On Monday, August 12, I was suddenly and unexpectedly released from my temp service job of just short of six months, allegedly for “unprofessional” behavior demonstrated in a confidential e-mail to the temp service representative. While I admit that I now realize that the e-mail was impolitic, I reject the charge of “unprofessional” conduct in a confidential message that didn’t attack anyone, but was merely forceful in language. But that language was enough to tick off the twentysomething business major twerp who had a secure job, unlike the temps he allegedly oversaw; and further—was supposedly there to be accessible and handle any problems the temps might bring to his attention. But no, I was dismissed for merely an act of showing an unfavorable demeanor, something quite independent of my actual work performance and ability to get along with all my co-workers, although I had some problems with one I had to work with regularly, whose voluble giving of unsolicited advice was precisely the problem I had noted in the e-mail. Which brings up—just exactly what does “professionalism” means in today’s work environment?
Certainly it ought to mean having something other than an unskilled warehouse job paying $9.00 an hour. After all, can one really be a “professional” unskilled laborer? Isn’t that an oxymoron, i.e., a contradiction in terms? And also, don’t real “professionals” make $25.00 an hour or more? But this is what I was—an unskilled warehouse laborer making $9.00 an hour, a wage which, as I wrote in my last examiner.com story, is less in real terms than what the minimum wage was in 1967! [See George Fish, examiner.com, July 25, 2013, “Work in Indiana and make less than in 1967,” http://www.examiner.com/article/work-indiana-and-make-less-than-1967?cid=db_articles.] As for my “job duties,” they consisted of moving boxes from one pallet to another, pulling a cord to start the automatic pallet wrapping machine, and when there was nothing else to do, pushing a broom and clearing trash. Needless to say, all such at a truly “professional” skill level! Moreover, my possession of a university degree certainly didn’t make the work any more “professional” whatsoever. It was low-wage unskilled labor, period.
No, it was not my work performance that made me “unprofessional,” not at all—for no one had complaints about either my work performance or my ability to get along with supervisors and co-workers. But the twentysomething gave it all away when he expanded on why I was dismissed. He said, “You didn’t seem to be happy at the job. You complained about the pay.” [Emphasis added.] Yes, I had casually mentioned to the twentysomething one time that the pay was extremely low, to which he gave the stock answer that nothing could be done about it until the minimum wage was raised. So I think, based on this, that this was just another “grudge point” gathered to be used against me when the opportunity arose. “Professionalism,” to him, meant subservience, and I hadn’t been properly subservient, either in my e-mail or in remarking about the pay.
But, as I had told the twentysomething in the notorious e-mail sent, I had never walked off the job because I was upset, as other employees had done. Just the contrary—I had a perfect attendance record for the past three months! However, that didn’t count for much. “Professionalism” might’ve been seen by my not walking off the job—but no.
However, it’s not my intent to pick on this twentysomething business major, which is why he had his job; and I, but a “lowly” degree-holder in economics, considered thus only a “liberal arts” major, had mine. But as someone much older than he is, I can extend empathy toward his mindset, and this devotion to merely employer/corporate “standards of professionalism.” Having grown up only in the era when unions were severely on the decline and workers’ rights and wages constantly undermined in the name of “flexibility” and “competitiveness,” he thus has no memory of a time when it was assumed that workers had rights and a right to dignity besides; good wages were considered financial rewards and incentives for good work, and that the dignity of life depended on a dignified level of wages. That, as I can well recall as an old fogey, was once the social norm. But he, along with the other youth today, don’t have memories of this, and their lack of reading and interest in history, even current history, only intensifies this. And so, today’s youth pursue higher education not to become truly educated, but as a kind of glorified vocational training, as a way to get a job—and in an economy where there aren’t any such jobs for close to half of today’s college graduates, who often come into this essentially nonexistent job market heavily saddled with student loan debt. [See Reuters, April 30, 2013, “Recent U.S. college graduates disillusioned, more than 40% unemployed: poll,” http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/college-grads-disillusioned-unemployed-poll-article-1.1331346; Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic, June 28, 2013, “44% of Young College Grads Are Unemployed (and That’s Good News),” http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/06/44-of-young-college-grads-are-underemployed-and-thats-good-news/277325/. But as seen, the headline overstates the author’s optimism, which is guarded and laced with foreboding.] During the student strike at Indiana University last April the protesters pointed out that the average Indiana University student graduates $27,000 in debt and with small prospects for finding a job. [On the Indiana University strike, see George Fish, examiner.com, January 27, 2013, “Indiana University system-wide student strike being organized,” http://www.examiner.com/article/indiana-university-system-wide-student-strike-being-organized?cid=db_articles; George Fish, New Politics, April 21, 2013, “The Indiana University Student Strike,” http://newpol.org/content/indiana-university-student-strike. This latter article also has a list of other online articles on the strike at the end.] So in this regard, I do feel for this twentysomething, and for all youth; even as I also recall with rueful appreciation those despairing words of the late 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman, who remarked upon resurfacing in the 1980s and confronting a far different world than the one that had existed when he went underground, “Don’t trust anyone under 30.”
But there is some good news to tell. Despite being cursorily and unexpectedly dismissed from my assignment, and thus from regular paychecks, I did not lose my eligibility for further employment with this temp agency, even though at present there is no such employment. My long tenure with this particular agency, plus my overall quite satisfactory work record over the length of this tenure, prevented my permanent dismissal and consequent bad job reference. For which I am quite happy, needless to say—in today’s job market, no one with any modicum of intelligence and forethought relishes burning bridges to future employment. In reaffirming my continued eligibility, the account manager for the temp service did admonish me once again on the “unprofessionalism” of my language in that impolitic e-mail, and further admonished me to express my concerns to management and to the temp service before they get out of hand. But the rub is, I had done exactly that, had indeed expressed to my direct supervisor my problem with the voluble co-worker, and was ignored. So much for that.
But in the U.S. today, employers are more like Roman Emperors or Russian Czars than anything else—and especially in Work-at-Will Indiana, where someone can be dismissed for any reason, or no reason at all, the sole exceptions being either stipulations under a union contract, or matters of discrimination covered by federal and state civil rights statutes; so that, whatever “rights” one might have with an employer are only those granted by employer sufferance. It’s now employer sufferance alone that grants “rights” to workers, which means that they are privileges instead; and which causes recourse to firing to be not the Instrument of Last Resort, but increasingly, the Instrument of First Resort. This is the way it is now in our Brave New World of direct tyranny of private corporate and business property; a tyranny that we of the older generations are not as much automatically accustomed to, as such didn’t always prevail as much then as it does now. But today the tyranny of property has become so pervasive that the younger generations, growing up in the post-Reagan era, have no memory or inkling of anything other. Which is why, in terms of “professionalism,” today’s employers are more akin to “professional” Latin American military dictators than to anything else.