Boiler Room tells the story of a group of working and lower middle-class men who lack formal education but are trying to increase their social status and wealth. They aspire to get rich, but not only money motivates them. In the protagonist Seth’s case a wish to live up to his father’s expectations is equally important. The company manipulates the kids into living a semi-criminal life by playing off on their insecurities and greed. The tactic is successful because the guys do not ask questions. When they are hired at J.T Marlin the kids come to believe that they have moved up the socioeconomic ladder, whereas in fact they have merely become instruments for the company to play on, just as they themselves use the prospective customers that they call.
Labels and costumes fooled me too when I entered my first full-time job a couple of years ago. In the fall of 1995, I came to London to look for work; I was young, enthusiastic, and very middle-class in my expectations and self-image. Little did I know that I was to enter the job-market as an un-skilled wage-laborer, and that it would effect my actions, and the way in which people viewed me.
The British work market was, at the time, crying for work force and I had several friends who had taken employment at pizza parlors, bars, and conference centers. Their experiences were exciting enough in my view, but I was secretively wishing for something a little bit better. It did not take me long until I had landed a job, and I was very pleased indeed. The position was as sales assistant at one of the fashionable department stores in Knightsbridge, I shall call it Marrid’s. It was an honor to be employed at this place! Just like the men in Boiler Room, I was asked to buy a suit at work and I was met by respect when I told friends and family about my new occupation. In addition, I was making a couple of pounds more here than my friends in bars and restaurants. I was, like the new J.T Marlin employees, delighted with my new status and saw it as the beginning of a possibly extraordinary career. Although, it might seem quite agreeable, however (and I was not, like the Boiler Room crew, engaging in criminal activity), something was wrong. The Knightsbridge department store was taking advantage of my inexperience and its own good name. They used its workforce by under-paying us, making labor cooperation impossible, and constantly reinforcing that feeling that we, as employees, should be grateful towards the company. How?
The reason my paycheck was bigger than my friends’ in other companies was partly that they were paid for overtime, and I was not. Every night, an employee at Marrid’s worked overtime at least half an hour. This was not compensated for in salary, but we all come to accept it without fuss. My reason for keeping my mouth shut was that I got a couple of pennies more per hour than many colleagues. My higher individual salary had less to do with the quality of my work (we all performed more or less exactly the same tasks), than with the simple fact that I was one of these quiet and loyal employees. I do not know how the system worked to silence other people, but it scares me to think of the many ways in which they were able to impose power on us. Some people were sent to fancy champagne luncheons to be thanked for excellent customer service, and the rest of us never knew why. Sometimes a manager would take us aside and randomly ask if we had any “issues”. The union was not once mentioned during my one-year employment, and I doubt that my immigrant colleagues would know more than I did about British unions. We knew that this was not to be talked about, just like we knew that we were not to show or discuss our pay slip with anyone besides the managers. My manager reminded me on a couple of occasions not to leave my pay slip out; we were simply not to know each other’s salary. Seth had more courage and naiveté and dared to ask uncomfortable questions. If critically inclined, the reader will now inject: “But given the job market, the employers were by no means forced to stay, you could easily go to another employer.” Obviously, I chose this route. I gave up the dream of becoming a fashionable department store sales woman when I had gotten sufficiently disillusioned with my role in the company. A reason was that there was no economic necessity forcing me to stay. I had my middle-class background to help me financially and economically to move on, and the cultural capital to make me comfortable with change. Parenthetically, my leaving day was quite surprising to me. My manager asked me what I was going to do now, implying that I must have few alternatives. To me, the question was obvious. I was going back to school, but I had not realized how my labor had temporarily put me in the working-class, and as such, my manager did not expect me to want or be capable of attaining any education.
Most employees at Marrid’s do not have the same mobility as me. The department store works under the same principles as J.T Marlin, recruiting its employees from ambitious lower classes. Indeed, my colleagues came from the same backgrounds as the men in Boiler Room. They wanted to make it big, they wanted to work in the world of money and fashion, and they thought that by starting out in a low position at Marrid’s, they would eventually achieve their goals. I have been back at Marrid’s a couple of times since I left. Most people that I met are still there today, still doing the same work.
One of Marrid’s core values is tradition. What struck me while discussing the new nature of capitalism (in which the board of directors are now the receivers of surplus value) was the evident implication of that at Marrid's. Marrid’s is a truly antiquated form of corporation, and this is apparent in the running of the business. The owner is not only a man who owns the majority of the stock. He calls himself - and expects all employees to follow suit – “the Chairman”. The Chairman walks around the department store each day, surrounded by bodyguards, making decisions on the day-to-day running of departments as well as the future of employees in the organization. Yes, he is known to have fired people on the spot. Hence, his role is quite different from most owners and business leaders in any corporation today, and he (in his status as celebrity in Britain) also serves to reinforce feelings of gratitude among the employees.
Before I came to Marrid’s, I thought that businesses like Marrid’s were fairy tales – cruel and improbable myths about exploitation and disrespect. These places do exist, and in Boiler Room, we learnt how they can change nature to fit a new era.
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