my first capitalist workplace

Experiencing positive discrimination at work.

This is the first of a pair of autobiographics heavy pieces, dealing some things I’ve been processing for a while. I started writing prompted by reading this article by Kevin of Platform, which gets into the practicalities of compensating for positive discrimination as a male in meetings. I haven’t got to writing practical strategies yet, but this is a pair of bits of writing to pin down some of my experiences of socio/educational class at work.

Part One – my first capitalist workplace. 

There are things about my childhood and background which are still becoming visible to me today, but this goes back a few year to when I went into my first capitalist workplace aged 18, with a batch of A grade A levels, a deferred place at Oxbridge, and a need to save up money to fulfil my plan of going travelling for a few months. Previously I’d only had casual jobs, as a student teacher at a music club, strawbale hefting & babysitting for friends. It took a couple of months, applying to retail, call-centre and care-work until I ended up working minimum wage, 9 – 5.30, Monday to Friday, in the provisions –aka  section of a family run small department store. It was a formative experience of class and capitalism, as I’d previously lived in a comparatively insulated middle class bubble. When I’d come up against Marx in A2 philosophy, it was interesting, I agreed with it, but I didn’t apply it to my personal experience of the world. 

There was a good batch of characters in that corner of the shop. There was Tom*, a kind old man, with the gift of the gab. I didn’t notice until a couple of weeks in, once he’d cycled through all his trademarl pearls of wisdom a couple of times that he wasn’t saying anything that he hadn’t said before. He seemed cheery. Then his wife left him, and the hollowness showed. The ambitious young line manager, Dan*, had a bantering relationship with the middle-aged and run-down Mary* who he’d known since he was a boy. Banter tinged with the power relation of hire/fire. Mary hated her job. She was humiliated by Dan regularly, and was unnecessarily rushed as she restocked the fridge. The big boss was a gruff, pompous man with a silver sporty car. His son was a prosperous, well fleshed 30-something with a well-groomed wife, and ran the wines section, more mellow and amenable than his dad, but purely by dint of age. His daughter, however, was considerate and genuinely friendly with workers. She seemed distanced from her father, and word was she’d been disowned by him when she first came out as a lesbian probably helped. She shared being oppressed by the old man with the employees – if not in the same way. The old boss also liked to talk to me – in particular relishing telling me about the Blues (oxford v cambridge) rugby. I couldn’t care less, and let him know. One conversation I pointed out, when he asked if I’d come back in holidays, that he paid low. ‘You’d be lucky to get more [than minimum wage] when you’re not staying in a job,’ he scoffed, somewhat affronted, but amused, to have it said to his face on the shop-floor, and let me know how people had been thankful for any work they could get in the 80s. He was, literally, the capitalist boss personified. The opposition of class interest between him, and the workers was starkly visible. Mary was the oppressed worker that the boss literally did not give a shit about in terms of wellbeing. Dan was the upward aspiring up-by-the-bootstraps self-centred middle manager. 

There were a bunch of incidents which brought out my awareness of my own class positioning, as well as the exploitative and oppressive nature of the capitalist structure of the business. The boss’s chattiness with me was one. He was almost justifying himself to me, the dynamic of me as lowly employee crosswired with me as a representation of academic middle class which he, as business-wealth, had grown up sometimes struggling to be recognised within. This is an insight I gained from my ex-piano teacher, who was plugged into the private school grapevine – rumour had it that the school had installed speedbumps just for him.

 Our customer base was posh old people, and old people without cars. One old lady requested half a pound of ham, thick sliced (she was clever, and didn’t want the ham that was already out on the tray) each Wednesday. One time I served her, and she asked me if I was going to university. I said ‘yes’, and she promptly asked where, and on hearing that it was an Oxbridge responded ‘See! I knew you weren’t really the sort to be working here’ – as a co-worker was walking past. I was angry at her, but, in service mode, could only reply mildly.

Then there was a lad who I’d sat with and got on with in my psychology classes, a cute stoner type who wore a tea-cosy for a hat, and never had paper or pens. I bumped into him on the street, and he mentioned he’d applied for the job, and commented “I’d have employed you rather than me”. We laughed, him certainly having taken pride in his laziness at college, but me being uncertain if it’d make it better or worse if I talked about how shit job he’d missed was. While I’d been in education, although I’d been aware of differences in material circumstances, I’d rarely looked beyond the subcultural identity which identified my friends and classmates. I went to a private school 11-16, where there was, of course, an absence of working class folk. I was at the low income end of that school, which identified as ‘less posh’ than some other schools. It was full of liberal lefties rather than tories. But in this school, rebellious attitudes, or doing less well at school were not class-based. So I had not read them that way at 6th form either, so suddenly recognising that a classmate had not got the same opportunities and prospects as I had, and that they hadn’t started from the same position as me, was a moment for me. The one when I began to be disgusted by the fact that my friends, including me, had used the word ‘chav’ as an insult at the same time as having the same lack of class awareness as I had had.  

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