Saturday, December 1, 2018

Unsolicited Advice for Amazon: Keep Talking with Your Workers

Last month, the New York Times and the Star Tribune reported on conflicts between Somalian workers and management at Amazon’s Shakopee (Minnesota) warehouse. The workers’ concerns include increases in their workload, lack of advancement opportunities, and prayer breaks.

There are many interesting angles to this story, including the community built among Somalian workers (at least partly facilitated by the Amazon-provided bus that brings them from and back to downtown Minneapolis each day) and the role of the Awood Center  (a worker center for East African workers in the Twin Cities). But then there’s this from the New York Times article by Karen Weise:
“Now, tied together by a close cultural connection and empowered by a tight labor market, they appear to be the first known group in the United States to get Amazon management to negotiate. After modest protests over the summer, the workers have had two private meetings with management in recent months.”
Kudos to the workers for this achievement. I’m a fan of worker voice in many forms (and here, too). And these issues are probably particularly ripe for constructive conversations. It’s important to put a human face on workload demands, frustration with advancement could be a win-win issue to work through, and requests for prayer breaks involve obvious cultural differences that are hard to overcome without an understanding that comes from personal interaction. And this dialogue has resulted in what seems like some constructive changes, again quoting from the New York Times article:
“Last week, Amazon offered some compromises at its facilities in the Minneapolis area. The company said it would require a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager to agree on any firings related to productivity rates, designate a manager to respond to individual complaints within five days and meet with workers quarterly.”
But focusing solely on the process of employee voice, there is room for tremendous improvement. According to these reports, there have only been TWO meetings, and Amazon has only committed to a quarterly meeting with workers. As in four times a year? Employee voice should be ongoing rather than letting problems fester. And committing to respond to individual complaints within five days hardly seems responsive—that can be a long time for a worker to suffer. Employee voice should be embraced as something worthy of immediate attention whenever feasible.

In fact, the workers have scheduled a protest because they do not believe their concerns have been fully addressed. Employee voice is not a magical solution that will make these issues disappear, but dialogue is certainly worth trying more than once a quarter. For Amazon, further discussions could hopefully resolve these issues and avoid work disruptions. For the workers, voice allows them to participate in shaping their work life in ways consistent with human needs and dignity. So keep talking with your workers. No to your workers. With your workers.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Should Work Be More Like BDSM Role-Play?

“You can’t say ‘orange’ to your boss.” Wait a minute, what?!? Is “orange” some kind of offensive slang I’m not aware of? I don’t think so…so taken in isolation, this sentence from David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs (p. 282) seems odd. But it’s actually quite important. “Orange” is being used here as an example of a safe word analogous to what someone would have in erotic role-playing involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM). Graeber is right—you don’t have a safe word at work, but you should.

It’s easy to envision a sadistic boss who enjoys humiliating or inflicting pain on others. We might also joke that only a masochist could put up with certain bosses or jobs that look painful to us. But at a more fundamental level, many, if not all, jobs can be seen as having a (non-sexual) sadomasochistic nature because of the dependency nature of the employment relationship. In her book Sadomasochism in Everyday Life, Lynn Chancer argues that “many workers, like the masochist, find themselves subject to chains of command that induce extreme dependency and a tendency toward the experience of oneself as inferior relative to an allegedly superior authority” (p. 106). And for bosses, “perpetually insecure himself or herself (why else would the capitalist need to figuratively bind and restrict the freedom of the worker?), no level of control really satisfies” (p. 109) so there is a sadistic-like (in psychological terms) continual push for dominance. Chancer further argues that the feeling of power is more satisfying or authentic when the subordinate exhibits some resistance or independence (hence bosses want employees with initiative), but not so much as to threaten the hierarchy.

So paid work in a hierarchical system with economic, legal, and other inequalities has important elements of a sadomasochistic relationship. But (non-pathological) BDSM role-playing has other critical features (Elena Faccio et al., Forbidden Games: The Construction of Sexualityand Sexual Pleasure by BDSM ‘Players,’ Culture, Health & Sexuality, 2014). Specifically, BDSM players design the rules of the game, are aware of their roles, and can withdraw their consent at any time by the use of an agreed-upon safe word. As Graeber notes, “This is precisely what’s lacking in real-life sadomasochistic situations. You can’t say “orange” to your boss. Supervisors never work out in advance in what ways employees can and cannot be chewed out for different sorts of infractions, and if an employee is…being reprimanded or otherwise humiliated, she knows there is nothing she can say to make it stop” (pp. 121-2).

You might say, but a worker can say “I quit.” But this is only a safe word if a worker can easily find similar work and pay elsewhere—an assumption frequent in mainstream economic (neoliberal) thought and associated public policies, but often not a reality for many workers.

Graeber argues that a universal basic income would turn “I quit” into a safe word because at least some level of income would not be dependent on a particular job. I would add that there are other things that could also be done to make work more like BDSM role play that fulfills the BDSM “safe, sane and consensual” (SSC) code:

·       Require employers to provide a written statement to all employees disclosing all terms and conditions of employment, including being able to be fired at any time for almost any reason. This might not change the actual terms and conditions of employment, but it would at least give workers more clarity about what they are signing up for.   

·       Enact statutory protections for employee free speech in which private and public employers are not allowed to violate an employee's freedom of expression either in or out of the workplace. Again, this might not change the actual terms and conditions of employment, but it could give workers more power to articulate their desires and object to certain things.

·       Grant workers the right to meet with their employer to request a flexible work schedule, a certain number of hours, or other scheduling items. This could help workers be part of designing at least some of the “rules of the game.”   

·       As Steve Befort and I have argued in Invisible Hands, Invisible Objectives: Bringing Workplace Law and Public Policy Into Focus, the United States should enact an American Good Cause Termination Act in which employees can only be fired if there is “good cause” for such an action. A just cause standard is nearly universal in U.S. union contracts, and in CEO contracts. By outlawing both bad and irrelevant reasons for dismissing employees, this could give workers greater power to object to onerous conditions without having to quit, and could also better protect them if they wanted to form a union to improve their power.

None of these would necessarily fully solve the dependency issues inherent in the modern employment relationship. That is, work for many might be hopelessly sadomasochistic. Which means that it's important for us to think about ways to create a better balance to promote what I've called "employment with a human face." Or as provocatively put forth by Graeber (p. 283): “What would be the equivalent of saying “orange” to one’s boss? Or to an insufferable bureaucrat, obnoxious academic advisor, or abusive boyfriend? How do we create only games that we actually feel like playing, because we can opt out at any time?”

Perhaps surprisingly, then, making the employment relationship more like (non-pathological) BDSM role-playing with its SSC principles would be a good thing. You should be able to say “orange” to your boss. And many other things, too.

Note: ICYMI, in last month's blog post I wrote about some of my other reactions to Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Finding the Meaning in Bullshit Jobs

I’ve been reading Bullshit Jobs by LSE anthropologist David Graeber (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Graeber defines a bullshit job as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case” (pp. 9-10), and identifies five major types: 
  • Flunky jobs make someone else look or feel important without any other real purpose,
  • Goon jobs are those with an aggressive element that exist only because someone else has also created them and has an advantage if they are unmatched,  
  • Duct-taping jobs fix problems that shouldn’t exist,
  • Box-ticking jobs make an organization look like it’s doing something when it’s not,
  • Taskmaster jobs manage others who don’t need managing.
The common theme here is that these are all pointless jobs. They are not bad in the conventional sense of having lousy pay and working conditions—indeed, Graeber notes that many bullshit jobs are corporate and government jobs with good pay and safe working conditions—but they don’t have any real value. Citing the fact that 37% of survey respondents said that their job does not make a meaningful contribution to the world, Graeber then claims that “if 37 percent of jobs are bullshit, and 37 percent of the remaining 63 percent are in support of bullshit, then slightly over 50 percent of all labor falls into the bullshit sector in the broadest sense of the term” (p. 62). 

Suppose that this is true, and, as Graeber argues, it’s largely a post-war phenomenon. Then this means that in that time period, “upward of 50 percent to 60 percent of the population has, in fact, been thrown out of work” when we equate work to doing something meaningful (p. 265). That’s a provocative way to think about what might be happening in the world of work. Moreover, Graeber also points out that “if you combine this with the bullshitization of useful occupations (at least 50 percent in office work; presumably less in other sorts), and the various professions that basically exist only because everyone is working too hard (dog washers, all-night pizza deliverymen, to name a few), we could probably get the real workweek down to fifteen hours—or even twelve—without anyone noticing much” (pp. 62-3).

Admittedly, I’m not convinced that the true magnitudes are as large as claimed. In Bullshit Jobs, the supporting anecdotes perhaps represent the worst cases and I'd be surprised if we couldn't find dsyfunctional examples in all occupations. But it's entire occupations that are then characterized as being bullshit, as in this description of goon jobs: “If no one had an army, armies would not be needed. But the same can be said of most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, and corporate lawyers” (p. 36). By the end, pretty much all administrative and finance-related jobs have been labeled as useless, including human resources. So I think we need to be concerned with fallacies of composition. But even if the actual number of bullshit jobs is (a lot?) less than claimed, the implications in the previous paragraph are still important to confront, albeit perhaps better phrased as questions (e.g., how many people have essentially been put out of (meaningful) work?).

On a personal level, having a bullshit job is a problem because work should be providing meaning and rewards beyond a paycheck (as I’ve written about in The Thought of Work and elsewhere). In this way, the micro-level problems with bullshit jobs are contained within Karl Marx’s articulation of the problems of worker alienation under capitalism. But I’m not seeing how this aspect of Bullshit Jobs improves upon the concept of alienation. In fact, it seems that workers in bullshit jobs are all alienated, but the concept of alienation importantly also draws attention to the ways in which non-bullshit jobs can also be alienating.

Graeber goes onto argue that bullshit jobs create a moral envy in which workers with bullshit jobs feel resentment toward those with meaningful jobs, even though in Graeber’s eyes these meaningful jobs often have worse pay and working conditions. In fact, envy and resentment among managers, who are all seen as occupying bullshit jobs, towards those below them who are doing real work “is a key part of the justification of underpaying such workers” (p. 248). Frankly, I’m skeptical of this. Indeed, I would argue the opposite—blue collar and service workers are paid less because of prejudice and bias (not envy) that subconsciously allow managers to overstate their own importance while devaluing the contributions of manual and service work. Graeber also gives a lot of power to the finance industry and government officials in intentionally creating processes that lead to bullshit jobs in order to line their own pockets or prevent others from being able to navigate social safety nets. The former seems compelling but I’m not sure how much of the big picture it can explain, while the latter might be the unfortunate result of other priorities that are seen as legitimate by policy-makers (e.g., fraud).

But in some respects, these might just be second-order squabbles. For what Graeber really seems concerned about are the polarization in society (which is connected to work in one way or another) and freeing up work so that individuals can choose their own meaningful paths (including the freedom to find fulfillment without working at all). These are critically important issues that deserve all the attention they can get, and Graeber's ideas on the primary concerns are worth serious reflection. So in the end, if the provocatively overstated style of Bullshit Jobs causes more to confront these deeper issues, then I can overlook—OK, you know I have to say it—the bullshit.