The New High-Tech Lumpenproletariat


New York -- Amid the predictable coverage of the predictable riots in Los Angeles, one statement surprised me.

It was made on television by Dan Torres, operations director of La Pizza Loca. Posed in front of a vandalized pizzeria, (as in the movie "Do The Right Thing"), Mr. Torres agreed with reporters that neighborhood people (presumably black) were the ones who would be hurt most by the shut-downs. He explained that only 10 per cent of the employees of the Pizza Loca chain are salaried. The others don't get paid when a store is closed. That should give them a stronger stake than he had, be reasoned, in keeping the outlets open.

I wasn't surprised that 90 percent of La Pizza Loca's workers are hourlies with no benefits and no set salaries. The figure is higher at MacDonald's. What surprised me is the notion that hourlies are people with a great stake in the company.

At MacDonald's a computer program tells the manager what size crew he'll need each hour next week. On that basis "regular" employees are assigned shorter or longer hours. I've heard fast-food workers quit when they got the week's schedule, saying simply that they had something better to do that particular evening. That doesn't worry the manager much since the job has been deliberately designed so that a replacement can be trained in 20 minutes and come up to top speed in about half an hour.

People who drift in and out of expanding and contracting low-paid jobs used to be called the Lumpenproletariat. Lumpens, as described by Dickens in England or Brecht in Germany, don't make long-range plans. They lose a job, they get kicked out of an apartment, they work a few hours to buy themselves dinner. Their dreams of a windfall encompass a free pizza, a looted VCR, the cash in a dead man's pockets. With little stake in any ongoing enterprise they don't really care if things burn down.

This self-destructive and dangerous group is systematically created (imported if necessary) by every inegalitarian society. When I was in Japan 20 years ago people pointed to Koreans "Look at them, drunk on the streets in the daytime." Yes, Koreans are the entrenched lumpen class in Japan.

In the last decades we've seen lumpen alienation creep up the occupational ladder as millions of Americans, clerk through executive, become some kind of contingent or disposable worker.

I happened to arrive in Cincinnati during a period when 1,500 engineers and managers were being eased out at Procter & Gamble. Tom Oppdahl, a decent, middle-aged man, had supervised a hundred engineers who designed thermal systems for P&G; plants around the world. After a hard couple of years he finally found work at a job shop that does some engineering on contract for -- you guessed it -- P&G.;

"You might say he's become a high-priced consultant," said a co-worker, who'd also been fired, "but in fact, Tom's now an L.O." (L.O. -- low overhead -- is P&G;'s term for an office temp.)

The same co-worker, also re-situated, now keeps his resume up-dated on the computer and vows he'll quit his new company as soon as anything better came along, "no matter who it leaves hanging." Mr. Oppdahl himself is too set in his ways to start talking like the Mac-the-knife of engineering supervisors. But his sense of loyalty has also been shaken.

Between burger flipper and manager is an expanding world of contingent workers who have diminished ties to companies, to fellow workers, to customers and to the world in general. Adjunct lecturers trek from university to university getting paid $900 to $3,500 a course. Computer programmers migrate like farm workers between Route 128 and Silicon Valley.

I met a single mother whose company had been taken over and vTC her entire department declared "temps." She's still paid $12.50 an hour on the word processor but with no health insurance she has to decide whether it's worth $70 (plus the lost pay) to find out if her child's lingering sore throat is strep. And is it worth three times $12.50 to take off for open school day, she asked me, when she can't be sure how many hours of work she'll get next week.

"The craziest thing is, now that we're temps, the same people I worked with for four years act like I came from some agency for the day. We don't exchange birthday cards, we don't get the kids together. You're alone."

None of these people are going to burn down the neighborhoods. Neither will the vast majority of ghetto residents, who are, after all, stable individuals despite the instability they face. Even the unemployed teen-ager, who feels more throw-away than the disposable worker, usually just hurts himself.

In the name of efficiency our enterprises have stripped down to a narrow permanent core. Around this core the typists are temps, the janitors are contracted, the engineers are consultants and the manufacturing is farmed out. At the outer periphery the black high school graduate might pick up work as a messenger, part time, as needed.

The funny thing is, the people promoting this ethic of disposability, the golden-parachute guys at the core, spend most of their time figuring out how to make themselves secure.

Barbara Garson is the author of two books about work. "The Electronic Sweatshop" (Penguin) and "All the Livelong Day" (Penguin).

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