Why The Left Opposes Police Unions

I.

On June 10, 2016, in a small town just north of Savannah, Georgia, three Teamsters stood on the side of the road outside of a company called XPO Logistics, leafleting truck drivers about their rights as workers. As the truckers left the facility, the Teamsters offered them a flyer, chatting briefly and answering any questions the drivers had. While it’s illegal to leaflet on company property, the Teamsters were stationed on the roadside beyond the facility’s gates.

It was an unremarkable afternoon of outreach, until the local police arrived. Someone from XPO had called them. The officers claimed the trio was blocking the flow of traffic, even though the only drivers on the dead-end road were trucks driving in and out of the facility, and the Teamsters had made a point of standing on the side of the road, flagging drivers down and only approaching once they had stopped driving.

In a state as unfriendly to labor as Georgia, which has the fourth-lowest rate of union membership in the country, the encounter between these Teamsters and the local police was about more than just the actions of these three organizers. No need to believe me; here’s a transcript of the conversation captured by the officers’ body cameras:

“It ain’t like it was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with all those wildcat strikes and those riots and everything,” says one of the officers in the video.

“You smell that?” he continues. “You smell that?”

“The paper mill?” responds one of the organizers quizzically.

“No. Fresh air,” the officer caustically remarks. “We want to make sure everybody can continue to breathe the fresh air.”

A letter later sent to the town by a Teamsters lawyer, who is threatening a lawsuit over the incident if the city doesn’t drop the charges against the organizers, asserts that “there was no other reasonable interpretation” of the “fresh air” remark except that “the police department considers union activity pollution.”

“They wanted to make it seem like us dispersing content is illicit,” said Ben Speight, one of the Teamsters organizers. “The content, the union aspect, is what they were trying to stop.”

Speight speculated that the police citations would make some of the drivers feel uncomfortable talking to the Teamsters in the future for fear of drawing attention to themselves by association.

II.

The encounter between Teamsters and cops is a snapshot of the agonizing difficulty of organizing unions in the South, a place of hostile and organized anti-union machinations. The face of that hostility? The police officers who show up and antagonize union representatives, who ultimately brought charges against the three Teamsters when Speight asked for one of the officers’ badge number.

For the Left, supporting unions is a given. Whatever differences we may have — many, to be sure —we all agree that rebuilding the labor movement is central to achieving a more just society. While the labor movement is not limited to unions, these organizations, the primary place where working-class people are already organized, are a major locus of our attention.

At their best, unions are schools for workers’ democracy, vehicles through which the working class experiences the power of collective action and learns how to demand ownership over the value they produce. In the face of a decades-long organized backlash against unions and declining union membership — which, as a recent Economic Policy Institute study noted, hurts all workers, reducing weekly wages for non-union workers by $14 to $52 — supporting unions is more important than ever.

In the case of those Teamsters leafletting in Georgia, what that support looks like is clear: we’re on their side, against the cops. Sure, these officers were just doing their duty, responding to a call from XPO. But their visceral opposition to unions, analogizing union organizing to pollution and favorably contrasting the anti-union present to the “strikes and riots” of earlier decades, shows a propensity to go far beyond the call of duty.

It’s an easy case, save one complication: cops have unions too, or at least, cops have “unions,” union-like organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), and the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA), with the latter housed within the AFL-CIO.

For many progressives and some on the Left, these organizations throw a wrench into an otherwise coherent picture, leading some to engage in intellectual gymnastics to explain away the anti-union sentiment on display in the encounter between the cops and Teamsters in Georgia. But it shouldn’t.

Instead of forcing us into a corner, leaving us muttering that “cops are the 99% too” — a statement heard so often during the Occupy movement — the contradiction revealed by police unions should throw into relief an important distinction between liberals and the Left, namely, the reasons each of these groups support unions. This difference too often goes unacknowledged and in light of the anti-police-brutality movement and the recent uproar over the election of a police-union organizer to the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), it’s worth clarifying the distinction.

III.

The Left supports unions not because they’re an inherent good, but because they’re vehicles for building working-class power. If and when unions do not build that power, we should challenge and criticize them, pushing them to reform. And in the case of police unions, we stand against them as such, because no efforts for reform can change their very reason for existence, which is to undermine working-class interests in general, even as they increase the power of their limited membership.

A huge number of young people are entering left politics today, drawn in by the Sanders campaign, the anti-police-brutality movement, and their own experiences of growing up in an outrageously unequal country. Making explicit the Left’s reasons for supporting unions is critical to advancing the higher level of politics needed in these urgent times. An exploration of police unions provides a means to consider this matter concretely.

As Bill Fletcher Jr and Fernando Gapasin argue in Solidarity Divided, a key difference between liberal and left unionism — what they term “pragmatism” or “traditionalism,” and “leftism,” respectively — is who we consider the proper constituency of the union movement, and toward what end we’re struggling. While the traditionalist/pragmatist views union members as the movement’s constituency, with winning gains for the members (fighting for “bread and butter” as it’s often put) as the goal, the leftist takes all members of the working class to be the proper constituency of the union movement, with strengthening this class’s power our goal.

While these perspectives often align, allowing proponents of both views to work together, police unions drive a wedge between liberals and the Left. If police unions undermine working-class power, even as they achieve gains for their limited membership, the Left should call for their delegitimization wherever they operate, whether within the AFL-CIO or outside of it. But we in doing so, we should be prepared to debate otherwise allied forces — the traditionalists and pragmatists.

IV.

Before moving to the reasons for rejecting police unions, it’s important to consider the argument for them. Despite widespread (and justified) outrage this past weekend over a police union organizer gaining a position on the DSA’s National Political Committee, much of the labor movement includes police unions within its ranks. If we want to win the argument against this view, we must understand it.

At its left-most, this is an argument for the strategic value of engaging progressive dissenters within police departments as a means to splitting their constituents and building power. Those who advance this argument recognize the impossibility of unifying with the bigots who rise to the top of these unions — people like Patrick Lynch, the president of New York City’s largest police union, who blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio for the death of two NYPD officers in December 2014. Rather, left-wingers who hold to this view advocate critical support for those seeking to achieve progressive changes from within the police force.

For example, Cedric Johnson argues that the Left should engage “reformist elements within police unions and departments,” people such as “minority law enforcement professional organizations, whistleblowers and dissident officers, and other progressive elements,” all of whom we can unite with on a desire to build a more meaningful and less unpopular model of policing. While Johnson takes care to distinguish what he’s advocating from support for police unions as such, his argument rests on a flawed understanding of the dynamics at play within police unions.

In a rebuttal to Johnson, Shawn Gude argues that “Hoping for reform-minded police unions is delusional.” “If anything,” he adds, “reform groups would benefit from being able to organize without the influence of an overarching union. The same goes for individual officers.” Free of the stifling force of the union, “those of good conscience” — the elements with whom Johnson is concerned — could fight for a broader vision of social justice and radical changes in policing. By dismissing the possibility that police unions work against any reformist interests, Johnson advances a strategy of engagement that doesn’t match the landscape of contemporary US policing.

It’s from a consideration of the purpose of the police and the conditions on which their jobs rely that Gude arrives at his position. The livelihood of the police relies on perpetuating the most repressive aspects of the status quo — de facto race and class segregation in our cities, rising inequality, and what sociologist Loïc Wacquant terms the “carceral continuum,” a state in which the inner-city merges with the prison, with both coming to resemble each other in form and function. Under such conditions, empowered police organizations can only advocate for new weapons, less transparency, and murkier repercussions in the case of police wrongdoing, as these are the “reforms” that benefit their membership, the constituency of interest to their leadership, traditionalists in Fletcher and Gapasin’s schema.

This is not a moral argument about the goodness or badness of police. Rather, it’s a response to the propensity of the police, as Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue argues, to “organize as police, not workers.” This perspective, rooted in a left unionism interested in strengthening the working class as a whole, cannot align with organizations pursuing policies that improve the conditions of their membership at the expense of the broader working class.

When we look at what police organizations have accomplished, the argument that they’re incompatible with a progressive labor movement looks like common sense. As detailed in an interview with the New Republic, University of Nebraska professor and criminal justice reform expert Samuel Walker explains one project these associations have successfully implemented: Law Enforcement Officers Bills of Rights. These are contract prescriptions “negotiated in the shadows” and codified into state law, and include investigative waiting periods, a stipulation that lacks “any evidentiary justification or legitimate labor interest.” With related aims of blocking efforts to install body cameras, as was recently attempted in Boston before a judge struck down the patrolman union’s request for an injunction against the cameras, police associations are incompatible with even the most broadly defined social-justice unionism.

V.

No union is perfect. To varying degrees, all our unions are run by bureaucrats with split interests. While these officials are concerned with furthering the power of their membership, they also maneuver to hold onto their positions within the union, which can lead them to weaken members’ power. When this happens — like when SEIU fires their staff organizers for daring to demand a union of their own, or when the Teamsters undercut the UFW’s organizing, or when the UAW yet again files for an election prematurely — we shouldn’t shy away from criticizing them.

But police unions will never rise to the level required for even this critical support from the Left. They cannot, for they function to repress working-class power.

The biggest objection to this argument is that criticism of police unions can be applied to other public-sector workers, such as teachers. Where this response fails is in grappling with the fact that teachers are already under attack, and that any and every argument against their unions is already in play right now.

We can return to Cedric Johnson’s article on police unions for an example of this objection. He writes, “like other public workers, [police] are increasingly expendable, and subject to the same pressures of fiscal austerity, expected to ‘do more with less’ especially in large urban jurisdictions.” However, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. The police aren’t suffering from austerity measures; rather, they’re more empowered than ever, particularly when it comes to their budgets for equipment, with many departments enjoying unprecedented military hand-me-downs.

What goes unconsidered by those who share Johnson’s concerns is the possibility that police occupy a structurally distinct role from their brothers and sisters in public-sector unions. But if we look at the ongoing backlash against public-sector workers, police aren’t subject to the same pressure as their peers.

Take Scott Walker’s historic attack on unions in 2011. His anti-union bill — which struck down collective-bargaining rights for public employees — included an exception for the police.

This did not go unnoticed within the house of labor. In 2015, UAW Local 2685, representing 13,000 graduate workers on University of California campuses, unanimously passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the IUPA, the AFL-CIO’s largest police union.

“Historically and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of the police as laborers,” the resolution reads. It continues, “If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything, it’s that cops are different than other public-sector employees.”

This complements resolutions from the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions also passed in 2015 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and for the demilitarizing and disarming of campus police. These resolutions commit their supporters to pursuing strategies to strengthen the Black Lives Matter movement and disarm campus police.

Or consider the recent actions of teachers in Minneapolis. Gathered in the city for the AFT convention in 2016, the local teachers unions led a march to protest the police killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Castile, who worked at a public school, was a member of Teamsters Local 320, a local that also represents law enforcement officers. Although the Teamsters wrote a letter mourning Castile’s death, the presidents of the St. Paul and Minneapolis police unions were “appalled” by the demonstration, suggesting the extent to which police organizations cannot resolve the contradictions at the heart of their involvement with the labor movement.

Within the anti-police-brutality movement, we see a similar distinction between solidarity with unions and rejection of alliance with police “unions” being made. July 2016 saw a coordinated set of demonstrations and sit-ins at FOP and PBA halls in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. by activists associated with the Movement for Black Lives.

Interviewed about these actions, Clarise McCants, an organizer with the Black Youth Project (BYP100), explained, “We’re definitely pro-labor union,” adding that the coalition’s message is “that the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) is not just like any union. They are a fraternity — and they are the most dangerous fraternity in America.” If McCants can distinguish between the function of the FOP and that of unions, rejecting their surface-level similarity, there’s no reason the rest of the Left can’t do the same. Protests like these should be supported by the labor movement, with organizations like BYP100 welcomed into its fold: after all, they’re composed overwhelmingly of workers, and particularly, workers of color.

What organizers like McCants are voicing is not a contradiction — although they recognize that some might see it that way — so much as Fletcher and Gapasin’s definition of a leftist unionism. From a perspective that states that we’re not fighting for unions as such, but for unions in so far as they’re a proxy for greater working-class power, there is no inconsistency in rejecting police unionism.

Police are not like other workers. It wouldn’t be misplaced to claim they are not workers, period, but rather, managers of class struggle. They belong outside the labor movement, which is where we already find them in instances of increased waves of struggle, repressing anti-racist activists, the Occupy-Wall-Street movement, Standing Rock water defenders, and anyone else who dares demand their rights.

VI.

Let’s not condescend to our boys in blue: very few of their organizations call themselves unions, and neither should we. An argument against engaging with police organizations can be incorporated to weaken other public-sector unions only if we don’t insist on the distinction between the two.

No one wants to shrink an already imperiled labor movement. But allowing police to remain present within the AFL-CIO, or to masquerade as if their fraternities or associations are progressive forces, discourages union growth. We shouldn’t hesitate on this point. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in America, and African-Americans are emerging as the new face of organized labor. It would be a dismissal of the seriousness of racist police brutality to ignore the message it sends people of color to treat the police as legitimate partners in working-class struggle.

Racial justice has always been the leading edge of effective unions — whether it was the IWW’s multiracial organizing in the early years of the labor movement or the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which fought both for union gains against the employer and against the racism of their white union brothers and sisters. In the face of a vibrant anti-racist movement today, one that consciously connects itself to the Fight for $15 and defines itself as pro-union, we should draw on and extend this legacy.

An anti-racist labor movement requires an end to collaboration with the police, and the police offer a critical example of what we on the Left mean when we say we’re pro-union. The beginnings of this conversation are visible in the actions of UAW Local 2685 and Minneapolis teachers, and it’s from these progressive elements within the labor movement that we should take our cues. In an age where company unions are taking advantage of the dearth of nuanced conversations about power to repress worker organizing, we must stop automatically defending any organization that presents itself as a union, and instead, begin rebuilding the power of the working class, as a class.

The First Week

I feel like I’ve hardly had time to breathe this week. I don’t even get out of bed sometimes: upon waking, I open my laptop and start responding to emails, DMs, slack channels, facebook messenger. The sun goes up and then down again as I sit, hunched, glued to the screen.

Just in my tiny slice of the world, Trump’s impact is already being felt. Unions are pulling out of organizing campaigns. Colleagues who have been helping organize our union may be stuck in Iran. Friends are losing their jobs, their research funding, their confidence that any of our work matters.
 
And they’re right to be afraid! It’s scary to imagine the damage this administration will inflict in lives lost, progress undone, bonds of solidarity disentangled. Yet if we give up, the disasters will only multiply.
 
As for how Trump is impacting our movements, I can only speak about labor. In the face of will be a multi-pronged attack – mass privatizations, federal right-to-work laws, and the loss of the NLRB – what’s becoming clear is how little leadership union “leaders” offer us. In the face of attacks the likes of which we haven’t seen in nearly a century, leaders are huddling together, turning inward when we need precisely the opposite.

So, what does that mean for the grassroots? It means that at the end of the day, we only have each other and the camaraderie and strength we’ve built as workers to think on our feet even as institutions and laws dissolve around us. If unions care about the labor movement, they’ll transfer organizing skills as quickly as possible to workers, they’ll admit new ways of thinking into their ranks. And if not? Well, we’ve been here before, before we built unions and pushed for legal protections and all the rest; we can do it again.
 
I’m confident the same can be said for the feminist movement, the anti-police brutality movement, the environmental movement, and every other social movement that’s been under siege this week. Established institutions, be they the Democratic Party, unions, or non-profits, will try to accommodate the new administration as best they can, throwing those of us who can’t fit into the administration’s deeply limited bounds of acceptability under the bus. And we’ll have to be distinct from these backroom deals: more mobilized than ever, more democratic than ever, if we actually want to build a resistance that can force concessions and reversals from this administration. We’ll have to welcome in the flood of people who want to fight the agenda on offer because after all, the only way any of us learned anything was through struggle, so we can’t expect the thousands flooding into our movements to be any different.

No matter what those at the top do – and all indications that the Democrats are the worst of the worst when it comes to spineless collaboration with the right – we can’t forget that we, the people on the ground and in the street and the workplace and the clinic, are the ones who built each and every worthwhile institution in this country. We forced labor protections into law. We created underground abortion networks until we freed up enough room for above ground clinics to operate. We welcomed refugees with open arms.

It’s scary to consider how much today feels like what I hoped was a long-gone era of reaction. But now more than ever, we need to remember our history. When it comes to everything Trump and his ghastly bands of ghouls are hellbent on destroying, we built it all in the first place. If need be, we can build it back up again. That may not be the sexiest message on offer, but it’s the truth.

The Boston Globe Defends the Harvard Administration’s Class War

globes

Three writers at the Boston Globe signed their name to an article that ran in Tuesday’s edition of the paper, coinciding with the start of a strike by the dining hall workers at Harvard University, represented by UNITE HERE Local 26. The headline reads, “Harvard strike could be seen as a battle against the 1 percent. It’s not.”

It is. These writers don’t substantiate this argument in the body of the piece. Because they can’t. Harvard University is one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the Boston area, the United States, and the world. The authors even do the math for us, writing “Harvard’s $35.7 billion endowment is bigger than the economies of nearly 100 countries.”

That’s right: Harvard’s endowment is big enough to give it the economic power of a major player in the global economy, and that’s without accounting for the social and political elites who would hold citizenship in such a gold-plated country, with alumni status presumably the passport needed for entry. One-percenter status – no, 0.01% status – has never been so obvious.

Rather than dispute this, the authors focus on the conditions of the dining hall workers who are striking for better compensation and working conditions. Citing arguments put forward by the university administration – the boss in this labor dispute – they note that “its average dining hall worker makes nearly $22 an hour,” translating to $30,000 per year.

As one of their demands, the workers are arguing that any worker able to work year-round deserves $35,000 a year (again, this is at an institution with a $36 billion endowment).

This demand is excessive in the eyes of our dear frugal journalists.

Never mind that Vaccaro and Woolhouse, the first two names on the byline, regularly write for the Business section of the Globe, making it hard to believe they don’t make more than $30k a year. While Yoo, the third name on the article, appears to be a co-op student, her LinkedIn shows an impressive array of prestigious internship, including her current one at the Globe, suggesting she’ll also wind up making above $30k a year straight out of college.

But bringing up such vulgar details about the article’s writers is rude. “It’s beside the point to mention what Globe staff make!” we can imagine the editors crying indignantly, “This is about dining hall workers!” they insist.

So what if we know how hard it is to live in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country, on $30,000 a year, much less raise a family on that. “These are unskilled workers, they’re supposed to suffer!” respond the authors. “It’s the way of the world! Fuck ’em!”

At least, that’s what the Globe means to say. But a newspaper doesn’t achieve its status as the Paper of Record in the city by writing so crudely – that’s for the Herald, not the well-mannered diplomats of the Globe. Just as Harvard accrued its $36 billion endowment by exploiting the labor of first, slaves, then low-wage workers like those on strike today, so the Globe maintains its status by legitimizing such exploitation, and insisting those at the bottom thank the bosses for whatever crumbs they receive.

People can’t live on crumbs, especially not in this city. Dining hall workers need more than that, and eventually, we – working class people in this city – are coming for the whole fucking endowment. Support the striking workers, and argue with, isolate, and ridicule anyone who advocates anything less.

Real Jobs

I got a real job.”

Having been out of the country for much of the summer, my friend’s roommate E said this in response to my empty “And what have you been up to?” offered to him upon my stopping at their house not long after I returned to Boston. He said it with the self-deprecating tone so necessary for us 20-somethings to preemptively defend ourselves from judgment about our poverty, so I paused to decide how to respond, then gave up and just laughed nervously. He’s more of an acquaintance than a friend, so to try to break down the assumptions of the unbearably annoying phrase ‘real job’ probably wouldn’t have been the best way to handle small talk.

The way ‘real job’ is used to distinguish from presumably ‘fake’ jobs is by referring to a never-explicitly-defined set of material and ideological markers: real jobs have salaries, have college majors relevant to them, involve computers, offices, button up shirts. But also, they have intellectual weight, challenge, provide subject fodder for a first date: in this sense, having a real job means you have thoughts and capabilities deemed desirable commodities to some opaque employer, the identity of whom is relatively unimportant compared to their willingness to give you this feeling of self-worth.

However, when E used it, he was distinguishing between under-the-table work he’d been doing when I left the country, and a coffee shop job he’d gained while I was away. This was unusual, in part because the rhetoric of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ jobs pervades the conversation of college graduates, a demographic often unlikely to acknowledge even the existence of jobs such as E’s ‘fake’ job. For them, being a barista is also a fake (imagined to be temporary) job.

The dissonance in E’s use of the phrase versus how I generally hear it used stuck with me long after our conversation ended. What’s in a ‘real’ job? Why do we, a generation with more college degrees and debt but less material security than those who came before us, feel compelled to further devalue our work, judging it by standards alien to our lives? Clearly, the implied standard if not actual rhetoric of a ‘real’ job is handed-down, our parents speaking through us, foisting mid-20th century golden age expectations onto our sagging shoulders.

This was certainly the case for me. Graduating top of my class from a major private university, I spent weeks sending off resumes for ‘real’ jobs. Having studied the (horribly reactionary) field of international relations, this meant jobs at think tanks, non-profits, policy journals. After waiting weeks, and then months, I had to admit to myself a glaringly obvious fact: I had no relevant experience for these jobs, which fit into the laugh-to-keep-from-crying category of the entry level job that requires years of experience. Presumably the way out of this Escherian-loop is an unpaid internship, a job category that desperately contradicts historical sociological research on what counts as a good job and what doesn’t, demanding unpaid labor in return for a ‘real,’ (read: interesting, creative, or exciting to tell someone else about) job, while serving to shore up class reproduction by separating those whose parents can fund them through months without a paycheck from those whose parents can’t. As a member of the latter group, I eventually acknowledged defeat and took a job in a cafe where my friend worked and could thus recommend me for an interview (because in a place like Boston, even the honor of pulling espresso shots often requires an ‘in’ of some sort).

It’s worth noting here the deeply gendered and racialized assumptions underlying ‘real’ vs ‘fake’ jobs. From what I’ve seen, this rhetoric of ‘real vs fake’ is overwhelmingly found coming from the college educated middle and upper class, dependent as it is upon a distancing of one’s (usually white) self from unworthy (black and brown) work. A real job instead enables you to be tended to by PoC who disproportionately populate the world of menial service work and physical labor. Here, I don’t mean the sorts of ‘fake’ jobs I’ve held, although those undoubtedly fall into the category of embarrassingly ‘not-real’ jobs too, but on the basis of their gendered rather than racialized logic. Indeed, the reason I can’t include ‘front of the house’ jobs here is because they consist of disproportionately white, rather than PoC, workers. This is because these sectors often discriminate based on appearance and social capital, hiring desirable ‘personalities’ that just so happen to be overwhelmingly normatively attractive white people (and from what I can tell, the dearth of studies on discrimination against fat, and particularly fat women, applicants in the high-end service sector, is a remarkable blindspot in research). I mean work in the fast food industry, domestic services, janitorial, and security work. The kind of labor done behind the scenes, in the dark, or at the least, with little conversation between worker and customer or client.

Similarly, the gendered implications of the term are striking: fake jobs are those that rely on emotional labor, requiring your smile, your ability to care or clean, your personality, your ‘presence’ (whatever this means); in short, your womanly body rather than your mind, a logic distinct from but deeply entangled with the racial discrimination detailed above. During the Keynesian era of a family wage, in which a husband was expected to provide for his family (an expectation by no means always fulfilled), these jobs were host to women entering the workforce supposedly to make side money, ease their boredom at home, or whatever other I Love Lucy style ideology might have been developed at the time to deny that women were working because they needed to for a variety of reasons. This allowed employers to offer wages far below what one would need to support oneself, not to mention a family. However, since the 2008 recession, these industries have grown at higher rates than just about any other in the United States, with men pouring into these gendered workplaces. Thanks to the lingering effects of the identification of service work as women’s work, pay in these sectors continues to be astonishingly low for workers of every gender, one example of the long-term negative repercussions gender inequality has on men in addition to women.

As for me, having gone into tens of thousands of dollars of debt in the hopes of developing my mind, after college, my body remained my most valuable attribute on the job market, a situation that, to delve into an aside, makes it incredibly difficult to gain redress for sexual harassment in these sectors: I’m not proud to admit that I left rather than fought against this problem at two separate ‘fake’ jobs I held. At the first, I let my manager (a young, Zooey Deschanel-looking white 20-something herself) know that one of the regulars refused to leave me alone on my precious fifteen minute break. She responded by telling me that she, too, had a customer who harassed her, and in fact, next time he was in she’d point him out to me, so that I wouldn’t tell him where she was if he asked after her (because, she confided, she hid in the kitchen whenever he was around). At the second, I had been hired as a hostess, but within hours of my first shift, a bartender had gotten aggressive enough in his harassment to prompt me to talk to the manager who had hired me. As soon as I stopped describing the bartender’s constant complimenting of my appearance, this manager responded without hesitation, “Well, that’s why we hired you. What you’re describing comes with the culture of restaurants.” While I was without a penny in my bank account at the time, I walked out the door in the middle of my shift, too frustrated to bother ever even demanding the twenty-or-so dollars I’d earned before quitting.

So, while I’d only ever had jobs like these, in restaurants and cafes, I’d always had the excuse of being in school, on my way to a real job. Now, post-B.A., I was simply an adult, commuting across the city to prepare Instagram-worthy latte foam for the moneyed customers to whom we catered. After a year of this, I decided to enter a PhD program, having realized I couldn’t produce the intellectual and political work I had hoped to do for free outside of the 35 hours a week of mind-numbing service work. As brilliantly detailed here, there’s a lot of animosity toward graduate students for being self-indulgent, going into a field with few future prospects for stability, with this blame assuming an opportunity cost forfeited for the sake of our wanting to pursue intellectually gratifying careers. For myself and many others lucky enough to have the option of entering a funded graduate program however, that simply is not how our employment prospects look today. I forfeited what I call a “standing up job” for my first “sitting down job” (a half-joke that fails to amuse some of my fellow graduate students, possibly because they did have white-collar work before choosing to enter a doctoral program, a path more in line with the picture sketched out by said critics of grad students). I forfeited nothing but the pastries I stole every day from work.

As a doctoral student, I make about the same as I did at restaurants and cafes. I don’t have a paycheck for nearly five months of the year. Paid vacation doesn’t apply. I’m not in a union, and have little recourse if I’m worked more hours than my financial package states I should be working. And yet, people around me consider it a ‘real’ job. Proof that I’m special, that my brain has value because the market says so, that I’m doing something worthwhile with myself (as if publishing in paywalled academic journals should count as ‘worthwhile’ in any morally-infused sense of the word). When I tell fellow ‘real’ job friends (those who work as non-profit employees, computer programmers, or journalists, to name a few) that I’m too busy to grab a beer, they respond with understanding, “been there,” “take it easy,” “don’t work too hard” texts, their sympathy flooding into my phone. And yet, as was painstakingly detailed in the recent New York Times article on the work-til-you-drop culture of white-collar Amazon employees or via a cursory glance at the rates of depression reported by graduate students, ‘real’ jobs do not make a person whole. They don’t make a person better, more secure, or less anxiety-ridden. In addition, if Amazon workers are putting in the number of hours detailed in that article, they’re making about the same hourly wage as I did at the coffee shop.

Rather than continuing to distance ourselves from what we might see as ‘old-style’ working class, low-wage work, a distancing we remarkably continue to enact even when we in fact do work in these ‘fake’ jobs, it’s time we let go of the belief in a distinction between real and fake jobs. We’re long overdue in agreeing that every job we’ll ever have is real in that it will take up most of our day-to-day reality, and if it sucks, we can’t daydream or cynically joke our way out of that present into some unlikely future described by our parents or depicted in old films. Working from home, bed, or a college (or Amazon) campus doesn’t mean we’re any less likely to be pushed to be faster, more innovative, and harder on ourselves than a McDonald’s worker manning the burgers. If we stop dismissing the work that we or the people around us are doing as ‘fake,’ we may begin to conclude that the only way to make any work endurable in the long run is by admitting it impacts our quality of life and then trying to improve the terms of contract. By this point, it should be sufficiently obvious that ‘real’ jobs don’t even stand up to their own vaguely constructed distinctions from those we deem ‘fake,’ so why don’t we collapse the difference by instead making sure that jobs, full stop, provide as many material benefits as we can possibly wrest from our bosses. If we manage this type of progress, we might just be able to again define our jobs as simply “good” in the sense found in the sociological literature on the subject, which so quaintly defines a good job as not just personally or socially fulfilling, but also as necessarily providing a living wage and benefits. How cute and old fashioned.