Our Labor Is Used to Create Wealth for Others. Let’s Reclaim It to Make Life.

In the last years of his life, my father spent many days in intensive care. He had emphysema, the product of too many cigarettes and exposure to asbestos and silica dust at the glass factory where he labored for 44 years. Once during a visit, he said from his oxygen tent that a man was following the nurses around, marking down whatever they did. The nurses were trying to form a labor union, and the observer was noting their times and motions, no doubt in an effort to spot wasted efforts that had to be corrected and to intimidate them. My father said, “Dad did that to me once.”

My grandfather was an industrial engineer, the company man with the stopwatch timing workers’ motions so that these could be reengineered and the workers ordered to perform their jobs with greater “efficiency”; that is, faster, resulting in increased glass production per hour and more profits for the employer. Grandpa “time-studied” his son, illustrating perfectly that workers, no matter their capacities, interests — in a word, their humanity — are, to those who hire them, simply commodities to be manipulated and controlled. Treated no differently than the raw materials, tools, machinery and buildings with which the employees interact to produce the goods and services of modern society.

I have studied and written about work for more than 50 years, my own and that of many others, to uncover its nature, what its consequences are for those who do it, and what might be done to change it for the better. My last book reflects what I have learned; it is titled Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle. Its thesis is simple. In a capitalist economy, businesses, spurred by incessant competition, seek to make maximum profits and to use these to achieve high, unending growth. To get what they want, however, they must rigorously control what goes on in their workplaces. The power to do this is embedded in the nature of our system: A few individuals own society’s productive wealth, while the many need access to it to survive. The latter then must sell their ability to work to the former. While the advantage obviously lies with the few, the desires of employers and workers diverge, as anyone who has worked knows. Those who labor are controlled, treated as objects, but this necessarily negates the fact that workers cannot think of themselves as commodities. Workplaces are thus alive with tensions. Management must try to control the labor process, the way in which work is done, if it is to thrive, but this must be done in the face of potential resistance, in form of sabotage, slowdowns, strikes, picketing, boycotts, mass quitting and political agitations.

The essence of management is control, and the history of capitalism is but a sequence of the implementation of “control mechanisms.” (My book provides the detail of these, their effects on workers and the possibilities for radically changing the way we labor. Here we can give only a summary.) At capitalism’s dawn, people worked at home, producing cloth, for example, with wool loaned (put out) to them by merchants who were now capitalists. When this proved inefficient, the owners of the wool herded the weavers into factories, hiring women and children (often orphans) to aid them. Here, the employer could watch them to make sure they stole no wool and, importantly, to see exactly how they performed their labor tasks. The factory whistle served to habituate those who toiled inside to the rhythms of a new work regimen, punishing those who were late or left early.

The supervisors hired to watch over their charges soon saw that a person trained in a craft divided his task into component parts — that is, details or subtasks. It was a short step to see that it would be cheaper to hire untrained workers — at first, mainly women and orphaned children — to do the details and reserve the craftsmen for what the untrained laborers could not do. The number of people who could perform each detail was very large, and this kept wages low and employees fearful of being easily replaced. Once power sources such as water wheels and steam engines could make effort independent of the workers’ bodies, some of the subtasks were mechanized. Machines could control workers directly, making them “appendages” to a mechanism, to use Karl Marx’s famous word. Furthermore, as mechanization became more sophisticated, work became further degraded, such that the human ingenuity needed for the labor process to proceed successfully diminished as the level of mechanization increased.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Frederick Taylor took the existing managerial control mechanism — centralization in factories, the detailed division of labor and mechanization — and systematized them into what he termed, “scientific management.” The conceptualization of work processes would be the sole prerogative of the employer. His band of industrial engineers would do what my grandfather did. Workers would now simply be machine-like parts in an automatic system, carrying our explicit orders and nothing else. Personnel departments, now called Human Resources, offered carrots and sticks, such as incentive plans, modest fringe benefits, demotions, transfers and terminations to keep workers happily and fearfully hard at work. If readers intuit that Taylor’s aim was to speed up production so that profits rose, they would be correct.

Led by the Toyota Corporation, “Taylorism” has been extended and deepened in what is called “lean production,” or as its critics call it, “management by stress.” This form of control includes many elements:

* Systematic Hiring: Employers use metadata, personality tests and interviews to find people who easily take orders, identify with business, won’t likely support a union and will tolerate an intense work environment.

* Team Production: Using techniques developed by the military, companies divide employees into teams, fostering team loyalty and a competitive spirit in which workers are happy to pit themselves against other teams, plants and business rivals.

The cover of <i>Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle</i>.
The cover of Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle.

* Cross-Training: Here, the idea is to have people think they are learning new skills, while the reality is that they are simply learning to do other subtasks. Work processes had already destroyed the integrity of task (skilled) labor in which one person performed a job from beginning to end. A metalsmith with a work order to make 100 funnels would make the pattern and then do each of these subtasks 100 times in succession: layout, cutting, shaping, joining, polishing and decorating (if needed). If people are hired to do each subtask only, then metalsmiths need only make the pattern. With cross-training, a person might be trained to do two instead of one of the subtasks, neither of which requires much knowledge or training.

* Just-in-Time Inventory: Parts, such as car steering wheels, are produced in subsidiary plants (saving money because the subsidiary workers are paid less, even if unionized, and now no money will be spent on inventory space and maintenance by the main plant). Workers in the primary facility will now be fearful their work will be subcontracted. For some production, it is possible that the external facilities will be exported abroad, further splitting the workforce and lowering costs. Today, this concept can be applied to workers, from those in fast food to the adjunct faculty that teach most of the classes in U.S. colleges, resulting in extreme stress and insecurity.

* Kaizen: Japanese word for “constant improvement.” This is a perpetual speed-up mechanism. For example, an assembly line might be sped up, a team might lose a member or inventory might be in short supply. Teams are then expected to solve the problem. This is where cross-training is most useful to businesses. Extreme pressure is put on teams, often through a system of lights that can go from green (good) to yellow (warning for teams to start hustling) to red (production will stop, and woe to the workers). Now, U.S. auto workers can expect, as a result of Kaizen, to work 57 seconds out of every minute.

* Extreme Surveillance: I call this the “panopticon,” after philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s plan for a circular prison with cells arranged so a guard can see all those incarcerated without them knowing if he was watching. Grandpa would have been astounded at the extent and degree to which employees are subject to employer monitoring. App developers are in competition to supply employers with ever more invasive ways to spy on those they employ. Even consumers have been used by businesses like hotels and colleges to surveil workers. What else can we call student evaluations, including external ones such as Rate My Professor and ratings on websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor?

The effects on workers of all this control are wholly negative — stress, diminished mental and physical health, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and sometimes violent behavior — just what we would expect when human beings toil under the command of others. The etymological roots of the word “work” connote torment, compulsion, affliction and persecution. These well reflect the reality of labor for most of the world’s toilers. The global labor force is about 3.5 billion persons. Of these, 800 million are farmworkers. Partly uncounted in the labor force are at least 160 million child laborers, some of them under 10 years old toiling in dangerous workplaces such as metal mines. In 2020, there were about 1.5 billion people in “vulnerable” employment: self-employed women, men and children doing everything from making deliveries, sewing clothes, producing cheap cigarettes, and selling goods and services on the streets to scavenging mine waste for saleable metal and garbage dumps looking for anything that can be converted to cash. Even in the richest country in the world, which workers would not grasp these words immediately among the tens of millions who deliver mail and packages; drive trucks and buses; labor along the assembly and disassembly lines that give us our cars, trucks and meat; clerk in grocery stores and other retail establishments; sweat on kitchen lines preparing food; provide our health care; clean our offices and buildings; teach in our schools; do clerical work; perform yard work; build houses; tar our roofs and road; and many other labors large and small?

On this Labor Day, perhaps it is time for all members of the world’s working class, to ask themselves, why is work so often a “torment,” an “affliction,” done under “compulsion”? Why does it feel as if our bosses are “persecuting” us? Why does it wreck our bodies? Why does it seem so meaningless? It certainly doesn’t have to be and was not for most of our time on Earth. And then ask, if this is true, how can we create a society in which we control our own labor, where work is a natural and necessary part of life, one we do to produce the essentials of life, not for someone else’s riches but for use by everyone, equally and in harmony with the natural world?

In answer to these questions, perhaps every labor union, workers’ center, grassroots political organization and newly formed groups of those who want to change the world should embrace the slogan of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” Use the wealth of unions, political organizations and the pooled money of workers to buy land and produce food on it collectively; build new, cheap, energy-efficient housing — training people to both do and control the work. Forge worker-community cooperatives and collectives. Pressure governments everywhere to aid these efforts. Compel employers, by organized strength, to change the way work is done. Demand a say over the introduction of new technology. Insist on an end to employer surveillance.

The possibilities are many, and the goal of unalienated work is of the greatest importance. How can capitalism be transcended and a new world constructed unless the essence of this system — controlled labor — is abolished?