For the second time in less than a year, a major, headline-grabbing strike has been averted. Not with the employers giving in to the unions’ demands. No, that would be too sensical, too much of a break with the cruel absurdity of our moment.
Rather, the strikes have been averted by the usual and mundane. Namely, the union’s leadership reaching a deal with management that either disappoints or outright angers the rank-and-file. In late 2021, it was the IATSE strike that was dodged, regarding stagehands, camera operators, and other film and TV crew. That strike, had it gone ahead, would have been near impossible for most people to ignore, as it would have brought the lion’s share of mainstream, big-budget cultural production to a halt. And what a joy that would have been.
A strike on the nation’s railroads would have been much harder to avoid. Like the unionization drives at Amazon, the grievances among train operators, conductors, machinists and mechanics reveal just how much that strain is borne by the human beings that keep the flow of too-many-things flowing. Only more more. Far more so. If Amazon are just the most pernicious mutation of the logistics industry, then the railroads are its backbone. And its workers are buckling under the weight left by lean production.
The stories are of being on call for weeks on end, unable to take time off for personal matters or even doctor appointments, and with paltry vacation time in return. Workers are on the road – or rails, as it were – for days on end, given very little time to rest, and routinely have their request for paid time off rejected by the companies.
This is another commonality shared by these two near-miss strikes: they are not so much about issues like pay and benefits, but over whether workers have control over their time. And it’s not just their time spent at work that is at stake. Nor is this about breaks or paid time off per se, both of which are common enough in labor disputes. No, in essence, this is about whether any of an employee’s time – in or out of work – actually belongs to them.
There’s almost certainly some connection to the general breakdown of the divisions between life and work, the monetization of virtually every aspect of existence. All of us are familiar with this in some way, be it through the app that tells us where to deliver someone else’s food (with our own car or bike, of course) or all the insufferable “hustle culture” discourse.
It was only a matter of time before every other industry, no matter how “traditional,” followed suit. The production company that refuses to spring for a hotel so that a key grip doesn’t have to drive 90 minutes after working a thirteen-hour day, risking their dozing at the wheel. The freight company demands the engineer be ready to return to the railyard at the whimsical flick of management’s risk, meaning that, once again, their sick kid will miss a doctor’s appointment. All your life are belong to us.
The onus is mostly on capital, though not entirely. The commonsense of labor-relations has for several decades been based around what someone is compensated in return for their time. This seems, and is, logical, at least to a certain degree. In the long term, homing in on the bread and butter, at the expense of more vital dimensions of work and life, has proven to be a disastrous strategy on the part of labor leaders, costing the movement in terms of numbers and militancy. Until recently anyway.
After all, even struggles over wages are in essence, also about time, specifically what a person is given in return for turning over their time to their employer. Writers like EP Thompson and Ellen Meiksins Wood have argued more essential, vital demands, demands concerning time itself, provided the birth pangs for what we came to recognize as the modern labor movement. How much time would workers be expected to spend at work? What would they be expected to do with that time? Even matters of compensation were framed in terms of how much a worker was able to do out when they weren’t on the clock. These weren’t matters of how much of life could be remunerated, but of how much of it should be set aside from such rote, dull measurements.
It would be myopic to insist that this alone is behind every single crisis that has ever faced the labor movement. It would be equally arrogant to say that this reduction of life to numbers hasn’t played a role. Such massive concessions to the logic of commensurability has repeatedly resulted in workers’ lives reduced to dead formulas, guided less by life’s quality than by the quantity of refrigerators, TVs, and cars it could be exchanged for.
The fallout from this is evident even from the beginning of the downturns of the 1970s. There is a scene in the recently-departed Godard’s 1973 film Tout Va Bien that pans slowly – for more than ten minutes in fact – down the aisles of a massive supermarket. The French Communist Party (who played a less-than-productive role in the événements of five years earlier) has a table set up inside. A party functionary wearing a suit is sharing their election manifesto. Price controls and wages are the primary topic. Even as radical youth confront him and ask what his really has to offer, all he can reply with is hollow rhetoric. Outside the factory, it’s still a factory.
Considering how long this stultifying, mathematical logic has prevailed in the labor movement, we might marvel at this (re-)turn to the temporal. But really, the novelty shouldn’t be so much in what we witness from the outside, but in the chance to reevaluate our own control over time. Or more precisely, our pitiful lack thereof.
Right now, you’re reading this through an internet that knows how to time the subtlest movements of your eye, divining bits of data that it then integrates into its algorithms so that next time you log into your Facepage, it knows to sell you a five-night, all-inclusive vacation to the latest Arctic oil spill. Even those of you who are “stealing time,” reading this on your computer or phone while on the clock at work, are having your desires captured. Check and mate, you fucking prole.
The manipulation of time and our experience of it is by now so full-spectrum that it’s difficult to even notice. The universal concoction of anxiety and boredom we all acutely feel is so naturalized we struggle to picture a moment when we haven’t had the clock bearing down on us. In fact, the distillation of neoliberalism required a conscious reconfiguration of our relationship to that same clock. But as Godard dramatizes, the clock’s dominance was a political choice, and one that “official” leaders of the labor movement have tragically conceded.
Fifteen, even ten years ago, the myths of flexible time and endless choices still had a bit of their sheen. That’s not the case anymore. We’ve seen just how alienating and panic-inducing it all is. Truth is, we are surrounded by so many options that we cannot even keep track of where they come from. It’s another, ultimately intentional, outcome of lean, just-in-time production. The convenient, instantaneous appearance of goods and services makes it all feel like magic. After enough time not thinking about it, magic is what it becomes.
But if it is indeed magic, then no version of magic has ever been so mundane or boring. All the technological majesty, the culmination of centuries of genius and innovation, and the best it can do is get you your exclusive, Logan Paul commemorative edition suicide forest shower curtain rings to you by the end of the day? If this is the kind of magic that the 21st century brought us, then it’s no wonder that a hack like JK Rowling ended up its most successful author.
That’s the thing about boredom. It both lengthens and flattens time in the most dismal way. Everything matters the same amount, therefore nothing matters at all. As so many self-appointed experts on contemporary culture will tell you, it’s one of the reasons we’re trapped in this interminable feedback loop, why nothing feels new or urgent, why everything innovative just feels like an extension of our numbness. Even news of climate collapse, of food crises, of the possibility of nuclear war, seems quotidian. All time has become empty time.
At the very least, a railroad strike would have interrupted all of this, providing a fleeting chance to bring a culture of inundating flotsam back down to earth. Paralyzing the backbone of the nationwide logistics industry would bring an already faltering supply chain to a halt in many areas. The amount of dumb stuff that would have suddenly not been on the retail shelves would have surely been jarring at first, but it would have also shown us just how overwhelming everything had become and allowed us to ask whether floating in the morass there could still be something resembling meaning.
This option hasn’t been completely snatched off the table. For one thing, the membership of the railway unions may yet reject the new deal. After all, the central demand around time off and scheduling were barely broached. For another, something around 700,000 union workers in the US are going to have their contracts up some time in the next year. This includes about 350,000 employees at UPS.
True, sheer numbers alone do not a militant mass strike make. But given the generalized uptick in labor activity, the extreme downward pressure on logistics workers, it would be foolish to assume that either the companies will bring anything close to a fair deal or that a nationwide strike isn’t on the table. The possibility of bringing the constant travel of saleable goods to a halt is very real; so is that of puncturing the dominance of empty time.
Just as railroads played an indispensable role in the making of American capitalism, so did the militancy of railway workers prove essential in the formation of the labor movement. In 1877, mass strikes on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad spread from Martinsburg, West Virginia through the major cities in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Missouri. In many towns, miners, mill workers, even the unemployed, joined the railway men in fighting police and the National Guard. Newspapers and politicians openly spoke of their fear that America’s answer to the Paris Commune – which had taken place just six years prior – was nigh.
Back then, the Commune was the rich man’s boogeyman. Countless stories were whispered in parlors and boardrooms. Some, like those of blood thirsty workers eating well-to-do gentlemen, were pernicious imaginary figments. Others, like the figure of the firebrand pétroleuse, were similarly made up whole cloth, only to later inspire.
But there was another story, one that to the rich underlined the irrationality of the Communards, but to other working people emphasized the urgency of their historic project. That on the first days of fighting, roving gangs of workers marched through Paris. They weren’t terrorizing people, bourgeois or otherwise. They were smashing the clocks around the city.