“She Is An American Worker And Her Life is Not Her Own”
I talked to her because I knew her experience was shared by many, including myself, and would unfortunately continue to be shared long after the both of us were dead and buried.
You’ve probably seen Tara Johnson before. She’s a young black woman in her early 30’s, always smiling, and eager to help customers at the grocery store she works at. Since 2001 she’s helped maintain the store’s “friendly” image, a cheerful employee who gets up every day before the sun does, like a machine. Behind her smile lies a hidden story, one that seeps out in the tired way she walks or the exasperated way she speaks.
She is an American worker and her life is not her own.
“4 to 2’oclock. 4 am to 2pm, let’s say that.” That’s Tara’s everyday schedule, a week she describes as “extremely rough.” When she gets home she either passes out due to exhaustion or lingers on to pick up her girlfriend’s daughter and do homework.
Like most Americans, Tara spends the majority of her time in service to someone else. Americans work longer hours than anyone else in the world: 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers, all without any of the usual benefits the working class is allotted elsewhere; totally alien concepts like setting the maximum length of the work week, the global average of 20 paid vacation days, or even a parental leave benefit seem more like fairy tales than a possible political priority. Tara’s girlfriend still can’t afford healthcare, why waste the time and tears imagining a vacation?
Most people in the United States can’t imagine anything beyond work, a full 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females in America putting in more than 40 hours per week. Many do so across multiple jobs, barring them from overtime pay and leaving little time for anything beyond the bottom rungs of Maslow’s pyramid. Tara’s girlfriend works about the same hours she does, scrubbing apartments on top of cooking, cleaning, and raising a child. “She definitely got two jobs,” says Tara. “No doubt.”
“A lot more people working similar hours and struggling,” she said. “I can easily count out 10 right now, and that’s me not even thinking about it. Majority have kids.” She describes the life of the average American as one where you “do enough so you can pay ya’ bills and then die.”
Numbers do little to capture this reality. Facts and figures can’t accurately portray the sadness that drips from the faces I see, the shoulders perpetually bowed and wearied. I watch young people at the height of their health spend lightless days inside buildings, running from one workplace to the next all just to break even.
Scarcely fifty years ago Tara might have owned her own house, participated in a political organization, or even studied necromancy and how to awaken the Dead. Her life would have been far from ideal, especially as a woman of color, but certain benefits like time would have at least been around. Rough jobs with long hours have always existed, but they usually pay better because they’ve never been the norm.
Today even time has become a luxury under the American workload; “living” means little when you’re too tired to get off the couch. Tara and her girlfriend struggle to carry out a normal relationship, to make time for one another as a couple and as individuals.
She sees the problem everywhere. “Everybody’s too tired to do anything nowadays.” She’s crouched on the floor, opening boxes. “Work so many damn hours. Plus if you have children.”
“Do you have any time to do anything for yourself?” I asked her. She paused for a while, greeting a customer as they walked by.
“Not at all. Maybe… maybe take a shower.” she says. “Watch a few tv channels, that’s it. Sleep, go home, go to work.” Once a month, if she’s very lucky, she tries to play basketball, a sport she once loved as a child, “but who has time for that?” Tara looks at me with eyes that ache, resignation pouring off her body. “Now you gotta pay bills so you gotta work.”
For nearly two-thirds of the U.S. labor force this is the only world they’ll ever know.
And by the gods, I’m one of them.
It was something that had slowly been terrifying me as I settled into a new reality: waking up at 4:00am, not having time for any lunch, and spending large portions of my day locked in a refrigerator I’d affectionately christened “The Cage.”
Through a series of twists and turns my working life had come to involve the same shifts as Tara. My altars had all gone quiet under the workload, prayers to the Dead and card-readings for clients now too much for my weary bones to handle. Even my days off were spent watching the clock, knowing no matter how wild or interesting the night might be I had to turn in early; every hour dripped away with the bleak knowledge all fun would stop soon enough.
Putting on a uniform to go to work when I used to go to bed. My god, how terrible was this?
At some point I started to crack. One day I threw a box on the floor and turned to a co-worker with a blank expression permanently etched on his face.
“Is this it?” He turned to see if I was talking to him, a young man with his whole life ahead of him, probably seven or eight years my junior.
“Is what it?”
“This,” I motioned. “All… all this. Waking up in the morning to go to work, coming home wiped out, doing it over and over again until cancer eats you alive? Is this it? The next 60 years? The final destination before I spit out a litter to replace me when I get too worn out to work? Am I going to die here and stop dreaming?”
He said something about it not being so bad, a southern accent hinting at a history of drudgery in the service of aristocrats. I wanted to leave, to flee, but I needed the money. I was working to live and living to work.
Locked in a cooler, shivering as the outside temp hits 85 degrees and the waves rush against the beach. This can’t be it, I remember thinking, and if it is I won’t live much longer.
I’m not alone in thinking something is terribly wrong; like a possum trapped in a trashcan Americans seem to be aware this arrangement is far from ideal. Of the country’s approximately 100 million full-time employees, 51 percent “aren’t engaged at work” — a capitalist term describing feelings of hopelessness, disinterest, and putting out the bare minimum. Another 16 percent are “actively disengaged” — vocally hating their jobs to the point of making it more difficult for others, something the OSS once recommended as sabotage against the Third Reich:
“Work slowly. Think out ways to increase the number of movements necessary on your job… Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can… When you go to the lavatory, spend a longer time there than is necessary… Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment… Snarl up administration in every possible way.”
Clearly all is not well in WorkKamp U.S.A, yet the numbers on “disengaged workers” is never seen as a population in revolt, or even the fault of the very system which divorces workers from any profit and demands a submissive obedience; instead these facts and figures are touted as evidence that Americans are “lazy,” “entitled,” or “spoiled.” Consider recently Republicans attempted to essentially destroy overtime pay, and you’ll see the Ruling Class still considers Tara’s existence as far too extravagant. Who could forget the time Fox News was shocked we had the audacity to own refrigerators?
A ruling class so spiteful towards our pain would be enough to start building guillotines, but the reality of the situation is much, much worse.
While productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950, wages have remarkably remained stagnant, the domesticated population working at rates and speeds unheard of nearly fifty years ago. None of this has benefited the working class. Consider that in 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has ranged between 300 to 500 to one, levels even higher than the Roman Empire who depended on literal slavery.
Tara is doing so much more with so much less it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford her the same standard of living as a worker in 1950. We have the technology and the ability for her and the rest of us to live lives free from senseless toil. She could play basketball, spend time with her family, and even get the accounting degree she wishes she had finished.
Instead? She’ll continue to work and make a few people rich.
With less benefits.
With less pay.
With less time to pursue the things that makes her happy.
(Image source: Mother Jones)
American’s have been tricked into thinking they’re free because they have the “privilege” of working. Most people can’t afford to retire, and even if they can they might die before they ever get a chance to rest. The best years of our lives are being spent taking care of the property of others, servicing debts that we owe to others, and making others wealthier than we can ever imagine. What is that but the life of a piddling servant?
There is very little room for the individual so prized by American mythology and championed by capital, and in its place we have erected an externally imposed regime, a completely foreign way of life to our bodies and our minds. We have become lost and huddled creatures happy to subsist on the crumbs falling off the Rich Man’s table. Now, scarcely imagining the prosperity our grandparents had, we stare up at a prison they themselves built and we dutifully serve as a matter of survival.
Tara can’t think about that, even if she knows it to be true. As I recited some of the facts I’d uncovered her head began to shake from side to side. “Horrible. It’s horrible. It makes this right here ten times worse.” Before I can ask any more questions her name echoes over the loudspeaker and she is summoned to the back. The interview is over and Tara finally heads home at 3pm, a full hour later than she was supposed to.
I had time to kill, so I walked over to a Dollar General to get some candles for my Ancestor altar, ruminating on what kind of a life Tara and I had been born into. I thought about all the people that fought and died for the eight-hour day, and how many people I knew had never heard of them. I thought about how little overtime pay meant when your 50 hours a week was split over two jobs. Suddenly, strange vibrations began to pierce the air.
I turned and saw a woman in a green shirt, her aura pinched and shimmering with tension, coming from outside and approaching her supervisor.
“The baby’s in the hospital,” she says gasping for air, “so they’re going to keep an eye on her to make sure everything’s okay. Is it okay if I keep my phone on me in case they need to update me?”
Her manager looks annoyed, and points towards a back room. “Ask your boss.” She didn’t know it but she couldn’t have picked a better term, “boss” being Dutch in origin and a corruption of the word “base.” It translates to “master.”
I left, buying nothing and with tears welling in my eyes. I spent the money at a liquor store instead, content to turn my speakers up on the way home and get drunk. Little Walter tore the afternoon air and I finally understood a dimension of the blues harmonica I had never grasped before.
Dr. Bones is a Hoodoo-slingin’ Florida native and Egoist-Communist spitting pure vitriol and sorcerous wisdom at a world gone mad. He lives with his loving wife, a herd of cats, and a house full of spirits.
His poltergasmic politics and gonzo journalism can be found at Gods & Radicals and The Conjure House. He can be reached by email, twitter, or facebook. Want to do him a favor? Help keep him alive for as little as $4.99 a month.
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