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.

Monday, September 3, 2018

After Epic Systems, It’s Striking What’s Left for Workers…Literally!

Suppose you think that your employer is engaging in wage theft by intentionally misclassifying you as exempt from overtime (or substitute many other possible grievances that are shared by co-workers, such as being misclassified as contractors, enduring systematic discrimination or harassment, or being forced to work off the clock). In the absence of a union, what alternatives do you have?

One classic response is “if you don’t like your job, quit.” But this is far from satisfactory. This puts most of the burden on the employee. Even if it is possible to find a similar job relatively easily (which isn’t always the case), there are still significant adjustment costs like switching health insurance providers. Indeed, employers have increasingly forced workers to sign non-compete agreements which makes it even harder for workers to find comparable new jobs. Moreover, if the worker has been denied something they are entitled to, like overtime, then quitting doesn’t make them whole. And if an employer has broken the law, quitting doesn’t hold it accountable, nor does it provide a deterrent against other violators. So we shouldn’t force workers to rely on quitting.

Instead of quitting, perhaps a worker can complain internally. But let’s be realistic. If an organization is intentionally misclassifying workers, engaging in systematic gender or racial discrimination, or other unethical practices, it’s hardly likely to respond positively to an internal complaint.

So, of course, the natural venue for trying to redress potential legal violations is to file a lawsuit. But over half of the U.S. workforce is now forced to sign a mandatory arbitration agreement. This prevents them from filing a lawsuit. To be fair, arbitration could have some advantages for employees, primarily in terms of being able to access a more affordable venue for resolving this issue. But there are potential drawbacks because employers have the resources and expertise to dominate the arbitration process. In fact, it’s the employer that determines the structure of the process that will be used. Within some modest boundaries, the employer can structure the process as it desires, and presumably does so in ways that serves its own interests, not those of aggrieved workers. Moreover, note that the employee has to sign away his or her rights to file a lawsuit in very unfair circumstances: they won’t get the job if they don’t sign, they haven’t yet experienced the workplace firsthand, and they are waiving their rights far in advance of any grievance materializing so they don’t really know what they are giving away or signing up for.

Because of these disadvantages, some workers have filed class action lawsuits in order to get to their case into court, even when seemingly prevented by a mandatory arbitration provision. For example, employees at Epic Systems, a Wisconsin-based health IT company, filed a class action lawsuit accusing Epic Systems of denying them overtime due to intentional misclassification. Even though they had previously been required to agree to submit wage-and-hour claims to individual arbitration, they argued that filing a class action lawsuit is a form of collective activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Indeed, this argument was successful in the lower courts.

But Epic Systems appealed to the Supreme Court, which then ruled earlier this year that the arbitration agreements must be enforced. So employees who are forced to sign individual arbitration agreements—far in advance of any actual dispute—are prevented from any kind of legal action. Rather, they must seek justice in individual arbitration hearings. Low-paid workers are unlikely to be able to afford an attorney, and broad-based violations are less likely to come to light. And since the employer but not workers are repeat players in arbitration, arbitrators have incentives to favor employers.

So what’s left for workers? Well, they could try to unionize but that’s very time consuming. So perhaps ironically, it’s striking what’s left after the Epic Systems ruling. Yes, I mean that literally. Employees who face a similar grievance such as misclassification or discrimination can go on strike. The NLRA seeks to protect workers who band together to enhance their collective power and voice in determining wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. This is because the NLRA is premised on a belief that the employment relationship is an unequal one, and it will work better for all if workers act together rather than individually to better balance corporate power.

So collective activities to have a voice over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment are protected, which means that workers cannot be discharged, disciplined, or other discriminated against for engaging in these activities. When multiple workers feel aggrieved by work-related issues, they should remember these protections. If things are so bad that workers are ready to quit, they should instead think about going on strike. That is, as a group, they can collectively refuse to work until their grievances are resolved. The company doesn’t have to pay them or give into their demands. But it cannot fire them for this protected activity.

When there are mandatory arbitration agreements in place, the employer would likely claim that these would trump the right to strike. So we’d have a similar legal controversy as faced in Epic Systems. But unlike class action lawsuits, going on strike is clearly protected by the NLRA so I would expect a different legal outcome that allows striking even in the presence of an arbitration agreement (though I’m not a lawyer…so maybe I’m missing something).

In any case, going on strike isn’t ideal. Workers lose their pay and they can be replaced. Business and customers suffer, too. In fact, one of the major goals of the NLRA is to promote labor peace, along with a more balanced and therefore healthier employment relationship. Rulings like Epic Systems and Janus v. AFSCME, push us in exactly the opposite direction. So what may look like victories for employers might actually turn out differently in the longer run if the quality of employment relationship deteriorates and workers become more desperate. Those championing these rulings should be careful for what they wish for. Instead, our Labor Day 2018 wish should be for a healthier balance in the world of work.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Paid Family Leave: The Lack of a National Policy Isn’t the Only Barrier

Paid family leave is back in the U.S. news again, this time with a proposal by Senator Mario Rubio called the Economic Security for New Parents Act, which would provide paid leave to parents who agree to delay taking social security benefits by an amount to offset the paid leave. I’m not going to get into the merits and controversies of this approach (for that, see this by the proposal’s originator, Kristin Shapiro, and this piece).

Rather, my key point is that simply offering a family leave policy does not automatically alleviate workers’ concerns about income loss or other potential negative consequences of taking a leave. So while new ideas about universal policies are important—and actually enacting policies would be even better!—we also need to better understand the factors that prevent workers from taking a leave, and ways to reduce these barriers.

So to think about the barriers to a leave, Tae-Youn Park (Vanderbilt), Eun-Suk Lee (KAIST), and I develop a four-part framework consisting of all A’s: availability, awareness, affordability, and assurance. These four elements reflect the key considerations for whether any worker takes many kinds of leave from work: 1) the policy needs to be available, 2) if available, the worker needs to be aware of it, 3) even if aware of an existing policy, the worker needs to believe he or she can afford a leave, and 4) even if affordable, the worker needs to have assurances against negative consequences that might result from taking a leave (e.g., a promotion going to someone else). We think this framework can help guide research into leave-taking barriers.

In a paper titled “What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions,” the three of us focus specifically on the potential impact of labor unions. For starters, based on existing research on what unions do, it’s clear that unions have the potential to positively affect all four of these key steps (and not only in the United States). They can bargain for (better) leave policies; help spread awareness through newsletters, one-to-one interactions, and the like; make leaves more affordable through higher wages and better insurance coverage; and combat reprisals through bargaining, grievance procedures, and other means. But what happens in practice?

To find out, we turned to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) which, importantly, is a nationally-representative sample. Due to some data peculiarities, we are only able to analyze women taking paid maternity leave, but future analyses of paternity leave taking would also be valuable. Our final data set has 27,472 observations from 4,108 female workers across a 15-year period. Ultimately we find that union-represented workers are at least 17 percent more likely to use paid maternity leave than comparable nonunion workers, and that unions facilitate this leave-taking through the availability, awareness, and affordability channels. We also find that mothers who take a paid maternity leave experience a post-leave penalty—specifically, their wage growth is slower when compared to those who did not take a leave. Surprisingly, we did not find that labor unions lessen this penalty, which would be one aspect of the assurance dimension.

At one level, this research is about what unions do with respect to the important issue of helping new parents take the amount of leave they deserve after a birth or adoption. In looking at the aggregate picture, they appear to be helping in some ways, with perhaps room for expanding their activities. What happens on a case-by-case basis, we cannot observe. But at a higher level, this research is about continuing to deepen our understanding of the barriers to parental leave taking, which can help with policy design when (hopefully!) a policy is (finally!) enacted in the United States.

Source: Tae-Youn Park, Eun-Suk Lee, and John W. Budd (forthcoming) "What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions," Industrial and Labor Relations ReviewClick here to read the full paper.