Monday, February 4, 2013

No Jobs, No Masters

"Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not... fuck with us.” 

The board members of HMV Group might be now wishing they hadn’t stocked so many Fight Club DVDs now. The massive UK entertainment retailer -- specializing in music, film, video games and other entertainment -- rang in the new year by running aground, with its British stores going into administration and its Irish locations shuttering entirely on January 15th.

Next day, retail workers at two of the Limerick, Ireland locations staged a sit-in. They refused to leave until they were given unpaid wages, including holiday pay and redundancy, which Deloitte professional services (who were handling the company’s assets) refused to release. As news spread of the occupation, and even spread to another location in Cork, messages of support were sent to the laid off protesters. Mainstream media began to pick up on it too. 

Speaking with Trade Union TV in Ireland, HMV worker Brian Fitzgerald said “we were last paid on the 21st of December, so tomorrow will be four weeks exactly since we got paid. We worked those days; we worked hard over Christmas. We deserve our money, and that’s why we’re here.”

This could have obviously been a disaster for a company already desperately clinging to whatever good face it might have left. And so, within a couple days, all laid off workers were paid their wages. Occupation over, end of story, right?

Wrong. Fast forward two weeks to January 31st. When HMV, now under the control of buyer Hilco, announced that it would be laying off another 190 workers in Britain, one disgruntled “intern” took to the company’s official Twitter account to let the world know that they too were getting the axe.

“There are over 60 of us being fired at once,” said one of the rogue Tweets. “Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand.” Another pointed out that the official HMV Twitter account had itself been set up by an unpaid intern, which is apparently illegal under British law. My personal favorite is this one: "Just overheard our Marketing Director (he's staying, folks) ask 'How do I shut down Twitter?'" Pity the marketing director who doesn’t update his social media passwords.
These rebellions, insignificant to the cynic, reveal something much broader that is taking place right now. It wasn’t Fight Club that inspired these workers’ refusal to just take it lying down. Rather, it’s a rebellious mood that has been percolating for some time and may very well be on the verge of boiling over. Says Richard Seymour, writing for the Guardian:
These scattered rebellions by HMV workers stand in a venerable tradition. When workers were threatened with redundancy at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, workers occupied and won a series of demands. When Ford Visteon workers [in the UK] were unceremoniously sacked, they occupied production plants and called for solidarity.

Likewise, the watchword of Occupy has remained on young people’s brains even as the movement itself has faded. The step that many are grappling with is how to bring it back to the workplace.

There's another layer though. HMV has long been a presence in the UK's cultural face. Its iconic logo of the little puppy listening to "His Master's Voice" on the gramophone just about says it all: thatourmusic and movies come to us through some mystified stratosphere of talent. Harsh, mundane ideas like "labor" don't factor in here.

This mask has always been shakily worn on the culture industry. It’s popped off frequently -- whenever screenwriters or orchestras have gone on strike. Where it hasn’t happened in that same industry is in the realm of distribution and retail. The irony of course is that the very people who stock the shelves with our favorite CDs, DVDs and books are the ones with whom we have the most interaction.

Like “associates” at Wal-Mart or burger flippers at McDonald’s, these people are the “visible invisibles,” the glaring truth that stares us in the face amidst a cacophony of lies about the West being one massive middle class. 

When Tower Records went belly up in the winter of 2006 we were treated to endless moaning about what a dark day this was for music, how Tower’s “deep catalog” was falling victim to internet downloading. Little was said about the folks who actually made that deep catalog possible in the final sense, who rang up our Bloc Party CDs and Jurassic 5 posters and struggled to make ends meet.

All that was before the crash of 2008, before Republic Windows and Doors, before Tahrir and Syntagma and Zuccotti. The workers at HMV made damned sure they were heard. For as fleeting as their resistance has been, it’s also a reminder of a magnificently dangerous reality: that nothing in this world moves without us.

First published at Red Wedge magazine

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