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Hating Your Workers: Employer Orthodoxy in the New Gilded Age

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The entire neoliberal transformation of the world has been based upon employers hating their own workers and taking back power from them. Yesterday’s labor history post on Carl Icahn and the 1986 TVA flight attendant strike is a prime early example of how that played out. Right now, we are in the middle of a giant rethinking of work, as the pandemic and an expanded American welfare state has convinced millions of workers to maybe try something else other than working in fast food or just taking whatever crumbs their employers give them. This is causing massive employer outrage. Watching this play out last week at The Washingtonian was very, very interesting. Its CEO had an op-ed in the Post openly threatening workers who didn’t want to return to its offices:

While some employees might like to continue towork from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives witha tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — “extra.” It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in thoseextras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor.” Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriateoutput metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes —benefits that in my company’s caseadd up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation. Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.

Furthermore, we need feedback — good and bad — to successfully manage employees, and they need it to succeed. A friend at a Fortune 500 company tells of acolleague who was hired just as the pandemic hit. He struggled. He wasn’t getting the job done. It was very hard for the leadership team to tell what the problem was. Was it because he was new? Was he not up to the work? What was the specific issue? Worse, no one wanted to give him feedback over Zoom when they hadn’t even met him. Professional development is hard to do remotely.

People considering just dropping into their office should also think about FOMO, fear of missing out. Those who work from home probably won’t have FOMO, they will just have MO. The casual meetings that take place during the workday. The “Do you have three minutes to discuss X?” These encounters will happen. Information will be shared.Decisions will be made. Maybe if you are at home you’ll be Zoomed in, but probably not. As one CEO put it, “There is no such thing as a three-minute Zoom.” Being out of that informal loop is likely to make you a less valuable employee.

While remote working is certainly industry- and job-dependent, and the future employment scene will probably be some type of hybrid, the CEOs I have spoken with fear erosion of collaboration, creativity and culture. So although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security. Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.

“Nice job you have there, be a real shame if something happened to it.” Quite the position to take in the nation’s second newspaper of note. As you might expect, the employees of The Washingtonian were…not happy.

Employees of Washingtonian, as it turns out, felt a “strong incentive” to provide some feedback on those ideas: On Friday, staffers tweeted a common message of defiance in reply to what they termed a “public threat” to their livelihoods. They staged an impromptu work stoppage:

Beaujon says he doesn’t believe there was any dissent within the ranks to the work stoppage. “What we are trying to do with this was make the point that if she’s going to threaten us publicly, then we have to respond publicly,” he says. There’s a reopening committee at the Washingtonian that’s discussing how the magazine and its staff of two dozen journalists will head back into the office, which moved from L Street to K Street during the pandemic — a development that was planned before the pandemic.

Such a committee would appear to be the ideal locale to air management’s insistence on a full return to office work. Yet Merrill chose one of the country’s most trafficked journalistic platforms to riff about “tempting” benefit cutbacks. Worse, Merrill’s kicker reads: “So although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security. Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.”

Again, this is a sign of just the complete contempt that employers have for workers. It’s also a result of the poison that is the “job creator” rhetoric. These people see themselves as heroes, nobly providing work for ungrateful little children. How dare they question my rule! You can see this at nearly every company in America, even if usually the CEOs are smart enough not to actually say in this in the Washington Post.

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