Union Support

My former coworkers are on strike. I wish them the best in their negotiations and I hope they get everything they’re asking for.

One thing that confuses me is the comments sections (the cesspool of online journalism) of some of the news stories covering the strike. It appears about 80% of people think the workers are greedy, should be happy they have a job at all, and are outright offering to scab for Verizon for about $50k/year with no benefits.

50% of the lowest income earning Americans make about the same today (adjusted for inflation), as they did in 1965. Meanwhile, people in the top 90th percentile make about double what they made in 1965. Further:

Between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose by 281 percent after adjusting for inflation — an increase in income of $973,100 per household — compared to increases of 25 percent ($11,200 per household) for the middle fifth of households and 16 percent ($2,400 per household) for the bottom fifth.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently immoral about a small number of people being filthy rich and the vast majority of people barely getting by. I think, no matter what policies are instituted, there will always be prudent, lucky or ambitious people who pull away from the pack. Even Matthew knew that, “The poor you will always have with you” (26:11).

Practically though, as a policy, outrageous wealth gaps between people can be problematic. Take this well composed and foreboding excerpt from the wikipedia entry on the French Revolution:

Necker realized that the country’s extremely regressive tax system subjected the lower classes to a heavy burden, while numerous exemptions existed for the nobility and clergy. He argued that the country could not be taxed higher; that tax exemptions for the nobility and clergy must be reduced; and proposed that borrowing more money would solve the country’s fiscal shortages.

Income inequality leads to an imbalance of power that perpetuates itself. Through their immense riches the wealthy can manipulate the government and ensure policies that help protect and grow their wealth at the expense of the majority of people who have nothing. And even at the expense of the country itself. The rich can always repatriate elsewhere, or simply hunker down and enjoy what wealth they can protect through to the end of their lives, while their country crumbles around them.

I think what makes Americans hostile to the labor movement is what some call the American Dream, but what might more aptly be called the American Illusion. The idea is that success is earned through sweat, insufferable conditions, brilliance and perseverance. After years or decades of work one can rise to the top and finally be rewarded with a respectable life with time for leisure, family and personal growth. It’s an illusion though, because not everybody can be the CEO. For every top-level executive a company needs thousands of workers. For every one who achieves their dream, there’s 9,999 who fail and end up working below the winner. Yet these masses of people stand in support of policies that reward the winner, and punish the far far greater number who will never achieve their goals, no matter their ambitions or abilities, simply because their isn’t enough room at the top for everyone.

There’s also the issue that 50% of Americans have an IQ at or below 100. Not everyone is capable of being CEO. But many are capable of being solid, productive workers. If laboring isn’t something you can make a decent life out of, what are these people to do? – Be treated like animals of burden and kept complacent with threats of termination if they step out of line? Shouldn’t we treat them with dignity, respect, and a decent wage?

I think, when people see striking workers. They see people who are trying to skip ahead. They want the good pay and benefits, without putting in the decades of struggle to get into upper management. Americans see it as skipping the line and getting something for nothing.

I think the real travesty is the paradigm people have accepted. As the middle class has been eroded away in the past 50 years, people have developed a new outlook on the working world. It’s uncommon now to be able to get a well-paying job at 18 that offers solid pay and benefits and a 30 year retirement plan.

Instead, people have accepted their squalor. They work harder but get paid less than their parents did, and are expected to be grateful for it.

Private sector union workers have held out though, to the vestiges of the past. Of an economy that values all jobs and says someone can be a skilled craftsman for 30 years and be well-paid and respected without having to get a fluff degree and enter the abyss of middle management hoping he comes out the other side as an executive.

If people would shift their outlook from thinking they have to claw for the top spot, and instead used that energy to fight for better conditions in the job they already have, they would accomplish much more.

The IBEW and CWA are doing just that.

As a utility lineman I was able to go to school for free, was fully insured in case of short or long-term disability, and made over $100k/year with minimal overtime. The company still made net profits of over $8B/year and paid the CEO $30M/year. Customers paid the same rates as they pay to the non-union cable companies who pay their workers less than $40k/year and provide laughable benefits.

Life could be great for the American worker if he would just stand up and demand to be treated with dignity. Instead, like the commentators in the articles on the strike, he is told to work himself to exhaustion for table scraps and, if he’s clean cut and lives his entire work and personal life in a PC/corporate-culture friendly way, maybe he’ll be rewarded with a nice desk and a fat salary when he gets into his 50′s.

As someone who doesn’t plan on doing much more work in the future, I don’t have much skin in the game besides the well-being of some of my friends and neighbors. But I do wish people would be more willing to stand up for themselves, or at least to shut up and stay out of the way of people who do.

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  1. KevinW
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    It makes me sad that, when people hear about workers winning enviable benefits, 80% respond with “they don’t deserve it.” I’d feel better about humanity if more said “good for them” or “I will follow their example and do the same thing for myself.”

    I think a lot of it stems from the misconception that economic exchange is a zero sum game; that if those guys get paid more, someone else must get paid less. Which is a fallacy.

  2. Stankz
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    I am thankful for unions. They built the middle class in the US and now Republicans want to tear apart unions.

    I am a Republican and I am entirely unhappy with most modern Republicans.

    The Republican Party is the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln and they need to act like it.

    Roosevelt busted the monopolies and Lincoln kept the union together.

    The Tea Party people have a right to be angry, but their angry at the wrong people. It wasn’t workers that ran up the debt and allowed Wall Street speculators and the big banks to screw over the country, it was the Democrats and the Republicans and their helpers in the media.

    We need to end corporate monopolies. It’s funny, you know, people rail on about the “free market” when an actual free market would break up monopolies like Verizon and AT&T. But, oh, we can’t have government do anything because that’s “statism”.

    It’s a buncha crap. A a well-functioning market needs to be properly regulated in order to function right.

    Lack of enforcement of the rules is why the US is in this mess in the first place.

  3. Posted August 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    @kevinW I think you nailed it. The benefits are “enviable”. People who don’t have them are jealous, yet unwilling to fight for the benefits themselves, so they just tear down those who are willing to fight.

    @stankz I used to be a Republican too. I still consider myself a conservative. But the word’s been high-jacked by religious nut-jobs who’d prefer to live under biblical law, never have their social security checks reduced, free healthcare for them because their over 65 but not for anyone else, they’ve never seen a war they didn’t like, and yet they don’t want to pay any taxes.

  4. captious
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    I was with you up until the 100k/year – what can I say, I’m jealous as well.

  5. Posted August 13, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    @captious So they should take the $100k a year from the workers and pay the CEO, what, $200M/year?

  6. captious
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I think it is reasonable for me to think they’re both overpaid.

    Perhaps there is something I’m missing about being a utility lineman, is it dangerous? Or there could be regional cost of living differences I’m not taking into account.

    Today I read
    and it reminded me of your post

  7. Posted August 19, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    @captious It is dangerous. The reason the union came into being was because so many workers were being killed every year. I heard in a documentary on PBS once, though I’ve been unable to confirm the statistic, that 50% of lineman who died from 1890 to 1900, died on the job.

    Today it’s far safer, but there are still about 35 deaths/year for every 100,000 lineman. It’s only beat out by fisherman, pilots, loggers, iron workers, trash collectors and farmers.

  8. riggerjack
    Posted September 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    well, i also work for a union/telecom. and i also get wages/benefits above anything i could get doing competing work. but i think you are missing a few points.

    prior to the telecommunications act of 1996, telecom had no real competition. with local monopolies, telephony rates were based on a negotiated “fair” rate. 2% of capital invested plus 6% profit on expense/total customers. or something similar.
    if you didn’t like your phone bill going up, you could call your public utilities commission, or equivalent, but your only choice was to do without service.
    now this created a nice little system for the telecom manager, if his budget was 100m, he’d get a return of about 106 million. 6 million profit to just keep doing what he’d been doing. now he could bust hump and get expenses down and increase profits, but when the next rate hearing was held, he wouldn’t get an increase to his rates, as his expenses went down. he’d be fighting to just keep the rates he had. but what if he’s smart. he’s allowed about a 6% profit… what if it suddenly cost 125 million to the job. nw he shows a profit of 8 million, and this is a sustainable increase. so long as he doesn’t get too greedy, he can keep pushing up total expense, and rates will follow. and so on. a similar incentive system is setup in congress, with similar results.

    in this situation, there’s no incentive for him to fight the union very hard, the more he spends, the more he makes. AWESOME!

    this caused all kinds of accounting issues in the industry. GTE would separate out their supply to a different corporation, so they could make a profit on their own warehousing, and increase expense to their local exchanges. this means the more they make in supply, the more they pump up the rates/profits in the local telephony business. then they started coming up with expense justifications to move monies spent from capital to a more profitable expense. so when engineering opens a work order, there is a $3k expense added to assign it a number. all kinds of ugly enron accounting going on, throughout the industry.

    but now, legislation forces competition, and technology forces competition, and the customer base is disappearing. now, management needs to do more that put up a show of resistance in negotiations.

    and as you saw in the reactions, when you compare working conditions and compensation with cable workers, it’s going to be hard to drum up sympathy for the poor working man making 100k/yr.

    in short, the advantagious position the linemen currently enjoy is because of a century of regulation, not the union. for a hundred years, the economic lie of a “natural monopoly” created a situation that stole from the public by denying competition, and gave to the telecoms. and by extention, giving more to labor increased profits and deflected blame for higher rates. the unions of course claimed credit for all this, but now that the rules have changed, the union is just dragging them (me) down, as they have no real negotiation experience, and no real leg to stand on. see cable companies…

    in a competitive market, you get paid for what you can produce. the idea that everyone holding the same job title for 4 or more years is equal is laughable. at every job i’ve ever had, i was better than some, and not as good as others. forcing all of us to work for the same wage is counterproductive and unjust. to confiscate a share of my wages to donate to political parties i disagree with is extortion. Washington is not a right to work state. to be in this industry requires that i be in the appropriate union.

    but unions just bring inefficiencies to an industry that is fighting to clean up it’s bottom line.

    today, they are on the the wrong side of history. soon, schoolchildren will hear about unions in history class, just like the guilds from which they evolved.

  9. Posted September 9, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Permalink


    If Verizon were coming to the union with their hat in their hand, like an airline for example, barely making ends meet, and looking for concessions, I would be inclined to agree.

    But Verizon is immensely profitable. Paying their employees well isn’t bringing the company down.

    in a competitive market, you get paid for what you can produce.

    Really? And how do you fairly rate and compare the performance of 45,000 employees to make sure they’re all being paid what they’re worth? Unfortunately, it tends to come down to who’s the best-connected, talented negotiator, with honed brown-nosing skills, not who brings the most value to the company.

    they are on the the wrong side of history. soon, schoolchildren will hear about unions in history class, just like the guilds from which they evolved.

    Kids already hear a pretty good story about unions in American history. – How they literally saved millions of people’s lives. And how they figuratively saved tens of millions of more lives by allowing men to have a weekend, sick pay, vacation days and live like something more than a virtual slave.

    Now that unions have finally got working conditions into something somewhat humane, people want the unions gone so that they can be the superstar who gets paid 5% more than his colleagues, and so he doesn’t have to pay $2/day in union dues.

    But if you think OSHA, administrative law, or tort law is going to keep working conditions safe, I think you’re tragically mistaken. Without constant fighting, the line of what’s considered standard, safe practice, gets pushed further and further back, piece by piece, one step at a time. The guy who’s willing to work less safely, gets more done, and gets a raise. While the guys who insist on following the rules and protecting themselves get left behind.

    American unions didn’t come from guilds. They came from men being killed at work so that men who don’t work at all could squeeze out other 2% of productivity. Back then, whichever employee was most willing to put his life on the line was paid the best. Shall we go back to that?

    Because that’s how it is at cable companies. You tell me how else a lineman can perform 9 jobs at 9 separate locations climbing probably 12-18 poles a day, in an 8 hour shift, while following all safety guidelines. They can do it because they don’t bother to check for stray voltage, they don’t tie down their ladders, they don’t poke-test the poles, they don’t drive down the street to put out warning signs, they don’t put out enough cones, they don’t wear gloves or even strap in when working aloft, they don’t check their ladders for cracks in the morning, they don’t check their belts for wear, they don’t check their high-voltage gloves for pin-holes (not they’d wear them anyway), and they’re scared to death that if they don’t get their 9 jobs in they’re gonna be let go, and with good reason.

    But you’re probably right that unions are on the wrong side of history, the way things are going. Because the winners are the ones who get to write it. And right now Americans seem to prefer to make $40k/year having negotiated their pay themselves, rather than make $100k/year, working under a contract, and paying $15/week in union dues.

    We don’t have to live in an economy where a few guys make billions and the rest fight for some scraps. But if that’s what people want, I guess that’s what we’ll have. Like I said, I don’t have a dog in this fight anymore. It’s their funeral. – Hopefully not literally.

  10. riggerjack
    Posted September 10, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Well, i agree that “it tends to come down to who’s the best-connected, talented negotiator, with honed brown-nosing skills, not who brings the most value to the company.” and when i was younger, that would have bothered me more. i was strongly against the idea of brown nosing and had no clues about negotiation.

    i’ve worked union and non union, and in different unions. and a great friend from back in high school and i were talking about the brown-nosers. he had a truly great pearl of wisdom. “everybody makes their own deal.”

    this applies to everything in life. you are with the person you were willing to go find, and deal with the flaws in that person you choose to live with. your job is ALWAYS of your own choosing. if your boss is an ass, you still make the choice to go to work each day.

    if the guy next to you gets paid twice what you do, and is a total kiss ass, the only part of that that affects you is that he is next to you. his performance and teamwork are important to you getting your job done. what he gets paid, and how he gets along with the boss aren’t your concern. in the morning, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and approve of what you see. he has to do the same. would you trade your self respect and the years of brown nosing for what he has? if so, do it. if not, why would you resent it?

    The other side of that argument was the “talented negotiator” and i think this is what bothers me most about working for the union. someone else does the negotiation. they decide what is important, and what isn’t. they decide what to sacrifice. this has 2 bad results. first, union members tend to be very bad negotiators, and this is a skill that applies to the rest of your life. and 2nd, because they aren’t making the decisions as to what is/isn’t important, i’ve found union workers to be the most dissatisfied workers i’ve ever known. they don’t for the most part complain about money or benefits, as the general life/career. resenting both the company and the union. as neither does enough for them. competition is healthy, it helps you focus on what is important to you.

    Negotiation is what you are doing. you choose to rent your time to increase your savings to retire early. now the job you have fits with your goals. but you first have to acknowledge the tradeoff. not negotiating makes it harder to acknowledge the tradeoff, so harder to realize the options.

    we live in a world that has educated us to “get along”. we are encouraged to model our education toward employment by teachers who’ve never done anything but get educated, then get a state union job. of course they value education and unions and employment, their world has no room for anything else, and the spend their few thoughts of CEOs resenting them as greedy SOB’s. of course this will rub off over 13 years of “education”. So your “So they should take the $100k a year from the workers and pay the CEO, what, $200M/year?” argument is understandable, even though it is a total straw man. what a CEO does and what a lineman does are not in anyway comparable. i’m no fan of Ivan S, but i realize that his compensation comes from the board of director’s view of what he can do to the stock price. not how well he can run the company. not whether he can cut raises by 2%, but the belief that he can raise stock prices. this is the ultimate case of worrying about someone else’s deal. it just focuses your resentment, rather than allowing you to focus on your own goals…

    As to the ‘unions are the only reason we aren’t all disposable coal miners’ argument, that’s just sad union propaganda. yes, times were hard in nonunion mines. and nonunion factories, blah, blah. but it was technology and the economic progress of the world that has fixed these things. although i rarely hear anyone giving credit where it is due.

    let me give you an example of what i’m talking about. my grandmother was born in 1906. when she was 6 years old, she and her uncle hitched up the wagon and drove it from Colorado to Washington, with her walking most of the way. the first wagon had gone the year before with her parents and older sister, to start the homestead in Bremerton. I heard about this story when i was real young, and thought about how hard things were “in the olden days”. but it wasn’t until she died, and i was an adult before i looked back, and saw that there was a railroad going right down most of that path, and it’d been there for over 30 years. i bring this up, because of the timeframe. in 1912, in the midst of the early union movement, a 6 year old girl walking interstate beside the wagon was common enough not to be commented on, but today, that would unquestionably be called child abuse.

    crossing from Colorado to Washington in a minivan with your niece is an epic sacrifice, deserving of great sympathy around the water cooler. the difference? an economy and technology that makes the minivan commonly available and the roads to use them on.

    the rest of the world follows suit. things get better as there is more to share. and let me be clear, everything IS shared. go read David Copperfield again. now realize that David is the young child in an upper middle class house. he lives in a world with far more economic sacrifice than the poor today. The unions didn’t do that, the economy and technology did. but the unions WILL claim the credit.

  11. Posted September 10, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    i’m no fan of Ivan S, but i realize that his compensation comes from the board of director’s view of what he can do to the stock price. not how well he can run the company. not whether he can cut raises by 2%, but the belief that he can raise stock prices. this is the ultimate case of worrying about someone else’s deal. it just focuses your resentment, rather than allowing you to focus on your own goals…

    But this whole discussion is about worrying about other people’s deals, not our own. This is isn’t about my cut. This is about public policy. This is about other people. It’s about creating an economy where my neighbors can live with dignity without being abused.

    i think this is what bothers me most about working for the union. someone else does the negotiation. they decide what is important, and what isn’t. they decide what to sacrifice.

    So go work in a field or for a company where there isn’t a union. You’re free to do that.

  12. riggerjack
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I agree, we are talking about policy, not unions, though that part keeps coming up, as it is a central thread in your post.

    i agree that wide gaps in the haves/have nots is not a good thing.

    where i disagree is the idea that unions are a fix to this issue. or even that they in any way help with this issue. for the most part, i believe they are PR machines more than anything spinning a narrative of sympathy but getting none of the results they claim credit for.

    in every case, where there is a strong union, and above market pay/bennies, it’s because there is a strong market deviation. bad regulation making inefficient markets. this doesn’t in any way hurt the top 1%, this hurts the bottom 25%.

    when i was a younger man, just getting out of the army, i tried to get on as an electrician’s apprentice, but all electrical work around here is union. except as i later found out, residential, run by white letter electricians.

    So i went to the union hall, and tried to sign up. seems there’s an interview before getting on the waiting list, and the guy doing the interview asked who sent me.
    well, i looked them up in the phone book.
    “wait. you mean your dad isn’t in this local?”
    “and you don’t have any uncles or cousins or friends here?”
    not yet.
    “so why the fuck am i talking to you? MARY, get this punk outta here.”

    needless to say, i was discouraged. i eventually found a residential electrician who hired me as a cash under the table helper. no apprenticeship program, or benefits, but 7 bucks an hour paid the rent.

    that’s where i heard the story of white letter electricians. Doc, was a former union electrician, who’d worked back east, but married a girl from the west coast, and followed her back here. he signed the books at the local, 46, in this case, but he had no seniority, so he ended up working at boeing. big aerospace contractor. they are so big, they have their own staff of sparkies, issue their own permits, and do their own inspections, etc. now the sparkies are union local 46.
    turns out, the 747′s start slowing down, cutbacks are being made everywhere, this makes for a pretty slow local economy, boeing is the big dog in town. at some point, boeing decides to lay off their entire staff of sparkies. there 1600 electricians on the books at 46, and over 200 are waiting for their dispatch call, in short unemployed. now boeing lays off 300 more electricians. soon, the line for work will be 500 guys long. so, the local does the right thing, they called a vote without notifying the guys at boeing, to see if they should do something about this. out of this meeting, a committee was formed to see what could be done. and this committee was full of out of work electricians. their solution: you boeing guys won’t be needed any more, thanks for your efforts and we really appreciate your help.” on a white letter.
    so these guys didn’t just lose their jobs, they also lost their union memberships. they went out and formed small companies that completely took over the residential electrical work, and then did everything to keep the unions out.

    now the kicker for me was, doc loved the unions, his best times were on union jobs. he scoffed at my beater nissan p/u, and talked about when he was back east “some joker showed up on site with one of those datsuns, so one of the guys pulled the top off a propane tank, and pulled a sparkplug wire from the datsun and left the two together. the residual propane blew up and taught that s.o.b. you drive a union built car to a union site.”

    the reason anyone knows anything about the blues today is when the edison recorders were recording music, the union put a stop to union members being recorded. so we know about blues and early black music today, because the unions wouldn’t take colored folk.

    the davis beacon act that requires union equivalent wages on gov funded work was brought up to keep southern blacks from working in NY.

    if you look into the coal wars in virginia coal mines, there was mineowner thug on union hero violence. and we hear all about that. but there was also union on non union violence. that isn’t so well publicised.

    after doc retired, i heard from a friend’s friend (whose folks were electricians, so he was an apprentice) about a back door into the union, by being a “teledata tech”. it meant no apprenticeship, but at least i could work. they didn’t have an apprenticeship. it was a new program. so for the 3 years i was there, they’d find the jobs, i’d go to work, show that i knew what i was doing, and negotiate my own raise. that would last til winter, or i pissed someone off, etc. on my way out, when i hired into GTE’s structured cable group, they were still calling me a tech 1, trying to send me out for $9.04 an hour in 1999.

    that same guy who told me “why am i talking to you” wanted me to go out on my time and salt a non union company.

    but enough about my experiences with the brotherhood. we’re talking policy here, right? getting the common man a respectable wage and all that.

    we’ve had 100 years of unions, and the only place they can make a dent is with politics and regulation. but who does that help? it helps the unions. it helps their political allies. but it screws the customer. and it eventually destroys the industry.

    look at detroit. that town’s been UNIONIZED! good solid middle class there now isn’t there?

    how about health care, strong unions. and no need for a better price.

    ooh! public education! no need for a fix there. of course you need a master’s degree to teach kindergarten.

    areospace. it’s such a over regulated, protected industry, that even the unions can’t do much damage there. that’ll fold to foriegn competition at some point, but not French.

    i’ve worked as both a union and non union construction worker, and the difference was dues and dispatch, no real difference in pay or benefits, but no regulation to force nonunion workers out, either. overall, i lied union better, dispatch beats job interviews and resumes.

    so, since union isn’t the middle class fix, how about regulation? raise the minimum wage, or make a 24 hour work week, something like that?

    well, jacking up the minimum wage just increases unemployment among those most in need of work. businesses that depend on minimum wage labor will jack prices, lay off workers and go under…

    but a 24 hour work week. that would suddenly fix the unemployment problem. but then you will be hit with inflation as labor/benefits cost skyrockets, and cut back on the purchasing power of the working class. i don’t think you’ll get any thank you cards.

    The only thing i can think to do is stop changing the #$@! rules.

    this current economic “crisis” has followed step by step the creation of the great depression.

    1 big financial meltdown from over leveraged assets.

    2.a republican president who was going to “step in and fix it” Hoover was actually known as a great problem solver, he really thought he could change up some rules, wave some money around, and walk right through a re-election.

    3. A populist Democrat with Big Ideas for fixing the economy. he then proceeeded to follow Mussolini’s fine fascist examples and scared the bejesus out of anyone with capital.

    4. Keep making changes to keep the monied interests on their heels. you don’t want them feeling like it’s safe to start a business, a foul economy always results in democratic re-election. voters don’t know economics.

    5. when war happens, blow up every competing economy’s capital. level them. kill generations of men, bring their pretty young women home with your GIs, and then claim to be an economic genius when you “fix the economy” after 16 years of shit and you can now ramp up production as the sole surviving industrial producer.

    Step 5 is where it all went wrong. Iraq and afganistan would never be very good customers, certainly not enough to fix our lack of demand.

    so all i can say is if you want the common man to be better off, stop screwing with business, repeal obomacare, and let capital flow to where ever it’s most productive. employment will follow, and then go crazy with the whole democratic platform.

    without profits, there is no money for nonprofits.

  13. riggerjack
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    how’s that for a rambling rant?

  14. Posted September 14, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    You win, riggerjack.

    I think my ability to argue has been overwhelmed by brute force in the form of sheer volume.