It wasn‚Äôt sup¬≠posed to be like this, accord¬≠ing to John May¬≠nard Keynes. In 1930, the econ¬≠o¬≠mist pre¬≠dict¬≠ed that his grand¬≠chil¬≠dren would be work¬≠ing 15-hour work weeks. Tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy would have advanced to the point two gen¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tions after his own that work¬≠ers‚Äô aver¬≠age time on the job would be a frac¬≠tion of what it once was. We would all be strug¬≠gling to fig¬≠ure out what to do with so much free time.
The oppo¬≠site has turned out to be true. Instead of being freed from the tyran¬≠ny of the clock, Amer¬≠i¬≠can work¬≠ers are more shack¬≠led to it than ever, work¬≠ing longer hours, being sub¬≠ject¬≠ed to errat¬≠ic sched¬≠ules, fig¬≠ur¬≠ing out how to work more just to make ends meet, and watch¬≠ing an increas¬≠ing amount of con¬≠trol over their lives slip into the boss¬≠es‚Äô hands.
In his new book Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the Amer¬≠i¬≠can Dream (Basic, Sep¬≠tem¬≠ber 2020), Jamie McCal¬≠lum, a pro¬≠fes¬≠sor of soci¬≠ol¬≠o¬≠gy at Mid¬≠dle¬≠bury Col¬≠lege, exam¬≠ines why and how U.S. work¬≠ers are more tied to the clock than ever, the dam¬≠age this has meant for work¬≠ers‚Äô well-being, and what an agen¬≠da for reclaim that time could look like. We spoke by phone in Sep¬≠tem¬≠ber. This inter¬≠view has been edit¬≠ed for length and clarity.
Explain the over¬≠all sit¬≠u¬≠a¬≠tion for the Amer¬≠i¬≠can work¬≠er and time on the job.
There are three dimen¬≠sions of it. One, the rise of over¬≠all hours worked since the 1970s. Two, an increase in volatil¬≠i¬≠ty and the unpre¬≠dictable nature of work¬≠ers‚Äô sched¬≠ules. Three, work¬≠ers not hav¬≠ing enough hours to make ends meet.
That‚Äôs a con¬≠tra¬≠dic¬≠to¬≠ry sit¬≠u¬≠a¬≠tion, no? Peo¬≠ple are work¬≠ing too many hours, but also not enough hours. There‚Äôs a lack of con¬≠trol of peo¬≠ple‚Äôs over¬≠all time both at work and when they‚Äôre not at work. Either way, peo¬≠ple are sub¬≠ject¬≠ed to a tyran¬≠ny of the clock.
That‚Äôs right. Peo¬≠ple often ask me about this one sta¬≠tis¬≠tic that work time has increased sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant¬≠ly since the 70s for all wage and salary work¬≠ers, which it has. But if you dig into that, you get a dif¬≠fer¬≠ent pic¬≠ture. Most peo¬≠ple are famil¬≠iar with the idea that tech work¬≠ers and lawyers and cor¬≠po¬≠rate lob¬≠by¬≠ists put in 70-hour weeks. They still work the longest out of every¬≠one. But it‚Äôs low-wage work¬≠ers who have increased their work time the most.
So the num¬≠ber of hours that the high¬≠est-paid work¬≠ers work is con¬≠verg¬≠ing with the hours worked by the low¬≠est-paid employ¬≠ees. Is that because the low¬≠est-paid employ¬≠ees, who have been sub¬≠ject to decades‚Äô worth of wage stag¬≠na¬≠tion, are try¬≠ing to make up for that stag¬≠na¬≠tion through work¬≠ing more hours?
Yes. The work¬≠ing rich today tend to pull away from the rest of the peo¬≠ple below them wage-wise through bonus¬≠es, high¬≠er salaries, etc. Peo¬≠ple at the bot¬≠tom do it through work¬≠ing longer hours.
You talk in the book about this his¬≠to¬≠ry of dis¬≠cus¬≠sions of work time. It‚Äôs sim¬≠i¬≠lar to what the late anthro¬≠pol¬≠o¬≠gist David Grae¬≠ber talked about with tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy‚ÄĒhe argued that years ago, we all thought we were going to be liv¬≠ing in this tech¬≠no-utopia, some¬≠thing like The Jet¬≠sons, in which tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy would pro¬≠vide for many of our needs and make life bet¬≠ter and eas¬≠i¬≠er. Instead, we now live in a pret¬≠ty dystopi¬≠an world. That‚Äôs also true of work time.
Thinkers like John May¬≠nard Keynes used to say that we would soon have more free time than we knew what to do with. Instead, we find our¬≠selves work¬≠ing longer hours than ever, and our work is always expand¬≠ing into every nook and cran¬≠ny of our lives. Instead of arriv¬≠ing at a utopia, we‚Äôre in a place where work nev¬≠er ends.
Exact¬≠ly. Keynes thought that we would have a¬†15-hour work week by some¬≠thing like¬†2030. And there were good rea¬≠sons to think that. For about a¬†hun¬≠dred years, the num¬≠ber of hours worked declined. The work day declined, the work week declined. But this began to shift in the¬†70s, when work¬≠ers began return¬≠ing to work¬≠ing longer hours. But Keynes was onto some¬≠thing. I¬†think that he thought increased pro¬≠duc¬≠tion and com¬≠pound inter¬≠est and all the oth¬≠er ris¬≠ing indi¬≠ca¬≠tors of our econ¬≠o¬≠my would lead us to a¬†leisure¬≠ly soci¬≠ety. He was right about the com¬≠pound inter¬≠est part‚ÄĒhe was right about the prof¬≠itabil¬≠i¬≠ty. But he was wrong about the¬†time.¬†
Some¬≠body¬†was col¬≠lect¬≠ing all the wealth dur¬≠ing that time and ben¬≠e¬≠fit¬≠ing off of the advances of the econ¬≠o¬≠my and soci¬≠ety, but it wasn‚Äôt work¬≠ers.
Leisure actu¬≠al¬≠ly is expen¬≠sive. Ben¬≠jamin Kline Hun¬≠ni¬≠cutt wrote a great his¬≠to¬≠ry of this and argues that in the 1940s, peo¬≠ple began desir¬≠ing more leisure. Leisure costs more mon¬≠ey, so they stopped desir¬≠ing short¬≠er hours to work longer, to make more mon¬≠ey to pay for leisure.
When you say they lose their time, you mean they lose con¬≠trol of their life. They do not have con¬≠trol over the most basic thing upon which every¬≠thing else depends‚ÄĒtheir¬†time.
Who¬≠ev¬≠er con¬≠trols labor con¬≠trols time. They con¬≠trol when we have week¬≠ends, when we raise our kids, when we eat, when we sleep, when we get up in the morn¬≠ing, when we go to bed at night. There‚Äôs a rhythm to it that is very attached to work. When our work time is out of our con¬≠trol, so is our oth¬≠er time.
To me, that is crim¬≠i¬≠nal. So there was a¬†moral or eth¬≠i¬≠cal polemic that was run¬≠ning through me when I¬†was writ¬≠ing this book. A¬†‚Äútime squeeze‚ÄĚ is real¬≠ly about peo¬≠ple being pushed around. That is a¬†real¬≠ly dis¬≠mal way to¬†live.
Not to men¬≠tion that you can‚Äôt have things like democ¬≠ra¬≠cy with¬≠out hav¬≠ing the time to par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pate in civic insti¬≠tu¬≠tions, in polit¬≠i¬≠cal activism, in any¬≠thing out¬≠side of your work.
Prac¬≠tic¬≠ing our free¬≠doms and hav¬≠ing a basic demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic exis¬≠tence requires hav¬≠ing free time. If peo¬≠ple are work¬≠ing 50, 60 hours a week, or they‚Äôre des¬≠per¬≠ate¬≠ly try¬≠ing to scrape togeth¬≠er a hodge¬≠podge life, it‚Äôs hard to orga¬≠nize. All those things are dis¬≠rupt¬≠ed when we have the kind of work¬≠ing rhythm that we do.
In addi¬≠tion to being unable to par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pate in demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic life,¬†the work¬≠place itself is the fur¬≠thest thing from a¬†democracy.¬†It‚Äôs a¬†dic¬≠ta¬≠tor¬≠ship, in which your boss is king. And then when you‚Äôre home, in your time that you were sup¬≠posed to have to do what¬≠ev¬≠er you want, you‚Äôre instead wor¬≠ry¬≠ing about work‚ÄĒthe unde¬≠mo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic r√©gime of the work¬≠place extends into your¬†home.
Sta¬≠tis¬≠tics cap¬≠ture leisure as time, but what we call leisure is typ¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly spent recov¬≠er¬≠ing from work in order to return back to work. And even aside from demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic norms, we need time for hol¬≠i¬≠days or enjoy¬≠ing breaks or the great out¬≠doors. You need space and real dis¬≠tance to actu¬≠al¬≠ly pon¬≠der and con¬≠sid¬≠er your life. And if all you‚Äôre doing is think¬≠ing about the job you just came from and prepar¬≠ing to go back to it the next day, you don‚Äôt have time to do it.
Talk about the details of this time r√©gime of 21st-cen¬≠tu¬≠ry work. How is the time r√©gime enforced? What are the mechanisms?
I became inter¬≠est¬≠ed in this project because of the¬†‚Äúfair work¬≠week‚ÄĚ move¬≠ment, which I¬†think is one of the most vis¬≠i¬≠ble exam¬≠ples today of work¬≠ers orga¬≠niz¬≠ing for the con¬≠trol of time. The move¬≠ment high¬≠lights a¬†lot of low-wage retail, food ser¬≠vice, health¬≠care and trans¬≠porta¬≠tion work¬≠ers whose work lives are dis¬≠rupt¬≠ed by peri¬≠ods of unpre¬≠dictable and volatile breaks. They‚Äôre unpre¬≠dictable by design. Their sched¬≠ules are pur¬≠pose¬≠ly removed from their con¬≠trol and often giv¬≠en to either an algo¬≠rithm or a¬†super¬≠vi¬≠sor, both of which will make the sched¬≠ule that is obvi¬≠ous¬≠ly best for that par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar com¬≠pa¬≠ny, not the¬†worker.¬†
I worked in retail when I¬†was younger, and I‚Äôd be sched¬≠uled three weeks in advance. That‚Äôs just not the case any¬≠more. I¬†remem¬≠ber doing inter¬≠views on¬†34th¬†Street in New York City, a¬†main shop¬≠ping area, and in Burling¬≠ton, Ver¬≠mont. When you talk to sales clerks, they‚Äôll say,¬†‚ÄúI got my sched¬≠ule three days ago. But I‚Äôm being sent home ear¬≠ly today at¬†3:15¬†PM.‚ÄĚ They‚Äôre sent home at the exact moment they‚Äôre no longer need¬≠ed. Those sched¬≠ules are based upon a¬†pre¬≠dic¬≠tive algo¬≠rithm that cal¬≠cu¬≠lates the opti¬≠mum amount of sales¬≠peo¬≠ple and sales hours on the floor based upon the weath¬≠er, the time of year,¬†etc.¬†
So your sched¬≠ule is more like¬≠ly to be cut. Or alter¬≠na¬≠tive¬≠ly, you‚Äôre more like¬≠ly to be held over. Work¬≠ers become com¬≠plete¬≠ly exhaust¬≠ed, not just by being over¬≠worked, but by being over¬≠run by the unpredictability.
Talk about the Dunkin‚Äô Donuts work¬≠er you profiled.
Maria Fer¬≠nan¬≠des worked at three dif¬≠fer¬≠ent Dunkin‚Äô Donuts loca¬≠tions in North¬≠ern New Jer¬≠sey. At the time, she was sup¬≠port¬≠ing a¬†part¬≠ner who also had chil¬≠dren. One morn¬≠ing, she got off of one shift around¬†6:00¬†AM but was not sched¬≠uled to start her next shift until hours lat¬≠er. She slept in her car overnight to¬†‚Äúnap‚ÄĚ before work. She nev¬≠er woke up, from gas fumes. She died in her car in her Dunkin‚Äô Donuts¬†outfit.¬†
For a¬†while, she became a¬†sym¬≠bol of the low-wage, over¬≠worked Amer¬≠i¬≠can work¬≠er. And for a¬†while, there were calls from union lead¬≠ers and activists to make leg¬≠isla¬≠tive changes in response‚ÄĒthere was even a¬†law pro¬≠posed in her¬†name.¬†
It is an incred¬≠i¬≠bly sad sto¬≠ry. And there are plen¬≠ty of peo¬≠ple who are still work¬≠ing those jobs and who are still sub¬≠ject¬≠ed to those same sched¬≠ules who may have suf¬≠fered sim¬≠i¬≠lar tragedies, but we don‚Äôt know their names.
You also write a¬†lot about the new tech¬≠nolo¬≠gies that are used‚ÄĒnot just algo¬≠rith¬≠mi¬≠cal¬≠ly defined sched¬≠ul¬≠ing, but all kinds of wild tech¬≠nolo¬≠gies used to hyper-Tay¬≠lorize work in places like Ama¬≠zon. You talk about a¬†socio¬≠met¬≠ric badge that some MIT sci¬≠en¬≠tists cre¬≠at¬≠ed that was put around employ¬≠ees‚Äô necks that records all inter¬≠per¬≠son¬≠al inter¬≠ac¬≠tions through an embed¬≠ded micro¬≠phone and mea¬≠sures how often you talk to mem¬≠bers of anoth¬≠er gen¬≠der. Does your voice con¬≠vey con¬≠fi¬≠dence or anx¬≠i¬≠ety, are you wait¬≠ing your turn to speak or con¬≠stant¬≠ly inter¬≠rupt¬≠ing oth¬≠ers? The com¬≠pa¬≠ny is called¬†‚ÄúHumanyze.‚ÄĚ
It sounds like¬†Black Mir¬≠ror. Humanyze actu¬≠al¬≠ly has stopped using the badges. I¬†inter¬≠viewed the guy who invent¬≠ed those badges, he actu¬≠al¬≠ly seems thought¬≠ful about what they‚Äôre doing com¬≠pared to a¬†lot of com¬≠pa¬≠nies who are just like,¬†‚Äúlook, man¬≠agers need greater con¬≠trol.‚ÄĚ Oth¬≠er soft¬≠ware can access your web¬≠cam and take ran¬≠dom screen¬≠shots of your work¬≠space from wher¬≠ev¬≠er you are at ran¬≠dom times through¬≠out the¬†day.
Work¬≠ers have always hat¬≠ed this kind of sur¬≠veil¬≠lance. Ever since Fred¬≠er¬≠ick Winslow Tay¬≠lor walked into a fac¬≠to¬≠ry with a stop¬≠watch and a slide rule in the 1890s, work¬≠ers have hat¬≠ed man¬≠agers look¬≠ing over their shoul¬≠ders. Today we see the evo¬≠lu¬≠tion of that idea. It‚Äôs less through a fore¬≠man and more through computers.
The impor¬≠tant part to remem¬≠ber about this stuff is not that it‚Äôs Orwellian or what¬≠ev¬≠er, but that it is the result of a dis¬≠or¬≠ga¬≠nized work¬≠ing class. As unions began to decline, man¬≠agers gained more con¬≠trol over their work¬≠ers. As sub¬≠con¬≠tract¬≠ing became a pop¬≠u¬≠lar way to save costs, and work¬≠places couldn‚Äôt bar¬≠gain over the use of sub¬≠con¬≠tract¬≠ed labor, man¬≠agers began increas¬≠ing¬≠ly using elec¬≠tron¬≠ic sur¬≠veil¬≠lance tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy to mon¬≠i¬≠tor them from afar. This paved the way until today where it is a com¬≠mon prac¬≠tice among in-house work¬≠ers too. Though work¬≠ers rou¬≠tine¬≠ly report they don‚Äôt like it, they‚Äôve been vir¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly unable to resist it. It‚Äôs actu¬≠al¬≠ly increased dur¬≠ing the pandemic.
You wrote the book large¬≠ly before the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, but I can only imag¬≠ine that just as com¬≠pa¬≠nies like Zoom are hav¬≠ing a field day because we bad¬≠ly need their tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy under quar¬≠an¬≠tine, the tools that you‚Äôve described, like the one where your boss can take over your web¬≠cam and watch you while you work at home, are also being used more against workers.
Right. We‚Äôve known a¬†lot about this in the con¬≠sumer realm for a¬†long time. It‚Äôs real¬≠ly about data col¬≠lec¬≠tion. This is also the main point of Shoshana Zuboff‚Äôs writ¬≠ing about¬†‚Äúsur¬≠veil¬≠lance cap¬≠i¬≠tal¬≠ism‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs a¬†new r√©gime of col¬≠lect¬≠ing data. For a¬†long time, com¬≠pa¬≠nies like Google and Face¬≠book did not know what to do with that data. Now they do, and they can use it against you. They can use it in per¬≠for¬≠mance eval¬≠u¬≠a¬≠tions, they can do it when it comes to wages, rais¬≠es or bonus¬≠es. They can dis¬≠ci¬≠pline you or fire you based upon your pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty. But they would not be able to do it as well or eas¬≠i¬≠ly if work¬≠ers had more pow¬≠er to resist those¬†things.
That issue of work¬≠er pow¬≠er is why we don‚Äôt have the fly¬≠ing cars and 15-hour work weeks, right? Those ideas were advanced at a time when union den¬≠si¬≠ty was at its high¬≠est. When work¬≠ers don‚Äôt have that con¬≠trol, tech¬≠no¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal devel¬≠op¬≠ment con¬≠tin¬≠ues apace, but is wield¬≠ed against work¬≠ers rather than for them.
There is a clear need for us to fig¬≠ure out ways to have tech¬≠no¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal inno¬≠va¬≠tion in a way that decreas¬≠es our over¬≠all work and elim¬≠i¬≠nates the most ardu¬≠ous jobs. That inno¬≠va¬≠tion can‚Äôt come at the expense of peo¬≠ple‚Äôs liveli¬≠hoods, it should make people‚Äôs lives bet¬≠ter. In the 50s and 60s as work¬≠place automa¬≠tion arrived at indus¬≠tri¬≠al fac¬≠to¬≠ries, there‚Äôs some evi¬≠dence that work¬≠ers and their unions, which were much denser and stronger, were able to trans¬≠late that automa¬≠tion into free time or high¬≠er wages. Today we don‚Äôt have that same ability.
Let‚Äôs talk about robots and gig work and the gen¬≠er¬≠al ero¬≠sion of work in the Unit¬≠ed States and through¬≠out the wealthy world. Your dis¬≠cus¬≠sion of this in the book is one of the most nuanced that I‚Äôve read, because on the one hand, breath¬≠less dis¬≠course along the lines of¬†‚Äúthe robots are going to take all our jobs‚ÄĚ is com¬≠mon. On the oth¬≠er hand, you have some peo¬≠ple who say¬†this rhetoric is overblown‚ÄĒthat there‚Äôs actu¬≠al¬≠ly lit¬≠tle evi¬≠dence that robo¬≠t¬≠i¬≠za¬≠tion and gig work are much more preva¬≠lent than they always have been. This is just what cap¬≠i¬≠tal¬≠ism looks like: insta¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty, peo¬≠ple not hav¬≠ing con¬≠trol of their jobs and of their lives. You take from both of those¬†arguments.
It‚Äôs dif¬≠fi¬≠cult to assess it clear¬≠ly. I agree with you that there are sort of breath¬≠less and Pollyan¬≠naish takes on both sides. The most recent and cel¬≠e¬≠brat¬≠ed one was pres¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial can¬≠di¬≠date Andrew Yang: his cam¬≠paign was all about the fear of automation.
There‚Äôs cer¬≠tain¬≠ly evi¬≠dence that robots are get¬≠ting much cheap¬≠er and much eas¬≠i¬≠er to put into work¬≠places. I pro¬≠filed a com¬≠pa¬≠ny that basi¬≠cal¬≠ly rents robots; if you have a prob¬≠lem, the com¬≠pa¬≠ny devel¬≠ops a robot for it, and you can rent it for how¬≠ev¬≠er long you want it for. When you‚Äôre done with it, they take it back. That great¬≠ly low¬≠ers the bar¬≠ri¬≠ers to entry to bring¬≠ing automa¬≠tion on to a par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar kind of assem¬≠bly line or a par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar kind of pro¬≠duc¬≠tion process.
But I was inter¬≠est¬≠ed in the way we talk about robots. I uncov¬≠ered stuff from pre¬≠vi¬≠ous gen¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tions where peo¬≠ple were very fear¬≠ful of the poten¬≠tial monot¬≠o¬≠ny of a life where we are just adjuncts of machines at work, or where machines do all of our work for us. Isaac Asi¬≠mov once said we‚Äôre all going to become machine ten¬≠ders. Today, fear of robots isn‚Äôt about bore¬≠dom or malaise, it‚Äôs about los¬≠ing a liveli¬≠hood. I think that has some¬≠thing to say about the dif¬≠fer¬≠ent kinds of regimes that peo¬≠ple were work¬≠ing under those dif¬≠fer¬≠ent times.
There‚Äôs a clear his¬≠to¬≠ry of peo¬≠ple embrac¬≠ing tech¬≠nolo¬≠gies that lim¬≠it ardu¬≠ous work. I think peo¬≠ple would wel¬≠come that kind of tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy today. The prob¬≠lem is that we don‚Äôt have the con¬≠trol to do it. Instead, we get a lot of fear and scape¬≠goat¬≠ing. When we don‚Äôt have con¬≠trol over tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy, we either blame tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy or blame oth¬≠er peo¬≠ple, rather than the peo¬≠ple who are actu¬≠al¬≠ly in con¬≠trol of this technology.
Work¬≠ers and unions need to think care¬≠ful¬≠ly about hav¬≠ing these kinds of issues in their bar¬≠gain¬≠ing con¬≠tracts. There‚Äôs actu¬≠al¬≠ly a recent increase of peo¬≠ple talk¬≠ing about app use in con¬≠tract nego¬≠ti¬≠a¬≠tions. Ways that work¬≠ers can exer¬≠cise some degree of con¬≠trol or lever¬≠age over how tech¬≠nol¬≠o¬≠gy is used are crucial.
What about gig work? You pro¬≠file gig work¬≠ers and talk about what their work lives and non-work lives are like. But there‚Äôs a sim¬≠i¬≠lar way that gig work is talked about: that we‚Äôre all going to be gig work¬≠ers soon. How much truth is there to that assertion?
I‚Äôm that per¬≠son who strikes up an oafish con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tion with the Lyft dri¬≠ver. You get real¬≠ly dif¬≠fer¬≠ent reflec¬≠tions: some peo¬≠ple real¬≠ly do see their job as a side hus¬≠tle and enjoy some of the free¬≠doms that come with it. And some peo¬≠ple see those free¬≠doms very differently.
I pro¬≠file peo¬≠ple who dri¬≠ve for Uber Eats. They can work when¬≠ev¬≠er they want, right? Wrong. They can‚Äôt work when peo¬≠ple don‚Äôt want food. And they have to work when peo¬≠ple want food that costs the most amount of mon¬≠ey and they‚Äôll get the largest amount of tips. So they‚Äôre actu¬≠al¬≠ly seri¬≠ous¬≠ly con¬≠strained. I inter¬≠viewed a woman who spent time dri¬≠ving around each night from 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM, often with her six-year-old daugh¬≠ter in the back¬≠seat, deliv¬≠er¬≠ing meals. She didn‚Äôt feel she was free to work whenever.
App work¬≠ers are work¬≠ers and should be rec¬≠og¬≠nized as such. They should have rights and lib¬≠er¬≠ties and ben¬≠e¬≠fits that come with being a work¬≠er. The inde¬≠pen¬≠dent con¬≠trac¬≠tor sta¬≠tus has been such a lie, and a way to exert so much more con¬≠trol over that workforce.
Which is some¬≠thing under dis¬≠cus¬≠sion right now, par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar¬≠ly in Cal¬≠i¬≠for¬≠nia.
I have a strange sense of opti¬≠mism that they will win. There‚Äôs a lot of orga¬≠niz¬≠ing going on in the gig econ¬≠o¬≠my by dri¬≠vers and deliv¬≠ery work¬≠ers. Even since the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic start¬≠ed, there were maybe half a dozen work stop¬≠pages at a num¬≠ber of impor¬≠tant gig employ¬≠ers. That activ¬≠i¬≠ty will lead somewhere.
Let‚Äôs talk about the ide¬≠o¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal aspects of this time cri¬≠sis. That was one of the most inter¬≠est¬≠ing parts of your book: you talk about what the ide¬≠o¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal jus¬≠ti¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tions for the time r√©gime‚ÄĒthe¬†‚Äúdo what you love‚ÄĚ ethos, the idea that you need to not just work a¬†job to pay the bills but find a¬†job that you find ful¬≠fill¬≠ing on a¬†deep per¬≠son¬≠al and exis¬≠ten¬≠tial lev¬≠el. This is just an ide¬≠o¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal jus¬≠ti¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tion for shit¬≠ty work at longer¬†hours.¬†
It‚Äôs one thing to under¬≠stand how and why low-wage work¬≠ers end up hav¬≠ing to put in more time. But rel¬≠a¬≠tive¬≠ly well-off people‚Äôs work-time grow¬≠ing is some¬≠thing dif¬≠fer¬≠ent. Cul¬≠ture is clear¬≠ly part of this, but there‚Äôs also a¬†mate¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al basis. This is one of the things that peo¬≠ple don‚Äôt appre¬≠ci¬≠ate enough about the¬†‚Äúmean¬≠ing¬≠ful work‚ÄĚ dis¬≠course. It‚Äôs easy to roll your eyes at the cyn¬≠i¬≠cal recu¬≠per¬≠a¬≠tion by man¬≠agers and gurus about doing what you love, blah. But we actu¬≠al¬≠ly all want mean¬≠ing¬≠ful jobs. We deserve them. If we have to work to sur¬≠vive, at the very least, we should be able to like what we‚Äôre doing for eight-plus hours a¬†day.¬†
I‚Äôve always found it strange that some peo¬≠ple are will¬≠ing to write off the idea of mean¬≠ing¬≠ful work alto¬≠geth¬≠er as if it‚Äôs a cap¬≠i¬≠tal¬≠ist plot. The prob¬≠lem is not that peo¬≠ple are encour¬≠aged to find mean¬≠ing¬≠ful work. You write in the book that that is a right that we all should have. The prob¬≠lem is when that con¬≠cept is used to paper over work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions and pay that are get¬≠ting worse and worse.
It‚Äôs no sur¬≠prise that the¬†‚Äúdo what you love ethos‚ÄĚ explod¬≠ed at the very same time that con¬≠di¬≠tions for work¬≠ers began to stag¬≠nate. It‚Äôs not some elite con¬≠spir¬≠a¬≠cy‚ÄĒthere was a¬†gen¬≠uine desire to leave monot¬≠o¬≠nous, tire¬≠some, gru¬≠el¬≠ing fac¬≠to¬≠ry labor behind. And there was just as much a¬†real desire to burn down your cubi¬≠cle like they did in¬†Office Space. But those desires were eas¬≠i¬≠ly recu¬≠per¬≠at¬≠ed and re-enlist¬≠ed in a¬†cam¬≠paign to say,¬†‚Äúif work is mean¬≠ing¬≠ful and work is ful¬≠fill¬≠ing and work is good for my soul, then more work must be¬†better.‚ÄĚ
The Nation¬≠al Labor Rela¬≠tions Board had to rule against a¬†pro¬≠pos¬≠al by T-Mobile that work¬≠ers had to main¬≠tain a¬†pos¬≠i¬≠tive work envi¬≠ron¬≠ment. The NLRB ruled that no, you can‚Äôt do that. You can‚Äôt force peo¬≠ple to like their job. When I¬†talked to dancers at the old Lusty Lady strip club in San Fran¬≠cis¬≠co, they explained that man¬≠age¬≠ment includ¬≠ed a¬†‚Äúfun clause‚ÄĚ in their con¬≠tract that insist¬≠ed their work was fun. The dancers said,¬†‚Äúmaybe it is, maybe it‚Äôs not, but that‚Äôs not your deci¬≠sion. That‚Äôs up to¬†us.‚ÄĚ¬†
Speak¬≠ing of San Fran¬≠cis¬≠co, you also were in the Bay Area to talk to tech work¬≠ers. You have a¬†fun¬≠ny scene where you get on a¬†Google bus and are kicked off for ask¬≠ing tech work¬≠ers about their jobs. Sep¬≠a¬≠rate¬≠ly, you go to this swanky Sil¬≠i¬≠con Val¬≠ley bar where‚Ä¶ I¬†don‚Äôt know, deals get made, I¬†guess. And a¬†guy who works at Google tells you,¬†‚ÄúEvery¬≠where you look, you hear peo¬≠ple talk¬≠ing about¬†‚Äėmean¬≠ing.‚Äô They aren‚Äôt philoso¬≠phers. ‚Ä¶ They sell ban¬≠ner ads. What do they know about¬†meaning?‚ÄĚ¬†
There have been numer¬≠ous books writ¬≠ten on the mar¬≠riage of the coun¬≠ter¬≠cul¬≠ture and the com¬≠put¬≠er age. It‚Äôs such an inter¬≠est¬≠ing his¬≠tor¬≠i¬≠cal switch. Peo¬≠ple were inter¬≠est¬≠ed in a¬†‚Äúlet‚Äôs destroy the office, let‚Äôs have ful¬≠fill¬≠ing work¬≠days, let‚Äôs have free¬≠dom to exper¬≠i¬≠ment with new kinds of employ¬≠ment rela¬≠tion¬≠ships.‚ÄĚ And now they‚Äôre lead¬≠ers of a¬†move¬≠ment to keep peo¬≠ple at work longer and longer through a¬†cou¬≠ple of¬†perks.
You argue in the end of the book for a time agen¬≠da that work¬≠ers could unite around, around this shared expe¬≠ri¬≠ence of not hav¬≠ing con¬≠trol of their work lives. What should the 21st-cen¬≠tu¬≠ry time agen¬≠da look like? What should it include? What should be on the ban¬≠ners of the move¬≠ments in the street demand¬≠ing their time back?
The old ban¬≠ners used to say basi¬≠cal¬≠ly¬†‚Äúfew¬≠er hours for more mon¬≠ey.‚ÄĚ For a¬†long time, the labor move¬≠ment was suc¬≠cess¬≠ful at win¬≠ning exact¬≠ly that. Dur¬≠ing a¬†cri¬≠sis, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly like the one right now, it often seems tone deaf to talk about¬†few¬≠er¬†hours when peo¬≠ple are unem¬≠ployed, when peo¬≠ple aren‚Äôt get¬≠ting CARES Act fund¬≠ing and unem¬≠ploy¬≠ment insur¬≠ance is run¬≠ning out. But there‚Äôs a¬†his¬≠tor¬≠i¬≠cal prece¬≠dent here. Dur¬≠ing the Great Depres¬≠sion, the gov¬≠ern¬≠ment used work-shar¬≠ing ben¬≠e¬≠fits. They spread the work around to avoid lay¬≠ing peo¬≠ple off, reduc¬≠ing hours and using gov¬≠ern¬≠ment pro¬≠grams to sub¬≠si¬≠dize you at your pre¬≠vi¬≠ous wage. We should be doing more of¬†that.
Protests around health¬≠care, or to expand the purview of care in gen¬≠er¬≠al in an econ¬≠o¬≠my, are sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant, too. We could cut and paste pro¬≠grams from some peer nations in West¬≠ern Europe. We work about¬†400¬†hours per year more than the Ger¬≠mans,¬†250¬†hours more than French work¬≠ers. They‚Äôre not starv¬≠ing‚ÄĒthey‚Äôre doing fine. State pro¬≠vi¬≠sions are impor¬≠tant not only because they‚Äôre good for peo¬≠ple‚Äôs health¬≠care, but because it allows peo¬≠ple to step back from work. But half of Amer¬≠i¬≠cans get their health insur¬≠ance through a¬†job, and min¬≠i¬≠mum-hour require¬≠ments and eli¬≠gi¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty statutes require that peo¬≠ple con¬≠tin¬≠ue work¬≠ing, often longer than they want, just to main¬≠tain their health¬≠care. It‚Äôs trag¬≠ic and it‚Äôs¬†criminal.¬†
When I¬†inter¬≠viewed work¬≠ers from Ohio from a¬†laid-off auto plant out¬≠side Day¬≠ton, Ohio, they said,¬†‚ÄúHealth¬≠care should be tak¬≠en off the union bar¬≠gain¬≠ing agen¬≠da. It‚Äôs a¬†dri¬≠ver of lock¬≠outs, it‚Äôs a¬†dri¬≠ver of dis¬≠rup¬≠tions, and most impor¬≠tant¬≠ly, we spend so much time argu¬≠ing about health¬≠care that we can‚Äôt talk about high¬≠er wages and hours.‚ÄĚ So uni¬≠ver¬≠sal health¬≠care, Medicare for All, is an impor¬≠tant goal of any¬≠one think¬≠ing about short¬≠er¬†hours.
You also talk about the upsurge in the labor move¬≠ment around teachers.
We think of teach¬≠ers hav¬≠ing the sum¬≠mers off, right? I am the son of a teacher myself, and remem¬≠ber our kitchen table piled high with books for the entire sum¬≠mer, because that‚Äôs when you plan lessons and do a lot of oth¬≠er impor¬≠tant work ahead of the school year. Recent¬≠ly, we‚Äôve seen teach¬≠ers get¬≠ting not only sum¬≠mer jobs to sup¬≠ple¬≠ment their income, but night jobs after school.
But teach¬≠ers have tak¬≠en so much lead¬≠er¬≠ship in reori¬≠ent¬≠ing their work¬≠places through strikes, and strikes that do more than just talk about teach¬≠ers‚Äô work issues. They talk about race and racism, immi¬≠gra¬≠tion, hous¬≠ing, access to food. There‚Äôs no rea¬≠son why work¬≠ers can‚Äôt also talk about reduc¬≠tion of work¬≠ing hours.
When it comes to con¬≠tract nego¬≠ti¬≠a¬≠tions, this is what peo¬≠ple call¬†‚Äúbar¬≠gain¬≠ing for the com¬≠mon good.‚ÄĚ Free time should be a¬†pub¬≠lic good. And we should use our moments of nego¬≠ti¬≠a¬≠tions with employ¬≠ers to think about win¬≠ning soci¬≠ety-wide agree¬≠ments to decrease work¬†time.
Let‚Äôs imag¬≠ine this pan¬≠dem¬≠ic is over. What‚Äôs num¬≠ber one on the¬†‚ÄúJamie McCal¬≠lum Agen¬≠da for Free¬†Time?‚ÄĚ¬†
Oh, wow. [Long pause] I‚Äôm stalling just think¬≠ing about it‚Ä¶
Our work-time r√©gime has made you unable to even con¬≠sid¬≠er this ques¬≠tion because it feels so far out¬≠side of the realm of possibility.
It real¬≠ly does. I‚Äôll say two things. My the¬≠sis advi¬≠sor in grad¬≠u¬≠ate school was Stan¬≠ley Aronowitz, one of the great labor schol¬≠ars of the last half cen¬≠tu¬≠ry. I¬†wrote him in June and said,¬†‚ÄúI‚Äôd like to meet with you.‚ÄĚ He wrote back,¬†‚Äúthere are three rea¬≠sons to become a¬†pro¬≠fes¬≠sor: June, July, and August. Come to me in Sep¬≠tem¬≠ber.‚ÄĚ I¬†was like, man, I¬†want that guy‚Äôs job and the free¬≠dom that comes with it. One of the most reward¬≠ing things about hav¬≠ing the free¬≠dom to write this book was the free¬≠dom I¬†had to go around the coun¬≠try and meet peo¬≠ple, talk to work¬≠ers and hear what they‚Äôre deal¬≠ing with. I¬†want to be able to do more of¬†that.
The oth¬≠er thing is, any¬≠one right now in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca with a¬†small child is just going absolute¬≠ly insane dur¬≠ing this pan¬≠dem¬≠ic. So I¬†want more schools, day¬≠care camps, play¬≠grounds, what¬≠ev¬≠er, to be open¬†24‚Äď7. I¬†would like that to change not only for my son‚Äôs ben¬≠e¬≠fit, but just for the gen¬≠er¬≠al men¬≠tal and emo¬≠tion¬≠al san¬≠i¬≠ty of the¬†society.¬†
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Micah Uetricht is the deputy edi¬≠tor of Jacobin mag¬≠a¬≠zine and host of its pod¬≠cast The Vast Major¬≠i¬≠ty. He is a¬†con¬≠tribut¬≠ing edi¬≠tor and for¬≠mer asso¬≠ciate edi¬≠tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer¬≠i¬≠ca: Chica¬≠go Teach¬≠ers Against Aus¬≠ter¬≠i¬≠ty (Ver¬≠so¬†2014), coau¬≠thor of Big¬≠ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam¬≠paign to Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Social¬≠ism (Ver¬≠so¬†2020), and is cur¬≠rent¬≠ly at work on a¬†book on New Left¬≠ists who¬†‚Äúindus¬≠tri¬≠al¬≠ized.‚ÄĚ He pre¬≠vi¬≠ous¬≠ly worked as a¬†labor orga¬≠niz¬≠er. Fol¬≠low him on Twit¬≠ter at @micahuetricht.