Plus ça change…

Last week I found and was enthralled by Willie Osterweil’s piece at TNI on “mystery shoppers.”  The basic idea:

Mystery shoppers spy in retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, banks, hospitals, bars, supermarkets, churches, doctors’ offices, public transit systems, gas stations, mechanics shops, gyms, funeral homes, universities — in short, anywhere the public is treated as a “customer.” Marketing firms hire “mystery worshippers” who pose as first-time congregants to evaluate church cleanliness, friendliness, and godliness. Mentally healthy people complain to psychiatrists of fake symptoms while carefully comparing the doctor’s behavior against a checklist. Last summer, a congressional scuffle over the federal government’s plan to send out elderly mystery patients made headlines, and while the measure ultimately failed, the U.S. has helped Pakistan deploy mystery shoppers in order to combat tax evasion.

The firms who hire these shoppers use their follow-up reports to assess the performance of employees or client companies, making sure they’re doing their jobs exactly as they’re supposed to.  What these firms do with this information varies: some use it to create incentive programs to encourage better performance, and others use it as grounds for firing low-performing employees.  But there’s not really any data about exactly how these data are put to use by mystery shopping companies.

The overall effect this has, as Osterweil astutely notes, is to increase general feelings of surveillance and paranoia in a way that ruins class solidarity, dividing working-class individuals (often women) against working-class people in the service sector. This passage sums up his point well and is probably my favorite of the piece:

Producing identification with the bosses; smashing labor; and making solidarity difficult through contract labor, precarity, and remote working are key features of neoliberal workplace organization. But central to this vision, too, is workplace surveillance. Jay Gould, ninth richest man in American history, railroad speculator, and widely despised robber baron, famously remarked upon the hiring of strikebreakers, “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.” Neoliberalism allows for the return of the robber barons by producing the technologies and techniques to replace Gould’s “kill” with “watch.” Heightened workplace surveillance helps build a workplace where no time is wasted, where all effort is put directly into the production of the bosses’ product. But it transforms more than just the bottom line.

It’s this that really drives home the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Capital has always had the means to pay off strike-breakers, fake protestors, and others to secure their interests on the ground.  Solidarity and large-scale coordinated action by labor is hard enough on its own, and when capital actively works to dissolve these alliances, it can seem almost impossible.  I hear that the most difficult thing about labor organizing is building solidarity that’s so strong it can, at times, overcome that sense of fear and paranoia.  Mystery shopping is one of many practices that both spoils the quality of service workers’ lives and makes labor organizing more difficult.

In that vein, I want to recommend three good pieces I’ve read lately:

(1) Corey Robin’s Challenge to the Left, which alerts left-leaning intellectuals to the enormous difficulties of organizing;

(2) A response to Robin’s piece by Jay Driskell, which puts some meat on his observations;

(3) This post by Doug Henwood on the recent recall election in Wisconsin, the end of which argues that once a strong labor movement is on its feet, its primary goal should not be better contracts in the workplace (though these are important) but increased public benefits, provided by the state, that benefit everyone.

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