There’s nothing new under the sun. Whether you first heard it from the bible, Shakespeare or from your grandmother, it has power. I remember trying to refute it in my head when my mom would say it, off-hand, sort of like “Ka sera sera.”
We tend to think of work as something forever changed and made “new” by technology. And we’ve been programmed in our metric-dependent culture to hitch our technological advances to the upward slope-star of productivity.
I’ve been reading David Montgomery lately. He’s not on the Times best-seller list, but his books about US labor history, Citizen Worker, Workers’ Control in America, and The Fall of the House of Labor, remind me that with the possible exception of the tools we use to do today’s work — the what work looks like and to some extent how it’s done — maybe not that much has changed for the American worker.
Did you know that skilled and to some extent unskilled labor in the 19th century were motivated to unionize, to give up their individual voices for a collective one, in order to direct themselves? Work rules, the autonomous way that craftsmen did their thing and their very work ethic, was legislated by union members within their own unions. Supervisors didn’t know how to do highly skilled jobs and both craftsmen and their supervisors knew it.
With the advent of scientific management — even before Frederick Taylor’s hollow “one best way” – employers enforced standardization and control of work and worker alike. It’s not hard to imagine resistance from men who’d apprenticed, journeyed and mastered their crafts, men who were now being told what to do, where to stand, when, how and how often their bodies would move, according to schedule.
Today, we tend to think of labor unions as the antithesis of progress, blocking productivity, hurting free markets and helping slackers. We grit our teeth when we read that a mere factory worker makes $60 grand plus overtime. We can’t believe that many teachers still have a tenure system that restricts employment at will. And Hoffa’s bloody Teamsters, those commie Industrial Workers of the World… there’s enough “evidence” out there to fuel outrage for another industrial revolution and then some.
But here’s the interesting thing: so many unions (formerly called guilds) were eagerly founded, voluntarily joined and more active than churches in the nineteenth century, despite throngs of immigrants ready to replace any worker on the spot (unions had not been given legal status until 1935). Doesn’t this say something about our human nature? Unless that’s completely changed.
For me it says, “Hey, I get that you (company) want to make the most money you can. But my health and the work I do are not going to suffer for it. I won’t kill myself for you. And in return I’ll give you a good product/service, especially if you give me credit: let me use my brain to help decide what, where, when, how and why, then pay me a decent wage to do it.”
Today, autonomy to establish work rules might include establishing your own work week (if Tuesdays are not good for you, work on Saturday; or work 11 hours on Monday, 4 hours Tuesday, 12 hours Wednesday, 13 hours Thursday). Or, autonomy to protect your marriage or your health. Another 6-month project in Los Angeles? Mmm, no, not now. (No offense LA.) Or, the right to rest: expectations to answer calls, text or email at any hour?
Could Labor Movement 2.0 be on its way?