Theory Teacher's Blog

SEIU Sponsors International Workers Olympic Curling Team

Probably nobody has ever thought that I should try to write for America’s favorite parody newspaper, The Onion. And after this post, you might all politely suggest that I never try it again… but here goes.

SEIU Sponsors International Workers Olympic Curling Team

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced today that it endorses curling as the official sport of workers around the word. Says SEIU president Andy Stern, “The Olympics should be a symbol of international solidarity, not bourgeois nationalism. If the labor movement is to compete with corporations, we need to have our own teams that represent ordinary people and not wait for party politics in Washington that only represent the interest of the richest Americans.”

This competitive strategy of the SEIU is what has made it one of fastest growing labor unions in the United States at a time when most other unions have struggled to stay relevant and viable. Other Olympic athletes are all sponsored by capitalists whose interests are protected by national governments and by international agreements, and until now none have been sponsored by the labor movement who are often excluded from the democratic process of most countries.

When asked why curling, rather than some other sport, Andy Stern observed that it is a symbol of the worker’s struggle for liberation. “A bunch of us were at a bar after a rally one day, getting some beers, and everyone was watching the Olympic curling. I wondered the same question you’re wondering, “why curling?” I mean, geez, a bunch of people sweeping the ice for the sole purpose of moving this rock from one place to another. Not exactly the excitement of downhill skiing or figure skating. But then I realized that it reflected the dreams and aspirations of many of the janitors and other service workers in our union. We just want our labor to be recognized as the valuable and noble work that it is.”

Other people in the bar disagreed with Mr. Stern and suggested that curling was just fun to watch while drunk. Most of the people in the bar were not members of the union but were unemployed young men who lived with their parents.

Nevertheless, the SEIU points out that it has unionized thousands of janitors and house-keeping staff who spend much of their day sweeping the floor. Those who are not unionized often work long hours for minimum wage and no benefits. Union leaders began scouting out hotels and factories for young employees demonstrating exceptional skill with a broom for their curling team.

The leader of the new SEIU curling team, Jeff Jones, observed, “we used to all play softball together on weekends, but that was just to help bring us together in solidarity. In today’s globalized economy, we need to become global citizens, achieve global recognition, and become part of the new postmodern economy of symbolic capital. What better way to do that than have a curling team?” His unemployed friends at the bar, who were not SEIU members but knew him from college, cheered on his remark and began singing “The Internationale.”

Other members of the SEIU, however, are frustrated by the choice of curling and suggest that curling is not really an international sport. Latinos, African-Americans, and immigrants from the global south see a cultural bias. Remarked one young woman from Botswana, “where are our sports?  Why do the Olympics only reflect the culture of northern Europe? That’s not international or global or whatever you want to call it. That’s simply the hegemony of neo-colonialist capitalism and therefore curling will never be effective at uniting the workers of the world against oppression and exploitation. Most janitors and house-keeping staff are people of color, not northern Europeans. Why is Bakka-breika not an Olympic sport?”

Bakka-breika is a popular sport among the Bantu-speaking peoples of Africa. It resembles both the northern European sports of curling and horseshoe tossing in that it involves the sweeping of dust from one side of a compound to the other in order to guide a breadfruit tossed toward the tribal center. Olympic officials refused to comment on why northern European and north American sports dominate the Olympic games, but one of the janitors at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters remarked off the record that he overheard officials in the restroom dismissing Bakka-breika as savage and uncivilized. He personally has two cousins who play the sport and thinks only the cousin on his mother’s side is a little uncivilized, not the other cousin who is quite a nice fellow, but he dislikes Bakka-breika because it leads to bad posture and even long-term damage to the spine.

The future of SEIU’s curling team remains in doubt however. Since most Olympic teams represent nation states and not transnational communities or even smaller ethnic identities, its status may prove to be a legal conundrum. One member of the Irish Curling Association pointed out that curling was invented by the Druids at a time when England was asserting its imperial dominance. They support the culture of curling as an ancient and spiritually rich form of transnational resistance to imperialism. Other historians note, however, that early curling tended to be enjoyed by the wealthy elite in Scotland and Holland.

Ultimately, the status of SEIU’s curling team is up to the IOC, but whatever their decision, labor union curling might just be the wave of the future and an effective tool for organizing resistance to the fascistic, pseudo-democratic capitalism promoted by global institutions such as the IOC, IMF, and WTO.


February 28, 2010 Posted by | global, sports | Leave a comment

Immaterial Bowl Games

I have to admit, I’ve never been a “fan” of sports. I’ve always liked playing sports quite a bit, and I like watching some sports (football, basketball, and tennis are my favorites), but even as a kid I never cared enough to keep track of a team’s performance, a star athlete’s digits, or whatever. However, recently I have to wonder whether even the die-hard sports fanatics are questioning the proliferation of college bowl games. EagleBank Bowl? Little Caesars Pizza Bowl? Sports commentators joke about “toilet bowls” — their term for bowl games whose significance is laughable. But whatever the debates among sports commentators about the pageantry of bowl games and how we decide the number one team of the year, all this seems less interesting to me than the names of the bowl games, the changing nature of sponsorship, and what this suggests to me about the changing nature of our economy. My hypothesis is that the rise of immaterial bowl games reflects the rise of immaterial labor — note the pun.

For example, this morning I just watched the Capital One Bowl, which used to be called the Florida Citrus Bowl. As everyone knows, Florida’s economy, because of its climate, is based largely on citrus fruits. And as everyone knows, Capital One is one of the largest credit card companies (a.k.a. “consumer lending”). What people may not know is that Capital One was created as recently as 1988, and in the short span of a decade became a powerful enough company to sponsor one of the premiere bowl games. So what? What’s the difference? Well, the difference is a shift from a bowl named after an agricultural crop to a bowl named after a credit card. And this shift seems symptomatic of a larger economic shift from an economy based on efficient commodity production to an economy based on services.

The earlier economy is what (almost a century ago) theorist Antonio Gramsci called a “Fordist” economy after the innovations of Ford Motors, and today our economy based on financial services is sometimes referred to as a “post-Fordist” economy. Building upon the concept of “post-Fordism,” theorists Negri and Hardt made a big splash in 2000 with their book Empire that argued (among other things) that there has been a shift from material to immaterial labor. This “shift” does not mean that the production of actual material things is no longer important. Of course it still is. Rather, it means that services such as credit, finance, health care, etc. have become the hegemonic form of production that dominates. Think back to the 19th century during the “industrial revolution” when economists claimed that industrial production — i.e., the factory — had become the most important form of production. At the time, however, when people were first noticing this change in the makeup of their world, factories represented a relatively small amount of the economy. Most of the economy was still rural farms. Analogously, today is the same deal. While the economy may still be about commodities (food, clothes, cars, toys, etc.), the form that is emerging as a dominant form is immaterial. For example, as most car companies are well aware, they don’t make much profit off the production of automobiles. The real profit is in their financial services, insurance, and other services.

And so, in college football, we don’t have a General Motors bowl, Ford bowl, or Toyota bowl. Rather, since 1999 (the year before Negri and Hardt’s book was published), we have a GMAC Bowl — GMAC basically being the bank that provides financial services for General Motors. And following this trend towards immaterial global capitalism, some of the most recent additions to college football include the EagleBank Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, Humanitarian Bowl, and International Bowl. I’m surprised there isn’t a bowl named after a health insurance company. In the near future, will there be a bowl game named after an unregulated hedge fund?

I’d be curious if someone has ever written a “cultural studies” history of the bowl game. What might that history look like? The first bowl game was the Rose Bowl begun way back in 1902 to celebrate East-West rivalry. This bowl was symptomatic of the rise of California as an economic power after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Most of the other major bowl games emerged during the Great Depression or right after World War II — Orange Bowl (1935), Sugar Bowl (1935), Cotton Bowl (1937), Gator Bowl (1946), Citrus Bowl (1947). One might speculate about why bowl games were created during the devastation of the Great Depression and (ironically) the Dust Bowl. My guess is bread and circus for the poor and a nice patriotic stimulus to the economy. Obviously, the names of these bowls all suggest the warm climate in which they are located, since nobody wants to play a bowl game in the snow, and that’s why there aren’t bowl games reflecting the identities of northern climates (e.g., corn, wheat, and steel bowls), though it doesn’t explain why there isn’t a rice or indigo bowl. (South Carolina missed an opportunity there.) Significantly, for the point of my blog, the names of bowls generally tend to suggest the agricultural product associated with that climate.

By the 1960s, this was no longer the case. Certainly, the invention of television had something to do with the rising importance of bowl games, and so we have more TV-oriented names such as the Liberty Bowl (1959), Fiesta Bowl (1971), Holiday Bowl (1978), and Hall of Fame Bowl (1986).

If the 1960s was about television, the post-1990 era is about globalization, immaterial labor, and life-style branding, so we have the creation of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (formerly the Peach Bowl), Champs Bowl (formerly the Tangerine Bowl),  Outback Bowl (formerly the Hall of Fame Bowl), Bowl, and Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. Noticeably all of these are named after popular brands of food services rather than actual food. In addition to the food services bowls, credit card bowl, and the Meineke Car Care Bowl mentioned above, there is also the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas (another car services company) and the Insight Bowl (information technology services.) In other words, the shift is from things to services — what Negri and Hardt conceptualize as the shift to immaterial labor. In addition, I think we can see evidence of what Naomi Klein famously argued in her book No Logo (published in 2000), that the 1990s saw the rise of the “brand.” In other words, agreeing with Negri and Hardt’s thesis about immaterial labor, what Klein notices is the rise of branding and life-style management alongside the outsourcing of industrial production to third-world nations.

But so what? Is this a bad thing? That’s a question for another day, and I don’t know enough about the sports world, because as I mentioned earlier, I don’t really care about it. But as many sports commentators have lamented on ESPN (which I have to watch when I use the gym at my school), the changes in corporate sponsorship have created a cultural dynamic that is bad for players, bad for coaches, and bad for fans. In sum, from what I gather from listening intermittently to the ESPN sports commentators, it has made the game worse, not better. But how were bowl games sponsored before? Who was in control and who is in control now? I don’t know, which is why I really think somebody should write a theoretically and economically informed “Cultural History of the Bowl Game.”

January 2, 2010 Posted by | finance, global, media, sports | 4 Comments