- a person's usual or principal work or business, especially as a means of earning a living; vocation: Her occupation was dentistry.
- any activity in which a person is engaged.
- possession, settlement, or use of land or property.
- the act of occupying.
- the state of being occupied.
Revolution was brewing in America’s factories in the 1930s, as autoworkers and other blue-collar workers fought for the right to be represented by unions.
The Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 was fought and won in Flint. Historian Sidney Fine calls it "the most significant American labor conflict in the 20th century."
The strike hit GM factories nationwide, but attention was focused on the Fisher Body No. 1 factory on S. Saginaw Street and the smaller Fisher Body No. 2 on Chevrolet Avenue, and later at the nearby Chevrolet Plant 4.
"Money wasn’t involved," said Robert Keith, 91, of Grand Blanc Township, who was a sit-down striker at Fisher No. 1 and is one of the charter members of UAW Local 581. "We didn’t talk at all about money."
He said the strike was more about working conditions, lack of job security, treatment and about piecework – paying workers based on the number of parts made – than about wages.
He explained how the company would set a piecework rate. When workers found ways to do the job quicker to earn more, the company would set the pay rate lower.
Keith said employees had no job security before the union. Factory workers of the 1920s and ’30s were like migrant farm laborers, going from place to place to find work, he said. After summer layoffs, management hired back only those whom they wanted.
"If you was 35 years old, you had a hard time getting back in there, unless you had pull with somebody," said Keith, whose wife, Florence, also worked at Fisher No. 1 and was one of the first women there to join the union.
The sit-down in Flint began on Dec. 29, 1936. The UAW had planned to go on strike against General Motors here, but workers at Fisher No. 1 heard that GM was removing dies as a suspected countermove. The union seized the opportunity to call the strike. Earlier that day, Fisher No. 2 went on strike after management transferred three inspectors who refused to quit the union.
Strike changes Flint – and a nation
However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.
Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors. ...
Executives at other corporations report similar internal pressures. This system may not be pretty, they argue, but a radical overhaul would slow innovation. Customers want amazing new electronics delivered every year.
“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.” ...
“The only way you make money working for Apple is figuring out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper,” said an executive at one company that helped bring the iPad to market. “And then they’ll come back the next year, and force a 10 percent price cut.”
In January 2010, workers at a Chinese factory owned by Wintek, an Apple manufacturing partner, went on strike over a variety of issues, including widespread rumors that workers were being exposed to toxins. Investigations by news organizations revealed that over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis.
Employees said they had been ordered to use n-hexane to clean iPhone screens because it evaporated almost three times as fast as rubbing alcohol. Faster evaporation meant workers could clean more screens each minute.
Apple commented on the Wintek injuries a year later. In its supplier responsibility report, Apple said it had “required Wintek to stop using n-hexane” and that “Apple has verified that all affected workers have been treated successfully, and we continue to monitor their medical reports until full recuperation.” Apple also said it required Wintek to fix the ventilation system.
That same month, a New York Times reporter interviewed a dozen injured Wintek workers who said they had never been contacted by Apple or its intermediaries, and that Wintek had pressured them to resign and take cash settlements that would absolve the company of liability. After those interviews, Wintek pledged to provide more compensation to the injured workers and Apple sent a representative to speak with some of them.
Six months later, trade publications reported that Apple significantly cut prices paid to Wintek.
“You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well,” said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. “If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.”
In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad
And so, in many ways, have most of us, and not just by buying what Steve Jobs was selling—the products and the feeling of being a better (smarter, hipper, more creative) person because of them. Through his enchanting theatrics, exquisite marketing, and seductive packaging, Jobs was able to convince millions of people all over the world that the provenance of Apple devices was magical, too. Machina ex deo. How else to explain their popularity despite the fact that they actually come from places that do not make us better people for owning them, the factories in China where more than a dozen young workers have committed suicide, some by jumping; where workers must now sign a pledge stating that they will not try to kill themselves but if they do, their families will not seek damages; where three people died and fifteen were injured when dust exploded; where 137 people exposed to a toxic chemical suffered nerve damage; where Apple offers injured workers no recompense; where workers, some as young as thirteen, according to an article in The New York Times, typically put in seventy-two-hour weeks, sometimes more, with minimal compensation, few breaks, and little food, to satisfy the overwhelming demand generated by the theatrics, the marketing, the packaging, the consummate engineering, and the herd instinct; and where, it goes without saying, the people who make all this cannot afford to buy it?
While it may be convenient to suppose that Apple is no different than any other company doing business in China—which is as fine a textbook example of a logical fallacy as there is—in reality, it is worse. According to a study reported by Bloomberg News last January, Apple ranked at the very bottom of twenty-nine global tech firms “in terms of responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns in China.” Yet walking into the Foxconn factory, where people routinely work six days a week, from early in the morning till late at night standing in enforced silence, Steve Jobs might have entered his biggest reality distortion field of all. “You go into this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools,” he said after being queried by reporters about working conditions there shortly after a spate of suicides. “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”
Who Was Steve Jobs?
So, unless Obama somewhat surprisingly does not become the next President of the United States, the Democratic Party will experience its first changing of the guard since the late 1980's. What differences will be in store? Here are the three major changes I expect:
- Cultural Shift: Out with Bubbas, up with Creatives: There should be a major cultural shift in the party, where the southern Dems and Liebercrat elite will be largely replaced by rising creative class types. Obama has all the markers of a creative class background, from his community organizing, to his Unitarianism, to being an academic, to living in Hyde Park to shopping at Whole Foods and drinking PBR. These will be the type of people running the Democratic Party now, and it will be a big cultural shift from the white working class focus of earlier decades. Given the demographics of the blogosphere, in all likelihood, this is a socioeconomic and cultural demographic into which you fit. Culturally, the Democratic Party will feel pretty normal to netroots types. It will consistently send out cultural signals designed to appeal primarily to the creative class instead of rich donors and the white working class.
- Policy Shift: Out with the DLC, up with technocratic wonks. My sense of Obama and his policy team is overwhelmingly one of technocratic, generally less overtly ideological professional policy types. We should see a shift from the more corporate and triangulating policy focus of the Democratic Party in the 1990's, and see it replaced by whatever centrist, technocratic policies are the wonkish flavor of the month. It will all be very oriented toward think-tank and academic types, and be reminiscent of policy making in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's. A sort of "technocratic liberalism" that will be less infuriating than DLC style governance, but still not overtly leftist.
- Coalition reorganization: Out with party silos, in with squishy goo-goos. In addition to a shift in culture and policy focus, I also expect a different approach to coalition building. A long-standing Democrats approach of transactional politics with different issue and demographic silos in the party shift toward an emphasis on good government (goo goo) approaches. We will see lots of emphasis on non-partisanship, ethics reform, election reform instead of on, say, placating labor unions, environment groups, and the LGBT community by throwing each of these groups a policy bone or two. Now, the focus will be on broad, squishy fixes that are designed to appeal to several groups at once. George Lakoff wrote about this a couple months ago.
Many of Obama’s liberal allies have been disillusioned, too. When Steve Jobs last met the President, in February, 2011, he was most annoyed by Obama’s pessimism—he seemed to dismiss every idea Jobs proffered. “The president is very smart,” Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “But he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done. It infuriates me.”
The Obama Memos
As further developed through a labyrinthine analysis that drew on social psychology, brain chemistry, and human transaction theory, Ganz’s model posited that the root of the “values” problem was essentially emotional. “Values are not just concepts, they’re feelings,” Ganz explained knowingly. “That’s what dropped out of Democratic politics sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s.” Thus, the Obama campaign presented itself as a social movement that was more sentimental than political, pushing gauzy “values,” like “hope” and “change,” while leaving policy concerns to the wonks. Yet the successful movements of the past had more than values; they had specific goals. The civil rights movement’s eyes were on the prizes of desegregation and voting rights. Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, where Ganz learned so much about political organizing, also had its emotive side—summed up in its slogan, “Si, Se Puede,” which the Obama campaign directly appropriated in translation, “Yes, We Can”—but it also had in mind the recognition of organized fieldhands and the negotiation of fair contracts involving wages. The point of the Obama campaign-as-movement was conceived differently: exciting people with the thrill of empowerment, and collective self-empowerment, by electing to the White House a community organizer who believed in “hope” and “change.” Why electing Obama was imperative required no explanation among the faithful; it was enough to get the spirit, share the spirit, and revel in the candidate’s essence, which, by definition, no other candidate possessed. The leader was the program. ...
Ganz’s projection of the Obama presidency gained its prestige from the hallowed memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movements, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes. He posed it against the threadbare, craven horse-trading and maneuvering of parties and all previous presidential politics, which Ganz believes were “practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.” The Obama experiment, a movement that arose from the grassroots apart from the Democratic Party, would usher in a purer moral and more effective leadership to the White House. Obama would not merely alter government policy but also transform the very sum and substance of the political system. ...
According to Ganz’s theory and practice of the Obama movement, policies and politics were slighted in favor of feelings and values. Supposedly, these emotive spurs would bind participants in a new activist community, devoted to the collective good and not personal gratification, and dedicated to advancing the uniquely inspiring political leader who had sprung from the reliable ranks of community organizing, and not from the precincts of compromised “transactional” politics. ...
Obama in office upheld the community organizers’ post-partisan credo, trying to bring together opposing forces and finding common ground, in part under the pressure of the organizer’s own reasonableness. But that was not how it worked in Washington during the past two years; nor had it worked that way for 20 years. A ruthless and right-wing Republican Party spurned talk of common ground as a sign of weakness, and did everything it could to ensure that Obama’s presidency would fail. But oblivious to the long-standing internal dynamics of the Republican Party, Obama continued to vaunt his brand of “post-partisanship.”
Live by the Movement, Die by the Movement
There is a persistent anxiety within the movement of being “co-opted” by potential allies—the word crops up frequently in conversation. The country’s largest labor unions were among the earliest supporters of Occupy Wall Street, donating money and space. The movement’s two most impressive marches by far—in Foley Square on October 5 and November 17—were largely made possible by the teachers, communications workers, and hospital employees who showed up in significant numbers at their unions’ behest.
Yet a wariness of organized labor’s hierarchical structures and establishment contacts has prevented a deeper alliance. Overtures from left-leaning factions of the Democratic Party have been met with similar resistance. The open nature of the general assemblies and working groups, it was feared, made the movement vulnerable to takeover by such groups, though there seemed to be little evidence that any such takeover was in the works. Many demonstrators argued, in effect, that the integrity of the fledgling anarchist experiment must be protected at all costs.
Occupy Wall Street had succeeded, after all, where the “old left”—afraid of damaging Obama, and meekly plodding on—had failed in recent years. Traditional liberals, its members said, didn’t understand the particular generational impulses behind the movement, its new way of protesting and—here was the central point—of making people feel listened to and heard. Still, despite the large number of sympathizers it had gained, the movement, after being expelled from Zuccotti Park, seemed in danger of remaining more or less what it had been in September—a group of freelance activists with no reliable power base or allies. ...
As I spoke, I could sense the impatience of my listeners. I wasn’t getting the point. Any such demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street’s principles. Katie maintained that Occupy Wall Street didn’t yet have “a broad enough base” to make such a demand with any reasonable expectation that it could be met. And Amin said, “It doesn’t matter what particular laws you pass. We’re not about laws.” They saw themselves as a counterculture; and to continue to survive as such they had to remain uncontaminated by the culture they opposed. ...
Organizers described Occupy Wall Street as “a way of being,” of “sharing your life together in assembly.” To participate fully in its process of “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based” democracy, you had to make the movement a central part of your existence. For many, this posed an insurmountable problem. A social worker and single mother with little free time told me that she had given up trying to join Occupy Wall Street because she couldn’t figure out how to do so “without hanging out with them all the time.” The ambitions of the core group of activists were more cultural than political, in the sense that they sought to influence the way people think about their lives. “Ours is a transformational movement,” Amin told me with a solemn air. Transformation had to occur face to face; what it offered, especially to the young, was an antidote to the empty gaze of the screen.
What Future for Occupy Wall Street?
Occupation - The texture of a life. A job. A way to get a paycheck. That which fills your thoughts and guides your actions. Being in a place. Having colonized or taken control of something, be it a place or a mentality. The condition of being colonized.
There are many ways to be occupied, many modes of occupation. The occupations that succeed are those that are material - I've got this space and I am getting these goods in exchange for occupying this space, perhaps as a worker, perhaps as a striker. The Flint Strike at Fisher No. 1 is perhaps the finest example of occupation in US working class history. The occupation of the various electronics manufacturing plants in China by multinational corporations, such as Apple, is a no-less profound moment in workers' history.
That occupation would not be possible without the (pre)occupation of consumers - almost all in the developed world - with having the coolest, swoopiest, hippest gadgets they can get their hands on, exemplified by the obsession (the cultural and psychological occupation) with owning Apple.
The distortion field is not just around Steve Jobs. It can't be. If it was, only Steve would have bought the sales pitch. There is an occupation of the mind, a fantasy of unity, among "creative" types, the ones I labeled Whole Foods Nation back in the 2008 campaign. It is determinedly anti-political, anti-working class, and anti-transactional, preferring morality to effectiveness, righteousness to power. Thus the people who can gaze upon hucksters like Steve Jobs and The Precious and see saviors instead of snake-oil salesmen.
And I watch Occupy Wall Street recapitulate the failures of the movement that put The Precious in office, occupied as they are with transformation rather than achieving immediate, material goals that will persuade the majority of the 99% who only see dirty fucking hippies begging for handouts while they labor on at their thankless jobs.