This is chapter Fifteen of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. In its fifteenth chapter Leslie Zinn discusses media makeovers.
Anton Rocker discusses minimum wage and workplace organizing.
Anton Rocker, born in 1987, you were a student of linguistics and cognitive science and a prolific writer who focussed on workplace attitudes and roles and played an important part in shaping RPS workplace program and activism. You also became a Secretary of Labor for the RPS shadow government. It is hard to see how studying linguistics would have led to your workplace focus and revolutionary career. Do you remember what happened?
Sure. As you perhaps know, linguistic theory is very much beholden to Noam Chomsky’s work. The guy had two lives. In one, he was this world class scientist in linguistics and cognitive science. You would read his linguistics and there would be no obscure verbiage, just clear logic and lots of evidence focussed on fundamental matters.
So one evening over a beer I was chatting with a workmate on a first date, and the fellow asked about my studies. He said he had read a lot of Chomsky, too, but he was referring to Chomsky’s other incarnation as a prolific and unrelentingly radical critic of contemporary relations.
Not long thereafter I got sick and went online looking for something to read while I was bedridden. I remember I got a new Grisham legal thriller, but also decided to try one of Chomsky’s political books – and that was it. I was not just impressed, but opened up so fully that in the following months my way of viewing the world transformed. By way of Chomsky, I came across other radicals writing about economic and social life, Albert, Hahnel, Shalom, Roy, Pilger, Klein, Fletcher, Ehrenreich. Before long, I had revolutionary beliefs, book learned, but heartfelt.
I have been asking folks to recount some event from the early days of RPS that particularly inspired them. Would you please do that too?
Like most who have been in RPS all along, I was moved greatly by the first conventions. The 2024 campaign for balanced jobs was also very important for me, as was later working in the Shadow Government.
But I also remember one unusual, purely personal experience. It was before the first convention, at the time of the major Wall Street March.
I took a cab to get to the march from the airport and got in a discussion with my driver. We talked about politics and the Trump fiasco and he was very angry with Trump. I asked him if he thought we would ever have a President who sincerely served the interests of working people rather than merely making believe he would do so to capture votes.
The cab driver said no, not really. We might have a president, maybe even not far off, who was sincere rather than consciously lying, but it wouldn’t matter too much. Such a president would not understand the actual plight of working people. Even if she sincerely tried, she would fall short of representing workers.
So I asked, what about if we had an actual worker win as President, someone without polish, but not a rich bully like Trump? What if we elected, a real working class person with working class values and agenda?
He said it wouldn’t happen. No one like that could rise into media visibility, and, in any case, such a person wouldn’t win. Why, I wondered? Because workers, he said, would never vote for another worker as President. They, and he included himself, would assume a worker just wouldn’t be able to do the job.
I was shook by this. So depressing, so wrong about the potential of a working person, but so right, sadly, about the history we had long endured. I knew then that for RPS to attain its goals we had to overcome this self deprecation in people’s minds and hearts. Doing that molded my priorities.
What were the early workplace involvements of RPS folks?
We first tackled the minimum wage. The focus had come from an earlier range of dissent that had been called Occupy Wall Street, but had addressed many financial centers around the world. The minimum wage focus had escalated with low-income service workers in the fast food industry who fought with considerable success. Next came more general campaigns for an increased minimum wage for public service workers, and then for all workers. During the Sanders/Clinton campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, minimum wage efforts got national prominence. Trump’s victory was a major setback, shifting focus to blocking his policies, for example blocking proposed statewide reductions of minimum wages, but by the time of our first convention, the fight for a higher minimum wage was entrenched and it was obvious RPS would support it. The only issue was could RPS bring anything new to the campaign, or would we just throw in our energies too.
The second economic impetus was about the duration of work. In the half century from 1955 to 2005, productivity per worker had soared. That meant by 2005 output per capita was almost precisely double what it had been in 1955. Yet, work duration had also gone up dramatically. After fifty years, people had less vacation time, longer work weeks, and many more people had to hold two jobs, though others suffered from having no job at all.
With the benefits of all that productivity going overwhelmingly to the wealthiest 20% – and even to the top 1% and even 0.1% – inequality horribly enlarged. Likewise, time off work was harshly reduced rather than enlarged, which further reduced quality of life. So what might RPS do about wages. And work time? The thinking at the convention went like this.
To the effort to reduce inequality by raising minimum wages, RPS should add not only our support, but also a new dimension. Why did we seek a higher minimum wage? One theory, then dominant, was the share of social product we each get will inevitably vary with property, power, and output. However, since this dynamic had gotten so exaggerated, society’s lowest wages had to be raised to get us back into an acceptable pattern.
A second view was that the social product we each receive should depend only on how long we work, how hard we work, and how onerous our work is. Because those then getting the least pay also had the least power and no property, and worked longer and under worse conditions, for them to earn a higher minimum wage would move in the right direction.
This change in mindset moved the fight for a higher minimum wage from being a reformist battle that accepted current defining norms to being a fight for a somewhat better position in an ongoing battle over the entire logic of remuneration. We would fight for a higher minimum wage not to win and go home, but to win and fight on.
I remember a fight at the University of Chicago for a higher wage for groundskeepers and custodians. It adopted the RPS approach so the activists didn’t argue that a correct, ethical, economically sound income was some modestly increased amount. No, they asked why are we who work longer hours, in worse conditions, and with more intensity, earning vastly less than faculty, and stupendously less than the President of the University? They fought for immediate gain, but then they fought on for more. They worked to raise basic issues and to develop lasting consciousness at every stage of their efforts. Their organizing emphasized the potentials of low paid workers, not their deprivations. It emphasized the unjust incomes of the most highly paid, not some mystical worthiness.
You said there were two RPS early priorities?
Yes, the second RPS focus was over duration of work. This had a few aspects.
First, it was about reducing the duration of work by winning more vacation time, shorter workdays, and shorter work weeks. Our main demand was to cut back to 30 hours of work per week, though we quickly realized that this wasn’t enough to ensure good results.
If we cut 10 hours off all jobs, incomes that were already too low for 80% of the workforce would become 25% lower per month. Workers would have to work second jobs so that when the dust cleared, we would get back where we started in total income. The more we thought about that, the more we understood that income distribution is mainly about bargaining power, not rates of pay or hours. If we won a change in pay rates or in duration of work, but we didn’t change the balance of power, then once the situation settled, some refinement would be imposed by those with power to gain back whatever they would otherwise have lost. They might raise prices so real income didn’t change, though nominal wages per hour did. Or they might impose multiple jobs per person, or greatly escalate overtime so overall hours didn’t change.
So we demanded 30 hours work for 40 hours pay, plus triple a worker’s usual hourly rate for overtime. But then we realized that this would give a better pay rate per 30 hours not only to those who had low incomes, but also to those with higher incomes. So we modified the demand to be 30 hours work for 40 hours pay for those who were earning less than $70,000 per year, while for those earning more, it would be 30 hours at the old hourly pay rate for the reduced thirty hours or at $70,000 per year, whichever was the higher amount. In that way if you had a high income your total income could drop as much as 25%.
There was another dimension. If everyone who was working before would now work 25% less, could society get by with less product, or, if not, where would the additional product come from? The first part of making up for the lost product was to seek full employment to add labor hours back into the economy and increase worker security and bargaining power as well.
The second part was to note that some reduction of output could be ecologically good and not socially painful if we eliminated useless output. Reduction wouldn’t occur, for example, in legitimate medical care, or in teaching. Cuts would center in military production, redundancy, waste, outrageous luxuries, and excessive advertising.
The point is we kept tweaking our ideas to arrive at a campaign that would win important and lasting gains that could not be whittled away, and that would also create conditions that would propel battles for still more gains.
What obstacles did RPS have to overcome to organize workers around their own workplace conditions and lack of local power?
To maintain their high profits owners must interfere with organizing efforts every way they can. To defend their profits and power they employ the straightjacket of their laws, dogma, and brute force. That, we expected. What surprised us was considerable worker resistance to RPS agendas.
For the battle for wages or conditions, the task of organizing was familiar. You had to hear the desires of people and propose demands to meet those desires. Then you had to find ways to communicate with your fellow workers to overcome their reasonable fears of being penalized for seeking to win change.
For seeking control of work, however, many workers didn’t trust organizers who demanded greater power for workers, thinking it was a trick to elicit more work per hour. Another problem was many workers had imbibed the propaganda that they weren’t smart enough or didn’t know enough to make good decisions. Additionally, sometimes worker’s felt, why should I make decisions about how to maximize profits for the owners? In fact, why should I take any initiative? Doing so will add more hassle to my life, and I won’t get anything for it.
The first step to making progress was to admit that workers had good reason for their doubts. The second step was to reveal the kinds of decisions they might make and the impact it could have. The third step was deeper. We had to discuss the structure of work and why workers didn’t have much knowledge or confidence in the first place, and what could change that.
This last part was the beginning of our battles to create worker assemblies to pursue worker’s self management and challenge the “nothing more is possible” propaganda and the “you are too dumb to manage” propaganda workers had to some degree bought into, as well as to initiate discussions of what new relations a revamped workplace would need if it was to be really worthy and liberating. It took time, but we made steady headway less because we were right, which was true enough, and more because we were good at hearing worker’s fears and carefully showing how to avoid the feared outcomes while winning immediate gains.
How was a connection made among all the efforts and what became most successful in generating support?
I think the key step was the early national campaign for a shorter work week we already talked about. For decades the duration of work by Americans had climbed. Two and three job families had declining family incomes. Workers with unpaid or even paid overtime had declining incomes. Home work entailed lost benefits and longer hours. Yet productivity per hour rose tremendously. Where did the product go? It went to the rich, war, and waste. Did people want to work their lives away to produce ever more opulence for the already opulent, more weapons for murder, and more waste for garbage dumps?
RPS began its campaign for a thirty hour work week. Firms could arrange their thirty hours however they liked, but the thirty hours was an upper limit. Firms could have someone work overtime, but for triple their usual hourly pay rate. You want more work from an individual, you pay for it.
We cut hours spent producing waste, weapons, or opulence by 25% or even more. We reduced the outlay of work 25% for all managers, lawyers, doctors and the whole coordinator class, and all workers. We refined the income aspect and added having public subsidies for on the job training to replace highly skilled work, including moving toward balanced job complexes. Our campaign didn’t start with all the caveats and conditions, but when it got there, it was obvious how redistributive and radical it became.
It is a bit off topic, but I have heard you are vegan and I wondered if it has had any bearing on your RPS involvement?
Yes, my veganism is partly because a vegan diet is healthier and less expensive than a meat-heavy diet. But it is also ethical. I can’t handle eating animals. I would abstain even if it hurt my own health some, or cost me more per meal.
Some people with this stance believe it is valid, unimpeachable, and unchallengeable, and see people who eat meat as immoral. Some even see eating meat as abetting murder. I don’t subscribe to any of that and I also have never met anyone who I felt really believed it, their loud rhetorical flourishes aside.
On the other hand, I do think a meat-free and even a fully vegan diet is healthier for individuals and the planet. And ethically better, as well. So I do think this stance is morally worth exploring, advocating, and seeking reforms to approach. I also think our numbers are growing and I would not be surprised if a future RPS society that has been operating for some time will leave behind eating animals. But it hasn’t been a core part of RPS program, and I am okay with that.