Chernobyl’s enduring legacy via Slate.
A series of photos — most of which never ran in LIFE — of Hillary Clinton in June 1969, shortly after she graduated from Wellesley.
Some 30,000 flights criss-cross Europe’s airspace on a typical summer day. In this video, you can watch them all in just under two minutes.
Air traffic is a frequent subject for visualization, but the folks at NATS, responsible for handling much of the air traffic control in Great Britain and elsewhere, know the delicate dance better than just about anyone. To give us a sense of what keeps them busy day to day, they put together this stunning video. Running at 1,440 times regular speed, the viz is striking as pure laser light spectacle. But the closer you watch, the more fascinating details you’ll find.
The clip combines UK radar data from June 21 of last year and flight plan data from the rest of the continent from July 28. To start, notice how planes come over from North America, not in one busy throng but instead in orderly rows, like they’re cruising in lanes on some great invisible highway. As we zoom in on England, we see some aircraft joining different thoroughfares to Europe’s big cities, as others split off on byways to destinations like Madrid and Lisbon.
Alex Mar finds that she much prefers the company of older men
I was fighting off the flu, but I’d wrapped myself in a dress, cinched the waist tight, and now sat, flushed and underfed, sipping down a hot toddy (my cold medicine) in a hotel bar. At 34, I’d agreed to meet for drinks with a man 24 years my senior. A painter, he was dressed as he’d been when we met—at a literary party in TriBeCa, to which he was accompanied by one of his nude models—in a fleckless Savile Row suit. He wore it effortlessly, in the way only men over 50 can. He had the solemn good looks of a Roman senator and brushed his dark hair, thick as a horse’s mane, straight back from his temples. Realizing where we’d sat, he laughed: Leering down at us from the wall was an early work of his, something from the ’80s. “They actually hung that up in here?” He then presented me with two gifts: a book about his “old friends on the New York scene back in the day” and a small wooden frog on a stick, a Japanese toy. The first established the access he offered; the second seemed to comment on my place in our burgeoning relationship. The tone had been set, and I was prepared to play my part.
Every time we write about our romances, we’re recounting the private coming-together of two individuals, drawing on conversations no neutral party was present to overhear. In other words, there’s a limit to the perspective a person can have about herself—but there are patterns. My own began to emerge at the age of eight, with a glimpse at the VHS cover ofLast Tango in Paris. There he was, a thoroughly weathered, silver-haired Marlon Brando, awash in that oversaturated amber light so redolent of the ’70s. Sitting on the floor with a much younger woman—both hunch shouldered and naked as apes, their legs intertwined, her arms tugging at his neck—he kept his head back, chin tilted up at a slightly aloof angle. His domineering posture, and that amber glow, spelled out something complex and unmistakably adult.
Growing up in Manhattan, I was an obsessive girl with a dog-hungry appetite for books beyond my years. (I read The Sun Also Rises without understanding that impotence was the nasty catch in the love story.) On lonely afternoons, I’d pay what I liked (25 cents) and pass the time wandering the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a near-constant state of emotional upheaval (the rush of hormones?), I felt like an alien, and since I was also pretty and composed for my age, I was in the perfect position to be swept up by someone who had the life experience to “understand” me. Because boys my age certainly did not. Looking back, I frankly have no idea how I survived ungroped: Even as a preteen, part of me was hoping for an older guru to discover me. By the time I was 12 and starring in my school’s production of Romeo and Juliet, I’d developed a confusing fascination with the fortyish drama teacher. I appreciated our close talks about theater and the stark distance he had from the sloppy boys—including my sad-sack Romeo. In college, I dated almost exclusively grad students, including an aspiring theater director my mother laughingly called my “Svengali.”
As I reached my late twenties, however, a shift occurred: My fetish suddenly seemed to fit the cultural moment—one defined by thirtysomething man-boys and a generational deferral of activities such as marriage and procreation. So much was made (justifiably) of this extended adolescence that giving my attention to men 10, 15, even 20 years older seemed like the logical recourse. To date older was simply to date grown men.
At the height of this phase, I became involved with an established Brooklyn writer. His past was so checkered that I couldn’t help but remark, during our first dinner, on his “bad reputation.” (A Google Images search of the fellow literally made me smack my forehead.) But now older, he was in the flush of later-career financial success, and signs pointed to the possibility of a new calm, and the now-I’ve-got-my-act-together relationship that might come with that. I was moved by this thought, that someone could take his experience and wrap it around himself—pull in his horizon like a great fishnet, as Zora Neale Hurston put it. He could live a sort of downtown elder statesman’s existence, built on the wilder days but now distinctly separate, mellower.
The reality, however, proved different. He’d rented the same cluttered, top-floor brownstone apartment for 12 years, and the only lifestyle change his good fortune had brought was the occasional visit from a desperately needed housekeeper. The writer’s life plus the perennial bachelor’s life equaled scant room for a partner. I was reminded of the man who’d followed my collegiate Svengali: a brusque, if uncommonly talented, filmmaker a decade and many professional light-years ahead of me. He taught me that work would always come first for creative types—and, oh, how unamused he was, in the middle of a grueling week, to find me ringing his buzzer at 2 a.m., being “spontaneous.” The pressure of his film premiering at Cannes was too much, and I was not invited along to the Riviera. “Maybe if we were married I’d invite you,” he said. “Married with two kids.” Being in on the work required an intimacy that the work itself prevented.
If you take blatant gold digging out of the equation, dating someone older is a symptom of…what? Stunted growth, passivity, self-loathing? Despite my girlhood outsider identity, I’ve always had a strong sense of self and a large store of ambition and focus. A daddy complex, then? But if by daddy (a word whose nonliteral use always repulses me) we mean someone classically masculine, a man of substantial clout, then what’s so strange about that attraction? A man with enough personal authority to persuade you to slow down, to put aside the quest for public recognition—and maybe, on some level, to act as a mentor. (The feminist in me just burst out laughing.) While it’s true that Kurt Cobain was thrashing around on TV in a dress during my formative years, my tastes in the masculine—and what the greatest hits of ’90s theory would call “the performance of the masculine”—have remained decidedly old-world.
In the case of a prominent book critic, this was precisely the sort of performance that won my attention. A writerly mind in cowboy boots, always eager to play up his remove from the Establishment, he courted me long-distance with two-hour phone calls, eventually flying me to his ranch out west. He was brimming with bald-faced declarations about the meaning of literature in line with the rugged old-boys’ school of Thomas McGuane—a winning combination of unflinching artistic principles with macho trimmings. While I’ve long identified as an artist in my own right—or at least an artist in formation—I’ve been drawn to men who were champions of a belief system. I can sympathize, on a bizarre level, with the women who took up with David Koresh: He provided them with an answer to their doubts. Or, chicken versus egg, the man who added meaning to their lives naturally became their lover. While a little dysfunctional, it can be pretty damned satisfying to allow the person you’re dating to become your answer, your philosophy. At its worst, however, this can turn self-isolating and miserable—as when the critic started in with strangely premature entreaties for me to quit my well-paying job (“Let me take care of you”) and join him in near isolation on the ranch. I imagined this was the way pioneers imported younger wives from eastern cities back in the day.
Part of what lends the older man his appeal is how he appears to have arrived from a distant and still exotic land, the kingdom of Adulthood. He’s a prince in that realm, and he has all his shit together—unlike most of the talented men my own age. After all, what does Maria Schneider see in Brando in Last Tango? She has her fiancé, but he’s too wrapped up in the beginnings of his career to pick up on the sexual boredom she practically exudes from her glowing pores. By contrast, the older man in the empty apartment, however damaged he may be, gives off the deep, low frequency of hard-earned experience. And since we live at a time when the physical differences between 30 and 50-year-olds can be negligible, this added dimension is often an advantage. I think of the writer and how I liked to lay my hand on his head; mostly bald, he had a finely shaped, elegant skull. His nose had a pronounced arc that to me looked patrician and out of step with the times, the combined effect being that of a patinated profile on a coin. I imagined I could feel the hard-bitten years of striving under my fingertips, and now here he was, safely on the other side.
But a man’s choice to date much younger may also reveal a self-conscious impulse to remain relevant, to beat out the younger competitors waiting in line. While it’s surely possible for one’s true partner to be a cool decade or two her senior, you may discover you’re merely the latest installment in a decades-long series, never seen wholly for who you are but rather as a representative of a type. You risk becoming, essentially, the romantic interest in a Philip Roth novel.
For all the hopes that these affairs drew on, I realized that I’m built with an escape hatch. Once I know, on some gut level, that I’m with someone who is not my match, my fight-or-flight instinct kicks in—regardless of the man’s means and social influence and tasteful vacation homes. For me, each relationship died its natural, for the most part relatively painless, death. The writer, for instance, became a close friend who takes an almost nostalgic pleasure in supporting my work. The blatant exception was the book critic, who broke off the affair with all the finesse of a teenage boy. I have a distinctly unpleasant memory of a walk he took me on along the side of a mountain. He talked incessantly, spilling yet more vitriol about his ex-wife (who, incidentally, he’d snatched up when she was barely legal), and soon led us to a section of terrain that had been leveled by a forest fire, leaving everything soot-covered and with a terrible stench. As he went on, his talk turned to other women who’d betrayed him—and the noxious smell, to which he seemed immune, became a feeling in my gut. When it was over, I thought, At least he taught me how to shoot. On the ranch we’d used an old typewriter for target practice. I kept one of the keys as a souvenir.
That key is a clue to my mind-set then. I was out for experience, conjuring myself into a writer, and the gray G meant more to me, as a sort of talisman, than the affair did. Each of these men had surmounted what I was still wrestling with: to work as an artist, the strange outsider-rhythm of that, and the unconventional private life that can accompany that choice. I wanted to be them as much as I wanted to date them. And I was refusing to notice what lay between the reality of my own circumstances and theirs—the reality I wanted to adopt.
Someone your own age isn’t as likely to offer solutions or stability, financial or emotional. It’s like staring at yourself at the edge of a cliff. Even if I hadn’t chosen work this unpredictable, there would still be the existential cliff’s edge of being in my midthirties, wondering what the accumulation of my life’s decisions was adding up to. To be with someone my own age was to confront myself, which, if I’m honest, I’d been putting off.
I wish I could provide a neat resolution: a story of my rehabilitation with someone age-appropriate. A couple of months ago, this might have seemed the case: I’d become involved with a man who, at 40, was a mere five years older. A filmmaker, he still had a thrilling, almost monomaniacal approach to his work. He came with a certain amount of chaos: Sometimes he woke up at 3 a.m. to start his workday; sometimes he drank too much and then went for a three-mile run to sweat it out of his system. Wrapping our heads around a world more than a month or two away was asking too much. But I loved it. With him I’d been willing to put aside my concerns about financial stability; I’d been able to root for him the way you can root for someone who is not approaching lifetime-achievement-award status and might actually need you; and I’d been willing to live like a nomad, jumping between cities, throwing a string of dinner parties in a series of sublet apartments, both of us waking up early to work. Before, I’d been chasing after some fantasy of adulthood, a state of grace I thought I could step into easily, immediately, by association. With him—and now without him—I’ve been willing to struggle and improvise and imagine a future that hasn’t already been plotted out. It’s scarier, but I suppose that’s the cost of becoming the protagonist of your own life.
After veteran reporter Joseph Williams lost his job, he found employment in a sporting-goods store. In a personal essay, he recalls his struggles with challenges millions of Americans return to day after day.
Of course, I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches.
"If you go outside or leave the store on your break, me or another manager have to look in your backpack and see the bottom,” Stretch explained. “And winter’s coming—if you’re wearing a hoodie or a big jacket, we’ll just have to pat you down. It’s pretty simple."
When he outlined that particular requirement, my civil-rights brain—the one that was outraged at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy and wounded from being stopped by police because of my skin color—was furious.
Walk out immediately, it demanded. No job is worth it. Your forefathers died for these rights, and you’re selling them for $10 an hour.
But Abraham Lincoln, in the form of the lone $5 bill in my wallet, had the last word: You, sir, are unemployed and homeless. You cannot pay for food, goods, or services with your privacy.
I hadn’t had a job in retail since the 1980s. Perhaps youthful nonchalance and the luxury of squandering my paycheck on clothes or beer had helped camouflage the indignities of minimum wage retail job, though I don’t ever recall being frisked at the door. Yet over the decades, employee bag checks have become standard operating procedure in the retail environment, although some workers have pushed back.
Obtaining work in retail had changed a lot since the 1980s. What used to require a paper application and a schmooze with the manager has turned into an antiseptic online process where human interaction—and the potential for an employment-discrimination complaint—is kept to a minimum.
That put me at a distinct disadvantage.
In person, thanks to good genes, people often assume I’m younger than I am. On paper, however, I’m just another overeducated, middle-aged, middle-class refugee whose last retail experience dates to the Reagan administration.
Not to mention retail employers these days have their pick of applicants: the Great Recession added countless numbers of desperate workers like me to the annual labor-market influx of college students and high schoolers. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012.” Likewise, the percentage of people in these jobs who have spent some time in college has skyrocketed, jumping from under 17 percent to more than 45 percent in the same time. All of us are in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.
Although older job candidates bring experience and skills to the table, their job applications typically blink like red warning lights to retail managers:overqualified, overpaid, and probably harder to manage than some high school or college kid. In a word: trouble.
“Think about it, Joey—that’s why there are online applications,” my sister, a veteran human-resources professional, told me. “If you apply online, and you never hear back, they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you and face a discrimination lawsuit.”
The first thing I noticed on my first day on the job is that in retail no one sits.
It didn’t matter if it was at the beginning of my shift, if the store was empty, or if my knees, back, and feet ached from hours of standing. Park your behind while on the clock, went the unspoken rule, and you might find it on a park bench scanning the want-ads for a new job.
Another quick observation: Working in retail takes more skill than just selling stuff. Besides the mindless tasks one expects—folding, stacking, sorting, fetching things for customers—I frequently had to tackle a series of housekeeping chores that Stretch never mentioned in our welcome-aboard chat. Performed during the late shift, those chores usually meant I’d have to stay well past the scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.
Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.
There’s an ongoing debate over whether Congress should hike the federal minimum wage from roughly $7 an hour, where it’s been since 2008, to at least $10 an hour.
Proponents argue that three extra dollars an hour can lift hundreds of thousands of workers out of poverty. Opponents say a raise for hourly-wage workers would keep some businesses from hiring and force others to make layoffs to stay in the black.
As a worker who earned $10 an hour, I say: Neither argument is entirely true.
Sporting Goods Inc., I came to realize, was fine with paying me a few dollars more than the minimum wage—officially $7.25 an hour in Maryland—because it had other ways to compensate itself, including disqualifying me from overtime or paid sick days. Requiring me to play Cinderella on the closing shift also saved management the money it would have had to pay a cleaning company to maintain the store. Yet even $10 an hour—about $400 a week before taxes—can barely keep a single adult afloat in a city like Washington.
I knew I had to leave Sporting Goods Inc. when I realized I was turning into the sort-of overeager employee who is way too emotionally invested in a crappy menial job that does its best to devalue him.
As the learning curve flattened, however, my past life faded over the horizon and I gave up looking for an on-ramp back to journalism. Starved for approval after so much rejection, I started to take a weird, internal pride in my crappy menial job, almost against my will.
A view inside C&S Wholesale Grocers, America’s secret corporate empire, home to the future of white-collar exploitation.
The modern supermarket, with its promise of a limitless variety of food and household goods available for low prices, is the crown jewel of consumer capitalism. The cornerstone of all retail, the supermarket holds a seemingly permanent place in the canon of American life, yet barely appears in the broader discourse, even in discussions about our food habits. It’s not unusual to debate the ethics involved with farming and food production, or to ponder the pros and cons of nonlocal food distribution, but the fact that the products will be on the shelves tomorrow and the next day is taken for granted. Virtually nobody knows how this happens, and even diligent corporate watchdogs are unaware of the existence of C&S Wholesale Grocers, which recently became the world’s largest grocery distributor.
This is no accident, and it is unlikely to change despite the modest attention garnered by an August 5 piece written by Brendan Coffey and Zohair Siraj forBloomberg Businessweek. Headquartered in isolated Keene, New Hampshire and routinely ranked between the eighth and thirteenth largest privately held American corporations by Forbes, the supply-chain behemoth boasts distribution centers from Massachusetts to Miami, Buffalo to Stockton, servicing stores from Maine to Hawaii — all without ever issuing a press release.
Its sole owner, Richard B. “Rick” Cohen, gives no interviews and makes no public appearances. Aside from the occasional vague mention in local newspapers and trade publications, C&S flies almost entirely beneath the media radar, which is what made Coffey and Siraj’s portrait of the “hidden billionaire” and his company seem remarkable; it was instantly snapped up by MSN Money, Yahoo! Finance, the Daily Mail, and others. In reality, the true yet subtle significance found within the lazy and over-hyped profile lies in its omissions and what they reveal about the secrecy surrounding C&S. The only quote from a current employee of the company is provided by Brian Granger, chief legal officer and spokesman, and it amounts to an admission that the company is large and little-known. Most of the facts and figures cited in the article represent data alternately gathered or estimated by Bloomberg, with quotes from outside industry analysts and a Harvard professor who wrote a case study on C&S back in 2003, when the company was less than half its present size. The piece also relies heavily on interviews with Edward Albertian, whom the writers describe as “a former C&S president” without noting that he left the company nearly a decade ago.
Entirely absent is any acknowledgement of the company’s more controversial side, easily unearthed by a Google search. Not long ago, there were so many anti-C&S agitprop videos on YouTube that company executives found it necessary to begin quietly producing and releasing their own short clips depicting a reality so filled with sunshine and rainbows as to make Pollyanna blush. They have been sued countless times for everything from state and federal labor violations to massive price-fixing on a nationwide scale. In 2005, a New Jersey jury awarded $1.2 million to Steven Summese, finding the company had illegally retaliated against him in 2003 when it fired him for exposing warehouse refrigeration practices that were in violation of the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws. As recently as 2012, the company paid a comparably modest fine of $126,700 for Clean Air Act violations in Massachusetts.
It can hardly be expected of Businessweek to waste valuable space on labor issues or working conditions, but the only hint of C&S Wholesale Grocers’ storied anti-union street cred is buried in an innocent family anecdote in which Rick Cohen “persuade[d] his father to move the company to Brattleboro, Vermont, where it could build larger warehouses and hire nonunion workers” — back in the mid 1970s. Albertian relates a charming and folksy tale of how Cohen refused to allow him to put the corporate logo on the company’s fleet of trucks, attributing this to Rick’s desire to “continue to be stealthy and operate in this little, dinky Keene, New Hampshire marketplace,” leaving out the fact that trucks were left unmarked in part to deter the perceived threat, in the late nineties, of Teamster retaliation for the company’s exclusive use of nonunion drivers.
Less surprising, perhaps, is the article’s unabashed approval of Cohen’s “incentive-based” pay model for warehouse selectors, widely admired as innovative and efficient within the industry. The wet dream of market fundamentalists and social Darwinists alike, the scheme organizes workers picking boxes and building pallets to be loaded on outbound trucks into teams that are scored as a group. Everyone is paid a base rate, but additional money is earned for speed and accuracy, while errors and delays lead to pay decreases, all of which are based on the score for the team. Naturally, workers are pitted against one another by the competitive framework and the need to struggle ever faster in order to “pull one’s weight.” Within each group, selectors have been alleged to encourage other members of their team to skip meal breaks and even work off the clock, sacrificing base pay for additional incentives.
As can be expected, the union warehouses under the C&S umbrella — usually facilities the company acquires but is unable to immediately close for legal reasons — decline to participate in such a model, but even with recent reforms to the program leading to a decrease in the potential financial incentive itself, many selectors welcome the chance to earn more than their peers elsewhere. Safety is a high priority in the warehouses, and the track record on accidents is not alarming, but no regulation can counter the long-term bodily toll of the galley-slave pace with which these selectors wheel through massive aisles on one-ton steel pallet jacks, leaping off to scoop boxes and place them neatly in ten-foot pallet formation, then back on to race off again. No one can be surprised, then, that such warehouse practices are those most frequently challenged in court.
Nevertheless, run-of-the-mill antiworker policies in the warehousing and transportation sectors — the blue-collar bulk of the company’s workforce — can in no way explain the ability of C&S Wholesale Grocers to remain so effectively in the shadows, or account for the culture of silence and secrecy that makes it possible. In fact, any answers to this mystery can only be found in the offices of the company’s New Hampshire headquarters.
In the economic world of 2013, employed workers who stop believing that they are lucky to have their jobs, that they should be “grateful for what they have,” will quickly find themselves in trouble. There are always consequences for challenging a culture’s mythos, but this notion has become nearly impossible to dispute in the days since the economic crash of 2008. With so many looking for work and so few openings available, the ability to labor someplace and collect a paycheck is universally accepted as a blessing.
Nevertheless, a June Gallup poll revealing levels of disengagement among allAmerican workers at a staggering 70 percent suggests it may be time to challenge the perception — shared on both Right and Left — of the white-collar office worker as an effete, back-slapping, internet-surfing, casual-
Fridaying “professional” coasting through a cushy existence. With many earning guaranteed annual salaries and even hourly clerks and assistants afforded health benefits and paid time off, the notion of organization and collective bargaining within this sector of the workforce is increasingly treated as a fantasy. Tellingly, the Office and Professional Employees International Union represents only 110,416 white-collar workers in the US — out of a total estimated at upwards of 54 million. All this begs certain questions of those who count themselves among the Left. Is exploitation that is neither physical nor overt still exploitation? More broadly, is the purpose of organized labor limited, confined to checking off a list of old demands without venturing beyond, or is the struggle for a freer and more pleasant life ongoing?
If answers to these queries are to be found among the office workers at C&S headquarters, we must acknowledge one thing Coffey and Siraj get right: Rick Cohen is, strategically speaking, positively brilliant. While the company’s anti-union practices and warehouse schemes are readily apparent, it is a mistake to assume this trailblazing “innovation” doesn’t shape the working lives of employees in button-downs and blouses.
The figurative machinery of the grocery empire’s operations is managed from headquarters by the procurement department. Housed in the “bullpen,” a room the size of a football field packed as far as the eye can see with three or four hundred cubicles beneath garish hanging lights and an unfinished ceiling, the department is responsible for both inventory management and merchandising. Until a short time ago, it was here among the honeycomb of cubes that I spent nine years as a buyer. A certain amount of the corporate culture can be inferred merely from the bullpen’s physical setup, in which very little is left to chance. Offices housing managers, directors, and vice presidents form a horseshoe around the edge of the room, and the cubicles are kept short — the walls are roughly three feet high — to ensure that nothing happening on the floor goes unseen. Most of the people in this room are involved in the process of buying. At C&S, this can be defined very simply. With each buyer assigned several thousand items for two or three warehouses, the goal is to simultaneously avoid being out of stock and holding excess inventory.
Segregated to the north side of the room is the smaller merchandising team. Normally, “merchandising” refers to the negotiation with manufacturers for sale prices and other promotional deals ultimately found in weekly fliers and temporary price cuts at store level. Ostensibly, the team performs this function for several hundred independent grocery stores that, without a wholesaler like C&S, would lack the bargaining power to do so. In practice, this job involves the “generation of gross profit,” something that is often done by any means necessary. Overall, however, despite constant reminders that buying and merchandising represent “one team, one voice,” buyers and merchandisers often hold contradictory goals and rarely are provided an understanding of what the other side does.
If any of this sounds strange, it becomes even more so when compared with the broader industry. Everywhere but at the wholesale giant, buyers, merchandisers, and buyer/merchandisers (the two roles are often a single position) are trained product specialists held in high regard and rewarded with perks and conditions more closely resembling the common cushy white-collar stereotype. On average, they command a salary as much as 50 percent higher than those offered to the buyers and merchandisers in the bullpen, most of whom remain blissfully unaware.
Indeed, there are advantages to remaining nestled in “little, dinky Keene,” with its modest local population and small state college, where the corporation has the freedom to do all of this and still remain the largest and highest-paying employer. Here, it is easier to attract the eager and the inexperienced, who know nothing of industry norms surrounding pay and treatment. More importantly, local residents, especially those with underwater mortgages, children, and other family ties to the area, are less likely to go through with the relocation required of anyone wishing to use their experience to command higher pay elsewhere. These workers are more dependent on the company, and consequently more grateful and subservient.
After all, if reducing labor costs is a priority to a corporation, hiring or developing professional experts can be an expensive proposition. Despite the desire on one hand to hire people without the means to easily depart, fostering long-term employees is also expensive. The department wrings no hands at the fact that workers here who have lasted longer than five or ten years are a rarity. Not that this is altogether bad for workers. The stress-related health problems and widespread use of prescription blood pressure and antidepressant medication are so prevalent that the company represents something of a dark inside joke among Keene’s medical community, and the effects of this labor on lifespan have not yet been properly studied.
Perhaps the most intriguing number to come out of the Gallup workplace satisfaction poll is the 18 percent — nearly one in five — workers who self-identify as “actively disengaged” or who, in the words of Gallup CEO Jim Clifton, “roam the halls spreading discontent.” Personally, I found myself, the office’s token socialist, to be the only one at the C&S offices to meet this description. If these statistics are as true here as they are elsewhere, those who shared my active disengagement were wise enough to shut up about it. Official policy as defined by the oft-referenced but rarely-seen employee handbook includes a type of “honor code” that makes it a punishable offense to fail to report the malfeasance of any other employee to management or human resources.
In 2007, following the brand-new senior vice president’s announcement that times were simply too hard for the wildly profitable company to offer us our meager annual raises, I challenged him in an open meeting and subsequently attempted to start a revolt on the floor. Holding up a picture I had drawn of a stick-figure Satan spouting lies, I proudly shouted rebellion from my cubicle in the center of the room, and was met with snickers and tacit but mostly silent agreement from many of my colleagues. One, however, who either did not share my views or believed passionately in the honor code, reported my activities to management, and an investigation was conducted that nearly led to my termination.
In the years that followed, departmental success led not to shared prosperity but to a dramatic increase in expectation and job standards. During my tenure, the average size of a buyer’s desk increased nearly 300 percent. At the same time, basic requirements for service level — the method used to measure out-of-stock inventory — were raised to levels far higher than previously imagined. Once standards are changed, it is as though the old standards never existed, for they are never acknowledged nor spoken of again.
The desire of management for standardization was unquenchable, and a document formally entitled “A Day in the Life of a Buyer” became gospel. This Excel spreadsheet was a moment-by-moment guide to the myriad activities in which every buyer should be engaged at a given time of day. Its authors never acknowledged that the total time detailed amounted to nearly twelve hours, not including a break for lunch and with no time allotted for the reading and answering of daily e-mails that routinely numbered in the hundreds. Additional “time studies” would be conducted over the years in a relentless search for anomalies and inefficiencies to eliminate. Slowly but surely, the goal of making each employee interchangeable and disposable has been more effectively realized, and with many employees having less than two years’ tenure at any given time, few are ever able to identify any transformations at all.
Every two years or so, the company contracts with an outside firm to conduct an anonymous employee survey to measure satisfaction across departments in various categories. When the results are posted, employee committees known as “engagement teams” are formed to work in conjunction with management and HR to determine findings that can then be ignored. As part of two different engagement teams, I was offered a tentative opportunity to enact reforms within the established channels of the system when I was appointed the architect of a new volunteer-based peer mentoring program. With the help of a sympathetic director acting as sponsor, the program was designed to allow any employee to choose from a list of volunteer mentors someone with whom they could speak in confidence.
It was hardly collective bargaining, but at least an opportunity was being provided for some small-scale bonding of coworkers to combat the more prevalent climate of division. With the surprising approval of management, the program was rolled out on schedule, and nobody signed up. Investigating the cause, I found that people actually were interested, but despite the safeguards I had built into it, people were too afraid to join. They were afraid of being viewed as weak and afraid that participation would lead to trouble of some kind. It was a crushing disappointment, but it should have been no surprise in a workplace in which HR was known not for answering questions about benefits, but for a foreboding corporate manager nicknamed “the Angel of Death” who would march terminated employees through the room in a manner not unlike that of a public execution. (It should also be regarded as consistent that no current employees were willing to speak, even off the record, for this story. One told me that he feared management would read it and identify him by his manner of speech.)
Fear is compounded with ignorance: secret pay rates and criteria for promotions that are never disclosed. Promotion itself is sometimes viewed as something to avoid; on “graduating” to the lowest level of supervisor within the department, new senior buyers are instantly exposed to upper-level meetings with vicious language and brutal undertones. The increase in stress and decrease in comfort was immediately apparent anytime anyone moved into a higher position. “I wish I could just give the five thousand dollars back,” one supervisor told me many times. “It’s just not worth it.”
“You know,” I would often remind him, “any five of us veterans could grind this whole thing to a halt.”
“Don’t think I don’t know,” he would reply.
This is the office of the future, the one in which colleagues huddled together in pens view one another as competitors for an unknown but finite amount of resources, the one in which expertise in one’s line of work is viewed as a potentially expensive liability to be abandoned in favor of deskilled automation and rote adherence to standardized routine encased in iron. This is the office in which workers are prevented from considering the possibility of joining together by confusion, fear, and carefully crafted ignorance.
The currently emerging generation of millennials is poised to inherit this promised dystopia. The disadvantages faced by the young are well-documented. Conditions such as high rates of unemployment, drastically devalued college degrees, and chronic indebtedness grant a vast advantage to those who, like C&S Wholesale Grocers, seek to “innovate” the white-collar workplace toward greater efficiencies and lower costs. Frequently and mistakenly characterized in the cover stories of national magazines as lazy and entitled, the danger that millennials will assume self-blame and buy into the workplace mythos of their forebears is very real.
But it is not within the scope of national status quo rags like Time to change the cultural conversation. If, at the same time, it is unrealistic to expect existing office workers living under constant threat of termination to band together and offer resistance, the responsibility to educate, empower, and envision better ways of living life falls squarely on the shoulders of the radical left and its allies within organized labor. In imitation of a bizarre ritual I am told is found at every Walmart, C&S invented a corporate cheer to force participation at the end of group announcements. It involves a cadence of clapping, followed by the cheerleader’s call:
“Give me a C!”
“C!” the crowd responds.
“Give me an S!”
All together: “C&S! We’re the best!”
It’s long past time workers responded with a rallying cry of our own.
The Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn. has hired thousands more workers in recent years — but the jobs are much worse than they used to be.
"No one’s really worried about the fact that you’re so exhausted from working seven days a week, you’re dependent on some drug to stay awake, or dependent on some drug to go asleep, or for pain," he says, relaxing after shift on an L-shaped leather couch at the home he rents in Columbia. His 37-year-old body is powerful, built like a football player’s, but no longer impervious. "That’s the most common thing people are addicted to. And everybody I work with has some type of pain, whether it’s hands, fingers, back, feet, something."
Young doesn’t actually work for Nissan — he works for Yates Services, an in-house contractor that’s hired thousands of people over the past few years to ramp up production as people started buying vehicles again. It’s a big difference.
Yates is like a company within a company, with separate bulletin boards and rules and procedures. The bona fide Nissan employees are easily recognizable through their logoed shirts, which Yates workers don’t receive. And the disparity isn’t just symbolic. Yates pays between $10 and $18 an hour, which is about half what Nissan employees make. Plus, the gap in benefits is wide. Back at home, Young pulls out a crumpled sheet of paper from the company that lays out the differences and pokes at the two columns with his finger.
"I build the same Infiniti SUV that Bob does," says Young, referring to a hypothetical Nissan worker. "Bob is able to lease a vehicle, I cannot. Long term disability? Bob gets that, I do not. I can provide this much for my family when I die. Bob can double his base. But Bob and I are on the same line, busting our butts."
More than anything, working for Yates means that Young can’t live an adult life: Can’t get a mortgage, can’t say no to overtime, can’t save for retirement, can’t take a sick day, can’t be confident he’ll have a job next week or next month.
And Nissan, the first of many foreign automakers to set up shop in Tennessee, is leading a trend. Companies from Amazon to Asurion to Dell have outsourced their warehouses and call centers to the hundreds of staffing agencies that have cropped up in the region. Tennessee went from having 51,867 temporary workers in 2009 to 80,990 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — while median wages have stayed flat. That accounts for nearly all of Tennessee’s job growth since the recession, and makes up 3.61 percent of all jobs in the state, second only to South Carolina. In Tennessee’s burgeoning manufacturing industry, it’s even higher, going from 15 percent of all jobs in 2002 to 26 percent in 2012.
As a result of Nissan’s hiring blitz over the past few years, Rutherford County has an unemployment rate that’s the envy of the South. Tennessee’s political leadership holds it up as a shining example of success in the global economy — the return of American manufacturing after decades of decline, and the future of work for those left jobless by globalization and technological change.
But in order to stay competitive with Nissan’s plants all over the world, that work has come at a deep discount. And the communities it creates will be far from the picket fence idyll of decades past. Young’s fiancee Marie* has to take care of almost everything for the four children they share from previous relationships, while Young builds cars.
"I don’t see how they can make you work seven days a week," says Marie, quietly, eyes wide, before taking the kids out to pick up fast food for dinner.
"If you don’t want to do it, you clean out your locker and go somewhere else," Young tells her. "It’s ‘you make it work, so and so did it, so you can do it.’ And that’s the end of the story."
Comprehensive map of the world’s major operating and planned submarine cable systems and landing stations, updated annually.
A very interesting new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, examines the good work habits of over 150 of the greatest writers, artists and scientists.
What does nearly every genius have in common?
During his most fertile years, from the late 1920s through the early ’40s,Faulkner worked at an astonishing pace, often completing three thousand words a day and occasionally twice that amount. (He once wrote to his mother that he had managed ten thousand words in one day, working between 10: 00 A.M. and midnight— a personal record.) “I write when the spirit moves me,” Faulkner said, “and the spirit moves me every day.”
Sometimes the intensity of the work brings on strange physical reactions— her back goes out, her knees swell, and her eyelids once swelled completely shut. Still, she enjoys pushing herself to the limits of her ability. “I have always got to be the best,” she has said. “I’m absolutely compulsive, I admit it. I don’t see that’s a negative.”
His compulsiveness meant that he was astonishingly productive throughout his life— and yet, at age sixty-four, he could nevertheless write, “Looking back over a life of hard work … my only regret is that I didn’t work even harder.”
Musician Glenn Gould:
From the time he retired from public performances in 1961, when he was thirty-one years old, Gould devoted himself completely to his work, spending the vast majority of his time thinking about music at home or recording music in the studio. He had no hobbies and only a few close friends and collaborators, with whom he communicated mostly by telephone. “I don’t think that my life style is like most other people’s and I’m rather glad for that,” Gould told an interviewer in 1980. “[ T] he two things, life style and work, have become one. Now if that’s eccentricity, then I’m eccentric.”
Alexander Graham Bell:
As a young man, Bell tended to work around the clock, allowing himself only three or four hours of sleep a night… When in the throes of a new idea, he pleaded with his wife to let him be free of family obligations; sometimes, in these states, he would work for up to twenty-two hours straight without sleep.
“Today again from seven o’clock in the morning till six in the evening I worked without stirring except to take some food a step or two away,” van Gogh wrote in an 1888 letter to his brother, Theo, adding, “I have no thought of fatigue, I shall do another picture this very night, and I shall bring it off.”
Artist Chuck Close:
“Inspiration is for amateurs,” Close says. “The rest of us just show up and get to work.”What else did many have in common?
- There were more morning people than night owls. Most had a clear routine. The majority woke early, worked until midday, took a break for a few hours then resumed work until dinner. Most seemed to use the evening hours for relaxation and socializing.
- Going for walks was another pattern. Tchaikovsky, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Georgia O’Keefe and many others had long walks as part of their daily routine.
- Kids, don’t try this at home but copious amounts of drugs, alcohol and smoking was mentioned as well. Balzac regularly drank over 50 cups of coffee during a work session; Freud smoked as many as 20 cigars a day for decades; there was no shortage of alcoholics, and I was surprised just how common the use of amphetamines was.
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre:
…he turned to Corydrane, a mix of amphetamine and aspirin then fashionable among Parisian students, intellectuals, and artists(and legal in France until 1971, when it was declared toxic and taken off the market). The prescribed dose was one or two tablets in the morning and at noon. Sartre took twenty a day… “His diet over a period of twenty-four hours included two packs of cigarettes and several pipes stuffed with black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol— wine, beer, vodka, whisky, and so on— two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, rich meals.”
Mathematician Paul Erdos:
Erdos owed his phenomenal stamina to amphetamines— he took ten to twenty milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin daily. Worried about his drug use, a friend once bet Erdos that he wouldn’t be able to give up amphetamines for a month. Erdos took the bet and succeeded in going cold turkey for thirty days. When he came to collect his money, he told his friend, “You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.” After the bet, Erdos promptly resumed his amphetamine habit, which he supplemented with shots of strong espresso and caffeine tablets. “A mathematician,” he liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
As the Erdos anecdote illustrates, many of the drugs (especially the amphetamines) were not used for pleasure, but as a way to increase productivity and output.
Overall, the message is clear. Work, work, work. To be a genius at your craft it’s all about the hours and dedication.
“Sooner or later,” Pritchett writes, “the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”
In the study [PDF], [researcher Rik] Pieters followed more than 2,500 Dutch people over six years. For more specificity, the researcher broke materialism down into three categories that have subtle but significant differences. What Pieters calls “acquisition centrality” is pure, unfettered materialism. It’s the consumerism of the shopaholic—an unadulterated love of acquiring and owning possessions. “Possession-defined success” is the desire to keep up with your neighbours, a status-driven urge to make sure you’re not falling behind. And “acquisition in the pursuit of happiness” is exactly what it sounds like: buying with the belief that happiness is just one more Apple product away. It is materialism that “reflects a deficit.” …
He found that, over time, loneliness increased materialism and materialism increased loneliness (though the effects here were much smaller). Consumers can find themselves in a vicious circle, shopping because they’re sad, getting sadder as they shop, shopping some more—a loneliness loop that threatens to end with authorities discovering you alone in your apartment, long since dead, surrounded by a heaps of unopened Amazon boxes.
Surprisingly, however, as Pieters dug down into the different types of materialism, he found that not all materialism makes you miserable. While those who shopped in pursuit of happiness or to attain a particular status predictably increased loneliness over time, the people shopping out of “acquisitive centrality” actually seemed to decrease their loneliness."
(via The Dish)
(Source: , via explore-blog)