Friday, September 2, 2011

All Work and All Play

When I recently met a factory executive where I work, I cannot pretend I was shocked that he didn’t know my name. Thousands of workers labor around the clock in a facility as large as a minor-league sports arena, and I haven’t been there long enough to distinguish myself yet. But I was shocked when I mentioned my job title, and he not only knew who I was, but could quote from my employee file.

In a modern condensed industrial environment, where people work elbow to elbow and often get identified in company files according to what they do, work becomes an intensely impersonal endeavor. Humans love work, and define ourselves by our labor, as I’ve said before. When we meet new people, we ask: “So what do you do for a living?” Yet industrial and post-industrial society hampers work’s simple joy.

Barbara Garson’s All the Livelong Day observes the gap between workers’ and managers’ expectations. A Socialist, Garson began her research considering work an unfair imposition by a lopsided economy. But she discovered how much people treasure consequential work. As she writes, “The crime of modern industry is not forcing us to work, but denying us real work. For no matter what tricks people play on themselves to make the day's work meaningful, management seems determined to remind them, ‘You are just tools for our use.’”

If my assembly line runs a standard 45 units per minute, then each unit sits before me for one and one-half seconds. During that time I must evaluate the unit’s quality, decide if it meets standards, and fit it for the next station in line. This often means only attaching one part; a filter that costs $12.95 may have fourteen people involved just in assembly, to say nothing of components before I see them or after they leave me.

In such an environment, we must re-evaluate “pride of craftsmanship.” I cannot claim to make the 18,000 filters rolling off my line nightly, any more than any individual can. Thus, I find pride in, for instance, being able to outpace the machine, or maintain a steady rhythm, or perform two tasks at once. My peers and I often do one job with the left hand and another with the right.

But not every trick we perfect improves our work. Especially in the most tedious areas, workers often play games intended to establish themselves apart from their jobs. Like the manager who knew me only by my title, many supervisors identify workers by their assigned machines: Forklift Driver. Paint Line Maintenance. Can Press Operator.

In attempting to separate their identities from their jobs, such workers frequently earn supervisors’ ire. Because the company exists to turn low-valued raw materials into high-valued commodities, workers’ games and playfulness seem extraneous and, if workers spent more time working and less noodling, they’d earn more profit.

Some managers regard anything less than working flat out for eight straight hours as theft of company time, attested in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. One manager (I won’t name names) reprimanded me for pausing to crack my back, a necessary time investment since the assembly line is built for someone six inches shorter than me. Back pain is part of my work routine; thus, so is back pain relief.

Whenever somebody mentions unions in America today, nay-sayers claim that workers don’t need representation; they’re paid according to their work, and if they want better pay and benefits, they should work harder. But, as Joshua Holland notes in The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy, there is not now, and arguably never has been, any relationship between the hardest work and the highest pay.

My factory sometimes runs so fast that seasoned workers can’t match the pace. Work orders require such high output that really doing the work would cause repetitive stress injuries. I work two jobs and can’t afford to change the oil in my truck, but I’ve been called on the carpet for mistakes I could avoid if the machines ran at a marginally slower pace.

As managers disparage workers, workers retrench into their identities. Mutual resentment builds, and the gulf between management and labor gets reinforced. It’s a vicious cycle, created by the fact that individuals don’t own the product of their labors, and nourished because we don’t really know each other.

I love work. I enjoy my job. But I am not my job. And that makes me a threat to a system that thrives on anonymity.

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