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Preschool Workers of New York, Unite!
Tim Francis-Wright

A specter is haunting Wall Street: the specter of preschool. All the powers of old Wall Street have entered into a holy alliance to exorcize this specter: brokers and investment bankers, telephone and cable, insurance and banking. If Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were alive today, they would see that the great class struggles that they foresaw have degenerated into farce.

Word comes from the financial newspapers that Wall Street is corrupt to the core. It is not enough that investment banking firms effectively control the brokerage houses, so fees for underwriting stocks come, essentially, from duping and fleecing small investors. No, the corruption on Wall Street pervades every facet of the lives of its most powerful denizens. If Citigroup contains within itself the seeds of its own demise, its executives are awfully good fertilizer.

In 1999, Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill had two reasons to win over C. Michael Armstrong, the CEO of AT&T. Armstrong not only was a potentially important client for Salomon Smith Barney, Citigroup's investment banking unit, but he also sat on the Citigroup board of directors. At the time, Jack Grubman, the head telecommunications analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, rated AT&T stock as a "hold," which is generally a pessimistic view. At Weill's urging, Grubman upgraded the comapny to "strong buy," his most optimistic rating. In exchange for the upgrade, Weill helped get Grubman's twins into the exclusive preschool at the 92nd Street Y. Weill helped seal the deal with $1 million of donations from Citigroup's corporate funds. A few months later, after he had downgraded AT&T back to "hold," Grubman bragged of the quid pro quo in an e-mail to a friend.

The machinations of Weill, Grubman, and Armstrong read like a scene from Bonfire of the Vanities. But they also speak to the extent that the alienation that Marx described in the Grundrisse is all too real. Weill threw $1 million of a corporation's funds so that the children of a key employee could go to a particular preschool. This action is so absurdly alienating that it almost transcends any notion of class. Certainly no one in the working class, delineated in any manner whatsoever, and certainly very few members of the bourgeoisie could possibly throw that much money around for such a trivial thing. Surely some preschool somewhere in New York would take Jack Grubman's twins, even if the 92nd Street Y turned them down.

Jack Grubman and Sanford Weill represent the very pinnacle of the rentier class, the acme of the businessmen who profit not from manufacturing or other industry, but from the sloshing of great tides of money from one end of the earth to another. They stand to make millions of dollars each year in salaries, bonuses, and other perquisites, particularly if they help their company earn higher profits. The teachers at the 92nd Street Y are not too different from preschool teachers around the country. They work long hours for low salaries that are likely to stay low, regardless of whether the quality of child care that they provide inspires million-dollar contributions to their organization.

The Grubman preschool affair shows us that surplus labor is not confined to the factory floor when the workers do not control the means of production. It is not even restricted to the law or accounting firms where billable hours turn staff members on fixed salaries into well-educated proles who work overtime to help finance better yachts for the partners. It has extended even to the nonprofit institutions that cater to the overclass. The financial gap between the preschool teachers and the overclass is a vast one, but the link between them is strong nonetheless. Without the diligent labor of the teachers, the preschool would have no attraction for financiers like Jack Grubman, and organizations like the 92nd Street Y could not expect to receive huge donations from the likes of Sanford Weill.

In a society where the value of labor was truly respected, the actions of Jack Grubman and Sanford Weill would be more than just another facet of a business cycle. Their actions do speak of a rot that pervades Wall Street, but they also speak of a huge gap between what ordinary citizens can even dream of doing and what the members of the American overclass can do without even straining themselves. And American labor is often so cowed by the power of big business and the governments that they effectively control that it dare not speak too loudly. Perhaps there is hope yet for labor; perhaps the overclass has finally gone too far. Let the overclass tremble at a revolution. Will the preschool workers realize that they have little to lose and a world to win?

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