Our Labor Is Used to Create Wealth for Others. Let’s Reclaim It to Make Life.

My father spent many days in intensive medical care during his final years. He developed emphysema from too many cigarettes, as well as exposure to asbestos and silica dust from the glass factory where his father worked for 44 years. He once said that a man was following him around and marking down everything they did, during a visit. The nurses were trying to form labor unions. The observer was keeping track of their times and movements, likely to incite them or correct any mistakes. My father said, “Dad did that to me once.”

My grandfather was an industrial engineer, the company man with the stopwatch timing workers’ motions so that these could be reengineered and the workers ordered to perform their jobs with greater “efficiency”; that is, faster, resulting in increased glass production per hour and more profits for the employer. Grandpa “time-studied” his son, illustrating perfectly that workers, no matter their capacities, interests — in a word, their humanity — are, to those who hire them, simply commodities to be manipulated and controlled. They should be treated the same as the raw materials, machinery, buildings, and tools with which they interact to produce the goods or services of modern society.

Over 50 years I have been studying and writing about work. This has allowed me to discover its nature, its consequences for those who do it, as well as what can be done to improve it. My last book is the result of all my learnings. It is called Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle. Its thesis is simple. Businesses, driven by incessant competition, want to maximize profits and use these to achieve high, unending economic growth. They must be able to control what happens in their workplaces in order to get what they want. The power to do this is embedded in the nature of our system: A few individuals own society’s productive wealth, while the many need access to it to survive. The latter must sell their ability work to the first. The few have the advantage, but the wants of workers and employers differ, as anyone who has worked will tell you. While laborers are treated as commodities, they are also controlled and controlled. The workplace is full of tensions. If the organization is to thrive, it must control the labor process and the way that work is done. However, this must be done in the face possible resistance such as sabotage, slowdowns or strikes, picketing or boycotts, mass quitting, political agitations, and other forms of resistance.

The essence of management is control, and the history of capitalism is but a sequence of the implementation of “control mechanisms.” (My book provides the detail of these, their effects on workers and the possibilities for radically changing the way we labor. We can only give a brief summary. At capitalism’s dawn, people worked at home, producing cloth, for example, with wool loaned (put out) to them by merchants who were now capitalists. The owners of wool hired women and children, often orphans, to help them when this was inefficient. The employer could then watch them closely to ensure they didn’t steal wool and to see how they did their labor tasks. The factory whistle was used to acclimate those who worked inside to the new work routines and to punish those who were late or absent.

The supervisors hired to watch over their charges soon saw that a person trained in a craft divided his task into component parts — that is, details or subtasks. It was a short step to see that it would be cheaper to hire untrained workers — at first, mainly women and orphaned children — to do the details and reserve the craftsmen for what the untrained laborers could not do. There were many people who could do each detail, which kept wages low and employees afraid of being replaced. Once power sources such as water wheels and steam engines could make effort independent of the workers’ bodies, some of the subtasks were mechanized. Machines could control workers directly, making them “appendages” to a mechanism, to use Karl Marx’s famous word. Additionally, mechanization made work more complex, and the human ingenuity necessary for labor to continue successfully decreased.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Frederick Taylor took the existing managerial control mechanism — centralization in factories, the detailed division of labor and mechanization — and systematized them into what he termed, “scientific management.” The conceptualization of work processes would be the sole prerogative of the employer. My grandfather’s work would be done by his band of industrial engineers. Workers would no longer be human-like parts in an automated system. They would carry our orders only. The Human Resources department, now known as Personnel, offered incentives and other benefits such as demotions, transfers, terminations, modest fringe benefits, and incentive plans to keep workers happy and at work. If readers intuit that Taylor’s aim was to speed up production so that profits rose, they would be correct.

Led by the Toyota Corporation, “Taylorism” has been extended and deepened in what is called “lean production,” or as its critics call it, “management by stress.” This form of control includes many elements:

* Systematic Hiring Employers use metadata, personality tests and interviews to find people who easily take orders, identify with business, won’t likely support a union and will tolerate an intense work environment.

* Production by teams:Companies use military-inspired techniques to divide employees into teams. This fosters team loyalty and a competitive spirit where workers are happy competing against other plants, teams, and businesses.

The cover of <i>Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle</i>.
The cover of Work Work: Labor, Alienation and Class Struggle.

* Cross-Training:This is where people are misled into believing they are learning new skills. In reality, they are just learning to do subtasks. Work processes had already damaged the integrity and skill of task (skilled), labor where one person did a job from the beginning to the end. A metalsmith who was given a task to make 100 funnels would first make the pattern, then each of the subtasks 100 times. This includes layout, cutting, shaping and joining, polishing and decorating, if necessary. If metalsmiths are only required to make the pattern, they can be hired to do each subtask. Cross-training allows a person to be trained to do more than one subtask. Neither of these tasks requires much training or knowledge.

* Just-in-Time Inventory:The production of parts, such as car steering wheels is done in subsidiary plants. This saves money, even though the workers are unionized. Also, no money will be spent on inventory space or maintenance by the main facility. Workers at the primary facility will now be concerned about their work being subcontracted. It is possible that some production will be exported to other countries, further splitting the workforce. This concept can be applied to workers in fast food and adjunct faculty at U.S. colleges. It creates extreme stress and insecurity.

* Kaizen: Japanese word for “constant improvement.” This is a perpetual speed-up mechanism. A team might speed up production, lose a member, or have insufficient inventory. The problem is then assigned to teams. Cross-training is a great way to help businesses. Teams are often put under extreme pressure by a system that uses lights to change from green (good), to yellow (warning teams to stop hustling) and finally to red (production will cease, and woe to workers). Now, U.S. auto workersKaizen will allow you to expect that Kaizen will work 57 seconds per minute.

* Extreme Surveillance: I call this the “panopticon,” after philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s plan for a circular prison with cells arranged so a guard can see all those incarcerated without them knowing if he was watching. Grandpa would have been shocked at the extent and severity of employer monitoring of employees. App developers are competing to supply employers with apps. ever more invasiveThere are many ways to spy on the people they employ. Even consumersBusinesses such as colleges and hotels have used them to check on workers. What can we also call student evaluations? These include external ones like Rate My Professor and ratings on sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor.

The effects on workers of all this control are wholly negative — stress, diminished mental and physical health, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and sometimes violent behavior — just what we would expect when human beings toil under the command of others. The etymological roots of the word “work”It is used to denote suffering, compulsion, affliction, persecution, and torment. These well reflect the reality of labor for most of the world’s toilers. The global labor forceAbout 3.5 billion people. 800 million of them are farmworkers. There are 160 million child laborers in the labor force that are not counted, some of whom are under 10 years old and who work in dangerous places like mines. There were 1.5 billion people living in 2020. “vulnerable” employment: Self-employed women, children, and men who make deliveries, sew clothes, produce cheap cigarettes, and sell goods on the street. These words would be difficult to grasp even in the richest countries in the world. tens of millionsDeliver mail and parcels; drive trucks or buses; work along the assembly and disassembly of lines that give us our cars and trucks; clerk in grocery shops and other retail establishments; work in the kitchen, preparing food; provide our healthcare; clean our offices; clean our buildings; teach in our schools; do office work; do yard work; build houses and roads; and many more labors.

On this Labor Day, perhaps it is time for all members of the world’s working class, to ask themselves, why is work so often a “torment,” an “affliction,” done under “compulsion”? Why does it feel as if our bosses are “persecuting” us? It is a way to ruin our bodies. It seems so meaningless. It certainly doesn’t have to be and was not for most of our time on Earth. And then ask, if this is true, how can we create a society in which we control our own labor, where work is a natural and necessary part of life, one we do to produce the essentials of life, not for someone else’s riches but for use by everyone, equally and in harmony with the natural world?

In answer to these questions, perhaps every labor union, workers’ center, grassroots political organization and newly formed groups of those who want to change the world should embrace the slogan of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” Use the wealth of unions, political organizations and the pooled money of workers to buy land and produce food on it collectively; build new, cheap, energy-efficient housing — training people to both do and control the work. Forge worker-community cooperatives. All governments should be encouraged to support these efforts. Organise employers to change the way that work is done. Demand that you have the right to decide on the introduction and use of new technology. Demand that employers are not monitored.

There are many options, but the goal of unalienated labor is the most important. How can capitalism be transcended and a new world constructed unless the essence of this system — controlled labor — is abolished?