Serfs Up!

March 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

We are a nation that has never come to terms with the fact that our lives and our ways of being were built on slavery and genocide. We don’t want to admit how much our lifestyles depend on women’s unpaid labor. We don’t want to think about the goods we import and the lives we destroy through trade.

It is too big and too hard to think about these things all the time. And it is so easy to fall into the trap of shame. Eating chocolate has connections to slavery in the Ivory Coast. Wearing clothes connects us to the human and environmental catastrophe that is the global garment trade. Some of us try to buy ethical goods – handmade, fair trade. Some of us are too poor to afford the added expense of organic meat and wheat and cotton. Some of us self-righteously proclaim that we live on discards, as if that solves structural problems.

And all these products and grievances, these oppressions we commit and then erase from memory, make us vulnerable. If we cannot admit that our own often unintentional exploitations are wrong, then we cannot fight the big exploiters when they come for us.

What the exploiters want is to make us totally subject to our employers. Serfs, basically. Drug tests, cell phones, 24-7 on-call employees are just the beginning. When we lose the right to bargain collectively, we lose the right to demand safe workplaces, lunch breaks, and bathroom breaks.

We cannot – as individuals with our individual lives and loves and grievances, our petty hurts and deep wounds, our holidays and gadgets – we cannot solve structural problems biographically.

The history of the labor movement in this country is in part a history of racism and corruption, a history that excludes much of the work performed by women. It’s a history of bargaining on the back of the other poor slob who’s just thismuch poorer than you.


In Wisconsin historically female professions (teachers and nurses) are targets of union-busting while historically male professions (cops and firefighters) are not. The idea is to play the groups off each other. But no one seems to be falling for that shit. Private union workers have shown up in droves to support public ones. Today, amidst all the bad news, firefighters started withdrawing money and closing accounts in the bank that supported Governor Scott Walker.

These seem like small things, but they speak to a collective memory and a deep understanding of the history of labor in the U.S. This is why I am hopeful in the face of anti-union bills and laws in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and now in Rhode Island.

Well that and the fucking masses of people who keep on showing up in protest. Individuals are making decisions to become part of a collective movement. It is not centralized. It is not run from the top. And it shows every sign of remaining united. People are aware that they’re taking part in history, making history.

Can we win?

Oh hell yes.


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§ 2 Responses to Serfs Up!

  • Karen says:

    Beautiful. Reminds me of “One Dimensional Man” by Marcuse and Horkheimer and Adorno. Or even C.W. Mills’s “The Power Elite.” All three of those works were published before 1965 and what you wrote sounds as if it came straight from those guys (in a good, present-day, pertinent way).

  • Jen Blair says:

    I am sadly deficient in the Frankfurt School, but I think we absorb that stuff secondhand. These works are things I’ve always intended to read but still haven’t.

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