Time is Not on Our Side

Unions Workers

New Orleans:    My guest blog for Working Class Perspectives for May Day follows, with thanks and appreciation to them for the privilege of contributing.

Time is suddenly news.  How little we have, how much we want, and what we do with it for work or whatever.  Is this good news for workers?  Maybe for some, but probably just the same ol’, same ol’ for most of us.

Take “remote work” for example.  Speculation is rampant on whether the pandemic firmly established different work patterns in the current economy that would provide more flexibility, and therefore more control for workers, over their time.   What the pandemic also established is that for the vast population of contemporary workers in the service sector, little was remote, much was at risk and rigid.  Manufacturing jobs have declined over the last fifty years while service work exploded, but those workers were still chained to the rhythm of their machines and the employers’ work schedule in intimate, rather than remote ways.

For employers, “time is money” with little change in the old dictum.  Even as the New York Times Magazine examined the contradictions over controlling work time by celebrating remote workers, these arguments were undercut as they looked at the erosion of time in the future of work and the expanding world of gigs and apps as bosses.  The real story of the future of work continues to be employer power, and they are not lining up in favor of more worker control of their time and work.  Bosses in the main want workers back in the office where they can be seen and supervised.  They aren’t alone.  Investors are already seeing remote work become so dominant for office-based workers that it could implode the commercial real estate market, making empty floors standard in skyscrapers, and crippling investors, especially among regional and smaller banks.

Most unions would concede that we have lost control over hours.  Even as the National Labor Relations Act guarantees union bargaining rights for workers over “hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment,” the move to reduce work hours – and enable more hours for “what we will” — has been stalled for almost a century.  We can quibble over the schedule, but actually winning differences in the length of shifts is virtually impossible.  Over the last fifty years, promoters of technology and automation have claimed that these innovations will save us time while also increasing productivity, but some workers have lost jobs and others have been asked to work more, for lower wages, despite productivity growth.  As a primary example, as amazing as the development of computers has been, they have hardly been a labor-saving device.

Jenny Odell’s recent book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, offers a more useful look at time from the bottom up than contemporary boosters of the “promises” of technology. She makes no bones about the truth: “capital only ‘frees time in order to appropriate it for itself.’ In other words, the goal of capitalism is not free time but economic growth.”  She cautions that we should not be lured into a false peace about time and work because “in comparison to those other forms of ‘screwing the nine to five’—worker organizing, legislation, and mutual aid—the allure of the productivity gospel is supposed to be that you don’t need anyone but yourself to achieve freedom.”  We know that’s wrong.  Nonetheless, the marketing is powerful and seductive.

For example, take two other common issues around work and time: “burnout” and “self-care.”  Odell argues that “burnout has ever been solely about not having enough hours in the day. What first appears to be a wish for more time may turn out to be just one part of a simple, yet vast, desire for autonomy, meaning, and purpose.”  If we see self-care as “stealing little moments in which we can prioritize the self,” she writes, we set up a “zero-sum game” with different interests competing for our time.  She’s also clear that when it comes to work, when one person wins, someone else loses.  She argues that,

This phenomenon, in which one adapts her temporal rhythms to those of something or someone else, is called entrainment, and it often plays out on an uneven field of relationships that reflects hierarchies of gender, race, class, and ability. How much someone’s time is valued is not measured simply by a wage, but by who does what kind of work and whose temporality has to line up with whose, whether that means rushing or waiting or both. Keeping this field in sight is all the more important amid exhortations to “slow down” for which one person’s slowing down requires someone else to speed up.

Jenny Odell is hardly the “be all and end all” in a debate about work and time.  She’s an artist not an organizer, union leader, or even an academic, but she has a better baloney-detector than a lot of the HR and corporate flaks, pundits, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms telling us that we can all wave our wands and control time, work, and wages.

Time is a problem, and technology and artificial intelligence can’t solve it.  There’s no app for that.  We can puzzle it out at home alone, but as Odell suggests, that just puts us against ourselves. The only way we can get time to work for us is through organization and collective action.  It’s about time for that.