“Bud is examining airplane windshields destined for the F111 fighter jet. It is the late 1960s, and he has been working for nearly thirty years at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in a small town forty miles north of the city. The glass will sit in the plane’s cockpit at a very shallow angle, so any flaws in the glass will be magnified. It is high-pressure work. The company wants to ship flawless glass, but if he rejects too many pieces, the foreman will be unhappy. As will workers down the line, who get incentive pay for the number of plates that go through their stations. Bud works under high-intensity lamps, giving him constant eyestrain and headaches. He copes by gulping aspirins and smoking cigarettes. Several of the latter are burning simultaneously on his table. He’s drained when he gets home, where there will be other demands to satisfy. Later that evening, he will coach kids in a local sports league. Unless, of course, he is working shifts and has the miserable 4 PM to midnight stint, which wrecks much of the day before the whistle calls him back to the endless plates of glass. Many years later, when he is retired, after 44 years of hard labor, he is dying of emphysema, the product of all those cigarettes, plus the asbestos and silica dust in the factory. He ruefully remembers a boss telling him that if you could see the dust, it wouldn’t harm you. He tells his son, who remembers still what he said, “Mike, I didn’t think it would be like this.” As we will see, Bud’s plight is no less applicable to the world’s workers today than it was then.” Perhaps more so. He was in a union, with rights few now have.”
These days, we read newspaper and magazine reports about working people. How they had to cope with the spread of COVID in their workplaces. How working from home, especially if you were a woman with children, was exhausting. That tens of millions quit their jobs, and how tens of thousands more are forming labor unions. But we almost never see anything about the nature of work, exactly how it is done, what effect it has on the minds and bodies of those who do it, and why it is organized in a special way, radically different than in most of human existence. Bud felt the effects of his work. But did he and those who toiled in that glass factory understand the larger forces shaping their jobs? Do workers today?
“Words indicating labour in most European languages originate in an imagery of compulsion, torment, affliction and persecution.” Humans cannot live unless they combine what is available to them in the natural world with their capacity to labor. This is what we must do to produce the food, clothing, and shelter necessary for life to continue. But why should this be a torment? It certainly wasn’t for most of our time on earth. We lived in bands of gatherers and hunters, and exerting labor to bring forth useful products collectively was a normal part of life. Anthropologists tell us that our ancestors didn’t have to exert an extraordinary amount of energy to provide life’s necessities; there was plenty of time for what today we might call leisure activities: singing, dancing, chanting, drawing on cave walls. People performed complex tasks, the learning of which helped mark the transition from child to adult, as a member of a cohesive community. The distribution of what was produced was remarkably equal by today’s standards, and skill at something like hunting did not guarantee a larger proportion of the resulting food. Of considerable importance, work did not much disturb the metabolism of the natural world. The gatherers and hunters acted as one with the earth.
By contrast, work in modern society is a torment, an affliction arising from the nature of the economic system, which could not be more antithetical to the way we labored for more than 95 percent of the 200, 000 years of Homo Sapiens’ existence. Our labor has become a commodity, something bought and sold in the marketplace, just like any other commodity, no different in principle than raw materials, equipment, and the buildings that house our workplaces. And just as these non-human commodities are the property of those who own them, so too is our capacity to work. When we are working, we, in effect, belong to our employers. Materials and machines must be put into production in a controlled manner, and so must we. The essence of management in a capitalist economy is control.
From the employer’s point of view, control over workers is the most critical kind of command because those who toil are the only active elements in all enterprises, whether private or public, the latter being in most cases an adjunct of the former. Not only are we indispensable for all businesses to make profits and grow—the imperative drives of all private enterprises—but we are also the only commodity that can disrupt production and halt the flow of profits that makes growth possible. Workers have always protested their commodity status, rioting, forming labor unions, building political organizations, even fomenting revolution.
Given the disparate circumstances of those who supply and demand labor (those who supply are very much greater in number than those who demand), workers are ever fearful that they might not be hired or, if they are, that they will be discharged, demoted, transferred, laid off. This fear exerts what we might call an internal form of control. We obey management’s orders because not to do so could be catastrophic. We must work, and we do not typically have enough money and other liquid assets to be idle, even for a short period. In time, most of us become habituated to our circumstances, seeing them as inevitable. We are fated to labor, so best to get used to it.
But because this internal control has not proved sufficient to stop employee resistance, employers have nurtured and developed other techniques to make sure that the labor process, that is, the way in which work is done, ensures a steady and predictable stream of output. Corporations put pressure on governments to pass laws and use their police power to keep workers in line. Sometimes, businesses have had police forces of their own to do the same. The history of every capitalist country in the world is replete with examples, many gruesome, of violence perpetrated against workers who have had the temerity to challenge employer control. To pick just one, between 1971 and 2018, 3,280 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia.
Inside every workplace, management control mechanisms have been put in place, the result of which has been stress, injuries, depression, and a profound sense of alienation, the consequence of living under the control of others. Workers were first herded into central locations—factories—where they could be disciplined by the factory whistle and time clock and where they could be constantly observed. Soon, supervisors noted that craft work typically divided their tasks into discrete details, so that they could fill an order more quickly. For example, once the pattern for a metal funnel was completed, with a task of 100 funnels, a metalsmith would perform each part of the production process sequentially—layout of the pattern on a sheet of metal, cutting, shaping, joining, and polishing—100 times. So, why not assign women and children, often orphans, to do detail labor, doing one subtask repetitively, every day, greatly reducing costs and making most workers interchangeable parts? Machines soon mechanized some of these details, and then interconnected machines gave us the assembly line, with laborers becoming appendages to its incessant pace. Frederick Taylor rationalized the control mechanisms of his day, inventing “scientific management,” whereby all conceptualization of work processes is monopolized by the employer, and workers simply carry out pre-planned orders. Personnel (human resource) departments implemented carrot and stick approaches to force compliance to the new dispensation, with Henry Ford’s motor company a prime example.
Since Taylor, management gurus, led by the Toyota Corporation, devised “lean production,” with its systematic hiring, work teams, cross-training, just-in-time inventories, and kaizen. This last, Japanese for “constant improvement,” is an insidious form of continuous speed-up. Management stresses the production system—by, for example, taking away a team member or speeding up an assembly line—and work teams are pressured to keep production running smoothly. Autoworker Ben Hamper, author of Rivethead, described modern auto factories as gulags. And no wonder. Workers must labor 57 seconds of every minute.
Lean production has also meant a monitoring of workers that far surpasses anything Taylor and his band of industrial engineers could have imagined. A Whole Foods grocery store will have so many cameras and hand-held scanners that employees have to search the store for a safe place to talk. Algorithms abound. Companies are always inventing new ways to watch their workers, whether they toil at home or away from it. Customers often participate in this monitoring. What else can we call ubiquitous student evaluations of ever-more insecure adjunct college professors but worker control mechanisms. Or Yelp and TripAdvisor customer reviews. Workplaces today bear a striking resemblance to the panopticon of Jeremy Bentham, in which prisons were to be designed so that the prisoners could be monitored at any time but never knew when they were being watched. Bentham thought that this could be applied to all of society, and that people would behave better to the benefit of all.
Most of us know little about the work most people do. A perusal of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) World Employment and Social Outlook will quickly disabuse the reader of any romantic notions about labor. There are more than 800 million farm laborers globally, producing damaged bodies as they produce our food. In 2020, the ILO estimated that 45 percent of the 3.25 billion persons employed globally were in “vulnerable employment,” working on their “own account,” uncovered by social welfare and labor laws like health and safety statutes and either unemployment or workers’ compensation, and with no fringe benefits. Men, women, and children scavenging garbage dumps, pushing or pulling rickshaws, making deliveries, selling trinkets, food, or lottery tickets on the streets, hunting for scrap metal on gigantic slag heaps.
The sad truth is that for billons of people work is, indeed, a torment. To put it bluntly, employers want our bodies and minds. They wear us out, discard us, and hire new ones. And why? So that the many can make the few rich.
Is there a solution? Not within this system. No amount of union organizing or progressive legislation will alter the nature of work in it. Only a radical change in how work is done and who controls this can make labor once again an integral part of life, one through which we can fully develop our capacities as thinking, acting human beings. Cooperatives and communes, organized and controlled locally, are two avenues to pursue. Producing goods, especially food, and services for use not for profit. But whatever is done, it must be radically democratic, and what is produced must be socially useful, ecologically regenerative, and distributed as equitably as possible. This might sound utopian. But how is what we have been doing going for us?
Michael Yates discussing his book…