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July 17, 2006

"The Devil" Maximizes Profits

I have a review/commentary piece on the Devil Wears Prada up at Campus Progress. Let's just say I both loved the movie and thought it a misunderstood commentary on the need for a revitalized labor movement. Pretty much what you'd expect me to say, I guess. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

July 17, 2006 | Permalink

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I just read the piece, and I couldn't agree with you more. Europeans think we're nuts to put up with the hours we're expected to work (we've even passed the famously work-obsessed Japanese). There's an accumulating body of evidence that sleep deprivation is becoming a serious problem in our society. It's responsible for many traffic accidents, and a recent article in Slate suggested it may be a factor in the obesity epidemic. We're paying a very high price for our hostility to unions. P.S. I work reasonable hours. I'm lucky, but I also work in a unionized workplace.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD, ARNP | Jul 17, 2006 6:23:10 PM

The real problem is that the devil maximizes profits, and the angels haven’t organized.

The angels haven't organized because the devil is quite willing to spend its profits to defeat any union organization attempt by employees.

The devil's assistants that work for the devil's own party (GOP=DOP) as elected and appointed officials in Washington DC are also quite happy to take the devil's money to do the wishes of the devil in legislation and administrative rulings that prevent the angels from organizing.

In the workplace, the devil rules. And if one forgets that, out on the street you go, perhaps trailed around by informal blacklists of those who dared to defy the devil.

A great article, Ezra. Too bad it is not on the op-ed page of the NYT or WaPo, but maybe Campus Progress will plant some seeds of change.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 17, 2006 6:38:36 PM

Let me add to my thoughts above that the Andrea Sax's of the US economy have intellectually and emotionally bought into the great myth that their hard work and talents will get them further up that crucial income and social status scale without the economic-power-leveling membership in a union (against corporate overreach) than it will with a union. The Sax's choose submission to the corporate system, and they therefore get used, abused, and fired for any rebellion.

Unions largely don't succeed in organizing 'office workers' both because of government rulings and their own acceptance of the dog-eat-dog corporate ethic.

The latest attempt by BushCo to change the rules on who fits within the rules of 'supervisory' personnel (and therefore exempt from the fair labor standards act) shows the devil and its assistants busily but quietly at work. Nurses were getting union organized, so BushCo will put an end to that by saying they are supervisors - and therefore have no job protections under the law.

Nice work, huh? From your elected officials, sworn to do the devil's work.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 17, 2006 6:53:47 PM

As with the options backdating scandal, much as the failure of the US labor movement galls me, 'tain't the Evil GOP (much as I despise them): all it would take for a working labor movement would be for voters to care and vote against the folks stocking the NLRB with capital-worshipping ringers.

Similarly, all it would take to end backdating and similar egregious overcompensation would be for shareholders to start voting out board members en masse. A board seat is a tasty sinecure, and throwing even a small minority of the bastards out would give the rest of them religion the same way throwing out, say, the entire House GOP caucus would.

I know, I'm a crazy dreamer. That said, we have the government and the labor movement we deserve.

Depressing.

Posted by: wcw | Jul 17, 2006 8:47:48 PM

Ezra,
Right on target. To see the intelligence and self-sacrifice of someone like Sax offered up even to the essential silliness of haute couture clarifies completely the submission to authoritarian/proto-fascist business leaders like Priestly that characterizes our current work ethic. It’s by such means the poor defend and maintain the rich, under the guise of patriotism and “united we stand” jingoism. Wake up, America.

Posted by: Peter Rennick | Jul 17, 2006 11:41:13 PM

When you initially floated this idea that there's something on the labor movement to the Devil Wears Prada, I was doubtful. I still am. An alternative way of looking at the story is that Andy, a smart, ambitious young woman takes a job out of desperation in a field where she has little interest, and learns that in order to do it well, she will have to respect her own work, that of her peers, and that of her boss. A good Executive Assistant has to bond in some way with their boss, and anticipate their needs with some undertsnading of their business. Andy learns to do all of this, but then decides the price - long hours, lack of a personal life etc - is too high and walks away.

I think, as I thought initially, that the problem is two-fold; young workers have a sense of entitlement about what they will and won't do in entry level positions that runs hard up against the reality of working life, and second that the work that should be unionized in these times - such as that of secretaries and assistants - isn't afforded the respect of other tasks. "Anyone can do this," "It's not brain surgery," "A million girls would kill for your job."

There really is no one forcing Andy, or anyone else, to put in the long hours at low pay (plus a few, rather nice, perks) to start out in these kind of careers. Many of us, Ezra included, have a lot of choices about what we will and won't accept for work; that is the upside of our increasingly two tier system, where a successful professional class is largely economically well off and provided for. For us, choices about what we like to do, where our passions lie, how we will be "satisfied" emotionally as well as financially guide our choices. The downside is that for many more people these choices simply do not exist - the jobs are scarce, they pay badly, and you take what you can and hope for the best.

I think it's dubious to have a privileged, well-educated, young woman like the fictional Andy stand in for what's wrong with the labor market, when in many ways, she's what's right about it - work hard, do what you love, and you will succeed. We should all have her options, her choices, her wisdom in seeing that a great opportunity for some is not the best opportunity for her. That we don't is what's wrong with this system. That many of us would dismiss her work, and the field of fashion and clothing design as irrelevant is also part of why we don't have a stronger labor movement. Until we acknowledge that all this work has value, that it deserves to be treated with respect, dignity and its workers treated decently, we are saying, as everyone else does, that some people are better than others, some jobs are more valuable than others, and it's okay that some people get treated badly. And it's not. Is it?

Posted by: weboy | Jul 18, 2006 8:19:44 AM

Ezra, the "janitors' union" business was an insult. You think there are no cleaning women and porters in Runway's office building? Of course there are. By they are envisible in the movie. That's what it really thinks about janitors. What the movie cares about is beautiful people in beautiful clothes. Every person we are intended to care about is drop-dead model quality gorgeous.

Really, the whole thing is a young woman's fantasy about having it all - the celebrity plus the meaningful career, the glamor without the sell-out, the zipless fuck and the meaningful relationship. The "janitors union" is an element of the fantasy- the bit that shows she's a serious person. It's not meant to be taken literally as a sign that she cares about real janitors.

Journalists who cover the labor movement tend not to be model-beautiful creatures. They tend not to be over-achieving grads from top colleges with rich daddies and pretty boy-friends.

I have to say that I found the movie entertaining. I like looking at pretty people as much as the next guy, and I do love Meryl Streep. But the whole labor journalist thing is such an obvious pander that it's surprising to see you take it seriously.

Posted by: JR | Jul 18, 2006 9:10:04 AM

So as much as you worked to make Andy's tale a parallel to your own, you kinda beg the question Ezra: are you unionized? If not, why not?

I think there are a lot of reasons these positions aren't unionized, besides an evil GOP or DLC. For instance, I can't believe you wrote that entire article without the word "apprentice" coming up. An exploration of those various reasons, and why they really do make sense to a lot of people involved, would be more useful.

Oh, I'm also curious if Western Europe has the same issues with these pseudo-apprentice like jobs being unionized a lot.

Posted by: Tony V | Jul 18, 2006 10:31:28 AM

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