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Toxic Workplace Cultures

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Uber

Miya Tokumitsu has an excellent essay placing the extreme sexism of the Uber workplace culture in the broader context of the malignancy at the heart of so much white collar workplace culture. It’s not an isolated phenomena, to say the least.

Fowler’s letter highlights how employers take advantage of their employees’ goodwill, using it as an excuse to inflict or ignore poor working conditions. Generally, workers want to succeed. As an art historian, I encounter figures who strove to make the impossible possible: builders and engineers laboring over generations to make Gothic cathedrals; Benvenuto Cellini collapsing from joy and exhaustion upon successfully casting his magnificent 1545 bronze Perseus.

Employers, particularly prestigious, white-collar firms like tech companies, banks, and universities, rely on their employees’ internalized desire to achieve. Fowler joined Uber as a talented engineer eager to prove herself. She did not drop her tools and walk away after the first incident of sexual harassment. She stuck it out because she liked the work, wanted to do it well, and she thought she had found a way to remain at Uber without dealing with her harasser: “I ended up joining a brand-new SRE [site reliability engineering] team that gave me a lot of autonomy, and I found ways to be happy and do amazing work.”

She did what most of us probably would do in her situation: she endured. Fowler focused on aspects of the work she enjoyed despite her employer’s failure to respond appropriately to the reported misconduct. Even an accomplished worker with highly marketable skills like Fowler has little choice. Most people require a stable income to survive, and quitters forego the right to unemployment benefits.

On top of income, life’s practical realities make the sudden withdrawal of labor extremely onerous. Even if you could find a new employer right away, are you really going to disrupt your children’s school year, leave your community, break your lease or sell your house, give up the fringe benefits from your current job (in Fowler’s case, sponsorship for an advanced computer science degree at Stanford), and, — let’s say you do care about the work — abandon projects, colleagues, clients, and students after a few inappropriate messages and a flaccid response from human resources? Employers are banking that you won’t. Any amount of sexual harassment or bullying is unacceptable, but they know workers will put up with a fair amount of it because, as Elizabeth Anderson clarifies in her forthcoming book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Loves (And Why We Don’t Talk about It), the costs of quitting are so high.

The problem isn’t Uber so much, even if that company is especially bad, as it is a broader workplace culture where we actively contribute to the decline of our own rights by not taking vacations, by taking work home with us, by not standing up to watching others being harassed, by seeking to please our bosses, by valuing performance-based bonuses that are driven by favortism, racism, and sexism. Of course, none of this is the fault of a single worker. It’s the fault of a cancerous corporate culture mixed with the connection between unions and blue-collar manufacturing labor in the American mind that convinces these workers to see themselves more as aspiring partners than as workers with rights. All of this is of course part of a larger employee plan to control workers’ lives, much as driverless cars will be used by employers to demand even more of their workers’ off hours. That fact that workers want to succeed, that we place a great bit of value in our work and want recognition for this from employers is not only a major reason why I think Universal Basic Income is so counter to American work traditions as be a policy nonstarter, but also gets in the way of creating a workplace ideology that counters the exploitation that white collar workers face. This process is of course heavily gendered and racialized in ways that give more advantages to white men. It is also very difficult to counter. Tokumitsu’s conclusion is important but remains mostly at the broad level, for I think precisely the reason that solutions are hard to articulate.

Outside of hiring her own legal counsel and public relations firm (something most people cannot do), Fowler is left exposed. A smear campaign to discredit her in the media has already started to coalesce. Uber denies the company is behind it, but they have deployed or threatened to deploy this tactic in the past. This latest development underlines the fact that workers need protections from employers even after the employment relationship has ended, when they may no longer be under union purview. Workers can fight such oppression and win, but only if they’re mobilized.

Turmoil at Uber grabs headlines because it is a well-known company with a controversial CEO, simultaneously a media darling and villain. But the conditions Fowler describes pervade the economy. We need to reclaim our talent, goodwill, and desire to achieve from those who would use them against us.

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