White-collar workers Utopia? Where are thou? Part II

Erik Carlos Toren cuauhtemocrey at SPAMyahoo.com
Thu Mar 1 12:38:22 MST 2001

Hope is of interest.

Erik Toren
Viva el ZapaTour!


March 1, 2001 | There are the sweatshops that make khakis, and then there
are the sweatshops where the people who wear khakis work.

Jill Andresky Fraser, author of "White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration
of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America," charges so-called new-economy
companies like America Online and Intel (and some old-line stalwarts like
IBM) with grinding their huge stock market gains out of their employees'
so-called lives.

And guess what? With the economy and stock market flagging, she contends,
it's likely to get worse. An editor for Inc. magazine and Bloomberg Personal
Finance, Fraser revolts against how our new 24/7 work habits are ruining our

It's hard to feel sympathy for the plight of people who sit in front of
computers, talk on the phone and send e-mail for a living. How bad are these
"sweatshops" really?

To me, what the sweatshop image conveys is very long hours of work, unfair
compensation, a lack of control over one's work life and a feeling of
tremendous insecurity. And I think that all of those characteristics are
very powerfully true in a lot of people's lives.

There are 25 million of us who are putting in more than 10 hours each day at
the office. And for many people that is the beginning and not the end of
their workday. They're the ones who are working during their commutes, after
they put their kids to bed at night, on weekends and while they're
vacationing. They feel that their jobs can never be done. The workloads have
gotten so enormous that they're inescapable.

Although we thought technology would make our work lives easier and more
creative, the real impact of our laptops, our Palm Pilots, our e-mail and
our cellphones is that we can't ever not work. There's no justification.

A lot of these people are not earning six-figure salaries. They're earning
$30,000, $40,000, $50,000, $60,000. For all of those people out there who
are living the 24/7 lifestyle because overwork seems so macho and romantic,
many more are doing this because they can't figure out a way out.

How has the stock market boom of the past few years contributed to making
our work lives worse?

During the '90s, many people explicitly believed that there couldn't be
anything wrong with this system because the stock market was so incredibly
strong. They bought into the idea that rising stock prices would more than
compensate them for a whole range of different job-related sacrifices and
tradeoffs, through stock options -- if you were lucky enough to have them --
or through your stock portfolio or your 401K plan. Somehow you were going to
share in the goodies.

People made what they thought of as short-term sacrifices, which became
accepted as the way American business has to be in order to be competitive
in the global marketplace. And then we didn't have any choice anymore.

Weekend getaways are replacing two-week vacations and Fed Ex now delivers on
Sunday. How did we lose the idea of private time vs. work time?

As recently as the '70s, people really did believe that new technology would
help us all actually work less. We would put in fewer hours at the office,
maybe even fewer days each week. Conceivably, we could all retire when we're
45 or take three-month summer vacations every year.

But in the '80s, when layoffs started happening, people were very willing to
work longer and harder. They accepted doing the jobs of two or three people
with the thought that we would get past this crisis, and yet again things
were going to get better for all of us. But that didn't really happen
because through the '90s, when times were really increasingly good, whose
health insurance didn't consistently get worse year after year after year?
For most of the '90s, salaries didn't keep up with inflation (until the very
end of the decade), even though companies were doing great for years.

What kind of benefits have white-collar workers lost?

Benefits are what have drawn many of these people to large companies,
because they used to be so good. In 1980, basically 100 percent of people
who worked for mid- to large-size companies had health coverage from an
employer's plan. By 1995 that number had dropped to the point where one out
of four employees working for big companies no longer had health insurance
coverage. The trend is similar with pensions, vacation plans and personal

A lot of the companies with rising stock prices were relying on sweatshop
management techniques, from layoffs when times were good, as well as when
times were bad, to workforce-churning techniques that would replace
higher-paid older workers with much younger, single workers, who would put
in very long hours and wouldn't file any medical claims.

Which companies have some of the most egregious expectations of overwork?

I think Intel is fascinating because you can look at the company's growth
and success during the '90s and really draw some strong connections between
that and the deterioration of working conditions for employees.

Intel made very aggressive use of a system where managers had to rate
employees: A certain number of people had to be above the curve and a
certain number of people had to be below the curve. Those statistics really
had nothing to do with what was going on within a department; they were part
of this effort to get rid of the deadwood and make sure that all of the
underperformers were eventually pushed out.

And while this was going on, there was an increasing emphasis on what the
company would refer to as "raising the bar," which means that standards
always have to get higher. You can't just accept the way things are now; you
have to be more productive and do better, and no matter how high it is you
have to get higher. But how high can it go? Because in the end it's going to
be inhuman.

One of my sources, a single father, told me how the only way that he spent
time with his children on weekends was by bringing them to the office with
him; his workload was so heavy that he had no choice. They would crawl under
the security cameras so that he could sneak them into the office, and then
they would spend the days playing by his desk. This was the way the family
spent their weekends because this was the only way that he could even try to
keep up with his workload.

At Intel there are actually alleged work hours that sound very normal. But
it's not possible for anybody to attend all the meetings, read all the
e-mails and do everything they have to do within the hours that they put
into their jobs. So this is why you have people checking their e-mail at
night -- to give themselves a head start the next day. And the head start is
not so that they can get ahead; it's just so that they can keep their heads
above water when they go back the next day.

Why don't people refuse to take on this squeeze of ever-expanding work?

Sometimes people really blame themselves. This is kind of the white-collar
mentality: "I could always be working a little bit harder." "Isn't the
problem really just me? Other people are managing to keep up. If I just put
in a few more hours at home, I'm going to be able to kind of keep up with
these workloads."

It's very hard for white-collar people to blame the system. They're not wild
radicals; they're working at these companies for a reason. They're not often
predisposed to say, "There's something wrong with this company -- I'm moving

As one guy who had a midlevel job at a telecommunications company described
it, "Why would I leave? Everybody that I talk to on my commute is living
through the same thing, so why go someplace else if this is the way the work
world is; at least at this place I've put in some time."

You write about this certain machismo -- "I worked more than you" -- and
dark humor: "8 to 5 p.m.? What, only working half a day!?" Why do you think
we dramatize and romanticize overwork?

Part of this has to do with our very American instincts -- the Puritan work
ethic. We have always valued work, hard work. This is the American ethos.
But I think somehow it got shifted in the '80s and then especially in the
'90s, when you had people articulating deeply cruel and very limited visions
of what success is: Success is what's measured in the stock market, right?
That's what success is and nothing else matters.

And this overwork image was so romantic. You're working in your garage one
minute and the next minute you're Steve Jobs. It was irresistible,
especially when the stock market was going up.

It was very ironic that during this period there were endless reports of our
children failing in schools and SAT scores dropping and these bizarre and
awful episodes of youth violence. People would talk about things that were
clearly a sign that something was not right with the world.

But nobody ever said, "Maybe part of what's not right is that we're being
turned into 24/7 work machines who don't have any time or energy left for
all of these other things that really matter in our lives."

With low unemployment, we hear so much about how great kids coming out of
school have it today. Do younger employees really have it better than they
used to?

If you were coming out of school with very high-level technical skills or if
you were heading for Wall Street, it is certainly true that the money was
extraordinary there, and you were rewarded. But the vast bulk of young
people were on the other end of the same trends that were negatively
impacting all of these people in their late 30s and 40s and 50s.

A new college graduate in 1973 could have expected to earn $14.82 per hour
in inflation-adjusted 1997 dollars. And that was $1.17 more per hour than a
new college graduate would have been paid in 1997. New college graduates in
1973 were better off than those in 1997.

Unmarried men and women between the ages of 18 and 29 were significantly
worse off economically during the '90s than they had been in the '70s or
'80s. During a roughly 25-year period, this group suffered a real average
income drop of about 11 percent, with more than 80 percent of the decline
occurring during the past decade.

How has the new economy's youth fetish affected people in their 40s and

I think it's very interesting that at the same time the American population
is aging and baby boomers are starting to reach the early stages of
retirement years, there's such an obsession with youth.

In certain industries, like technology and Wall Street, by the time you
cross that threshold of being 40 years old you're vulnerable. In fact, one
of my sources quoted to me an expression among people in the high-tech
community: If you're in your 20s you're desirable; if you're in your 30s
you're expendable; if you're in your 40s you're unhirable.

We used to think that you get on the corporate ladder and you rise and your
salary increases and then you retire with this fabulous pension, or good
pension, but in fact you have a different situation now. In your 20s, you
struggle just to even get hired -- as an employee, not just as a temp or
independent contractor. Then, if you do get hired, you're working very hard.
And just at the time you expect that the payoff is going to begin to come --
you've achieved a level of seniority, you're a little older, you're in your
40s, you had this brief moment of success -- you didn't even know you had
it. You didn't know it was good until you lost it.

How will this slumping economy we're coming into impact the workplace trends
that you describe?

Unfortunately, I think that things are going to get worse. You could see
that, statistically, December 2000 was the worst month for layoffs in the
past nine years, the worst single month since 1992.

People were laid off like crazy during the '90's when times were good.
Certainly you're going to see more of that in this environment. And it's not
clear whether it's better to have been laid off or not.

You think you've made it past the hump, you've held onto your job, but now
you really are doing the work that once was done by two or three or four
people and you're doing it all by yourself. At many of these companies, the
first layoff is not the last layoff. The cutbacks will undoubtedly come with
healthcare plans and pension plans. Companies will be looking for ways to
cut costs as their revenues are squeezed.

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