Suffering at Work: Break the Taboo

Unions continue to raise the alarm over incidents of extreme suffering at work and to point to the prevailing management model as responsible. In Renault factories, workers and executives, supported by researchers, attempt to find a parry to the malaise. Ergonomist Francois Daniellou makes the accusation that the economic crisis serves to test how far employers can go in terms of flexibility.

For the majority of employees, work occupies a third of the day. Yet, people talk about it so little! We worry about unemployment, conditions of access to jobs or salary levels, but these concerns are not work itself. We wonder about stress, suffering, “burn-outs” and tragic suicides. Although they are its consequences, they are not work itself. We compare the competitiveness of employees; we cut costs; we revel in the “cash flow” cleared for financiers. Although all that affects the manner of work, it still does not always reflect the work itself. Buried beneath financial capitalism's growth curves and “quality” control barometers, work is individualized, timed, benchmarked, Power-Pointed. It is continually evaluated, but everything is organized so as to never talk about the way to work well – or badly. Even companies' – forced – interest in preventing stress avoids the subject: one institutes a green number here, a listening unit there; one trains managers to detect at-risk employees; one resorts to a psychologist or a yoga teacher.

But reopening spaces such that employees may express themselves, together, about their work and its organization so as to avoid aberrations is out of the question. For talking about work and its constraints in such a way as to assure best production, client satisfaction, patient care, is to return power to employees and to take it from managers. That would be reintroducing democracy where it has been banished by the orders and the objectives and the surveillance imposed on workers. That would be reopening the door to collective action to change people's lives at work – or people's lives, period. The union workers at Renault, at France Telecom and elsewhere, supported by researchers, understand that. Their painstaking work on the factory floor and in “open spaces” prefigures the renewal of union action that will once again become emancipating.

Leslie Thatcher is Truthout's literary editor, French translator and sometime book reviewer.