Reflections on a Divided Workplace

Reflections on a Divided Workplace

Fred Daniels is the author name of a long-time observer of class issues. I work in a medium size nursing home in West Baltimore with about 200 workers. Most workers here would best be described as part of the service-sector workforce, that is, unskilled poorly paid workers with few protections and frequently changing jobs. The place is unionized, which give workers some security. But the union is weak: only a handful of workers get involved in union affairs. Competition among workers ebbs and flows but is constant. Cliques form and feuds simmer, sometimes breaking out in fistfights. Stealing from co-workers is common too. When aides walk away from their linen carts, other workers will sneak up and raid the carts, stripping them of all linen and work supplies. The upshot is when someone goes on lunch break, they have to find someone trusted to watch their cart. Even the monthly potlucks workers organized stopped because some were sneaking bags of other people’s dishes out the side door to take home while others would loudly whisper they didn’t eat so-and-so’s food because she was “too dirty.” When lay-offs took place recently, many workers showed little solidarity or sympathy; in fact, some said, “Good! They weren’t doing any work anyway.” There’s plenty of absenteeism, for sure. But in this case, absenteeism is not some form of resistance; instead, it works to management’s advantage. Workers call in sick weekends, but this means fewer people do more work, increasing resentment and divisions. Sometimes, people will look at the schedule to see who’s listed and intentionally call in to get back at someone they’re having a beef with so that person has to work at short notice. Since the facility is in financial crisis and is looking for corners to cut, the fewer workers on duty, the happier management is. This is why those calling out rarely get written up or disciplined: they help maintain the bottom line, which is to get the most out of workers with the least number paid. Not only do other workers pay the price but the patients suffer too. People don’t get fed, they don’t get changed, and they die quickly. Unlike a factory, where you can slack on production and catch up later, sick and disabled people don’t stop needing food or basic hygiene. The union’s role is ambiguous. The union endorses all sorts of progressive causes, but little knowledge of this trickles down. (Few people, for instance, know the union sponsored anti-war rallies.) For most, the union is seen as a lawyer: when you run into problems or get written up, the shop steward or union rep handles your case. A tiny minority active in the union see the union as representing something more, as somehow connected to fading memories of the old civil rights movement, but most don’t make this connection. When people go to rallies, like the Voting Rights Act marches in Atlanta couple years ago, they chant slogans the union tells them but have no idea what they’re saying. For most workers, even the activists, the union is seen as an interest group effectively lobbying politicians and winning legislation benefiting workers. I don’t want to exaggerate: a workplace without some minimal level of cooperation couldn’t function. But here it is always under threat from the conflicts between workers. There seems to be some sort of psychological wage benefit from deliberately wanting to keep other people down even if you don’t personally get anything back. Progressives would say that management initiates and keeps these divisions going. I’ve tried, but I don’t see any hard and fast evidence for it. Don’t get me wrong: management certainly uses this competition for its interests. But it doesn’t initiate it. This, unpalatable as it might be, is a form of workers’ self-activity, if in a negative sense. It happens not because of bad individuals or personal psychology (although that plays some part in some cases) but because the society pits people against one another more now than ever. While atomization (not the same as individualism!), disappearing public space and the collapse of old collective identities leaves people feeling more isolated and alone, in Baltimore, the fear—and reality—of crime and random violence worsens all these trends. The corner bar has all but disappeared in many working class areas as sit-down pubs convert to plexi-glass carry-outs. Nowadays, it’s considered a sign of status to have all your entertainment piped in rather than go out. The result is that off the job many people don’t interact with groups larger than their immediate family. Would better wages and benefits help? Without a doubt, both are sorely needed and long overdue. But no, I don’t think it would end or noticeably lessen the conflict. I say this because the home is forced to use nursing agencies to supplement staff because of the high turn-over and call-ins. Nursing agencies pay much more—well over $15 per hour in many cases—and the agency workers act the same as the lower-paid permanent staff. Another sensible question might be to ask, is this typical? After all, there have always been bad work environments. The truth is, at other nursing homes, it’s often worse. I used to catch the bus with workers from a nearby hospital and the same distrust circulated in their conversations too, although the hospitals are more regimented and don’t tolerate the same level of conflict so rife in nursing homes. The left has always relied on some basic sense of solidarity or common feeling among workers as a starting point to press for more. But what if this sense of solidarity has been so eroded that many workers don’t see themselves as part of a larger collective? Then the issue becomes how does solidarity arise, especially in a city like Baltimore, when conditions of everyday life, both on and off the job militate so hard against it?

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