Workers in a hospital are sick of management violating their collective bargaining agreement. Their work is ever more stressful: hours keep getting longer; patient loads rise; safety rules are ignored. They tell their union steward that it is time to bombard the bosses with grievances before they explode in rage. He tells them, “You better not do that. You’re lucky to have a job.”
In every industry in the United States, there are more people seeking employment than jobs available. Conservatives and liberals alike say we have to put men and women to work. They differ in how they would achieve this, but both shout out the mantra, “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Little is ever said about the kinds of jobs that need to be created. What will they pay? Will they provide benefits? Will they be interesting, safe, fulfilling, socially useful?
Perhaps the reason we don’t ask such questions is that we take our work for granted, beyond our control and as inevitable as the rising sun. But looked at in the long sweep of human existence, the jobs we do and the way we do them are unlike anything we did before the rise of capitalism.
For most of our time on earth, we both conceptualized our labors and performed them. There was no separate group that figured out what we should do and then ordered us to do it. All work was skilled, and the pace and location of it were determined by us. No sharp distinctions were made between work and other social activities. It is true that with class societies such as slavery and feudalism, we were severely exploited, but even in them the unity of conception and execution remained mainly intact. To the extent that wages were paid, they were set by custom and tradition and not by an impersonal market. Unemployment was unknown because we were tied directly to the land and tools that, with our labors, gave us sustenance.
Once capitalism entered the world stage, the jobs we performed and the work we did underwent profound changes. The connections we had to the land were torn asunder, and we became radically “free,” free of what allowed us to live. To survive, we were forced to become wage laborers. In capitalism our capacity to work thus became a commodity, something bought and sold. The buyers, our employers, owned this capacity just as they owned the buildings, and like any privately owned property, the owners were legally free to use our labor power as they saw fit.
Our bosses, themselves hired managers, had one goal—to see to it that their companies made as much money as possible. Then the capitalists took the profits and expanded their businesses. To make these things happen, they did whatever they could to convert as much of our labor power as possible into actual work effort. This, in turn, dictated that our employers control the way we did our jobs as tightly as possible. No matter what goods and services we produced, we could not be allowed to interfere with the smooth flow of labor, tools, land, and materials into saleable commodities.
Capitalists have employed a variety of “control mechanisms” to accomplish their goals. They herded us into factories, so that they could watch us and make sure we worked with due diligence for as long as possible each day. Factory whistles told us when to begin and when to end our daily labors; failure to obey their commanding sounds resulted in us being disciplined or fired. The managers who observed us discovered that we divided our tasks into simpler details, to make our efforts more efficient. Why not, they reasoned, assign different workers to each detail, and in this way economize on skilled labor and lower the overall cost of producing a pair of shoes, a straight pin, or a piece of meat. When they had to, they hired women and children to do the least skilled jobs; they got the kids from orphanages when we wouldn’t send our children into the dark, satanic mills.
Repetitive detail work lent itself to the introduction of machinery. Soon series of mechanically connected machines were configured into assembly lines. These controlled more completely the pace and intensity of our work. In Karl Marx’s famous words, we became “appendages to the machines.”
Once these basic mechanisms were employed, industrial engineers and scientists systematized everything, and control became ever more refined and insidious. The process was complicated, but the thrust of it was simple. The engineers studied our motions and how long it took us to make each one. They then reorganized these to minimize both, demanding that we carry out each job’s motions and times according to their specifications. Or else. They began to recruit us systematically, with batteries of tests and interviews, so that those of us hired were best suited to take orders and labor as we were told. The bosses instituted “team production,” so that, in military fashion, we were inculcated with a sense of duty to our team members and not to the working class. Our jobs were continuously stressed—by speeding up the assembly line, reducing the number of members in our teams, denying us materials. Then they pressured us to figure out how to get production back up to standard. We soon learned that there would never be relief from the stress.
The great capitalists organized the markets in which we toiled so that core firms—automobile manufacturing plants, for example—were surrounded by parts supplier plants—such as those producing automobile steering assemblies. The supplier companies delivered the parts “just-in-time,” that is, only when needed by the core companies, thus saving money on inventories, storage space, and, most importantly, our labor. Employers also used modern electronic technology and the enormous pool of underutilized labor worldwide to offshore and outsource as much production as possible to places with lower wages. They used their tremendous political power to get governments to do their bidding: through laws, subsidies, tax breaks, and austerity measures that raised our economic insecurity.
It might be argued that tight managerial control was the price we had to pay for decent wages, benefits, and a modicum of security. Unfortunately, the bargain was a false one. In this richest of countries, nearly 28 percent of all jobs pay a wage that, with full-time, year-round work, would not support a family of four at the meager official poverty level of income ($23,021 in 2011). Wages have stagnated in terms of purchasing power for the past forty years; for production and nonsupervisory private sector workers they are barely higher today than in 1973. Fewer and fewer of us have pensions other than social security, which itself has become less generous. The same can be said for health care, paid vacations and holidays, and paid leaves, none of which are legally mandated. Unemployment and part-time work threaten all of us, and insufficient employment is made more likely both by the control mechanisms described above (for example, the job displacement effects of mechanization and outsourcing) and the greater likelihood of financial meltdowns in the global economy. Except when the federal government extends the coverage of the unemployment insurance system, fewer than half of us even qualify for benefits.
We have resisted control when we could. But whether we did or not, our work became ever more controlled and stressful. On the automobile assembly line, workers labor fifty-seven seconds out of every minute. At a Nabisco plant in California, employees had to wear Depends diapers because there were no mandatory breaks. Hotel room attendants have to clean more than twenty-five rooms a day. At a Walmart in Alabama, a supervisor punished some infractions by his team by making them have a thirty-minute meeting in the freezer. In the booming North Dakota oil and gas fields, workers suffer “burns from hot water,” “hands and fingers crushed by steel tongs,” and “injuries from chains that have whipsawed them off their feet.” Pick a workplace, any workplace: call centers, chicken processing plants, grocery stores, hospitals, colleges. A litany of horrors awaits us there. Our bodies and minds are ever more the worse for wear because we work. We are all, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, caught in the tentacles of mechanisms beyond our control.
A recent Facebook post gives us a remarkable insight into work life today. When the phrase “work makes me . . .” was made the subject of a Google search, here are some of the words Google put forward as the most common endings to this phrase:
Where is “joyous,” “happy,” “feel socially useful,” “human,” “more physically and mentally developed.” We can’t imagine such endings. What an indictment of that which should be an integral part of our lives, something that gives us worth and shines a light most brightly on the essence of our humanity.
* This essay was first published in counterpunch: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/01/the-perils-of-work/