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My Encounter with the "Precarious and Service Workers Assembly" of Occupy Oakland USA

category international | anti-capitalism | opinion/analysis author Tuesday January 22, 2013 06:04author by Alexander Selkirk Report this post to the editors

It's their party, and they'll cry if they want to:

In early spring of 2012, announcements appeared at various internet
sites calling for a “Workers Against Work -- Precarious and Service
Workers Assembly,” ostensibly connected to or an outgrowth of the
Occupy movement in Oakland, California.

The first leaflet I saw for it said this:

“As service workers, we are often both overworked and underpaid; with
Management forcing workers to work ever faster in an ever shorter
amount of time. Productivity and speed-of-service requirements
increase while hours per week are slashed. It’s clear: The harder we
work, and the less we get paid, the richer they get! Many of us are
already in tough situations as parents, immigrants, young people and
students. Racism is blatantly apparent at many of our workplaces, with
Latino and immigrant workers confined to back of the house positions,
maintaining a racial hierarchy to keep us separated. For some, a job
at a restaurant or a café is a 2nd or even 3rd job, a result of the
declining wages of other careers. Even worse, we often find ourselves
forced into student loan and credit card debt because of low pay. All
the while, rent, food, and transportation costs climb through the

“As frustrating as it may be for us to admit, our labor is useless. We
produce nothing of lasting value. Whether its serving coffee,
preparing food, or manning a cash register and being nothing other
than an accessory for cash transactions. We are part of a massive
sector of work, a whole generation that does little more than fill
very temporary roles. We are the ones who put a smiling face on
circulation. But we don’t need to tell you: Work fucking sucks and we
all know it, so let’s do something about it!…”

This statement and the trajectory of action it implied were an
excellent first step. As someone with a multiple decade-long track
record of low wage temp and service sector gigs, I have an intense
personal stake in seeing sustained, collective resistance to
exploitation emerge among my fellow wage slaves in the service sector.

And this pertains to matters bigger and badder than anything as
trivial as my isolated individual situation. As noted here:

“Some depressing facts: (In the US) Nearly half of people ages 16 to
29 do not have a job. A quarter of those who do work in hospitality --
travel, leisure, and of course food service. A study of 4 million
Facebook profiles found that, after the military, the top four
employers listed by twentysomethings were Walmart, Starbucks, Target
and Best Buy. The restaurant industry in particular is booming; one in
10 now work in food service – 9.6 million on us. These numbers are
growing each year.

“Food and retail jobs usually don’t pay a living wage -- let alone
enough to pay back student loans – and they’re supplanting jobs that
do. The average restaurant worker made $15,000 in 2009, compared to
$74,000 for a manufacturing worker. Factory work, once the default
employment choice for newly minted adults, was backbreaking and
monotonous. But, if unionized, it was also stable, full-time, and
decently paid.

“None of these things are true of the modern service industry, and
shockingly few people are working to change that. Only 2 percent of
food service workers are union members. Big unions like the AFL-CIO
and Service Employees International Union opt to organize health care
workers and teachers instead of the folks behind America’s bars and
cash registers…the restaurant workforce is changing. Whereas in the
1970’s you could visit a steel ill and declare all the metal pourers
“working class” today philosophy majors from Brown are making lattes
alongside folks who grew up poor and assumed they’d sling drinks for
(“Minimum Rage,” Nora Willis Aronowitz, ‘GOOD’ Magazine, Spring 2012,
taken here from the July-August 2012 issue of the UTNE Reader)

No tendencies exist within the American political system to slow, let
alone halt, much less reverse massive accelerating structural social
inequality. The buying power of most working people’s wages began
losing ground to the cost of living in the 1970’s, and this has
occurred in tandem with a battery of social, tax and regulatory
policies that have achieved a constant massive redistribution of
wealth upwards into the hands of an ever smaller number of the rich
and the ultra-rich. Massive inequality has been on the rise for
decades. It will continue to rise. The growth of the low wage service
sector is a function of this. The spontaneous rapid emergence of the
Occupy movement was a response to pandemic inequality, and although
Occupy has subsided Occupy was probably the first in a series of
popular resistance movements to come. Workers in the service sector
are not in the strategically central position to fight back that
employees of the transportation, communications and power generation
sectors are, but the sheer numbers of people in low-wage dead end job
service sector jobs can make the service sector crucial in the rise of
a wider and deeper working class hostility to capitalist America.

As Aronowitz points out, unions largely ignore the service sector, and
in any case union membership numbers have been declining for decades.
Capitalist business organizations of the AFL-CIO and SEIU stripe are
losing their ability to buy social peace for the capitalist class by
integrating a significant percentage of the wage-earning class into a
lifelong stable system of exploitation. Unions do not command the
material, ideological or emotional allegiance of most wage earners in
the US and from an aggressive anti-capitalist perspective this is
tremendous good news.

The gap Aronowitz notes between conventional upwardly mobile
expectations of mainstream college graduates and the abysmal realities
that are waiting in the job market can be the fertile soil in which an
antagonism to this social order grows. And bad news faced by college
grads at Starbucks or Trader Joes is worse news for hardcore working
people, for whom an escape into the professional strata via diploma
has never been an option, and who are acutely threatened by
lumpenization, criminalization, and complete dispossession. Decades of
declining wages, the absence of any credible work-with-the-system
option for profound structural reform, the decline of the unions and
the attendant fortunate disappearance of the union’s Marxist-Leninist
and Trotskyist camp followers have created preconditions for a 21st
century anti-wage labor politics in the spirit of the old IWW. A
proliferation of “Precarious and Service Workers Assemblies” initiated
by energetic, inventive, determined and persevering enemies of
capitalism could be a huge step towards catalyzing nationwide
resistance among an expanding hard-pressed sector of the contemporary
wage earning class. Social inequality can now become the fatal
Achilles heel of capitalist America.

In statements on http://www.indybay.org, Facebook and elsewhere, the
people initiating the Precarious and Service Workers Assembly were
clearly animated by authentic anti-capitalist/anti-work and ultra-left
sentiments currently fashionable among some twentysomethings in the
Northern California anti-authoritarian subcultural identity scene.
While it is pleasant to see a great availability of authentic
communist/ultra-left documents and analysis on the internet, what
happens on the internet stays on the internet, exists only on the
internet, and never makes the leap to the non-virtual, indisputably
alive, corporeal world, the world we actually live in, and the only
world that matters.

I’ve been around the Northern California anti-authoritarian
subcultural identity scene since the fall of 1982. In this 30-year
span of time, with the very partial exceptions of Food Not Bombs and
Homes Not Jails, I do not know of a single case where anarchist
scenesters have produced a credible, ongoing, collective public
manifestation of what they claims to be about in the world outside of
their hermetically sealed subcultural cocoon. Activities of the
Northern California anti-authoritarian/anarchist scene exist solely to
reproduce the scene’s existence as an abject, passive, terminally
disengaged drop-out culture phenomenon, and these activities only take
place in the very safest of safe settings.

My gut instinct was that none of the people calling for this Assembly
of Precarious and Service Sector Workers had ever been involved in any
real-world attempt to assert the ferocious insurrectionary sentiments
that they love to post on their Facebook pages. However, we all have
to start somewhere, and the new opening and energy provided by Occupy
gave reason to think this effort was not going to be another
self-indulgent drop-out culture trip, but a sustained attempt to
spread resistance and unrest among mainstream working people. My hope
was that this could be part of the next step for Occupy -- to move
from being a protest ghetto phenomenon into becoming an actual
proletarian social movement for our time, sinking deep roots in the
everyday life struggles of the vast majority of wage earners who pay
no attention to the left, and who never go to protest ghetto events.

The first meeting of the Precarious and Service Workers Assembly was
in early March 2012. The meeting that I attended was some weeks later
in April. I arrived on time at a park near downtown Oakland. I was the
first person there. Some minutes later another person appeared, an
individual who I had encountered on previous occasions at the
subcultural scenester space Station 40 in SF’s Mission District. This
person told me with some embarrassment that the Assembly was probably
not going to happen that day, since most of the people involved were
bailing on it to go to a barbeque. This didn’t fill me with a surfeit
of confidence, but we remained, and more people trickled in. With the
passage of an hour or so a group sizable enough to conduct a meeting
was present.

After meeting several times this “Precarious and Service Workers
Assembly” still had no clear focus or direction. There was no sense of
forward motion. There was obscure talk of getting revenge on some
obnoxious insignificant small business owner who had been mistreating
friends of the assembly members but even this led to no specific
proposals for action. I got the impression that the real focus here
was not on temp and service sector employees as such, but on
anti-authoritarian subculture scenesters who currently had service
sector gigs, and were apparently discovering for the first time in
their lives and to their tremendous awe and amazement that working for
a living is not endless fun fun fun. Food kyped from workplaces was
shared among us at the meeting. I am as fond of high quality Bulgarian
yogurt and French Roast from Peets as the next downwardly mobile
bohemian déclassé, but I also tried to make a point here that the
emphasis of this Assembly should not be on the satisfaction of our
individual petty survival needs, but on using the wind at our backs
from Occupy to try to catalyze some larger movement of resistance into
being. Taking stuff from the boss is fine, but we can never remotely
get back what’s taken from us in wage labor with this. As with
large-scale urban looting, these “molecular attacks on the
commodity-form” are subatomic in the scale of their insignificance.
This effort needed to focus on mainstream working people in the larger
society around us, and not on indolent slackers who were out to get
kicks from fleeting acts of rebellion and who were into industrial
strength hanging out.

One long-time subcultural philosopher at this meeting proposed that
future meetings should be even more like a social gathering. He may
have even used the word “party,” and he didn’t mean the class party,
either. Against this I asserted that the point of an effort geared to
the real world struggles of service sector proles was not to provide
scenesters with a social life. I wanted this to be less like a social
gathering and more like a social movement.

Time was of the essence in this matter. This was not because the world
revolution was about to break out, but because any initial enthusiasm
was fast giving way to characteristic anti-authoritarian entropy. I
strongly suggested this Assembly should begin some kind of ongoing
effort among employees of Whole Foods Market. This wasn’t simply to
give us something to do, although this was clearly needed. It would
give us a tight focus on a specific target.

As of spring 2012, Whole Foods Market had more than 300 locations. A
2010 estimate on Wikipedia was that Whole Foods employed more than
58,000 people. Whole Foods is one of the largest green capitalist
service sector employers. As at other low wage service sector
companies, employees are expected to enthusiastically employ the
plural-possessive “we” form in regard to their employer, and Whole
Foods has become notorious for its Church-of-Scientology-meets-the-
Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers creepy
workplace management style. Two years earlier Whole Foods Market’s
Creep Number One, John Mackey, had been the subject of a borderline
sarcastic profile in the haute bourgeois 'New Yorker.' The 'New
Yorker' piece took jabs at Mackey’s enthusiasm for the philosophy of
the bad novelist and Nietzsche-of-mediocre-people Ayn Rand and noted
that Mackey is an avowed global-warming denier. I don’t want to pander
to vulgar populism, but a ripe target can make extremist communication
tasks much easier, and Mackey of Whole Foods is like a buffoon
plutocrat out of a Three Stooges short, garbed in earth-toned
drawstring hemp dungarees and Birkenstocks instead of tuxedo tails and
silk top hat.

I don’t work at Whole Foods. I’ve never worked there. I don’t shop
there. I have no personal feelings about that company. I am not out to
“get revenge” against them. Whole Foods is solely a means to an end.
In 21st century class conflict terms any and all employers are nothing
but a means to an end, that end being to abolish market society and
replace it with a society worthy of the human beings who live in it.
Efforts inside and against a large high profile employer whose antics
are allowing it to accumulate visible ill will can spread similar
actions in other, similar and less noticeable workplaces. Agitation,
propaganda and more complex forms of action that would develop out of
an initial targeting of Whole Foods could potentially spread into
other service sector companies, both big and small, akin to the way
that concentric rings flow outward after a pebble breaks the surface
of a pond.

One of the people at the meeting was working at the Whole Foods in the
Haight, and this person told of hassles he’d endured there and of how
friends and co-workers had been fucked over at Whole Foods as well. In
theory he could use his insights to help in a bigger ongoing effort.
But an anti-Whole Foods project that would demand a real commitment of
time and energy drew only the usual anti-authoritarian passive nodding
sympathy. The Whole Foods employee sat on his hands grumbling but
exhibited no motivation to use what he knew to raise sustained hell
against the employer. If this individual’s supposed subjective
radicalism and first hand experiences at Whole Foods weren’t going to
be a foot in the door for sustained, credible, real world activity
among precarious and service sector employees on the part of this
self-styled “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” then it was a
big question what would.

This meeting of the “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” was
taking place a few weeks before May 1, 2012, the date of the second
“General Strike” called by Occupy Oakland. The first “General Strike”
the previous November 2 had been called with barely two weeks to
spread the word, and although the day of that “General Strike” saw a
large, festive and enjoyable rally downtown and a march to and
shutdown of the Port of Oakland this event cannot remotely be
described as a general strike, since less than two percent of the
city’s wage earners refrained from going to work that day. In the Nov.
2nd “General Strike” almost all who missed work in connection with the
“strike” were either using their sick days or got permission from
employers to participate. By all salient indicators the Nov. 2nd
“General Strike” was not even remotely a general strike, let alone a
successful general strike. Indeed, this wonderful-world-of-make-believe
approach to the complex and depressing larger realities around us
is embedded in the DNA of the harmless and disengaged anarchist
subculture as well as in the larger SF Bay Area
leftist protest ghetto, and it bled into Occupy Oakland as well. For
example, some self-indulgent fantasists insisted on calling events in
front of Oakland’s City Hall and related phenomena the “Oakland
Commune,” blithely oblivious to the fact that work and commerce
continued as always everywhere in the city among virtually one hundred
percent of the city’s populace, starting with the cafes and boutiques
a few yards from the outer perimeter of Occupy Oakland’s stinky hippie
tent encampment.

Apparently nothing had been learned from the
general-strike-that-wasn’t of Nov. 2nd, since to the best of my
knowledge there was no effort to get the word out to the city’s wage
earners at large, and in easy to understand language, in the lead up
to the second “General Strike” of May 1st, 2012. The phrase “General
Strike” means about as much to contemporary mainstream US working
people as the possibility of ammonia-methane based life on Saturn’s
moon Titan does. A more effective and intelligible way to reach our
fellow wage slaves was going to be to call for everyone to call in
sick on May First. Everybody who has to work for a living knows what
calling in sick means. A mass call-in-sick-to-work day on May 1st was
going to interrupt the flow of surplus value more effectively than a
call for a phenomenon that implies a level of collective identity,
historical memory and connectedness that does not at present exist in
the US. And with a little luck it might even establish a precedent for
calling in sick on many more May Firsts to come. Why did this simple
and obvious step not occur to anyone connected with Occupy Oakland?

With nothing more pressing in the works, people in the “Precarious and
Service Workers Assembly” were up for wallpaper pasting posters and
leaflets for the upcoming “General Strike.” I committed to drafting
the text of a poster for May 1. It read like this:

"WORK: It takes everything from us. Other than headaches and hassles
it gives little back. And wage slavery isn’t just an unavoidable evil;
selling our labor power to get money to buy back our survival is the
source of all the other accelerating social problems we see around us.

This Tuesday May 1st, join tens of millions of other wage slaves on
all seven continents and register your discontent. Give yourself a

Workers of the world, relax…


On Tuesday May 1st vast numbers of people across the industrialized
world will be taking the day off. You can do it, too. Pick up the
phone and give yourself a one-day holiday. Call in sick to work on May
1. You’ve earned it. The boss owes you."

Others in the group did a fine job of laying out a leaflet version of
this text with a cartoon graphic of an office worker, and reportedly
hung them around Oakland in the days leading up to May 1st.

A few days after May 1st, I walked the length of Oakland's Telegraph
Avenue, from near City Hall downtown to Berkeley and to the UC campus,
and saw a small handful of the "Call In Sick" poster in 8.5 by 11 inch
flyer form. I know something about communicating with posters. To be
effective you have to hang so many of them that your message becomes
repetitive and impossible to miss. And I on the other hand was making
an effort to find them, and found fewer than two dozen along a
several-mile long stretch of Telegraph. Did these fans of The
Invisible Committee do a less invisible job hanging these anti-work
flyers elsewhere? I was struugling against the usual mounting
obvious evidence to keep giving these Circle-A-scenesters
the benefit of the doubt.

Due to conflicts with my schedule at my new low wage service sector
gig I wasn’t able to attend the next several meetings of the
“Assembly.” In their online internal discussion list the Assembly
members suddenly evinced a big interest in relating to hookers on the
Mission District’s Capp Street stroll as sororal comrades in the
precarious workers struggle. Attendant proposals included a “fuck work
party” -- a logical event to invite prostitutes to -- at the scenester
space Station 40, and holding a “forum” where people who don’t like
their jobs could figure out how to find another job. This last
proposal was worthy of a temp agency, and drove home the obvious fact
that there was not even the faintest hint of an ethos of outwardly
directed real world social struggle here.

The online discussion now focused on “sex workers.” This
grandiloquently titled “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” had
made no credible effort to engage with mainstream workers in the
service industry -- note that I say “credible,” as opposed to
slapdash, half-assed, juvenile and desultory. With no actual
orientation toward mainstream working people, and as always too timid
to stray from their comfort zone, the scenesters had conveniently
shifted orientation, with prostitution described by one fool as “a
major source of precarious employment.”

Only a little boy who has just moved out of his mommy’s house and
spends too much time online can claim that “sex work” is a “major
source of precarious employment.” Conditions are bad in the United
States, but we are not as unfortunate as people in the post-collapse
territories of the former Soviet Union. People who earn money selling
sex acts are wage slaves, and prostitution is in all ways a
“precarious” way to make a living, but that doesn’t add up to sex
workers being a significant percentage of the wage slave class, let
alone a significant potential combative segment of the class. A real
world, focused-on-the-working class, subversive effort cannot be
geared specifically around sex workers any more than it can be geared
specifically around left-handed gas station attendants who have a
harelip. This isn’t because left-handed gas station attendants with a
harelip are not authentically a part of the working class, but because
there simply aren’t enough of this extremely specific category of
exploited and dispossessed person to merit specific attention. You
have to choose your battles wisely and strategically and there are
only so many hours in a day.

A movement of mass working class resistance is never going to begin
among streetwalkers. Why do I even have to make such an absurd and
obvious point? A lack of opportunities for ongoing mass direct action
adds up to zero class struggle. Double entendres aside, what
collective leverage do sex workers have against their exploitation?
What kind of mass job action can they energetically use to bring
pressure against their bosses, and squeeze a better deal out of them?
To say this is to say a mouthful. I have now slid into a role that
would be better played by John Cleese or Graham Chapman in a Monty
Python sketch. This happens with preternatural alacrity when
attempting to relate to a phenomenon as ridiculous as the Northern
California anti-authoritarian subcultural identity vortex on anything
but tongue-in-cheek terms.

I was out the door of this “Assembly” of inert gas. This effort did not
show the slightest sign that it was about actual working people in the
real world. I am not a John or a social worker so I have no interest
in running around after street ‘hos. My humor chops weren’t dexterous
enough to continue with a non-effort that had sailed beyond the point
of comedy. With nothing to gain and less to lose I posted my opinion
on the online thing, saying that that unless you have a Superman cape,
and expect everyone else to wear one as well, and presume that with
this that you can do everything and anything required to
immediatelyremedy all of the ills of contemporary society a
“Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” has to have a very clear and
narrow focus. A focus exclusively geared toward low wage service
sector employees, as this effort was initially supposed to be, will
have a greater potential in the larger society around us than focusing
on the difficulties of Capp Street hookers. I suggested that those
fired with an exclusively-focused-on-street-prostitutes enthusiasm
should form a distinct and separate effort to rescue the hookers of
the Capp Street corridor.

A characteristic anonymous response from one of the professional victims in the
"Assembly" was this:

“As one of the many sex workers who are involved in the precarious
workers assembly, I do not think that Kevin Keating should be
welcome, based on his obvious disdain for us and our involvement in
the project. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but being that at
times the meetings are between 1/4 and 1/2 sex workers, I think it is
safe to say that his opinions on the matter are bullshit and that
there shouldn’t be a place in the assembly for him.”

This hissy fit conveyed with the concision of a haiku what’s found on
the rare occasions when inhabitants of the anti-authoritarian
subculture venture out of their hermetically sealed feedback loop into
the big bad outside world.

Here’s my translation:

1. “The world revolves around me, and around whatever is of
microscopic immediate interest to me. As soon as the rest of the world
acknowledges this obvious fact, we’ll all get along fine.”

2. “I get a charge out of my pose as a great rebel and threat to the
social order, but my acute lack of conviction and corresponding
emotional fragility are so pronounced that I can’t stick up for what I
claim to believe in, comport myself in an upright manner, and wage an
articulate argument against an opponent. It’s always easier to run to
mommy. Lucky for me all of my companions are members of the
run-to-mommy crowd. And --“

3. “I play the victim card whenever possible. This gives me a
credibility that my paucity of acts might deny me. Upper middle class
white guilt is often a significant component of the personality
structure and motivations of the anti-authoritarian scenester, so
playing the victim card is almost always a winning move.”

“To the degree that there is any substance at all beneath all that
posturing and gas we all know that most U.S. anti-authoritarians are
in fact weak liberals. Our response to the world outside of our
hermetically sealed subcultural feedback loop is limited to throwing
temper tantrums at protest ghetto events and engaging in either
charity activity or volunteer social work. Since no one can cop a
nitrous buzz off acknowledging that they are in fact just a weak
liberal we go for a more exciting, scary word, like ‘anarchist.’ We do
so love that frisson of danger -- all the excitement and sense of
menace and none of the time-consuming commitment and inconvenience!
It’s the perfect form of risk-free radicalism in a society where
everybody wants to be entertained all the time!”

As long as I’ve got my sarcasm checkbook out, dare I ask what concrete
acts of solidarity our mighty subculture weenies could have engaged in
with the Mission’s ladies of the evening? It‘s not likely that
hardened hookers run by pimps from Richmond would allow themselves to
be condescended to by these achingly naïve, coddled and clueless
offspring of relative class privilege. Maybe the “Precarious Workers
Assembly” would help a tiny number of young women to individually opt
out of a wretched situation where they turn tricks to make a buck. If
so, the totally politically righteous comrade pimps might object. A
single predatory tough guy from Richmond could mop the floor and the
inside of a garage pail with the entire San Francisco Bay
Area-plus-Modesto-and-Santa-Cruz anarchist scenes while keeping one
ring-bedecked hand behind his back. Maybe “insurrectionists” who
dabble in sex industry work to piss off their bourgeois dads would
take a more sex-as-commodity-positive direction here and help
facilitate the Sisterhood-is-Powerful vocation of authentic
impoverished girls doing car dates on fat, bad-smelling, butt-ugly
Johns in the vicinity of 21st and Capp. This is all speculation. It
doesn’t appear that this Prostitutes-as-Precarious-Workers trip was
pursued with any more vigor or diligence than the early pretensions in
relation to mainstream service sector workers were. It was just one
more slumming streety pose briefly adopted for the entertainment of
sheepish subculture slackers.

What subsequently became of this self-styled “Precarious and Service
Workers Assembly” is a mystery to me. It sank without leaving a trace.
The scenesters of this “Assembly” have never produced a post mortem
account of what they thought was useful or could have been avoided in
their efforts. The “Precarious and Service Workers Assembly” connected
to occupy Oakland did nothing. It communicated nothing. It went
nowhere. It amounted to nothing. But at least it still has a Facebook

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