The New American Workplace

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

Jane Slaughter

LESS THAN FOUR years ago a very different conference took place in this room. It was the AFL-CIO convention; Brother Lane Kirkland was unanimously reelected to lead the federation. Now Brother Kirkland appears to be a lame duck–maybe a sitting duck. And this conference is going to be very different from that AFL-CIO convention.

Last year the AFL-CIO endorsed a concept they called “a new American workplace.” That’s one name for it. A lot of academics call it “high performance work systems.” AT&T calls it the Workplace of the Future.

The Workplace of the Future has as few workers as possible working as continuously as possible, constantly improving both their quality and their efficiency. There’s never a finish line to continuous improvement. As much work as possible is contracted out. Workers are multi-skilled–that is, interchangeable with each other, and most of all, they are willing to “go all out,” as one Democratic member of the Dunlop Commission put it.

The Wall Street Journal estimated a couple of years ago that this Workplace of the Future could wipe out 25 million jobs. That’s out of a private sector workforce of 90 million. The Journal emphasized that these 25 million jobs wouldn’t be destroyed by companies going bankrupt or their products not selling–this 25 million is on top of any of that.

Quite the contrary, these cuts were happening in “healthy” companies that were just trying to become even more competitive.

The Workplace of the Future isn’t just an American phenomenon, of course. It’s spreading to all corners of the globe. GE and Ford aren’t satisfied with paying their Mexican maquiladora workers 56 cents an hour. They intend for those workers also to be multiskilled, continuously improving, just-in-time, and all the rest of it.

European unions thought their multinational employers would never dare to try to subject them to the same sort of indignities that they’d perpetrated on Americans. They’ve found out different. GM’s brand new plant in the former East Germany is as “lean” as the famous NUMMI plant in California, and GM is using it to introduce lean methods to managers throughout Europe.

But here in North America, where plans are to destroy 25 million jobs, there’s a contradiction. On the one hand we have the corporations. They are eliminating good steady jobs through downsizing, overtime and subcontracting. On the other hand we have the government, which is pushing more and more people into the workforce, for jobs that aren’t there.

Here in Michigan, for example, our governor’s new “Work First” program requires mothers on welfare to get a job–but it does nothing to provide jobs for them to work at. They’re supposed to be out there competing in the workforce with everyone else.

So between them, the corporations and all levels of government are increasing the supply of workers, through downsizing and “welfare reform,” without increasing the number of decent job opportunities. They call it “getting competitive,” or balancing the budget, or promoting the work ethic.

In any case the result is the same–employers get the best of both worlds. As the number of good jobs shrinks and the number of workers competing for jobs rises, what happens with supply and demand? Employers are free to offer lousy wages and lousy conditions, knowing that people are desperate enough to take them. They can treat their current employees as “flexibly” as they want, under the threat “there are thousands of people out there ready to take your job.”

I want to talk especially about flexibility in working hours. Employers are demanding longer hours for full-time workers, they are substituting part-timers and temporaries for full-timers, they are imposing 10- or 12-hour day “alternative work schedules,” and they are contracting out or privatizing just about any type of work.

The idea of these new schedules is that each worker should be completely at the employer’s disposal, available at a moment’s notice–and no whining! You’re lucky you’ve got a job.

I won’t give a lot of statistics here–see Labor Notes’ new book Time Out!–but American workers today put in 163 more hours per year than they did 25 years ago, the equivalent of almost a month’s more time at work. Last year, 26% of all the hours GM workers worked were on overtime.

By my calculations, that’s enough to hire 69,000 new employees just in one company. For the work force as a whole, people holding more than one job and overtime equal about five million full-time jobs.On the other hand you have the people who want a full-time job and can’t get one. One out of five workers today is a part-timer.

And you have the temporaries: No one knows the total, but the number who work through temp agencies like Manpower or Kelly has risen from about 250,000 twenty years ago, to nearly two million today. With temps employers have perfect flexibility. As the New York Times said: “The revolution in the 1980s was toward just-in-time inventory. The revolution of the ’90s is toward just-in-time employees.”

So it’s longer hours for some and fewer hours for others. Corporate America is creating two distinct worlds of work. In one world, the top tier of lucky full-time workers works longer hours than ever, for declining real wages. But they’re also suffering the highest rates of layoffs since the Depression.

In the other world of work, the growing bottom tier, jobs are even more shaky, and of course lower paid. The majority of people in the lower tier are women.

The employers plant the idea that these two worlds of work have nothing in common. By implication, the two tiers of workers have nothing in common either. In fact, the two worlds of work are thoroughly intertwined. The shrinking upper tier of “good” jobs rests on a growing under-tier of contractors, temps, and casual labor.

Why do we put up with this? Why do we work all this overtime?

Because we’re deep in the economic hole, that’s why. Our real wages are way down. Just to reach the 1973 standard of living you have to work six extra weeks a year.

So we are caught in a vicious circle. We work overtime because our wages are low. As we work the longer hours, we contribute to unemployment. When unemployment is high, employers can impose lower wages on everyone.

I’ve given some reasons why overtime actually helps the employers to cut our wages, looking at the big picture. But let’s another look at it on a different level too, not just money but the other things we need to live a decent life. Life has gotten so hard, and the labor movement has been on the defensive for so long, that we tend to forget the dreams of our foremothers and our forefathers.

For them the union wasn’t like an insurance agent. It was a school, the place where you could learn big ideas and think bold thoughts, and it was a movement that, they believed, could transform their lives not just at the workplace but in their free time too. They fought for the eight-hour day so that they could have some free time.

As the song called “Bread and Roses,” written for the women of the Lawrence textile strike in 1912, expressed it: “Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.” They didn’t mean roses on National Secretaries Day. By “roses” they meant the good things in life. As in stop and smell the roses.

We have the right to say we don’t live to work.

In Ann Landers’ column, of all places, on April 17, readers wrote in on the topic of downsizing. Most were angry at corporate America. But some bosses wrote in too. One was from downstate Illinois–the same region as Decatur, the home of A.E. Staley and Caterpillar, the war zone. This guy was griping because he just couldn’t get good help.

He was steamed because when he hired new employees, the first thing the applicants would ask was “Am I off on weekends?” This the boss considered outrageous, to want to be off on the weekend.

Another boss, from Indianapolis, wrote: “Tell your readers that downsizing isn’t management’s fault. Employers are simply trying to be competitive and stay in business…Tell the whiners to look at the standard of living in China, India and Mexico, because this is our competition.”

So if your working conditions are any better than Chinese workers have, and yet you still complain, you’re a whiner.

Why do our unions fail to challenge this mentality that people should live to work? It’s because so many of our top union leaders have bought the employers’ arguments about competitiveness. They do put a union twist on it, of course–how often have you read in your union’s national magazine, for example, that a “good union” can actually improve an employer’s competitiveness?

The Economic Policy Institute, a union-backed think tank in Washington, put out a whole book arguing this theory. If only the silly employers would wake up and realize that it actually benefits them to pay high wages. If only they’d understand that a union will make their workers more motivated and thus more competitive. If only they’d realize that we can have a win-win solution.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council says the same thing. Nowhere do any of these thinkers come out and admit what “competitiveness” really means–which is profitability.

Now, the employers know that any union worth its salt does get in the way of higher profits. If it doesn’t–if the union is not taking that economic pie and making the workers’ piece bigger and the company’s piece smaller, if it’s not taking away some of the company’s rights to do whatever it wants with and to workers–then it’s not doing its job.

Employers know this, if some of our friends at the top of the AFL-CIO don’t, and that’s why they fight organizing drives tooth and nail in their nonunion work places, and why in some cases, like the Decatur War Zone, they try to break the union where it already exists. That’s the surest way to be able to impose the 12-hour day–break the union.

The hard truth is that there is no win-win solution for bosses and workers. They want fewer of us to work harder, for less pay; and we want more of us to be working, making more money, at a decent pace that we can work at till we retire.

Why do so many union leaders want to believe there’s a win-win solution? Because they don’t want to challenge the employers. They want to believe that the bosses can keep doing what they’re doing, for competitiveness’ sake, and if they’d just let the union in on it, if we could just be partners, then it would be okay.

But that’s another story. I believe the people who come to this conference are representative of the best people in the labor movement. You do want to challenge the employers. How should we do that? Go to the conference workshops and find out–there’s a lot of ways. I’ll just mention one–a big picture one–the shorter work week.

A concerted, cross-union, long-term campaign for a shorter work week would take on the twin employers’ offensives I talked about earlier–the massive shift to overtime and the 10-hour day on the one hand, and part-time work on the other. But there’s something else it would do–it would challenge the idea that we should live to work, that working for pay is what makes us worthwhile human beings.

It would say that we deserve more of the good life, not less, that we are not content to let the employers impose the standards they’ve decided are necessary for their profitability. It would challenge the notion that there is a win-win solution. It would put the labor movement on the offensive, fighting for something that would benefit not only our own members, but people who are not yet union members too.

A campaign for a shorter work week would say that the union movement still has ideals, that it’s not just the ventriloquist’s dummy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Speaking of ideals, I want to finish with a story about some unionists in Guatemala. I’ll be visiting there this summer, for the fourth 4th time, and I’ve learned a great deal from the union members I got to know there.

Guatemala is the first country south of Chiapas, Mexico, known for its succession of military governments and the murder of anyone who dares to speak out against the brutality. In 1980 the entire leadership of the labor movement–the equivalent of our AFL-CIO Executive Council–was kidnapped from a meeting by death squads and disappeared, never seen again. The repression was so bloody that for some years unions practically went underground.

But in 1986, when I was there, it happened to be the 100th anniversary of May Day. You probably know that May 1 is an official holiday, the workers’ holiday, almost everywhere in the industrial world except the United States and Canada. So any Guatemalan union that had access to a mimeo machine put out a bulletin about May Day.

They talked about the general strike for the eight-hour day that took place on May 1, 1886, and how eight men who led that strike were hanged in Chicago, and that they were called the Haymarket martyrs. Martyrs are taken very seriously in Guatemala.

At a rally in front of the Presidential Palace, one of the speakers was from the occupied Lunafil thread factory. His name was Julio Coj. The Lunafil company had demanded that workers work a 12-hour day. The union refused, the company closed the plant, and so the workers had occupied it. They had been inside the factory six months at the time of the rally, but they were still refusing to accept the 12-hour day.

And Julio Coj said, “The schedule they offered us enslaves the working class. We should not accept more than eight hours, when 100 years ago the companeros in Chicago offered their lives for the eight-hour day.”

If Guatemalan workers can know why the Haymarket martyrs died and can celebrate their memory, so can we. If Guatemalan unionists can defy the bosses who want them to work a 12-hour day, so can we. We can learn from the working people of the past, our foremothers and forefathers who were not silenced by the bosses’ whining about competitiveness, and we can fight for what we need and deserve.

ATC 58, September-October 1995