issue 166 - December 1986
Computers are changing the nature of work. But
Stanley Aronowitz argues that the quality of our working lives
will only improve if workers have the final say on the job.
One of my earliest memories of politics is the English film Fame Is the Spur. It's not so much the plot as the scene, somewhere in the middle of the movie, of a great demonstration of the unemployed in the 1930s. The demo is led by Welsh miners, demanding jobs and relief from hunger. Today, in every industrial capitalist country, millions are out of work but there are few marches. The outcome of the Great Depression and the political instability of the 1930s was the creation of the welfare state and a social safety net in practically all Western countries. Joblessness means the loss of dignity and a sense of purpose for many but it rarely brings starvation - at least not outside the Third World.
Union demands today tend to be concerned with shorter hours or retraining as trade unions try desperately to keep pace with the mounting pressure that the new technologies are putting on their members' jobs. In West Germany for instance, a metal workers' strike has forced a shorter working week - and the German car industry recently hired 60,000 workers partly as a result of these shorter hours.
But how is the quality of the work experience changing in our new micro-chip post-industrial society? Does automation mean we are leaving behind industrial drudgery for most workers? Are the services - clerical, retail and wholesale and personal services - richer ways to earn a living than factory work?
That the assembly line provides few avenues for job enrichment is hardly news. Putting together a car is a boring, repetitive set of operations, which provide little or no satisfaction to the men and women in the industry. To compensate, autoworkers demand and receive high wages in most industrial countries. Bountiful consumption of consumer goods - TVs, cars, houses and appliances - are the payoff for the tedium of eight hours on the line. Ask a worker why they do it and they will likely tell you 'so my kids can go to college and do something better with their lives'.
But alienation from work can also take more self-destructive forms. The US Government recently launched a massive campaign favouring the testing of workers for drug use on the job. But officials refuse to recognize that widespread drug use - estimated as high as 80 per cent among unskilled and semi-skilled workers - is linked to boredom and job dissatisfaction. Drugs are a way of escaping from the meaningless routine of many jobs while still collecting your paycheck.
The widespread introduction of the computer in clerical, factory and services labour has been heralded as salvation from this assembly-line drudgery. The reverse is turning out to be true. Only for the relatively small number of programmers, systems analysts, machinists and toolmakers is computer work generally interesting. Most computer-related work replicates and intensifies the problems associated with the mindless mechanical tasks that workers in the industrial era were obliged to perform. Replicates because the jobs are no less monotonous. Intensifies because word-processing is often accompanied by back and eye ailments that result from squinting at the screen on a video display terminal eight hours a day. Also because computerized order-picking in a warehouse is still after all order-picking. The computer does not remove the real complaint of those who perform routine tasks: the scope of their work is restricted at a level far below their intelligence and imagination. Jobs remain stupefying.
This narrowness has fostered authoritarian methods of management that, despite protests to the contrary, still require workers to do the same thing over and over, day in and day out. The fact is that education levels have been rising steadily for the past century but the nature of work remains subordinate to management's program of wresting control from workers. Rationalizing jobs into ever smaller spheres is not a technological 'necessity', it's a sign that a struggle for control has been resolved with the employer coming out the victor.
What workers need is autonomy - the ability to make decisions about what is produced, how much should be produced, and by what means. These crucial questions determine whether jobs will provide satisfaction or not. It's not a question of who will sweep the floor or pick up the garbage. Most people might agree to perform these duties if they had the chance to do other tasks as well and saw this work as part of some larger worthwhile purpose.
Not all work is intrinsically interesting. But the problem is that all the drudgery is assigned to the same people while others are free to think, solve puzzles and make decisions. Until now, few trade unions or movements for economic renewal have taken into account the human costs entailed in the separation of design, decision-making and puzzle-solving from the routine work which these 'brain' tasks result in for other people.
The German metal workers struck and won a shorter workweek because they recognized, in effect, that the 40-hour week was the road to unemployment for a significant number of them. The extra time off gave them the opportunity to develop a creative potential frustrated by their jobs. Surely we need the shorter workweek. But we also need a movement to reorganize who does what in the workplace so that the needs of those who do the work can become a priority.
Stanley Aronowitz is a former union organizer and the author of several books on us workers.
When we think of work, we usually think of full-time trades, careers and professions. Naturally enough, we also assume that 'real work' pays relative good money - otherwise, why do it?
But for most artists, poets and writers, life is not so simple. Unlike the usual 'careerists' artists are often forced to juggle a job which pays money with their real work - creative projects which frequently pay little or no money at all. The contradiction between work in this society. But for artists, this split between creativity and income often forces them to live double lives, and it is rarely easy. Tessa DeLisle, a landscape painter, has worked out her own solution to the artist's dilemma. At age 16, after a year in art school, Tessa decided to study to be an X-ray technician because 'It was a way of getting money. I had it in mind that I would have X-ray and use it to get my bread and butter and do art. which I did for the next 25 years.'
For a while Tessa was 'freelancing', filling in for vacations, working seven months and having three months off at a stretch. She's now taken a permanent part-time morning job and hopes it will structure her life better. 'I get my work done and I'm awake and alive and not too tired and I still have eight hours of day to work for myself.' Could Tessa ever work full-time and still paint? She says no - emphatically. After eight hours of X-ray, which she says is a 'very physical job', she would be exhausted mentally and physically. 'There's no way you can come home, have a meal and sit down to paint because painting is equally exhausting.'
While Tessa may have to keep working at X-ray for the rest of her life, her priorities are clear. 'My interests are totally in painting, my interest in X-ray work is zippo. I would prefer to describe myself as a painter who works in X-ray, but the general world regards me as someone who works in X-ray and plays at painting.'
Although the attitudes of other people are annoying. Tessa thinks there are personal risks living the way she does. 'The big danger of having this schizophrenic life is that you don't succeed at either thing. I'm certainly not going to be a 'success' at X-ray because it takes full-time commitment. if you didn't get enough satisfaction out of what you have chosen to do in your own time then you've really blown it both ways. I'm just lucky that I get enough out of my part-time unpaid work.'
Tessa has made money from her art, earning an average of about $2,000 a year. She views these earnings as secondary - as she does 'fame' and 'celebrity'. 'I have no hopes, desires, ambitions to become the great painter. if other people like it, that's great, but it's not going to stop me painting is I never sell another thing in my life.'
Perhaps Tessa's attitudes are unusual - they certainly are refreshing - but the way she has organized her life is instructive not only for other artists, but for anyone who is trying to juggle personal projects with the 'realm of necessity'. And was can be certain that as long as creativity and work remain separated many will find themselves balancing precariously like Tessa.
8.00 Woken by wife.
8.25 Down half a cup of coffee.
8.33 Leave for work: drop daughter off at nursery school en route (my turn).
9.30 Arrive at office. Find pile of letters, dictated yesterday, ready to sign. Sign letters.
9.32 Ring for secretary. She brings in coffee. Also gift-wrapped parcel - family present ordered yesterday.
9.33 Flick through today's mail - sec. Has opened it and weeded out the junk mail. Two bills re-direct to accounts dept. One letter - standard refusal, secretary can draft.
9.35 Read newly launched newspaper, first edition.
10.00 Senior management meeting on budget allocation. Papers delivered by head of each department. Deliver mine just before lunch.
12.30 Adjourn for lunch. These boardroom lunches are getting too rich for my liver.
3.00 Meeting resumes. My paper well-received so we're $15,000 better off this year. Certainly earned my keep.
4.15 Back at desk. Ring Clive to tell him good news. Line busy. Tell secretary to keep trying.
4.25 Bill appears, jealous that his department didn't get the extra 15 grand. Drones on for around an hour. Clive rings back - use call to ease Bill out.
5.30 Just catch secretary before she leaves. Would she mind staying a bit late, to send out memo to all heads of department. Dictate memo, remember to praise her for staying on late (women hate to be taken for grented). Leave.
6.30 Home again - a good day's work. Jenny duly grateful I remembered to collect present for mother. Collapse in front of TV.
7.30 Tell kids bedtime story (even though not my turn).
8.00 Dinner. Remember to praise her for delicious dessert, but turns out she'd bought it. Watch TV news.
10.00 Bath. Finish newspaper while soaking.
11.00 Bed. Tell Jenny good news about the budget allocation. She's pleased for me but depressed about her own day. Doesn't feel she's taken seriously.
7.15 Alarm goes off. Turn off quick, so as not to disturb Nick. Make resolution: my work gets priority today - just as if I'd gone to an office.
7.20 Wake kids. David has wet the bed. Cuddle him out of his embarrassment.
7.30 Strip bedclothes and dump in bathtub. Mop mattress. Get kids washed and dressed.
8.00 Just remember in time to wake Nick - forgot yesterday, and he sulked all evening because late for work.
8.02 Make breakfast, while mopping wet kitchen floor. Make Nick's coffee, so it's not too hot when he gets down. Make eggs.
8.25 Nick appears, downs half a cup, staggers off. Can't face eggs. Give them to the dog.
8.33 They've gone, thank goodness. Feel shattered.
8.45 David goes off to catch school bus. Make beds. Rest of housework will have to wait till tomorrow.
8.58 Slide gratefully into bath. Plan to start work at 9.30 instead of 9.00.
9.01 Doorbell. Scramble into bathrobe - it's David. He's missed the school bus. Get dressed hastily.
9.12 Drive him to school.
9.42 Home again. Notice dirty rug. Scrub and disinfect it, put it in car to take to cleaners.
9.59 Have coffee as consolation for wrecked schedule.
10.12 Open mail. Three bills, one decidedly questionable. Hunt through filing system, find previous invoice. 'Gross overcharging'! Phone number not on invoice - hunt through correspondence for number, then through phone book.
10.22 Find number. Line busy.
10.24 Line still busy.
10.26 Ditto. Fury dying down - start to get nervous. Perhaps I ordered something else as well that I've forgotten? Decide to ring later.
10.27 Try rest of mail. How do you address a bishop? (He's agreed to open the school exhibition). Mandy will know. Mandy knows, but also holds forth for ages about how much and why she hates her husband. He takes her for granted; can't understand why she can't put in a good day's work and look after him and the kids properly. Not like Nick
10.48 Compose letter to bishop, rather more formal than my usual letter-writing style.
10.58 Type it - then retype to centre it neatly, then again to reduce typing errors.
11.28 Find stamp, run to post box to catch 11.45 mail.
11.40 Try phone number again. Line still busy.
11.41 Phone rings. It's Nick's mother. Under the chat; she really wants to know if we've remembered her birthday tomorrow. I can't guarantee the present, since Nick is buying it this year - after all, it is his mother. Hope to goodness he remembers
11.55 Put a sheet of paper in the typewriter at last to write chapter... but look at the time! 12.01 leave to fetch Pam from school. She's disappointed I'm not in high heels and make-up like her friend's mother. She doesn't work, I growl. 'Neither do you,' she replies
12.30 Home again. Make lunch, eat, clear up.
1.25 Try to work but Pam keeps interrupting. I shout, feel guilty. Puppy looks pleading. Pam ditto. Give up and take both to park
2.45 On way home, buy birthday card and present 'from children'; also something nice for dessert since I've shouted at everyone so much.
3.10 Home again. Dessert in fridge. Hang Out the sheets and put in dirty clothes.
3.30 Put everyone in car and leave to fetch David from school and take rug to dry-cleaner.
4.15 Home again. Make dinner for kids.
5.00 Kids eat. Supervise David's homework and piano practice. Make sure they feed the dog. Wrap presents, write card to granny.
5.30 Nick comes home, has to rest 'midst kids' chaos because house not tidied, but he's very understanding and helpful - not like Mandy's husband. Bath kids, get them ready for bed.
7.30 Nick kindly tells them story (even though not his turn) while I organize our dinner. He's remembered the present too - and he's wrapped it beautifully. How does he find the time?
8.00 Dinner. Nick praises dessert - thoughtful of him to notice, though had to confess not home-made.
9.00 Clear up dinner. Tidy up and lock up for the night. Do ironing.
10.30 Take puppy out for a last empty.
10.34 Get ready for bed. Nick asks how many chapters I wrote today. Confess only wrote one letter and queried one bill - well, began to query it. Maybe tomorrow I'll do something useful.