The Tyranny of Work
Thirty seven minutes a day. That’s the average amount of quality time working families have to spend together on any given day. And if you multiply 365 by 70, the answer you’ll get is 25,550. Which is the average number of days a normal person can expect to live. How many days have I already wasted? How many days have I been forced to squander? And how many days has my employer, along with a pernicious economic system, stolen from me?
This is where my individualism comes into play. I take particular umbrage with work as a concept because it precludes my abilities to decide what desires or needs matter in life and which ones do not. The boss decides this and if I don’t like it I don’t have much of a say in anything that should or shouldn’t count. Because when workers go to work, they enter a world that is marked more by an unaccountable class structure, than equality and liberty. The workplace, to paraphrase Elizabeth Anderson, is nothing but a dictatorship, where companies intimidate their employees, through drug tests, surveillance and public admonishments, into quiescent acceptance of their meagre lot - which is why so few dare to rebel against it.
One of the primary critiques of capitalism from the Left for well over 150 years is that the capitalist workplace has always been a dictatorship. The boss or a group of investors owns the workplace and a group of managers or directors set all the rules that govern it. There is no democracy within the company. The workers either accept these rules or they can quit. But quitting generally means seeking employment within yet another workplace dictatorship. And these dictatorships even have the legal authority to regulate workers’ off-hour lives as well---their political activities, speech, choice of sexual partner, use of recreational drugs, alcohol, smoking, and exercise....most employers exercise this off-hours authority irregularly, arbitrarily, and without warning.
Consider this: Our schedules and our hours are one of the most direct ways that bosses exert control over our lives. Erratic schedules cause untold turmoil in the lives of workers, making it difficult to plan anything as simple as a doctors appointment in advance.
Who hasn’t had a coworker call them in a panic asking if you can cover their shift so they can stay home with their sick kid, and nobody else can do it? This has been an intentional part of North American capitalism since the 1990’s. It's a practice called “lean staffing,” which emerges from “lean production.” When North Americans adopted "lean production" from Japanese business practices, they started calling it "lean and mean." Short-staffing is simply a strategic way your employer attempts to capture your unworked hours, and it’s intentional. I've seen many friends cancel plans last minute because their boss called and told them they had to come in and many employees feel beholden. (Remember: the reliable employee is just a beaten human being who represses and shames themselves out of their own emotions and self-respect). But businesses structure their labour like this on purpose. Lean staffing, especially in service jobs, is tightly tied to the practice of scheduling just under the number of hours that's legally considered a full-time employee, so your employer can deny you benefits. The mechanisms vary based on local laws, but the intent carries over. I wish I could tell you to just turn down the pleading demands to come in unscheduled and advocate for a minimum number of hours every week. But that's likely to get you fired, or called in by a manager for an absurd "culture" talk. Moreover, these tyrants (excuse me, bosses) will routinely use the power they have over an employee’s hours to punish those workers who speak out, or who earn their ire for no reason at all. Or as a way to force workers they see as problematic out without having to outright fire them. Don't question the boss’ rampant favoritism or you just might find your hours slashed to one hour a week.
You should also never trust a company who uses intimate “I’m your pal” language with their employees either, any more than you should trust tech bro companies who install ping pong tables for their workers. Absent of actual worker protections, informality is just an accelerant for work-life boundary erosion. Generally speaking an employer/client acting like you’re family without basis is a big red flag. And I don’t wait around to be exploited. Companies with casual cultures often get coded as good/cool in opposition to the stuffy, formal white collar workplaces of yore, but that opposition is solely aesthetic. If your company is actually good/cool, it'll put worker benefits, a union or a cooperative model where its mouth is. I also resent how today's white collar companies invoke personal concepts like 'passion' and 'values' to obfuscate the true transactional nature of work, because they know they gain advantage in the transaction if they convince workers to not see it as transactional at all. And I really fucking hate it when a company says things like, “we think of ourselves as a family here.” Great. You have modeled yourself after a patriarchal power structure where the children, i.e. workers, are expected to obey their parents. Understand: a company who refers to their employees as “family” is getting ready to ask them to do something they will not be paid to do. (Spoiler: anytime you see the word "passion" used in a company's job listing, know that they pay 25% less than current market rates).
Labor movement activists have long argued that in ordinary markets, a vendor can sell their product to a buyer, and once the transaction is complete, each walks away as free from the other as before. Sure. But, labor markets are different. When workers sell their labor to an employer, they have to hand themselves over to their boss, who then gets to order them around. The labor contract, instead of leaving the seller as free as before, puts the seller under the authority of their boss. Since the decline of the labor movement, however, we don’t have effective ways to talk about this fact, and hence about what kinds of authority bosses should and shouldn’t have over their workers.
Starting sometime around 1970, the uneasy truce between workers and owners ceased satisfying the ownership class. They figured that if they could manage to shake those costly fetters of regulation, taxation, and a living wage, they could probably change the work-pay equation in their favor. During the intervening decades, the capitalist class and their political system commenced to crush labor unions, cut taxes, and roll back safety and ethics regulations. The unions we have today, to the extent they even exist, are structurally limited to operating within a paradigm that no longer applies. They pretend that there’s some mutually beneficial agreement that can be reached with owners. And they can only pursue this moronic vision by acting as a bureaucratic intermediary between workers and owners. So they come into workplaces as an outside force promising to manage negotiations in workers’ favor. But the old rules no longer apply. The “liberals” took over the unions long ago and turned them into HR Departments. Today's "unions" don't represent us. They serve to pacify workers and protect capital. So the Fordist process of ‘infiltrate-convince-negotiate-win contract’ is dead. And the trade union ecosphere is a zombie staggering on its last legs.
However, the most important source of an employers’ power lies in the default rule of employment at will. Unless the parties have otherwise agreed, employers are free to fire workers for almost any or no reason. This amounts to an effective grant of power to employers to rule the lives of their employees in almost any and every respect. And they will not hesitate to exercise that power.
You’re not supposed to notice all of this; that we have private governments that are much more powerful than the state. That’s not part of the dominant ideology. But it’s the workers who produce value for a company and by working together, forming democratic workers' councils inside work places, they can use that leverage to take control from the bosses and put it where it belongs, in their hands. Anyone who believes otherwise is quite clearly a moronic fascist. Someone so deeply indoctrinated into capitalisms false ideology that they believe that enslavement in a capitalist enterprise is tantamount to freedom. And if we are to free ourselves from this plutocratic subjection, we must first acknowledge the capitalists creed for what it is. Because the problem isn't being on a salary. The problem is enjoying it.