a young age. I spent about 12 years of my life entering, dropping out and re-entering higher education. Leaving aside the massive debts I’ve incurred (and have, oops, defaulted on) and my failure to turn a degree into a career, I got out of my college experience a lot of what I was looking for: not merely great comrades and friends, but also methods of analysis owing a lot to Marxian and anarchist thinkers in sociology, history and anthropology. This helped put some theoretical backbone to what was the mostly knee-jerk punk rock anarcho-nihilism of my teens and early twenties.

One concession I made to myself when leaving behind the idea of teaching or writing for a living – or to be more accurate, when the logic of capitalist development degraded these trades as stable and decently paying career options – was that I would throw everything I had into being a good tradesman, while also trying to dispassionately analyze and write about the social and institutional relations within the construction industry. The idea was, and still is, to work hard and be a good unionist, to fight the good fight, to finally have some financial stability and a chance at some form of retirement, and all the while taking enough time for myself to be able to organize with comrades, be with my family and friends, read great books, take fun trips and write about things I care about.

This proved harder than I thought it would be, and not just because of the long exhausting hours. The truth is, being a part of my union and especially my Local, has made dispassionate analysis very difficult. This is not because there are not glaring issues with the way our exclusionary, top-down business union is run. It is not because I lack day-to-day examples of individual and collective struggle against the bosses and the union bureaucracy. It is not because we don’t all need to come up with ways to stop non-union outfits from taking our work. It is not because issues around race and gender on the job are not deserving of a deep critique. It is not because I’m so enamored with being part of a huge labor institution with a sometimes proud legacy that I can’t come to critique it. It is none of these things. In fact, these are the things that I had hoped, and still do hope, to tackle on the job and in writing.

So what happened to all that?

It took me a while to figure out why I felt so uncomfortable actually sitting down and writing about my experiences. And it finally dawned on me that it was solidarity itself that was blocking me. And to be very clear, I’m not talking about fleeting senses of solidarity or solidarity in the abstract, like those great feelings we all get when in a crowd of thousands of people taking the streets and protesting, or like union organizers and radicals love to put on signs or in leaflets, or as in amazing songs that start like, “When the union’s inspiration through the workers blood shall run…”

Those are all powerful and amazing things. But what I quickly began to feel as I progressed in the trade and went from job to job was a real, person-to-person, rank-and-file solidarity that I could not abstract from, that I could not confront in a detached mode of dispassionate analysis.

This solidarity is the kind of feeling that develops over weeks or months on a job when you’re spending 12 hours a day with a fellow worker who didn’t know you from dirt on the ground a year earlier, but is now jacking a wire lather up against the wall because they made a joke about the holes in your work pants.

This solidarity is when the grizzled old-timer who spends half of every day breaking your balls because you’re a know-nothing apprentice could be getting paid to sit in the heated shanty, but instead puts on rain gear and takes you out to train you for hours on how to burn steel with a blowtorch, giving you pointers and encouragement as you both shiver in the freezing rain.

This solidarity is the hours you’ve spent on countless lunch breaks in a shitty shipping container talking about anything in the world but work because everybody is tired and burnt out and misses their families and you only have 40 minutes to eat your food and shoot the shit and share stupid youtube videos and play cards and thereby help each other claw back some collective humanity before another bout of misery.

This solidarity is the gallows humor when you’re digging with spade shovels in boot-high muck while 25 feet down in a trench while the temperature is hovering just above zero and you have to laugh together so you don’t scream alone.

It’s when everyone’s favorite old-timer in your bull gang gets his hand crushed between a wall and an excavator bucket and every last one of you throws down their tools and walks the guy to the hospital and does rounds staying with him in the emergency room on the clock, company be damned, and our foreman arrives at his house 24 hours later with a get well card signed by all the tradespeople from the jobsite with a $1300 collection inside.

I can’t detach myself from all that.

Every time I’ve sat down and thought about writing some blog about how social relations are on the job, about the sometimes great, sometimes horrible things people say about politics, race, gender, unionism, immigrants, terrorism, etc. I’ve been unable to do it because I can’t be detached about the lives of people who day-after-day have become part of my own life. And the real solidarity on the job, or at the bar after work, or when someone on the street in Queens sees your union bumper sticker and runs up to your car to give you a fist pound, all these things are beyond quantifying or graphing or inserting into a sociological schema. For the moment it would seem a form of betrayal. At least for me. At least at this moment in time.

So what follows from all of this? Has Withered Aristocracy withered on the vine? I’m sitting here almost done with this pretty long second post, a year in the making, so clearly this blog is not dead.

I just reread the solidarity part right above here and I’m feeling kinda corny. “Oh wow you get along with your coworkers, here’s a cookie!” So now I feel I have to throw out something I’ve been thinking about a bit, and excuse me if these thoughts are a little underdeveloped.

So, those actions of mutual aid described above and the collectivity that craft unionism can often foster do not, of course, exist in a vacuum. As we all know, they in fact exist within the antagonistic relationship between labor and capital. We could imagine, and I’m sure many of us dream about, a world where an association of producers form and maintain collectivities with all the positive attributes of solidarity I described, but where the product of that labor is not a commodity, but a social good, a use-value devoid of exchange-value.

As it is now, those wonderful moments of solidarity are at the very same moment being used by capital as a form of collective self-exploitation. When a union brother or sister is standing by your side and needs you to do something or get something so they can complete their task you feel as though you are doing it for them. The solidarity made real by your collectivity means notlending a hand makes their job harder. You are letting them down, right? When someone in the bull gang is hung over and can only work at 50%, we all work 10% harder so that we can carry them along and get them through the day without them getting sent home or fired by the super. We are looking out forthem, right?

Well, yes and no.

Your social cohesion on the job means a tighter work team that pushes each other to be better and faster and more productive of surplus value. Journeypeople going out of their way to teach apprentices is an act of solidarity, but it also takes the training out of their hands. In this topsy-turvy, perverted world of capital, your act of solidarity with your fellow worker is actually a productivity enhancing mechanism for the bosses. It is a real collective unity with the power to wage battles on the terrain of class struggle, but in the hands of the boss solidarity is for sale.

Ok I think that little mini-analysis is enough to sustain this blog as more than just the emoting of a guy who’s unemployed with too much time on his hand and a bit of guilt about procrastination to get off his chest. I look forward to any comments people might have! How do you deal with work time and organizing? Do you have cool stories about solidarity on the job you wanna share? Does that crap at the end about the double-edged sword of solidarity make sense or do you want to add to it or critique it?

Anyways, thanks for reading!

In solidarity,
Max

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