Economic Update: Jobs Driving Us Mad

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In this week's show, Prof. Wolff presents updates on the unionization of Grinnell College student-workers; US GDP drops 1.4% in Q1 of 2022; food inflation versus rationing; Germany's refugee shame; small US businesses to plan price inflation; and western corporations leaving Russia replaced by eager corporations from China, India, Turkey, Brazil etc. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Emily Guendelsberger, author of On the Clock, on how badly paid, insanely stressful jobs are the workplace future facing the US.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome, friends, to another edition of “Economic Update”, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives. I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

Today, I'll be discussing the rising food prices, the eviction of Afghan refugees from Germany to make room for Ukrainians, companies from China, India, and Turkey replacing the ones in the U.S. who've pulled out of Russia, and more. And, in the second half of today's show, we'll be talking with author Emily Guendelsberger about Amazon and work situations like that. So, let's jump right in.

First, a shout out to Grinnell College, a wonderful school in Iowa, good reputation, been around a long time, but what it's there doing today is what has me excited. The students there, who have hourly jobs working at the college, which you know, more and more students have that. Why? Because the financing of going to college is out of control. The debts that are being imposed on students are out of control. Colleges are trying to get away with paying lower wages, which they can do with their students. It's a bad situation, and it's been getting worse, and the students at Grinnell tried to deal with it by forming a union, - not just of those that have been working in a particular job, - but all union students working on an hourly basis decided they would like to have a union to bargain for them with the college. And they did it, and they had an election, and they won. Grinnell is the first college in the United States to achieve a union for all student worker employees, and you might like to know the vote. When they came up for the final vote, 327 in favor of the union, 6 against. An overwhelming labor renewal movement victory!
I also want to quickly talk about the decline in the GDP of the United States that was announced recently for the first quarter of 2022, - a decline of 1.4%. Given the value of goods and services produced on an annual basis in this country, that's a decline of our economy in the neighborhood of $250 billion. And I want everyone to be clear with all the noise, that this was a shock, this was amazing to people, although I'm mystified as to why. We know very well why. If you have an inflation of 10%, everything costs more, and you don't raise people's wages anywhere near that, then they won't be able to afford what they could have afforded before, and if they're buying less goods and services, well, then fewer of them will be produced. And that's what you're watching. Very bad for the American economy. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise.

Another update I want to tell you about is a little event that's very important, that happened on April 21st at the Harvard Club in New York City, no less. Attorneys General from several states, hosted by the New York State Attorney General, announced that they were going to vote the shares of Amazon. What shares? These Attorney Generals are connected to the pension funds of these states, and the pension funds take money out of every public employee wage and set aside for their retirement. When they take that money and set it aside, they invest it, and many of them invested in shares of Amazon, and now they're going to vote, because if you own a share, you get a right to vote. They're going to vote against the two members of the Board of Directors of Amazon that are most responsible for the awful working conditions at that company, which in the second half of today's program we're going to have a worker from there, who's also a journalist, tell us all about it, if you didn't already know. This is interesting, because it's working people beginning to use the power that, of course, they have. Working people can vote in or out the politicians who can decide what to do with the votes they have for the shares they have put aside for their employees. And the workers, with the public, can press those politicians to vote to make things better for working people. It's part of the class struggle, but it gives the working people and the public a lever to change things, and it's interesting that it's being used on Amazon at this point, with a whole bunch of State’s Attorney General getting the message and taking the action.

Rising food prices are, of course, a catastrophe. They have been going up very, very fast. Some estimates 20, 30, 40% before this is over. That's going to throw millions of people into hunger. No other word for it, and it's going to mean squeezed budgets for most Americans. And I want to talk about what is going on here in a way you will not hear elsewhere.

The war in Ukraine means that that part of the world's food supply, - Ukraine was a major producer of grain, - is gone, and the sanctions against Russia are impeding its ability, - it was also a major exporter of grain, - and so there's a shortage. What do you do in a shortage? Well, here's one thing you're not seeing, and you're not seeing Mr. Biden talk about it, let alone do it. You could ration scarce food. In other words, distribute it equally, because, you know, we're all human bodies, and we need food. We're not doing that. That would be fair, that would be just. We're not doing that. We're letting the market decide, and you know what that means? If there's something scarce, and a lot of people want it, if they have to fight with each other, if there isn't a rationing system that distributes it equally, well then, those with the most money bid up the price. Then they're the only ones who can afford it. Then they get it. Letting price of food go up, means you're feeding the richest, and you're starving the poorest. You can color it any way you want. That's the reality, that's how capitalist markets work. And, when food is the item that's scarce, - that's what we're letting happen now, - it is outrageous, and ought to be the object of anger and bitterness. And my expectation is, it will be, as the hurt and the hunger set in.

Then there was a news item that I simply could not avoid talking to you about. Germany has welcomed a certain number of refugees from Ukraine. What is it doing with them? It is putting them into apartments and communities that used to house, - and were, until they were evicted, - refugees from Afghanistan. So, let's see, the United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago, creating 20 years of refugees, - some of which were taken in, in Germany. Now, with Russia invading Ukraine, we have a new group of refugees, and the Germans who want to appear, apparently, to be welcoming Ukrainian refugees, are doing it by evicting Afghanistani refugees. Wow! You'd think a country with that history wouldn't be acting in quite that way. And, it means that the suggestion of welcoming refugees, if you're talking about Germany, has to be taken with a pretty large grain of salt.

Back to the inflation, now, not on food, but the general inflation here in the United States.
The Small Business Association, - it's called the National Federation of Independent Business here in the United States, did a survey of small and medium businesses, and asked them, what is their plan for raising prices? Wow! Most of them said, or many of them said, 4 to 9% is what they're intending. But 40%, - 2/5 of these small, medium businesses, are planning to raise their prices over 10% in the weeks and months ahead. Now, that's more than the current rate of inflation, 8.5%. And, what they do and what they say they're going to do, - well, we'll see what the relationship is.

Why am I bringing this up? Not only to tell you that the inflation is strong and growing, - which it is, - but I want to make another point. A few of my colleagues have been trying to suggest that the inflation has something to do with large corporations that dominate their industry, - you know, monopolistic companies, oligopolies, a few big ones controlling an industry, taking advantage of their market power by jacking up prices. I have no doubt that that's going on, but that's not the whole story. Everybody, - that's the point of this survey, - everybody, small and medium businesses who don't have monopoly control of anything, are also trying to survive in a rising price tide. Therefore, it isn't about monopoly, it's about a system that can't function very well. That's why it couldn't handle the COVID crisis real well, that's why we've just come out of the second-worst economic crash in western capitalism's history. Now, we have an inflation, and if we're to believe the Federal Reserve, they're going to be jacking up interest rates in the next weeks and months. This is an economy oscillating, gyrating, and the phrase “out of control” barely captures it.

Okay, my last update. And here there's an aspect of irony that should be lost on no one.
As I'm sure you know by now, the United States, Britain, and many countries in Western Europe,- the coalition, if you like, - that's demonizing Russia these days, and attacking Russia, and sanctioning Russia, - has put pressure on private companies, - estimates run 400 to 600 of these companies, - to get out of Russia, to close their offices, close their factories, sell out whatever business they have, to leave Russia and not do business with Russia, all of that, and much of that is happening. What you're, - and you're hearing about that because it makes this, the story nice, - that there's unanimity, right? Therefore, I have to tell you, based on reports from business journals that I read, that the rest of the world doesn't agree with the United States, Britain, and Western Europe, they don't see the Ukraine war the same way the West does. Indians don't, the Turks don't, most of Africa, Asia, and Latin America don't. And there's a result here, besides diplomatic disagreement. Companies in India, China, Turkey, Brazil, are rushing in to Russia to replace the American and western companies leaving. They now have a chance to set up business in Russia. Russia is a sizable market in the world. They're eager to go in there. They don't agree on who's the good guy and the bad guy the way we do in the west, in general, and so this program is having an unintended effect, - as they so often do.

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Please stay with us. We'll be right back, with our special guest.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very proud to bring to our microphones and our cameras a remarkable author of a remarkable book, whose contents we're going to be talking about. My guest is Emily Guendelsberger. She has had a number of jobs which she has been kind enough to share with us at varying levels of pay and dignity. In no particular order, she's been a choir director, an Amazon warehouse worker, a receptionist, a music writer, an ice cream scooper, a copy editor, a grocery stocker, a labor reporter, a server, a camp counselor, a projectionist, an editor-in-chief, a McDonald's cashier, a call center rep, and an Amazon warehouse worker. She is an absolute example of the kind of job future more and more Americans are confronting. She writes about those last three jobs in her book “On the Clock”, about how the experience of modern work is driving us all to madness.

[Wolff] So, first of all Emily Guendelsberger, thank you very much for joining us.

[Guendelsberger] Hey, thanks for having me. I’m a big fan.

[Wolff] Good. So, let me begin by asking you, in a kind of a summary way, why did you write this book?

[Guendelsberger] Well, I wrote the book because I felt that there was, as I got into journalism, I found that, when you're getting into journalism these days, it now comes with, at least, a general requirement of about three to four years of unpaid work, which tends to sort of self-sort people who try to go into journalism, to people who can have, who like have generally parents or some other form of support that can keep them going for three to four years while they break in. And, that I think has led to some very strange perceptions of what, jobs are like, in the journalism industry. And, generally not a very great understanding of like what the average job in America is like these days. So, I remember when I was 15, Barbara Ehrenreich's “Nickel and Dime” came out, and it just really changed me as a, as a teenager, and I was rereading it, and it was no longer quite as up-to-date as it could have been, particularly when it came to the ways technology is used to sort of put metrics onto everything and sort of like make the wiggle room that employees have, to as like to not do exactly what they're told every second of the day. That's really, it's gotten really squeezed, so I thought, I would write this as a,- the concept was just like, well, all I need to do is let them know. All the, the problem is, that people in power do not know. I'm not sure exactly what, how accurate that was, but you know, tried.

[Wolff] To save time, let me simply summarize by saying that your descriptions of the kinds of work environment, the monitoring of every moment, a kind of Taylorism that we used to read about gone mad, with modern technology, really makes the case that people are driven out of any kind of normal or natural rhythm of life, into becoming a, - a robot. I remember the thought going through my mind, as I read your chapters, that the really remarkable thing about modern America isn't how we are making robots more, more like people. Your book explains we're doing the opposite: we're making people more and more like a machine, like a robot, as if they had no humanity, no complexity. Anyway, is this image of things like fast food joints or Amazon-type businesses, or call centers and so forth, are we looking at the future of American work? Is this the model that now every other business will follow? This rigid routinizing of work?

[Guendelsberger] I think so. I tend to see capitalism as kind of a vector, and the vector is certainly pointing in that direction, so, if it doesn't, it's just like Walmart was in the 90s in, you know, everybody had to adopt the way that Walmart treated its workforce in order to be able to compete. So, like, that's sort of how they were able to keep prices down. It involved a lot of technology that was new at the time. Like these computer systems that were able to track productivity like minute by minute, and second by second, and, yeah like I think even listeners with, white collar jobs, probably have started seeing this intruding on their own workplaces as these technologies become able to, metricize more and more complicated tasks, like, you know, right now it's being applied. Ask your doctor the next time you're in for a checkup, how metrics affect their job, ask any, ask any lawyers, but also they are, do so, they are dealing with kind of the same stuff that fast food employees are, in that like everything is timed. And people are always looking at you. But, it's not pay, like, it the pay for fast food workers is obviously much worse. And so, that I think gets, and also fast food workers never get to speak in the media, generally. So yeah, I do think that this is the way everything's gonna go.

[Wolff] We have seen upwards of 40 million people in recent months quit their jobs. It even has gotten christened “The Great Resignation”. Do you think there's an important role in explaining that phenomena, as coming out of the way work is now organized?

[Guendelsberger] I mean, absolutely. I think it's, The Great Resignation is a bunch of things, but I think the, - I think the biggest one is that, just it was, it is just very unpleasant to, to do these metricized, modern jobs, because you get very little time to rest, and it's this constant ping of stress, stress, stress, stressed, which, you know, it's unpleasant to be around. However, I think, in particular, the pandemic really, alerted people to, “no, my boss doesn't have my back actually”, “my boss would actually, it looks like, put my life at risk” for the sake of their profits, and it's very hard to unsee that, I think.

[Wolff] If you quit your job because of that, your book nonetheless suggests that the next job you find will either have more or less the same, or will be thinking of how to install more or less the same pretty soon, so that maybe the alternative to quitting is becoming the unionization drive, the strike drive, the, the whole renewal of militancy in the labor movement from below, often from people not directly connected to an existing union, and therefore, in a sense reacting to their work situation. Do you see that connection?

[Guendelsberger] Yeah, definitely. Just the idea of staying and fighting at an Amazon warehouse a little while ago was, just it felt kind of silly to a lot of people, I think, because like, why wouldn't, like, if you if the job is so awful, why wouldn't you just leave and find another job? But yes, as I, like, make clear in the book, most warehouses are trying to get to where Amazon's at. Amazon is just better at the technology that, is affecting workplaces right now. But they're absolutely not the only one, and I think people are starting to recognize that more and more, like, that it's going to that, is a systemic problem that's going to have to be stopped. Like, not just at one company, but sort of as a general reaction everywhere, which is why I find the whole Great Resignation thing really, - I don't know, it's, it makes me a little more hopeful than I was.

[Wolff] Well, you know, so am I. But I come at it slightly differently. For me, the question now becomes, and I want to ask you, are we witnessing a capitalism that is driven by profit as its own defenders will readily admit, - profit is the bottom line, profit is the goal, -are we witnessing, then, one of these moments where you need a Greek tragedy to capture, of a system that has overshot itself? It has taken its own drive to such a point that it is beginning to produce a backlash which it cannot survive.

[Guendelsberger] I mean, I hope so. That is, I think the only shot for the thing leaving the rest of the oil in the, in the ground, so that we don't all die, or not die but, you know, the world becomes a lot less comfortable for everyone, and a lot of people die. So yes, I really hope that that is the case, that people, it's very hard, it seems, like, in the history of revolution or whatnot, people generally need to be hungry, or like, in some sort of terrible circumstance, to really want to risk something, and America is not really hungry. But, I do think that the way that these things have developed, the, the constant, like, stress metrics that sort of make, they put people into a state of mind that is somewhat similar to, like, the hunger and the desperation that drive people to, like, you know, rise up and actually do something, feel like trying to do something that's difficult will be superior to just sticking with whatever you know, stable thing that they have regardless of how much it, it sucks. So, I'm hoping, right?

[Wolff] Me too, and, but I do begin to see more and more signs. I opened today's program celebrating the students at Grinnell College in Iowa, who just voted 327 to 6 to unionize all hourly student workers. They now have their own, the first college in the United States to achieve this.

[Guendelsberger] Wow! Good for them.

[Wolff] Yeah, and I think they are, if you know, if we had them here, I think many of them would testify that they either have worked in the kinds of places you described already, or they know friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, relatives who have, and they are in fact reacting the way you say. With that parallel, it isn't the hunger, it isn't the next sandwich they have for lunch that's missing, but it's a sense of what they're going to do with their lives that has been constricted to a point where they are almost suffocating in a, in a mental sense. Tell me what you meant by the subtitle of your book, about America being driven insane by all of this.

[Guendelsberger] So basically, stress, constant stress, not the sort of stress that I think most people think of when they really think of bad jobs. Like I don't know, it's like the problem isn't really that work is dangerous so much anymore, - although it is, in plenty of industries for sure, but not is not the way it used to be in the industrial revolution. But, it's more stressful in a way, like, you're less likely to lose a finger in the sausage grinder, I guess, but you are much more likely to be depressed or anxious, or like, have repetitive stress injuries. These subtler, things that make your life very miserable still, and those things just are a side effect of stress, this constant, the stress of, for example, when I work at Amazon, or when I was working at Amazon, I had a scanner, and the scanner gun would go between, like, count down between the picks that I was scanning. It would count down the seconds, and it was this little bar that would just get smaller and smaller and smaller. And, it really drove me crazy because it was always there, and it was always running. And that sort of stress sort of leads you into this state of mind where it is harder to care for other people, and harder to, harder to empathize, I think, which makes collective action harder. But, I don't know, it's a problem that I'm not sure how to how to solve, but I, I do think people are getting the idea that the only way to solve it is collective action.

[Wolff] Well, you know, I wish we had much more time, Emily, I really do. I appreciate enormously the work you've done, the book you've written, and I think you point us to where revolutionary change is beginning to develop. And I'll be watching it with you, and if we can, we'll bring you back.

[Guendelsberger] All right.

[Wolff] Thank you again, very much.

[Guendelsberger] Thanks for having me.

Transcript by Ed Nelson

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About our guest: Emily Guendelsberger has had a number of jobs of varying levels of pay and dignity. In no particular order, she's been a choir director, an Amazon warehouse worker, a receptionist, a music writer, an ice cream scooper, a copy editor, a grocery stocker, a labor reporter, a server, a camp counselor, a projectionist, an editor in chief, a McDonald's cashier, a call center rep, and an Amazon warehouse worker.

She writes about those last three jobs in her book On the Clock, about how the experience of modern work is driving us all to madness.

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