Worked Over in Bad Jobs


      Pearl River     On the eve of Labor Day, I found myself talking with Middlebury Sociology Professor Jamie McCallum on Wade’s World about a range of topics from worker surveillance to hours of work to the impact of the pandemic on workers to the state of unions today, since McCallum was also a former SEIU organizer on the West Coast.  Not a lot of happy dancing in this conversation.

McCallum wrote a recent book called Worked Over:  How Round-the-Clock Work is Killing the American Dream.  One intriguing chapter and a constant theme was the way that modern technological surveillance tools were squeezing more work out of regular hours, just as tech is also tethering more people to work at all hours of the day and night.  In the age of Zoom, even while remote, many are on-call, even if they are wearing sweatpants and slippers beneath the screen.  Applications that allow servers to log into computers anywhere, watch the work, and count the keystrokes are a new version of Taylorism employer time management.  I wondered if the NLRA restrictions on such spying when workers were engaged in concerted activity offered any protection, but I pretty much knew it was a blind alley, even as I raised the question.  In theory, workers complaining to each other about such surveillance would be protected, but in practice, any discipline or discharge would be hard to prove.

The reevaluation of essential workers, especially in healthcare, might provide some relief, but the outcome is unclear.  The back and forth over mandatory vaccinations deflates some of the leverage healthcare workers might have gained because of overwork, short staffing, and the continuing crisis of the pandemic.  McCallum told the story of some hotel laundry workers that were able to ban together to stop a speed up and constant monitoring by something they called the “electronic whip,” which was encouraging, but unclear how widespread.

Tellingly, McCallum argued that workers and their unions needed to revive the campaign for shorter hours, which has stalled over recent decades.  Fifty years ago, futurists and scholars of all stripes predicted that technology and increased productivity would lead to shorter hours and a reduced workweek.  Few raise those issues at this point, even though the objective conditions might indicate more favorable prospects.

Economist David Autor argues that the current labor shortage is a good thing for workers because their silent strike indicates that workers are sending a message that they are unwilling to continue to take bad jobs at bad pay, rather the worker shortage being triggered by high unemployment benefits or little daycare.  He argues that it forces companies to raise wages, increase training, and even automate some miserable dead-end jobs.

Let’s hope Autor is right going forward, because the current picture that McCallum paints in recent years, and that we see daily, is anything but rosy for workers.