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The Non-Elite Workplace


First-rate reporting by Alana Semuels. Read the whole etc., but the bottom line as a teaser:

The relentless drive for efficiency at U.S. companies has created a new harshness in the workplace. In their zeal to make sure that not a minute of time is wasted, companies are imposing rigorous performance quotas, forcing many people to put in extra hours, paid or not. Video cameras and software keep tabs on worker performance, tracking their computer keystrokes and the time spent on each customer service call.

Among other things, the article is an excellent reminder of why raising the retirement age for Social Security is an incredibly horrible idea.

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  • When I worked at [un-named TLA tech company] I was expected to have a certain number of “billable” hours in a year. The longer you were there, and the more vacation time you accrued, you were expected to work more overtime to make up the difference.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The last time I had a really terrible job, working as a telephone pollster, I was lucky enough to be just on the cusp of the New Fordism, so that the supervisors would just suggest that you log out before your breaks “in case something happened to the computer while you’re away.” I’m pretty sure that within a couple years every minute of your time cold-calling people to ask about cell phones had to be accounted for.

      • As developer jobs go, that one I had probably wasn’t particularly terrible.

        On the other hand, the way they enforced the minimum number of hours thing wasn’t with a direct edict. They just strongly encouraged that you put it in a set of “personal goals” for the year, which would then be evaluated after the year was over. If you didn’t meet it, it was a ding on your evaluation, and if you got bad reviews for like three years in a row, you’d be sacked.

        I consistently got good reviews, but was shown the door anyway, because the guys overseas I trained to be my replacement were just great. The company decided that they didn’t want anyone doing my job in the US.

      • LosGatosCA

        Two words: predictive dialers.

        Way more fun than it sounds – on both ends of the line.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Yeah, they were just trying to install those too, but the software was bad so they went back to dialing.

  • Jeff Olson

    I find the press for productivity as interesting as it is ridiculous.
    ‘American’ companies can and do operate overseas, within different legal and cultural structures – and somehow, against all expectations – make both money AND high quality products.
    Kraft Foods operates in Norway, with its 37.5 hour work week, 5 weeks vacation, unlimited sick leave AND ‘extravagant’ Defined Benefit Pension plans in cooperative management with the labor unions. They respond to market pressures with organic, nation of origin and fair trade labelled products AT competetive prices.
    How the fuck is this possible?

    • cpinva

      probably because in norway, they are competing with other companies operating under the exact same constraints, a “level playing field”. i’m guessing they do no more or less than is specifically required, under norwegian law. in order to be competative in the market, they respond by doing those things that, presumably, appeal to norwegians. i would guess that norwegians are willing to pay for these things, which most americans probably aren’t.

      • Jeff Olson

        Well, there is this thing called ‘the law.’

        And these other things called ‘wages’ that people ‘earn’ each month.

        And, well, ‘taxes.’

        So that people, a.k.a. “workers” and “consumers” have this stuff some people call “money” with which the aforementioned buy the company’s “products.”

        Bu then again, Norway is on a completely different planet.

        • cpinva

          and your point would be?

      • Barry

        And the goal isn’t making a profit, it’s *increasing* the profit.

        And that’s not counting something I’m believing in more and more, that the elites are deriving serious emotional rewards from screwing people over.

        • Absolutely. The failure to include such things as “sadistic pleasure” in utility functions is a major flaw in economic theory.

          • Jeff Olson

            Lee and Barry are making my point for me, which is – profits and taxes and health care and pensions and workers rights and unions and democracy and schools and environmental protection and international aid for development and technological development and innovation and hunting and fishing rights ARE NOT mutually exclusive. Rather, they can in the right circumstances result in positive feedback within the system.

            And yes, of course, Norway imports from everywhere – otherwise COLA, Fair Trade and other labelling would be meaningless.

            And no, no Oil Fund resources were used in the production of this missive.

      • i would guess that norwegians are willing to pay for these things, which most americans probably aren’t.

        This is, of course, an important point. It costs more to live in Norway (at least nominally; higher wages across the board and public health care also means that Norwegians don’t have to subsidize the working poor under the table). We have come to the point in the United States where folks aren’t willing to pay any more for government services or to use the government to force up wages and improve working conditions, even though most people would quickly see benefits.

        • LeeEsq

          There has always been a segment of the American body politic that was anti-social and had no use for government or any service that it provides. Some of these were loner types, others insanely rich, and others religious fanatics but they were always there. They tend to speak alot about self-sufficiency in reverant tones.

          Luckily, these people were a relatively minor part of the American body politic until the late-20th century. From the time the 16th Amendment passed to at least the late 1960s, paying taxes was viewed as an act of civic virture. Jury duty and other obligations of citizenship were viewed in much the same way. The earnestnest of 12 Angry Men would be seen as silly these days.

          One of the bad parts of the 1960s was that the American Right and the American Left abandoned notions of civic virture. The Right no longer wanted to pay taxes becuase they didn’t want to help minorities, women, or even poor white men. They wanted the goodies of government for nothing. A large segment of the American Left began looking at civic virture as corny and distrusted the government too much for the good of liberalism/progessivism, which requires a concept of good government and civic virture to flourish.

          • The earnestnest of 12 Angry Men would be seen as silly these days.

            Time for a remake! “12 Men Angry About Jury Duty”? “12 Angry Makers”?

          • Vance Maverick

            There has always been a segment of the American body politic that was anti-social and had no use for government or any service that it provides.

            “No use” in the rhetorical sense, showing contempt for it, sure. Hardly anyone shows enough principle, though, literally to refuse to “use” government and its services when handy.

            The bit about abandonment of civic virtue in the ’60s is seductive but easily overdone and for all I know simply ahistorical. Abbie Hoffman certainly saw continuity between his style of activism and the New England town meetings of his childhood. And having just seen “How to Survive a Plague”, on ACT UP, I can only say we should all be so selfish and uncivil — the country would be the better for it.

      • Bill Murray

        so Norway doesn’t import anything from outside the EU?

        • ploeg

          In most countries, imports and exports are a small part of the economy. Even where you import goods, you must use domestic labor to distribute, sell, install, and use the goods. And foreign firms often find that they want to keep at least a small office in the countries in which they do business to keep tabs on the local markets.

        • Jo

          Norway’s not in the EU. It limits their imports significantly, too, or at least that’s what I heard from two Finnish women I was talking to one time. They had to live in Norway for some pan-Scandanavian organization they worked for. One said “it’s not even in Europe, so all you can buy is Norwegian stuff.” The other said “And you have to drive all the way to Sweden to get decent sticky buns.”

  • cpinva

    the article used a term, “fungible”, which was the exact first thing that came to my mind, on reading the excerpt that scott used. this would describe the entire body of the un or low-skilled labor pool, with one worker being easily replaceable by pretty much any other worker, with minimal training required. as a result, replacement costs are also minimal. as mechanization replaces humans in factories, the only humans needed are those operating/maintaining the machines. the recession simply accelerated a long-term trend. the same is true in almost all low-skill, service type jobs: how much training is required, to teach someone how to handle a mop or scrub brush?

    • Timurid

      College educated and graduate educated “middle class” (by training if not income) workers are also becoming increasingly fungible.

  • c u n d gulag

    It’s all of a kind.
    Like all of many and nefarious, according to the Conservatives, Welfare, Unemployment, and Disability cheats – we punish the many, for the sins of a few.

    The ginormous Telecom I worked for, tracked every thing

    Especially, as time went on, they put younger and younger bean-counters in charge of Customer Service – people who’d never worked on a phone in their entire lives – and whose ultimate goal was never having to have a CSR talk to any customers in the first place, so the company could save money by not having to service them.

    Or, make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible for the customer to get through, so they didn’t call unless it was so bad, that they decided to call their terrible company.

    So, we added a complex and very expensive IVR, and the customer had to press buttons for 20 minutes, while some droid-voice gave them instructions, putting in their phone numbers several times, before they were deemed sufficiently priveleged and patient enough to talk to a real, live, human being.
    And then, the CSR had to ask for the phone number again, so they could pull-up the account, enraging the customer who’d just done that at least twice while waiting to talk to a person who, theoretically, would have their account up in front of them when they finally got to the call!!
    But there was nothing linking the phone number the customer put in, to the billing system, until the CSR put in in there when talking to the customer.
    But hell, it cost a shit-load of money, and no matter how bad a decision this IVR was, that VP in some state half a country away, was shielded from any accountability.

    Now, as for the poor CSR’s, they had to code your computer if they were off the phone for even a second, and not ready to take the next call in line.
    And, if you coded the computer that you went to the bathroom, if you went “too many” times in one day, you were pulled in to the Managers office, and told that you would need a note from you doctor the next day, before you’d be allowed to go to the bathroom again, unless it was on your break, or else you’d be formally written up.

    And they were constantly looking to get rid of people at any level, short of Directors, on up.

    I was a Trainer, and they wanted to get rid of me, because I was not only older, but had a fairly high salary (for that cheap-ass fucking company), and too many vacation days, so I got written-up a few times, for what was, basically, utter nonsense.

    They were picking nits.
    But I got the message.

    A few months later, I had the flu and missed 3 days – Friday, Monday and Tuesday.

    When I came back to the office on Wednesday, I was told that I had to provide a doctor’s note before I’d be allowed to return.
    Now, mind you, I was a Trainer, a former Training Manager, and had accrued almost 400 hours of sick-time in 7 years – which basically meant I almost never took it.

    I said, “You’re kidding, right?”

    I was assured the company was not.

    So, I went to the little Quick-Sick 24-hour pseudo medical place across the street, to get the note.
    The doctor (PA?) there looked me over, took some vital signs, and said, “You’re still sick, you need to go home.”
    I told him I couldn’t possibly go home, because I might not have a job to return to.

    He asked, didn’t I have any sick time?
    Yes, I said – almost 10 weeks.
    He looked at me, and said, “I see people from your office all of the time, and you’re in management, so I’ve got to ask, ‘What the fuck is wrong with your fucking company?’ If they’re sick, and a person’s body-clock doesn’t coincide with their break schedule, and they have to go the the bathroom when they’re not on break, they come here crying, begging for a note, or else they’ll be written up, and fired. I mean, seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you fucking people over there?”

    What could I tell him?
    “They’re assholes,” I said.
    “No,” he said, “They’re SICK, crazy, and immoral assholes.”

    And that assessment seemed pretty fair to me.
    He gave me my note, and back I went to work – still sick. But, hey, I still had a job!
    For a while.

    And now, as desperate as I am for work, if sometone told me I had to go back to corporate life, or face a firing squad, I’d tell them, “Let me have my last cigarette while you get the blindfold and the shooters together.”

    • rea

      So, we added a complex and very expensive IVR, and the customer had to press buttons for 20 minutes, while some droid-voice gave them instructions, putting in their phone numbers several times, before they were deemed sufficiently priveleged and patient enough to talk to a real, live, human being.

      As an expert on these things, you might be particularly amused by my adventures with Comcast this weekend. Call the basic Comcast customer support number, and the phone message identifies my particular problem and tells me to call another number. Call that number, and you get a referral to a third number. Call that number and you get a referral back to the first number.

      • BigHank53

        See? Comcast is all over improving efficiency: they’ve gotten you to screw yourself.

        • c u n d gulag

          And all without talking to anyone who they actually have to pay, and may even provide with some benefits.

          Another satisfied customer! NOT!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Joshua

    What was especially rich was that Romney-wannabe Gores Group executive saying that they were “trying to save the jobs they can” and how the old business model wasn’t sustainable… at the same time their profits are soaring.

    It’s plain obvious why Congress has done nothing about unemployment, this job market is amazingly good for corporations and management. There’s absolutely no reason to do anything about it.

    • MPAVictoria

      “at the same time their profits are soaring.”

      Seriously. This is what kills me the most. Fuckers

  • bradp

    Maintaining a constant ratio between working and retirement years makes sense to me, but the savings are so negligible, and low-hanging fruit so readily available, that raising the retirement age at this point would be callous.

    • Barry

      “Maintaining a constant ratio between working and retirement years makes sense to me, but the savings are so negligible, and low-hanging fruit so readily available, that raising the retirement age at this point would be callous.”

      Read Krugman. Most of the life expectancy gains are from a birth, and are due to decreased infant/child mortality. Most of the remaining gains went to the upper half/quarter of the income distribution.

      • Bill Murray

        well luckily for all of us, the second great depression will likely be turning this around as greater poverty will likely lower the life expectancy from birth. Yeah US

  • This is starting to sound like the Great Depression.

    I read about how hundreds of people would show up at constructions sites like the Golden Gate Bridge and wait for someone to die in hopes of getting their job.

    • Steve LaBonne

      It IS the Great Depression. This is exactly what a major depression looks like in the presence of a safety net that, while highly inadequate, is not (yet) as completely non-existent as in 1929. That simply keeps the misery from spilling out into the streets quite as much.

      • liberal

        I agree, but there’s another difference—we’re much wealthier than we were back then. In particular, food is much cheaper. Housing isn’t, because (h/t Henry George) land is in fixed supply.

  • jake the snake

    There is some indication that the limits of this are being reached.
    For one example, my previous employer made the decision to reduce the workforce by 24 at the facility where I worked. Their rationale was to bring staffing into line with other facilities.
    Some products were moved to another facility, but local management was expected to “grow the business” with less people.
    I volunteered to take a severance, because I was at the limit of what I could produce already.
    Even my brother-in-law, who is as much of an economic libertarian as anyone, has noticed this. He was asked to look into some personnel and productivity issue for the business he works for.
    When he was asked what was the problem, he said that the company had cut staff to the point that productivity was lost if someone was out sick or took a vacation. The remaining staff did not have the ability to cover for anyone that was missing.

    • Joshua

      The limits have been reached. Productivity has been falling recently (the past six months or so?). The indications are that this is because the workers that companies have are tapped out – there’s nothing more that can be squeezed from them.

      The choice for businesses, then, is to either hire more people or live with the status quo. We’ll see what they do. For now it seems like companies are just fine with the current situation.

  • Painini

    Overclocking human workers. Is that the fan I smell melting?

  • DrDick

    This is really just the culmination of the trend Henry Ford started.

    • As bad as he was, Ford at least paid his workers decently for their troubles.

      • He did in the 1910s. In the 1930s, he did not. I’ve said this before, but the idea that Ford was a good employer is something that needs a lot of pushback. It’s possible we can make that argument for the 10s, but it falls apart quickly after that.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    “Capital therefore takes no account of the health or length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our pleasure (profit)? But looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.”

    – K. Marx, obscure German philosopher, 1867 (Amen, brother!)

  • Tracy Lightcap

    I forgot to add:


    In the long run Hazel’s right. The capitalists know they are fighting a rear guard action. That’s why they are so desperate about it.

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