Thursday, December 30, 2010

Break times: these "moments are elements of profit"

My heart was clogged, accumulated with unprocessed reactions and emotions. This round of writing is my filtering, to drain the sediments so I can restart and refresh this next round of struggle with a clearer mind and deeper understanding of what to anticipate, to share and process with my coworkers.

The most recent thing that happened at work was the struggle over our break time. I hadnt written about it for the past few weeks because a) I didnt really understand the importance/independent validity of these few minutes of free time even as I felt super indignant that it was being taken away from us because b) It didnt relieve the overwork and c) winning this breaktime is a pale shade compared to what we had before and thus a "victory" that is marked more by what we lost than what we gained, therefore: contradictory. But M pointed out to me in a conversation today, that such is the substance of small workplace struggles. Maybe, this is the substance and texture of the struggles, in practice, in real emotional living life, that Stan Weir talks about in Singlejack Solidarity. Our struggles are gained in small steps and my responsibility as a militant is to be clear about the gains we acheived, obstacles we faced, and capture these experiences and expand on them with my coworkers.

I'll add too that reading Chapter 10 of Capital inspired me to write this. Thanks Nate for encouraging me to do that. What got me motivated to write this up about our few minutes of extra free time, is reading the honest words of XYZ capitalist in Marx's writings, of how the thefts of workers' break times, are sources of great profit:

On page 352,
"These 'small thefts' of capital from the workers' meal times and recreation times are also described by the factory supervisors as 'petty pilferings of minutes,' 'snatching a few minutes.' or, in the technical language of the workers, 'nibbling and cribbling at meal times.'

It is evident that in this atmosphere the formation of surplus value by surplus labor is no secret. 'If you allow me to work only ten minutes in the day over-time, you put one thousand a year in my pocket.'

'Moments are the elements of profit.'

What this means, is that even as the capitalist tries to minimize the impact of taking a few minutes here and there of workers' time, these stolen few minutes are really "elements of profit," part of this grand plan of extracting every surplus value out of the worker, of further machinifying the human body so it can NOT rest. A few moments, and the loss of what makes us human.

Contrast this, with an interaction between myself, Z. and snitchbitch. Z. had skipped his 15 min break to put some residents to bed. I told him he should fill out a "Missed time" form saying that he be paid for those 15 min of lost break time. Snitchbitch chimes in with her ass-kissing, boss-loving condescension, saying something to the effect of,

"Oh, come on, I skip my 15 minute all the time. All you get is $3 more if you write it in anyway! Why give yourself and them all this trouble?"

Followed by chuckles, giggles, nasty model-worker condescension smirk plastered over her face

Z. then responds saying,

"Yeah you are right. It's OK. I dont need to give them trouble for $3."

I have objected many times to Z. losing his break time. Z. is not a very militant worker. He works HELLA hard and I see all the times when he strains his body just to work a little faster for these ungrateful management bastards. I had resorted in the past to a variety of strategies to get Z. to take his break. I try hard for a combination of reasons, many of them selfish I admit. First, I hate to see A. work so fucking hard for so little money. I want him to get his break. A break reduces the chances of injury. Second, it pisses me off that management gets to make this man work so hard. I hate to see them win. Third, I need him to take his break so I dont seem like a fucking lazy ass for insisting on taking mine. No model worker for them to compare me to, or at least, the less the better. Snitchbitch is the one exception. She has gone way over to the dark side.

So the methods I have resorted to in the past, to get Z. to take his break are:
1) No one likes to be cheated of their money:
"Z.!They dont pay you for the break, if you dont go you are working extra UNPAID! Is that worth it?"

2) Do you really want to be the only person missing out? AND doing other peoples' work for them while they chill?
"Ooops, sorry I couldnt help you. I was busy taking my break. Did you work really hard? No one helped you? Oh no! It's cause everyone took their break. I wish I could have helped you but you didnt take your break!"

3) Reminding him that every hard worker is just another lousy worker to management
"We all know we work super hard. Even if we work so hard, if we do any small thing wrong, they will fire you. They dont care.
Are you sure you dont want to take your break? If you do anything wrong, even if you skip your break everyday, they still will fire you, you know?"

4) Break = state of mind
When you insist on taking your break, it means you insist on taking time out to rest and remember you are after all, a fucking human being who cannot be worked in a machine-like pace. It is a few minutes but it is also a state of mind to carry onto the floor when you are working.

And so, I try.

But that day, Z.'s class-conscious worker voice lost out in his internal battle. No, he decided he would not go through the trouble himself, but more importantly, put management through the hassle, for compensating him the $3 for his 15 minute break.

I dont know how to comprehend all this. All I know now is that there is so much in that and it's all bad.


Before the staffing cuts happened, there was no real stipulation/regulation around our break time. In a way, we controlled how it worked, it wasnt politicized, and was regulated by how much work we had to do on the floor. We are mandated by the state to take 2 fifteen minute breaks, as well as our unpaid 30 min break. Many times, we would forego the second 15-min break if we needed to, and when possible, compensate for that forfeited break time by taking longer breaks earlier in the day. Point is, we were willing to give up our break when we needed to, and we took longer breaks when we could.

When the staffing got cut, and the struggle began, the issue around breaktime became politicized primarily because it was our only form of state protection (ie. the state mandated 15 min breaks every 4 hours of work). For workers like us who dont have a lot of bargaining power or protection, the break time law and safety regulations are our only legalized protections.

Myself and others started politicizing big time, the need to take our breaks. Gone was this chill attitude toward skipping our breaks. This was an important step in us trying to fight back and INSIST that we be treated like humans.

Our higher workload often meant that we had to skip our breaks to finish the work. However, if we took our breaks, it would be hellish for us when we got back cos we would have to work a lot faster in the remaining time. Initially, we did leave some work uncompleted for the next shift when the work was too much, but it was not sustainable for us to do that cos of fears of repercussion from the boss.

I guess my point here is that, unlike the factories described in Chapter 10 of Capital, where the capitalists stole into workers' break times to extract more surplus labor, for us, our surplus labor through speed up was determined already and institutionalized through the state law around Neglect. [ie. the state and management all played a hand together at making sure that surplus labor and value was extracted out of us because if we didnt complete the work, we would be charged with Neglect. It is not a case where we reduced the production quota by taking our break.] All in all, what this meant is that taking our break was contradictory for our actual work process. However, what we maintained was that we HAD to take our breaks. For me and I believe for others, it is a refusal to be treated like a machine. That attitude carried out into our work day -- that we are not rushing, we deserve breaks and we are not machines or dogs who can be at your beck and call.

However, because management had not had a regular structure for us to take our mandated break times, doing so in the midst of overwork was very stressful. We were stressed out about 1) taking our breaks and being yelled at by the nurse when we came back on the floor for not doing X,Y,Z or 2) Not taking our break and feeling like shit and getting all the work done but not risk being yelled at by the nurse for not being on the floor. Basic point is, the lack of a structure for regular break times meant that we had to individualize and improvise on when to go amid the increased workload. While this improvization had been a form of our freedom/self activity/"stealing" from the boss in the past in the form of occasional prolonged breaks, now it was a very very stressful activity.

One day, the charge nurse hauled me into the office with her evil crew of naysayers ie human resources. They sat me down and gave me shit for taking my break at the "wrong time." Fuck these assholes. I was doing the same thing I had done in the past, that EVERYONE had done in the past, basically taking my 30 min break before my 15 min break cos of time crunch issues, and never gotten into trouble with that. But this time, cos nasty evil nurse hates me, she sits me down and tells me I am not following the rules. Our interaction goes this way.

*The details in this is confusing, excuse me!

Charge Nurse: Why are you giving me trouble with breaks? You are the only one who does this.

Me: I didnt do anything wrong. You told me before I should change all my residents before I go on break. I cant do that and take my 15 min AND my 30 min before lunch time. So, I take my 30 min first BEFORE my 15 min break so if I have to miss out on one break, it's the 15 min break that I miss out on, not the 30 min break.

Charge Nurse: Yes, you can't go on break unless you finish cleaning all your residents. Otherwise, it's neglect.

Me: You are telling me I need to clean all my residents AND take my 15-min break by 9:15am?

Charge Nurse: Yes. This is your responsibility, **** (she fucks up my name, oh I hate her so much)

Me: Breakfast ends at 9am. If I go for my 15-min break at 9:15am, this means I only have 15 min to change 10 residents!

Charge Nurse: ****, you have to do your job. Don't think I'm stupid, ****
(btw these were the CLASSIC words of the day!!I totally think she's stupid!!)

~I am hella pissed. This woman does not know what she is talking about. I turn to Human Resources deliberately. I want them to figure this out for me cos it's so ridiculous

Me to HR: Can you please explain to me what she is saying? I dont understand what I am supposed to do.

HR and Charge Nurse go at it for 3 minutes.

Me to HR: Can you please write down designated times that we are supposed to go for break? I dont know how to do my work AND follow the law around breaktimes. When it's not on paper it's hard for me to figure out.

~My bosses have an aversion to putting any of their dumbass policies down on paper. I believe it;s cos they want us to improvize ie. they know it is only through improvization that the job gets done, and putting shit on paper means they set rules that we can claim to follow AND not get the job done cos they always have to pretend in their documentations and rules that they treat us like human beings

~~ What also killed me later that day is that another coworker who did the same thing as me, for which I was hauled into the office for, was given a hug by my boss and told, "Thanks for trying" when she did the exact same "wrong" thing as I did around break times. This fucking discrimination and divide and conquer tactics make me SOOO ANGRY!!!

So at the end of the day, we have designated break times. This means even if we are overworked, we are MANDATED to take our breaks at certain times.

Is this a victory? Is it not?

I have to say it has relieved stress around the work. We no longer have to improvize and make decisions on whether to take our break or complete the work. It is in writing that at X.Y.Z time, we have to go for our break.

Before the speed up occurred, we could improvize/take longer breaks. But for now, where there is overwork, our breaks are secured in a way. But it doesnt feel good because the root cause: overwork and speed up, is still lost. We have accomodated the best we can under these conditions. Our secured break times is one scenario.

Did I forget to add, that when we told the bosses that we missed our breaks because of the overwork, we were offered candy (Twix, Hersheys, Crunch in all its cheap plastic glory)...

I am a greedy chocolate lover but now I forever hate the sickening sweetness of cheap candy bars. More on that later!

1 comment:

  1. I feel funny enjoying reading this when it's about such fucked up stuff... This is a great post.

    About your co-worker Z, this reminds me of experiences of people getting attacked and called lazy. Any worker who has any interest but following orders is lazy, pretty much. Ugh. It sucks that Z got moved by the snitch into not taking that break. Like you said, now it's that much more pressure on all y'all. When it comes to bosses, the favor that we do them today is tomorrow's requirement.

    Just FYI if management used to not have a problem with the break practice and then after y'all started acting then the old practices became a problem, that's a possible unfair labor practice. Something to keep in your back pocket.

    Oh yeah, also, I like your point about mixed victories and how this stuff feels. I can't remember any fully decisive wins I've ever been part of, it's always been mixed. Sometimes that's hard to take, to work so hard for just mixed outcomes.

    hang in there!

    take care,