A Labor Agenda for the 21st Century: Less Work

Fighting for More Bad Jobs Is Dead End for Unions and Society

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By Ari Paul

Published June 05, 2013.
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There are many icons of American labor: the Haymarket martyrs, Cesar Chavez, Joe Hill. But often overlooked are a cartoon pair who taught us a lot about resisting the wage system: Beavis and Butthead.

In an episode titled “On Strike,” America’s favorite chuckleheads get inspired by the ongoing baseball strike to start their own work stoppage against their employers at Burger World. When asked by a reporter why they were picketing, Butthead responded, “Because Burger World sucks.” He then elaborated, “It’s like, we don’t want to work. We just want the money.”

Creator Mike Judge was having fun with the 1990s slacker culture. But he was on to something.

It’s a point that often gets lost in the big labor issues of today. Inspiring rank-and-file workers are pushing for higher wages in fast-food restaurants in places like Chicago and New York. Wal-Mart workers are trying to organize.

The world’s attention has been focused on workplace safety after the horrifying building collapse that claimed more than 1,000 workers’ lives in Bangladesh. Just this week, more than 100 Chinese workers were killed when a fire broke out in a chicken factory, with only one exit door.

There’s a lot of talk about the dignity of labor or how good jobs fuel a good economy. But at the end of the day, between the hot kitchens, the annoying customers and the petty managers, working at Wendy’s or Burger World sucks.

It’s hard for the labor movement to grasp because it is a part of the dramatic shift from an industrial economy to a service-based one. Workers in steel mills, on the docks and hauling freight see themselves as an integral part of strong, American production. Big factories, historically, have often been the pride of a town, not just its economic engine, and so those workers were pillars of the community.

That collective sense of pride in work was often invested into unions, which partly made unions such a strong force in the boom times of places like Michigan.

Retail and food service are much different. Workers are subservient to customers, not skilled laborers to be admired. On the contrary, customers — even potential class allies — extract a sense of superiority from these wage earners. The customer must be called sir or ma’am. The customer is “always right.” The customer makes orders, just a like a boss.

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