The Risk Ownership Society

It is cliché now to say that we live in a “risk society.” We simultaneously celebrate “risk-takers” and blame those who undertake “risky speculations” without much pausing over the contradiction. Freaks of Fortune, by Jonathan Levy, is a history of the United States refracted through Americans’ evolving conceptions of financial risk. “Risque,” according to Levy, evolved from an arcane term-of-art in maritime insurance to the very anchor of what it meant to be free in nineteenth-century America.

What renders the book interesting is how familiar and natural, even self-evident and inescapable, this Gilded Age conflation of financialized risk-bearing and human autonomy remains today. The sine qua non of a free person is to own her risks, to enjoy successes or good luck, but to take responsibility for losses or setbacks. The word “own” is used advisedly. Levy describes what occurred as an “enclosure” of personal risk, both the “upside” and the “downside,” into alienable property.

Contemporary outrage toward finance reinforces this commodification more frequently than it challenges it. What renders today’s “banksters” detestable is not that they run financial risks, but rather a notion that Levy pulls straight from an 1856 business text: “a man had a moral ‘right to risk his own capital’ but ‘no right to risk the property of others.’” This moment’s malefactors are accused of capturing the upside of speculations while putting losses to others who had neither consented nor been compensated to bear the downside. That risk is a form of property, and that risk management must take the form of an allocation of that property, is axiomatic, invisible, and unchallenged by partisans at both ends of the pitchfork. We’re just fighting over who should own what.

But in 1842, the idea that an ordinary workman “owned” his risk was new, a surprising transplantation of maritime norms to a crippled railroad employee. Levy begins with the story of Nicholas Farwell, who was denied what today we would call worker’s compensation because, a court found, he enjoyed a “wage premium” for the hazards of his job: just as an insurer of a risky sea voyage enjoys a premium in exchange for accepting the cost of accidents, so too did an engineman on a railroad. Farwell sued under a common-law doctrine that, Levy tells us, “rendered ‘masters’ responsible for accidents caused by their ‘servants.’” By making him responsible for his own risk, the judge affirmed that Farwell was not a servant but a free man who had voluntarily accepted foreseeable hazards in exchange for cash compensation. A “warrant…of protection, and a comfortable subsistence, under all circumstances…[even] when want, misfortune, old age, debility and sickness overtake him” was, according to an 1860 treatise, the prerogative of a slave, the quid pro quo that justified bondage. How could a free man expect the indemnification that a slave labored a lifetime to enjoy?

To be free is to own one’s risk—this idea is the serpent in the garden. Once upon a time, a person’s place in the world was likely to be fixed by circumstance. Perhaps one was a slave, or, if free, bound by birth or marriage to a plot of land from which a subsistence might be earned. Uncertainty was an external, even providential, force with which communities coped as best they could. Traditionally, Levy tells us, the Jeffersonian ideal of landed independence was achieved through “safety first” agriculture. On plantations and small farms alike, crops were chosen to see to the direct needs of the land’s inhabitants. Only after subsistence was ensured was the remaining land allocated to “cash crops” bound for market.

But emancipation in the South and industrialization in the North interposed the institution of the wage between labor and a living. Landless workers could not choose to plant what was most certain to feed them. Their only crop was money, and the bounty of their harvest was at the whim of an impersonal market. Networks of interdependence once held in place by hierarchy or kinship or geography could no longer be relied upon. There were new opportunities in these more fluid arrangements. But each man’s risk was his alone, no kin or custom would spare him destitution if the money wasn’t there. This was, in Levy’s words, a “rising economic chance-world.” Individuals found themselves with little choice but to rely upon brave new institutions of corporate risk management. Today, it is conventional to say that financial markets are driven by “fear and greed.” After the Civil War, the conditions of financial fear and greed were suddenly universal. As Marx famously put it, “pitilessly torn asunder [were] the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’…[which] has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.” Financial capitalism was the

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We Risk Our Lives Every Day”: Building Service Workers Strike

This article is part of Belabored Stories, a series by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen featuring short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at [email protected]

Many of the wealthy residents at 75 Wall Street, a luxury condo building in Manhattan, left New York City at the beginning of the pandemic. But the building service workers who provide many of the amenities those residents pay a premium for had no such option. They continued to show up to work day after day, even as the building management refused to meet with them to bargain the union contract they voted for some three and a half years ago. So now those workers are on strike.

Ron Crowley, the freight elevator operator, has been there eight years. One of the main reasons he voted to join SEIU 32BJ was that management kept changing policies on vacation days and paid time off. The workers appealed to the National Labor Relations Board over these policies, and got them overturned. But the company continues to say that the workers cannot use their paid time off to take a single day—if they want to take a day, they must take a week, so they face the choice of either having to use up a week of time, (the maximum amount of paid time off they can accrue is ten days) or work through an illness or family problem.

Since the pandemic, those issues have only gotten worse, and now there’s the question of protective equipment. “We went maybe three, three and a half weeks where we had no masks at all,” Crowley said. “We had a small amount of gloves and we had no disinfectant whatsoever. In the meantime, some of the residents of the building were giving us masks, gloves, and disinfectant.”

When they do get protective equipment, he said, it goes to the management office—but the property manager hasn’t been in the building and the resident manager is only there briefly to do payroll. “Sometimes when he leaves, the PPE is in his office,” Crowley said. “Nobody has the key. So, most of us went out and bought our own masks. We bought our own shields. We bought our own gloves. We’ve got to come in, we risk our lives every day. It is unbelievable.”

Louis Rivera is the overnight concierge at the building, and has been there for ten years. “It is a great building. The residents are great,” he said. But the workers have a sense that they are not treated with respect for the amount of effort they’ve put in. “Everybody wants to be at the same level with respect and courtesy. Some people don’t get that. A lot of us are tired of it. Especially the older gentlemen who are closer to retirement—they deserve better.”

“We put up with everything else for such a long time,” Crowley said, but finally they decided to strike. “We didn’t want to do it in this time, but we’ve all got to come to work, we’ve got to ride the trains, ride the buses, and they’re not doing the right thing for us.” Rivera too described the decision to strike as “nervously made because a lot of us have never done that before and we were always afraid of retaliation.” But their understanding of protections for actions taken over unfair labor practices helped them decide, he said. “If the building management had really cared for us the way we thought we deserved to be rewarded, they would have come and negotiated with us regardless and our property manager hasn’t even been in in nine weeks. So who’s to know when a conversation regarding our future or our benefits or anything continues if he’s not around?”

We never had a staff meeting [about] how to properly handle everything accordingly,” Rivera added. “Everything was on the fly through emails. We felt that ‘If you’re not around and we’re coming up with our own situation to handle what is going on, we are basically taking charge of ourselves.’ It didn’t sit well with a lot of workers who felt like they deserve more as far as healthcare and being safe, because this affects everyone.”

Many of the workers have family members—children, grandchildren—and plenty of stress to go around worrying that they might bring the virus home from work. And the residents of the building don’t want the workers on the job without protective equipment, but, Crowley said, “We the workers, the staff, we had to tell the people that are in the building—they see us walking around, throwing out the garbage and they say, ‘Where’s your gloves?’ and we say, ‘We don’t have any.’”

They decided to take the strike vote, he said, after a whole weekend without any protective equipment provided. “When Monday came, we went to see the manager and he was on the phone with others, so we came back later and the door was locked and he was gone again. We had to go buy our own gloves. Again. And trying to find them was not easy.”

Most of the workers live paycheck to paycheck, he said, and so they didn’t want to lose pay by going on strike. “That is why we’ve never done it before—we didn’t really want to do it, but now we’re at the point with this pandemic going on, it’s just pushed us over the edge.”

To end the strike, they want management to return to the bargaining table and work in good faith toward their first contract. “Anytime we ask management to set up our meetings they say, ‘Okay,’ and they never get done,” Crowley said. A major issue for both Crowley and Rivera is the lack of a pension, which othe

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