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American Workers Have Lost Control of Their Time. It’s Time To Take It Back.

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It wasn’t sup­posed to be like this, accord­ing to John May­nard Keynes. In 1930, the econ­o­mist pre­dict­ed that his grand­chil­dren would be work­ing 15-hour work weeks. Tech­nol­o­gy would have advanced to the point two gen­er­a­tions after his own that work­ers’ aver­age time on the job would be a frac­tion of what it once was. We would all be strug­gling to fig­ure out what to do with so much free time.

The oppo­site has turned out to be true. Instead of being freed from the tyran­ny of the clock, Amer­i­can work­ers are more shack­led to it than ever, work­ing longer hours, being sub­ject­ed to errat­ic sched­ules, fig­ur­ing out how to work more just to make ends meet, and watch­ing an increas­ing amount of con­trol over their lives slip into the boss­es’ hands.

In his new book Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the Amer­i­can Dream (Basic, Sep­tem­ber 2020), Jamie McCal­lum, a pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, exam­ines why and how U.S. work­ers are more tied to the clock than ever, the dam­age this has meant for work­ers’ well-being, and what an agen­da for reclaim that time could look like. We spoke by phone in Sep­tem­ber. This inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity. 

Explain the over­all sit­u­a­tion for the Amer­i­can work­er and time on the job.

There are three dimen­sions of it. One, the rise of over­all hours worked since the 1970s. Two, an increase in volatil­i­ty and the unpre­dictable nature of work­ers’ sched­ules. Three, work­ers not hav­ing enough hours to make ends meet. 

That’s a con­tra­dic­to­ry sit­u­a­tion, no? Peo­ple are work­ing too many hours, but also not enough hours. There’s a lack of con­trol of peo­ple’s over­all time both at work and when they’re not at work. Either way, peo­ple are sub­ject­ed to a tyran­ny of the clock.

That’s right. Peo­ple often ask me about this one sta­tis­tic that work time has increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly since the 70s for all wage and salary work­ers, which it has. But if you dig into that, you get a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Most peo­ple are famil­iar with the idea that tech work­ers and lawyers and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists put in 70-hour weeks. They still work the longest out of every­one. But it’s low-wage work­ers who have increased their work time the most.

So the num­ber of hours that the high­est-paid work­ers work is con­verg­ing with the hours worked by the low­est-paid employ­ees. Is that because the low­est-paid employ­ees, who have been sub­ject to decades’ worth of wage stag­na­tion, are try­ing to make up for that stag­na­tion through work­ing more hours?

Yes. The work­ing rich today tend to pull away from the rest of the peo­ple below them wage-wise through bonus­es, high­er salaries, etc. Peo­ple at the bot­tom do it through work­ing longer hours. 

You talk in the book about this his­to­ry of dis­cus­sions of work time. It’s sim­i­lar to what the late anthro­pol­o­gist David Grae­ber talked about with tech­nol­o­gy—he argued that years ago, we all thought we were going to be liv­ing in this tech­no-utopia, some­thing like The Jet­sons, in which tech­nol­o­gy would pro­vide for many of our needs and make life bet­ter and eas­i­er. Instead, we now live in a pret­ty dystopi­an world. That’s also true of work time. 

Thinkers like John May­nard Keynes used to say that we would soon have more free time than we knew what to do with. Instead, we find our­selves work­ing longer hours than ever, and our work is always expand­ing into every nook and cran­ny of our lives. Instead of arriv­ing at a utopia, we’re in a place where work nev­er ends.

Exact­ly. Keynes thought that we would have a 15-hour work week by some­thing like 2030. And there were good rea­sons to think that. For about a hun­dred years, the num­ber of hours worked declined. The work day declined, the work week declined. But this began to shift in the 70s, when work­ers began return­ing to work­ing longer hours. But Keynes was onto some­thing. I think that he thought increased pro­duc­tion and com­pound inter­est and all the oth­er ris­ing indi­ca­tors of our econ­o­my would lead us to a leisure­ly soci­ety. He was right about the com­pound inter­est part—he was right about the prof­itabil­i­ty. But he was wrong about the time. 

Some­body was col­lect­ing all the wealth dur­ing that time and ben­e­fit­ing off of the advances of the econ­o­my and soci­ety, but it wasn’t work­ers.

Leisure actu­al­ly is expen­sive. Ben­jamin Kline Hun­ni­cutt wrote a great his­to­ry of this and argues that in the 1940s, peo­ple began desir­ing more leisure. Leisure costs more mon­ey, so they stopped desir­ing short­er hours to work longer, to make more mon­ey to pay for leisure. 

When you say they lose their time, you mean they lose con­trol of their life. They do not have con­trol over the most basic thing upon which every­thing else depends—their time.

Who­ev­er con­trols labor con­trols time. They con­trol when we have week­ends, when we raise our kids, when we eat, when we sleep, when we get up in the morn­ing, when we go to bed at night. There’s a rhythm to it that is very attached to work. When our work time is out of our con­trol, so is our oth­er time. 

To me, that is crim­i­nal. So there was a moral or eth­i­cal polemic that was run­ning through me when I was writ­ing this book. A “time squeeze” is real­ly about peo­ple being pushed around. That is a real­ly dis­mal way to live.

Not to men­tion that you can’t have things like democ­ra­cy with­out hav­ing the time to par­tic­i­pate in civic insti­tu­tions, in polit­i­cal activism, in any­thing out­side of your work.

Prac­tic­ing our free­doms and hav­ing a basic demo­c­ra­t­ic exis­tence requires hav­ing free time. If peo­ple are work­ing 50, 60 hours a week, or they’re des­per­ate­ly try­ing to scrape togeth­er a hodge­podge life, it’s hard to orga­nize. All those things are dis­rupt­ed when we have the kind of work­ing rhythm that we do.

In addi­tion to being unable to par­tic­i­pate in demo­c­ra­t­ic life, the work­place itself is the fur­thest thing from a democracy. It’s a dic­ta­tor­ship, in which your boss is king. And then when you’re home, in your time that you were sup­posed to have to do what­ev­er you want, you’re instead wor­ry­ing about work—the unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic régime of the work­place extends into your home.

Sta­tis­tics cap­ture leisure as time, but what we call leisure is typ­i­cal­ly spent recov­er­ing from work in order to return back to work. And even aside from demo­c­ra­t­ic norms, we need time for hol­i­days or enjoy­ing breaks or the great out­doors. You need space and real dis­tance to actu­al­ly pon­der and con­sid­er your life. And if all you’re doing is think­ing about the job you just came from and prepar­ing to go back to it the next day, you don’t have time to do it.

Talk about the details of this time régime of 21st-cen­tu­ry work. How is the time régime enforced? What are the mechanisms?

I became inter­est­ed in this project because of the “fair work­week” move­ment, which I think is one of the most vis­i­ble exam­ples today of work­ers orga­niz­ing for the con­trol of time. The move­ment high­lights a lot of low-wage retail, food ser­vice, health­care and trans­porta­tion work­ers whose work lives are dis­rupt­ed by peri­ods of unpre­dictable and volatile breaks. They’re unpre­dictable by design. Their sched­ules are pur­pose­ly removed from their con­trol and often giv­en to either an algo­rithm or a super­vi­sor, both of which will make the sched­ule that is obvi­ous­ly best for that par­tic­u­lar com­pa­ny, not the worker. 

I worked in retail when I was younger, and I’d be sched­uled three weeks in advance. That’s just not the case any­more. I remem­ber doing inter­views on 34th Street in New York City, a main shop­ping area, and in Burling­ton, Ver­mont. When you talk to sales clerks, they’ll say, “I got my sched­ule three days ago. But I’m being sent home ear­ly today at 3:15 PM.” They’re sent home at the exact moment they’re no longer need­ed. Those sched­ules are based upon a pre­dic­tive algo­rithm that cal­cu­lates the opti­mum amount of sales­peo­ple and sales hours on the floor based upon the weath­er, the time of year, etc. 

So your sched­ule is more like­ly to be cut. Or alter­na­tive­ly, you’re more like­ly to be held over. Work­ers become com­plete­ly exhaust­ed, not just by being over­worked, but by being over­run by the unpredictability.

Talk about the Dunkin’ Donuts work­er you profiled.

Maria Fer­nan­des worked at three dif­fer­ent Dunkin’ Donuts loca­tions in North­ern New Jer­sey. At the time, she was sup­port­ing a part­ner who also had chil­dren. One morn­ing, she got off of one shift around 6:00 AM but was not sched­uled to start her next shift until hours lat­er. She slept in her car overnight to “nap” before work. She nev­er woke up, from gas fumes. She died in her car in her Dunkin’ Donuts outfit. 

For a while, she became a sym­bol of the low-wage, over­worked Amer­i­can work­er. And for a while, there were calls from union lead­ers and activists to make leg­isla­tive changes in response—there was even a law pro­posed in her name. 

It is an incred­i­bly sad sto­ry. And there are plen­ty of peo­ple who are still work­ing those jobs and who are still sub­ject­ed to those same sched­ules who may have suf­fered sim­i­lar tragedies, but we don’t know their names.

You also write a lot about the new tech­nolo­gies that are used—not just algo­rith­mi­cal­ly defined sched­ul­ing, but all kinds of wild tech­nolo­gies used to hyper-Tay­lorize work in places like Ama­zon. You talk about a socio­met­ric badge that some MIT sci­en­tists cre­at­ed that was put around employ­ees’ necks that records all inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tions through an embed­ded micro­phone and mea­sures how often you talk to mem­bers of anoth­er gen­der. Does your voice con­vey con­fi­dence or anx­i­ety, are you wait­ing your turn to speak or con­stant­ly inter­rupt­ing oth­ers? The com­pa­ny is called “Humanyze.”

It sounds like Black Mir­ror. Humanyze actu­al­ly has stopped using the badges. I inter­viewed the guy who invent­ed those badges, he actu­al­ly seems thought­ful about what they’re doing com­pared to a lot of com­pa­nies who are just like, “look, man­agers need greater con­trol.” Oth­er soft­ware can access your web­cam and take ran­dom screen­shots of your work­space from wher­ev­er you are at ran­dom times through­out the day.

Work­ers have always hat­ed this kind of sur­veil­lance. Ever since Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor walked into a fac­to­ry with a stop­watch and a slide rule in the 1890s, work­ers have hat­ed man­agers look­ing over their shoul­ders. Today we see the evo­lu­tion of that idea. It’s less through a fore­man and more through computers.

The impor­tant part to remem­ber about this stuff is not that it’s Orwellian or what­ev­er, but that it is the result of a dis­or­ga­nized work­ing class. As unions began to decline, man­agers gained more con­trol over their work­ers. As sub­con­tract­ing became a pop­u­lar way to save costs, and work­places couldn’t bar­gain over the use of sub­con­tract­ed labor, man­agers began increas­ing­ly using elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy to mon­i­tor them from afar. This paved the way until today where it is a com­mon prac­tice among in-house work­ers too. Though work­ers rou­tine­ly report they don’t like it, they’ve been vir­tu­al­ly unable to resist it. It’s actu­al­ly increased dur­ing the pandemic. 

You wrote the book large­ly before the pan­dem­ic, but I can only imag­ine that just as com­pa­nies like Zoom are hav­ing a field day because we bad­ly need their tech­nol­o­gy under quar­an­tine, the tools that you’ve described, like the one where your boss can take over your web­cam and watch you while you work at home, are also being used more against workers.

Right. We’ve known a lot about this in the con­sumer realm for a long time. It’s real­ly about data col­lec­tion. This is also the main point of Shoshana Zuboff’s writ­ing about “sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism”— it’s a new régime of col­lect­ing data. For a long time, com­pa­nies like Google and Face­book did not know what to do with that data. Now they do, and they can use it against you. They can use it in per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions, they can do it when it comes to wages, rais­es or bonus­es. They can dis­ci­pline you or fire you based upon your pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. But they would not be able to do it as well or eas­i­ly if work­ers had more pow­er to resist those things.

That issue of work­er pow­er is why we don’t have the fly­ing cars and 15-hour work weeks, right? Those ideas were advanced at a time when union den­si­ty was at its high­est. When work­ers don’t have that con­trol, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment con­tin­ues apace, but is wield­ed against work­ers rather than for them.

There is a clear need for us to fig­ure out ways to have tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion in a way that decreas­es our over­all work and elim­i­nates the most ardu­ous jobs. That inno­va­tion can’t come at the expense of peo­ple’s liveli­hoods, it should make people’s lives bet­ter. In the 50s and 60s as work­place automa­tion arrived at indus­tri­al fac­to­ries, there’s some evi­dence that work­ers and their unions, which were much denser and stronger, were able to trans­late that automa­tion into free time or high­er wages. Today we don’t have that same ability.

Let’s talk about robots and gig work and the gen­er­al ero­sion of work in the Unit­ed States and through­out the wealthy world. Your dis­cus­sion of this in the book is one of the most nuanced that I’ve read, because on the one hand, breath­less dis­course along the lines of “the robots are going to take all our jobs” is com­mon. On the oth­er hand, you have some peo­ple who say this rhetoric is overblown—that there’s actu­al­ly lit­tle evi­dence that robo­t­i­za­tion and gig work are much more preva­lent than they always have been. This is just what cap­i­tal­ism looks like: insta­bil­i­ty, peo­ple not hav­ing con­trol of their jobs and of their lives. You take from both of those arguments.

It’s dif­fi­cult to assess it clear­ly. I agree with you that there are sort of breath­less and Pollyan­naish takes on both sides. The most recent and cel­e­brat­ed one was pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Andrew Yang: his cam­paign was all about the fear of automation. 

There’s cer­tain­ly evi­dence that robots are get­ting much cheap­er and much eas­i­er to put into work­places. I pro­filed a com­pa­ny that basi­cal­ly rents robots; if you have a prob­lem, the com­pa­ny devel­ops a robot for it, and you can rent it for how­ev­er long you want it for. When you’re done with it, they take it back. That great­ly low­ers the bar­ri­ers to entry to bring­ing automa­tion on to a par­tic­u­lar kind of assem­bly line or a par­tic­u­lar kind of pro­duc­tion process.

But I was inter­est­ed in the way we talk about robots. I uncov­ered stuff from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions where peo­ple were very fear­ful of the poten­tial monot­o­ny of a life where we are just adjuncts of machines at work, or where machines do all of our work for us. Isaac Asi­mov once said we’re all going to become machine ten­ders. Today, fear of robots isn’t about bore­dom or malaise, it’s about los­ing a liveli­hood. I think that has some­thing to say about the dif­fer­ent kinds of regimes that peo­ple were work­ing under those dif­fer­ent times. 

There’s a clear his­to­ry of peo­ple embrac­ing tech­nolo­gies that lim­it ardu­ous work. I think peo­ple would wel­come that kind of tech­nol­o­gy today. The prob­lem is that we don’t have the con­trol to do it. Instead, we get a lot of fear and scape­goat­ing. When we don’t have con­trol over tech­nol­o­gy, we either blame tech­nol­o­gy or blame oth­er peo­ple, rather than the peo­ple who are actu­al­ly in con­trol of this technology.

Work­ers and unions need to think care­ful­ly about hav­ing these kinds of issues in their bar­gain­ing con­tracts. There’s actu­al­ly a recent increase of peo­ple talk­ing about app use in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. Ways that work­ers can exer­cise some degree of con­trol or lever­age over how tech­nol­o­gy is used are crucial.

What about gig work? You pro­file gig work­ers and talk about what their work lives and non-work lives are like. But there’s a sim­i­lar way that gig work is talked about: that we’re all going to be gig work­ers soon. How much truth is there to that assertion?

I’m that per­son who strikes up an oafish con­ver­sa­tion with the Lyft dri­ver. You get real­ly dif­fer­ent reflec­tions: some peo­ple real­ly do see their job as a side hus­tle and enjoy some of the free­doms that come with it. And some peo­ple see those free­doms very differently. 

I pro­file peo­ple who dri­ve for Uber Eats. They can work when­ev­er they want, right? Wrong. They can’t work when peo­ple don’t want food. And they have to work when peo­ple want food that costs the most amount of mon­ey and they’ll get the largest amount of tips. So they’re actu­al­ly seri­ous­ly con­strained. I inter­viewed a woman who spent time dri­ving around each night from 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM, often with her six-year-old daugh­ter in the back­seat, deliv­er­ing meals. She didn’t feel she was free to work whenever. 

App work­ers are work­ers and should be rec­og­nized as such. They should have rights and lib­er­ties and ben­e­fits that come with being a work­er. The inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor sta­tus has been such a lie, and a way to exert so much more con­trol over that workforce. 

Which is some­thing under dis­cus­sion right now, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Cal­i­for­nia.

I have a strange sense of opti­mism that they will win. There’s a lot of orga­niz­ing going on in the gig econ­o­my by dri­vers and deliv­ery work­ers. Even since the pan­dem­ic start­ed, there were maybe half a dozen work stop­pages at a num­ber of impor­tant gig employ­ers. That activ­i­ty will lead somewhere. 

Let’s talk about the ide­o­log­i­cal aspects of this time cri­sis. That was one of the most inter­est­ing parts of your book: you talk about what the ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the time régime—the “do what you love” ethos, the idea that you need to not just work a job to pay the bills but find a job that you find ful­fill­ing on a deep per­son­al and exis­ten­tial lev­el. This is just an ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for shit­ty work at longer hours. 

It’s one thing to under­stand how and why low-wage work­ers end up hav­ing to put in more time. But rel­a­tive­ly well-off people’s work-time grow­ing is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Cul­ture is clear­ly part of this, but there’s also a mate­r­i­al basis. This is one of the things that peo­ple don’t appre­ci­ate enough about the “mean­ing­ful work” dis­course. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the cyn­i­cal recu­per­a­tion by man­agers and gurus about doing what you love, blah. But we actu­al­ly all want mean­ing­ful jobs. We deserve them. If we have to work to sur­vive, at the very least, we should be able to like what we’re doing for eight-plus hours a day. 

I’ve always found it strange that some peo­ple are will­ing to write off the idea of mean­ing­ful work alto­geth­er as if it’s a cap­i­tal­ist plot. The prob­lem is not that peo­ple are encour­aged to find mean­ing­ful work. You write in the book that that is a right that we all should have. The prob­lem is when that con­cept is used to paper over work­ing con­di­tions and pay that are get­ting worse and worse.

It’s no sur­prise that the “do what you love ethos” explod­ed at the very same time that con­di­tions for work­ers began to stag­nate. It’s not some elite con­spir­a­cy—there was a gen­uine desire to leave monot­o­nous, tire­some, gru­el­ing fac­to­ry labor behind. And there was just as much a real desire to burn down your cubi­cle like they did in Office Space. But those desires were eas­i­ly recu­per­at­ed and re-enlist­ed in a cam­paign to say, “if work is mean­ing­ful and work is ful­fill­ing and work is good for my soul, then more work must be better.”

The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board had to rule against a pro­pos­al by T-Mobile that work­ers had to main­tain a pos­i­tive work envi­ron­ment. The NLRB ruled that no, you can’t do that. You can’t force peo­ple to like their job. When I talked to dancers at the old Lusty Lady strip club in San Fran­cis­co, they explained that man­age­ment includ­ed a “fun clause” in their con­tract that insist­ed their work was fun. The dancers said, “maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but that’s not your deci­sion. That’s up to us.” 

Speak­ing of San Fran­cis­co, you also were in the Bay Area to talk to tech work­ers. You have a fun­ny scene where you get on a Google bus and are kicked off for ask­ing tech work­ers about their jobs. Sep­a­rate­ly, you go to this swanky Sil­i­con Val­ley bar where… I don’t know, deals get made, I guess. And a guy who works at Google tells you, “Every­where you look, you hear peo­ple talk­ing about ‘mean­ing.’ They aren’t philoso­phers. … They sell ban­ner ads. What do they know about meaning?” 

There have been numer­ous books writ­ten on the mar­riage of the coun­ter­cul­ture and the com­put­er age. It’s such an inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal switch. Peo­ple were inter­est­ed in a “let’s destroy the office, let’s have ful­fill­ing work­days, let’s have free­dom to exper­i­ment with new kinds of employ­ment rela­tion­ships.” And now they’re lead­ers of a move­ment to keep peo­ple at work longer and longer through a cou­ple of perks.

You argue in the end of the book for a time agen­da that work­ers could unite around, around this shared expe­ri­ence of not hav­ing con­trol of their work lives. What should the 21st-cen­tu­ry time agen­da look like? What should it include? What should be on the ban­ners of the move­ments in the street demand­ing their time back?

The old ban­ners used to say basi­cal­ly “few­er hours for more mon­ey.” For a long time, the labor move­ment was suc­cess­ful at win­ning exact­ly that. Dur­ing a cri­sis, espe­cial­ly like the one right now, it often seems tone deaf to talk about few­er hours when peo­ple are unem­ployed, when peo­ple aren’t get­ting CARES Act fund­ing and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance is run­ning out. But there’s a his­tor­i­cal prece­dent here. Dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, the gov­ern­ment used work-shar­ing ben­e­fits. They spread the work around to avoid lay­ing peo­ple off, reduc­ing hours and using gov­ern­ment pro­grams to sub­si­dize you at your pre­vi­ous wage. We should be doing more of that.

Protests around health­care, or to expand the purview of care in gen­er­al in an econ­o­my, are sig­nif­i­cant, too. We could cut and paste pro­grams from some peer nations in West­ern Europe. We work about 400 hours per year more than the Ger­mans, 250 hours more than French work­ers. They’re not starv­ing—they’re doing fine. State pro­vi­sions are impor­tant not only because they’re good for peo­ple’s health­care, but because it allows peo­ple to step back from work. But half of Amer­i­cans get their health insur­ance through a job, and min­i­mum-hour require­ments and eli­gi­bil­i­ty statutes require that peo­ple con­tin­ue work­ing, often longer than they want, just to main­tain their health­care. It’s trag­ic and it’s criminal. 

When I inter­viewed work­ers from Ohio from a laid-off auto plant out­side Day­ton, Ohio, they said, “Health­care should be tak­en off the union bar­gain­ing agen­da. It’s a dri­ver of lock­outs, it’s a dri­ver of dis­rup­tions, and most impor­tant­ly, we spend so much time argu­ing about health­care that we can’t talk about high­er wages and hours.” So uni­ver­sal health­care, Medicare for All, is an impor­tant goal of any­one think­ing about short­er hours.

You also talk about the upsurge in the labor move­ment around teachers. 

We think of teach­ers hav­ing the sum­mers off, right? I am the son of a teacher myself, and remem­ber our kitchen table piled high with books for the entire sum­mer, because that’s when you plan lessons and do a lot of oth­er impor­tant work ahead of the school year. Recent­ly, we’ve seen teach­ers get­ting not only sum­mer jobs to sup­ple­ment their income, but night jobs after school. 

But teach­ers have tak­en so much lead­er­ship in reori­ent­ing their work­places through strikes, and strikes that do more than just talk about teach­ers’ work issues. They talk about race and racism, immi­gra­tion, hous­ing, access to food. There’s no rea­son why work­ers can’t also talk about reduc­tion of work­ing hours. 

When it comes to con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, this is what peo­ple call “bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good.” Free time should be a pub­lic good. And we should use our moments of nego­ti­a­tions with employ­ers to think about win­ning soci­ety-wide agree­ments to decrease work time.

Let’s imag­ine this pan­dem­ic is over. What’s num­ber one on the “Jamie McCal­lum Agen­da for Free Time?” 

Oh, wow. [Long pause] I’m stalling just think­ing about it…

Our work-time régime has made you unable to even con­sid­er this ques­tion because it feels so far out­side of the realm of possibility.

It real­ly does. I’ll say two things. My the­sis advi­sor in grad­u­ate school was Stan­ley Aronowitz, one of the great labor schol­ars of the last half cen­tu­ry. I wrote him in June and said, “I’d like to meet with you.” He wrote back, “there are three rea­sons to become a pro­fes­sor: June, July, and August. Come to me in Sep­tem­ber.” I was like, man, I want that guy’s job and the free­dom that comes with it. One of the most reward­ing things about hav­ing the free­dom to write this book was the free­dom I had to go around the coun­try and meet peo­ple, talk to work­ers and hear what they’re deal­ing with. I want to be able to do more of that.

The oth­er thing is, any­one right now in Amer­i­ca with a small child is just going absolute­ly insane dur­ing this pan­dem­ic. So I want more schools, day­care camps, play­grounds, what­ev­er, to be open 24–7. I would like that to change not only for my son’s ben­e­fit, but just for the gen­er­al men­tal and emo­tion­al san­i­ty 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 edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who “indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.


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Amazon Will Not Change Without a Union

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Jeff Bezos has gotten $24 billion richer. Amazon’s stock price has risen more than 40% since mid-March. This explosive creation of corporate wealth has coincided with an unprecedented level of labor activism against Amazon, including multiple well-publicized workplace walkouts, protests, and a growing drumbeat of negative PR about the company’s handling of the pandemic, particularly regarding the workplace safety of warehouse workers. There has never been as much coordinated labor action against Amazon. And Amazon has never been more successful. If the goal is to truly change Amazon, it’s time to make the strategy sharper.

Yes, Amazon is a behemoth. It is not just a trillion-dollar company run by the world’s richest man; it is a machine that is slowly eradicating the traditional retail industry in America and changing the entire landscape of work. It is the engine that will eliminate millions of service industry jobs and reconstitute them as warehouse jobs. For this reason, Amazon warehouse workers are the most strategically important workers in America for the labor movement. If unions aspire to the fundamental goal of ensuring that working people get a fair share of the proceeds of the economy they create, then unions must be able to exert serious influence in the strongest parts of the economy. It’s that simple. If unions are relegated to economic niches, they will not be able to transform the economy in favor of workers in the way they should. And for decades, with the decline of manufacturing and the rise of anti-labor law, this is exactly what has been happening. If Amazon is America’s most powerful company, the influence of organized labor must be strong inside Amazon. Otherwise, organized labor cannot accomplish its mission on a national scale. The efforts of labor campaigns should be evaluated with this reality in mind.

These facts have been clear for years. The covid pandemic has provided an opportunity for a host of labor groups, many operating under the Athena Coalition, to crank up pressure on the company with walkouts and a media campaign—and the company has responded by firing both warehouse workers and tech workers who protested, exhibiting a bold industrial shamelessness that would make Henry Frick proud.

Because labor organizing is so difficult, and the odds are stacked so high against regular working people, we often tend to focus exclusively on what workers have won, emphasizing and celebrating every sign of hope or victory, no matter how small. This is important for the sake of morale. But it is equally important to look at our campaigns in the cold economic light of the corporate view. From the perspective of Amazon, here is what has happened lately: Their stock price is through the roof; the are rapidly capturing market share from wounded and dying competitors; they are hiring tens of thousands of new employees to meet exploding demand; and all signs indicate that they will come out on the other side of this crisis stronger than ever before. Shareholders and executives are fat, happy, and rich. A few minor flare-ups of labor unrest here and there is an exceeding small price to pay for what the bottom line is telling them right now.

I am sorry to say that there is only one thing that organized labor can do that will have any real lasting impact on Amazon, and that is: unionizing it. Neither a media campaign nor a PR campaign nor a political campaign is going to cut it. I say this not to denigrate any of the activists doing that work now, nor any of the brave Amazon employees who have agitated and spoken out at the risk of losing their jobs and being demonized by corporate spokespeople. All of that work is valuable. But it is valuable instrumentally, in that it lays the groundwork for a successful union campaign. A union can exercise power directly in a way that none of these other tactics can. Amazon warehouse workers who are unionized can win better pay and better benefits and a safer workplace directly, through collective bargaining, rather than indirectly through public pressure that may well simply be ignored by their staggeringly rich and powerful employer. The primary goal of all of the Amazon-related work that is being done by political and labor activists must be to unionize as much of the company as can possibly be unionized. That is the path to power. Realistically, the only path.

Will it be easy? No. It will be very hard. Walmart was the Amazon of a previous generation. It got much of the same sort of attention from organized labor. Are there any unionized Walmarts? To make a very long story short: no. A year and a half ago, the Retail Workers union announced with great fanfare that they were organizing an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. Has that warehouse been unionized? No. The Fight For 15 is an example of a labor campaign that has, in fact, won widespread concrete wage gains for fast food workers without creating any unions. But the fast food industry is different from Amazon. It includes many different employers, who can be played off against one another; unlike Amazon, it is a public-facing retail business with physical locations that open it up to a much greater variety of public actions; and huge portions of its work force can reap substantial increases in pay from minimum wage increases that can be imposed on the local or state level, which is less true for Amazon, where hourly pay is somewhat higher.

The amount of money that Jeff Bezos made in the past month is many times greater than the combined budgets of every labor union in America. The labor movement cannot hire more PR consultants, lobbyists, or advertising firms than Amazon, nor can the company’s economic influence over politicians and regulators be matched. Jeff Bezos could personally fund ten anti-labor campaigns the size of the entire Fight For 15 out of his own pocket and not even miss the money.

Yes, it will be hard. But it is necessary if we want to prevent the future of work in America from being ground up in a vast algorithmic machine in service of a lone mega-billionaire. So it has to be done. The one thing that all of Amazon’s spending cannot change is the fact that, if 50% plus one of the employees in an Amazon warehouse decide that they want to stop being exploited, they will have a union, by law. And once they have a union, they will collectively bargain, by law. And once they collectively bargain, they become a serious force to be reckoned with, something that Amazon has never yet had to deal with. There is a reason why companies like Amazon have such sophisticated internal anti-union surveillance systems. It is because they understand that a union gives employees a type of power that they will never otherwise have. Not a power that depends on influencing others, but an inherent structural power of their own.

Is Amazon willing to close down sophisticated fulfillment centers to stop union campaigns, costing themselves hundreds of millions of dollars? Perhaps. Are they willing to fire and retaliate against any worker they think might be an organizer? Perhaps. But those are the stakes. This is a long war. The alternative is allowing Jeff Bezos, a man who said that he could not think of any way to spend his fortune except space travel even after his employees had been complaining of horrific workplace exploitation for decades, to set the agenda for working conditions in America. The alternative is unacceptable. The alternative is death to organized labor, and it is doom and poverty to working people. So we fight it. We have to fight it with the strongest weapon we have. That’s a union. Everything else must be a step in that direction. Otherwise, we will look back in 20 years, wondering why we lost.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Bosses can make essential workers exposed to COVID-19 keep working, this week in the war on workers

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The Centers for Disease Control gave employers the go-ahead to make essential workers who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 keep working right up until they get sick. That’s despite the well-established risk of transmission from people who don’t have symptoms. Under the policy, exposed workers should wear a mask and companies should clean and disinfect a lot, but still!

“Essential workers in food processing, agriculture, janitorial, and many other critical industries are disproportionally workers of color, who are underpaid and already at increased risk of serious complications if they become infected with coronavirus,” National Employment Law Project executive director Rebecca Dixon said in a statement. “With this new policy, the Trump administration has completely abandoned its responsibility to protect workers.”

Parents are not okay:

Viruses — pandemics — expose and exacerbate the existing dynamics of a society — good and bad. They are like a fun-house mirror, grossly reflecting ourselves back to us. One of those dynamics is the burden we put on individual parents and families. We ask individuals to solve for problems that are systemically created.

Everything from the lack of paid sick leave and parental leave to the fact that the school day ends at 3pm when the typical work day goes several hours longer — yet aftercare is not universally available. And that’s saying nothing of the fact that we need universal healthcare, irrespective of employment. Parents pour endless energy into solving for systems that don’t make sense and don’t work.

Workers don’t know who to turn to when employers won’t close down during the pandemic:

From crafts stores to custom closet installers to home-furnishing retailers, corporate lawyers have been arguing in letters to their workforces that they are too important to close even as the public-health crisis worsens. Employees who are dubious of those claims have been parsing the language of their stay-at-home orders and asking government officials why they are still expected to clock in.

While some states have moved swiftly to clarify the exemptions, several workers told HuffPost they reached out to their governors’ offices, their mayors, their local health or police departments and have waited days for definitive answers.

Leaked memo reveals the US’ largest health system could fire nurses who post coronavirus policies on social media—and a nurse has already been suspended without pay.

? The U.S. Department of Labor warned employers not to retaliate against workers for reporting unsafe conditions.

Under threat of a strike, Instacart promised its workers hand sanitizer. It’s not coming through with even that much.

The University of Chicago is paying its workers. Including subcontracted workers. This shouldn’t be unusual, but it is.

Grocery store workers need frontline protections:

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?

Temporary SNAP benefit boost a no-brainer for more economic stimulus.

The coronavirus crisis exposes how fragile capitalism already was.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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