Working hand to mouth


Paraphrased from Linda Tirado’s book Hand to Mouth and David Shipler’s recent review in the NY Sunday Times.

The manager of the call center where I work recently told me that he was concerned about the high turnover amongst the workers. I suggested he hold exit interviews and re-contact some of the previous employees. The answers surprised him. It was not the low pay, the noise, or the impact of calls continuously coming in. Most ex-employees complained that they did not feel needed, necessary or wanted. They felt they were treated like just another body.

The craving for personal dignity is sought by everyone, no matter their position in the hierarchy. But, in low wage jobs, bosses seldom ask subordinates what they think. Humiliation and a perverse form of petty tyranny is the golden rule. Low wage workers are routinely dehumanized by higher ups. From their lofty positions these doo-dahs wield contempt, hyper-critical moral judgments and derision. Our society is bipolar, with a chasm between the highly paid and those living at the subsistence level.

You might think this an age-old caricature, but you should follow my line of reasoning to learn about life at the bottom of the totem pole. Only then will you understand why the working classes harbor a consistent anger and fear.

When you are the working poor, you cannot indulge in the luxury of indignation. Ground down by swing shifts, cash shortfalls and too little sleep, workers are badgered by an American creed that anyone who works hard will eventually prosper. Those who fail to succeed eventually internalize a belief that their shortcomings are their own fault. They take on the identity of “self-sabotaging-perpetrator”.

It might be more constructive to acknowledge common faults of the human condition, yet still feel justified in our infuriation and rage. A constructive resentment cuts through one’s chronic depression. Sharpen your wit and focus your x-ray vision toward the disparities of power and money. We need to map the chain reaction and cascade of events that leads families and individuals from one setback to another.

The poor seldom are given the opportunity to speak. Their voices are at best filtered through authors and social activists who serve as their proxies. Raw and direct clarity can be startling. Denying dignity corrodes attitudes toward work and authority. Professionals and financial intermediaries are condescending and preachy. Coaches are imperious and cruel from the intoxication of low grade power, like cheap wine. Systems within the workplace are Kafkaesque and the workplace is nothing more than a downward spiral that is defeating at best.

The degradations in the work place wouldn’t be so hard to take if the privileged were honest about things. Instead, we are admonished to work harder and be ever so grateful we have jobs, food and a roof over our heads. Of course we are. But in exchange for all the work we do in a context of miserable conditions and systematic dysfunction you would think there is one thing we could ask in return. A sense of accomplishment? No! Respect from those above? No! Job security? Surely you jest? We are expected not to seek any of these things. A licensed insurance agent in a call center is no better than a seasonal illegal picking apples at harvest time.

Some workers have to wait for a break or ask permission to go to the bathroom. Workers are monitored by cameras or told they cannot smoke or use a tablet computer in their car in the parking lot. They have to change shifts on short notice and be left wondering by workforce bulls who ignore them when they request a few hours off to go to the doctor.

The result of all this is workers simply quit caring. They have no energy; work has no joy; they are unwilling participants. Yes, they will perform as directed, but no more than that. They no longer expect a boss who gives any indication that he values them more highly than the dress-for-success outfit that must be worn to give the “client” the appearance of professionalism. Workers are interchangeable and they don’t go out of their way for management. It is more than being undervalued; it’s that persistent feeling that supervisors are flat out going out of their way to make a person understand what a useless piece of shit they really are.

Mental engagement and creativity are unwelcome by management. Nobody is interested in your thoughts, your opinions or the contributions you might be able to make if conditions were different. They want predictable responses. You are there to make up for the deficiencies of the computer system; it is not a tool to empower you in your job.

Stress over money and the exhaustion of working multiple jobs to make ends meet are not great for higher level thinking. Most of us lack intellectual stimulation and we long ago stopped thinking in higher concepts. It happened gradually. We have become stupid after realizing how long it’s been since we thought about anything beyond just keeping all the parts of our life moving. There is no philosophy, no music, and no literature. Just treading water in this job keeps us at capacity; it rankles.

There are coping mechanisms to be sure. We look forward to eating, drinking caffeine, booze, smoking and sex. It’s a way to forget about problems even if just for a little while. As for the self-righteous overseers who lord over us day in and out, they abuse the same substances but they make enough money for periodic rehab.


“Thank you for all your hard work!”—>Rings hollow like a cracked liberty bell.

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