Sunday, April 28, 2013

The New American Workplace

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times produced a stunning series of stories about the changing American workplace, and the nature of workers’ experience in our era.  They are illuminating and sometimes moving pieces of journalism, and I think they are worth your time.  I’ve written out a few thoughts below, but the best thing you can do is to read through these stories:

The impression which emerges from this reporting is that there is a basic inhumanity re-entering the workplace and employer-employee relations.  Work is increasingly undervalued, and workers are increasingly seen as expendable.  Labour itself is ever-more casualised. 

A UC Santa Barbara academic who studies the workplace told the Times that “Fifty years ago, when you went to business school you were taught that you want a loyal, dedicated, skilled workforce.  Today, if you go to business school, they tell you don’t want a permanent workforce.  That’s considered new standard operating procedure.  It reflects a real shifts in power”.  The same article invokes the Costco-Walmart divide: the former’s focus on the well-being of employees has seen 900% growth since 1986; the latter’s exploitation of its workers has generated 2,500% growth.

We should then ask how much growth in profit is enough.  Is there any point, in the eyes of unreformed capitalists, at which their profits become too obscene and too exploitative to justify a correction which would make their profit more modest while simultaneously treating workers like human beings?

Part of this changing relationship, the Times’ reporting suggests, is driven by increasing costs of healthcare: costs which, make no mistake, are driven by the market-minded practises of the healthcare and insurance industries rather than our recent half-hearted efforts at reform. 

The Times also documented the shifts from defined benefit plans (“a traditional pension, in which companies promise a certain benefit depending on the employee’s age and salary”) to defined contribution plans (which “shift the risks to the employees: they put money worth a certain percentage of the employee’s salary into an account that is invested in the market, so the value could fall if the market falls”).

The reporting describes how the increased use of surveillance in the workplace, in addition to generating stress (which generates costs of its own—“27% higher occurrence of pain in the shoulders and a 21% incidence in back pain” in one office setting), also breaks down the unity of employees by allowing employers to target or reward them based on fine-grained data about their behaviour and skills in a highly arbitrary manner.   

There is so much talk from the employers in question about the squeeze they are experiencing, and yet many of them work for incredibly profitable industries in which a great many people get stinking rich as a result of exploiting vulnerable people who are faced with a seemingly-impenetrable phalanx of industry interests more interested in obscene profiteering than human welfare. 

Some examples of the changing workplace: “Only 28% of U.S. companies offer long-term care insurance, down from 45% in 2008, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management.  About 84% of companies offer life insurance, down from 92% in 2008; 33% offer a credit union, down from 42%.  Only 9% offer adoption assistance, down from 16%; 38% offer cross-training in skills not directly related to the job, down from 55%”.

One story offered examples of how a less humane workplace has impacts for people’s quality of life well beyond the day job.  An MIT management professor, Paul Osterman told the Times that “the ability of people to spend time at voluntary organizations, churches, youth groups—their social capital—goes down.  They can’t keep their homes, they can’t take care of their own health.  It’s all tied to the economic pressure people are under”.  Osterman’s findings suggest that the “family values” crowd that also champions unadulterated capitalism should be rethinking its social and economic platform: “parents spend a lot of time at work but can’t afford childcare, so kids grow up watching too much TV and don’t do their homework.  Economic stress leads to a high divorce rate.  In essence, parents who have jobs—but bad ones—don’t have the time to raise their children, who will grow up without a good education and also get tough jobs”.

It is fascinating to me that people worry so compulsively about state overreach in terms of things like regulating healthcare markets, pollutants, education policy, financial practises and the like.  Yet as this reporting shows, more far-reaching and serious regulation—which affects far more people in more profound ways in their day-to-day lives—is being laid out in the workplace.  Nearly all of this is designed to weaken the rights and power of workers with an aim to increasing the power and profits of employers. 

It is extraordinary to me that the basic narratives of capitalism in twenty-first century America—that a “free market”, effectively managed by industry interest is in everyone’s best interests; that corporate profits are a good measure of our moral, social, and economic health; that growth in those profits at all costs is beneficial to society; that this growth will eventually trickle down to the rest of us—retain the power to keep people in thrall to such an inhuman labour regime. 

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