I read an excellent op-ed (“Trump Would Like to See You Now,” July 10) in The New York Times, by Jamelle Bouie, which reminded me of the olden days, showing me that not much has changed in 40 years when it comes to the relationship between workers and their bosses. Workplaces are every bit as demanding as they were then, chiefly to ensure productivity goals are met, and, as the thinking goes, to make the bosses happier and richer. The tactic, it seems, is to keep workers off-balance and in fear of losing their job.
This tactic to keep workers on edge, which goes hand in hand with the politics of selfishness and greed if not cruelty, is deemed acceptable by employers as a way of doing business, supported by a Republican Party that sees no wrong in it, even with the Covid-19 pandemic raging in America. Bouie writes (note that the Florida senator in this passage is Rick Scott, a Republican):
Most Republican senators voted to remove the unemployment expansion at its full size, but it survived. Billions of dollars of benefits have gone to tens of millions of Americans. The increase in aid was so great that, as The New York Times reported last month, the federal poverty rate declined even as the jobless rate reached incredible heights. And there’s also no evidence that additional benefits are keeping people who want to work from working.
The Florida senator (and former governor) wasn’t so much concerned with the ability of people to work as much as he was with the ability of employers to discipline them. Workers are kept on edge — and willing to accept whatever wage is on offer — by the threat of immiseration. This, for politicians who back both big business and existing social relations, is a feature and not a bug of our economic system, since insecurity and desperation keep power in the hands of capital and its allies. Even something as modest as expanded unemployment benefits is a threat to that arrangement, as they give workers the power to say no to work they do not want.
Precisely, and ever since workers lost a measure of say in the workplace—although it is important to note that workers never really had much of a say—a process that started decades ago, employers have used the big stick approach to keep workers in line. In other words, workers have little to no say in how they work, including in workplace safety. The fear of immiseration is real.
Failure to adhere to the boss’s dictums; failure to say “yes, you are right, I am on it” and you may be out of a job, possibly cited for worker insubordination at worst or not being a team player at best. You have become redundant. Outside the workplace, this sounds absurd, the need for workers to bend to unreasonable demands; but inside it, it sounds normal, the way of business. Such is the particular culture of the workplace.
When I was a young man, in the late 1970s, I worked many low-wage (i.e., minimum wage) jobs to pay my way for both college and university. Then, minimum wage was about $2.50 an hour. I had jobs packing and schlepping 50-lb boxes in a factory in the middle of summer; unloading 50-ft trailers filled with these same heavy boxes in sub-zero temperatures; driving a truck; working in an open pit copper mine; painting garages; sanding plaster without a mask or respirator; installing smoke detectors; cutting grass and raking leaves; cleaning bathrooms and washing floors; picking orders in warehouses; and all manner of demanding physical labour.
Most of it was hard and dirty work. Truly, back-breaking work. Rarely did I receive a compliment. Few workers did. The thinking was that if you were still there, the bosses were not unhappy with you. And in turn you worked hard for a low wage, because that was what was expected of you. To do a day's work for a day's wage, no matter the circumstances.
Workplace safety was almost non-existent in many of these places. I probably breathed my share of toxic and unhealthy chemicals and other body-damaging poisons, including second-hand smoke, which was the norm, it seems. Such was the way it was. To complain was to be deemed a troublemaker. This was 40 years ago, and today it seems as bad as it was then, or it might be worse now for the low-wage worker. After all, if I was fired or let go, I could always find another low-wage back-breaking job. Or maybe it is the same today for those on the bottom.
Oh, and if your foreman said that the boss wanted to see you, well, you knew it was not good news.
For more, go to [NYT].