Think your money’s not going very far this year? It’s not your imagination. According to new research by the Economic Policy Institute, real hourly wages declined for almost everybody in the U.S. workforce in the first half of 2014. Thanks, so-called recovery.
Economist Elise Gould pored over data from the government’s Current Population Survey and determined that workers at the 20th, 30th, 40th, 50th, 60th, 70th, 80th, 90th, and 95th percentiles all saw declines in their real wages in the first half of 2014 compared with the same period last year. This was true whether you had no high school degree, a high school diploma, some college, a college degree, or an advanced degree. In fact, people with advanced degrees saw the biggest drop (2.7 percent).
EPI reveals this isn’t just a blip. Real wages dropped 4.9 percent for workers with a high school degree and 2.5 percent for workers with a college degree from the first half of 2007 to the first half of this year.
Gould explains in the report that “the last year has been a poor one for American workers’ wages.” She states that “on the whole, the broad wage trends by education level over the last decade and a half make clear that wage inequality cannot be readily explained by stories about educational credentials and technology; wage inequality has increased steadily, yet even those with a college diploma or advanced degree have experienced lackluster wage growth.”
Gould adds, “It’s an indication of the fact that no one — not even educated workers — is able to bargain for anything.” Employers have the power and they are using it to pay their workers less.
The only workers who saw real wages go up over the past year were workers at the10th percentile of income, but only two cents an hour, from $8.36 an hour to $8.38. Two pennies! Don’t spend it all in one place. That paltry increase happened because of minimum wage increases in 13 states. The lack of wage growth harms society and the economy in a whole host of ways. When workers don’t have enough money in their pockets to spend on goods and services, businesses can’t hire and they fail, which increases unemployment. Unable to keep up with the growing expenses of things like healthcare and college tuition, the middle class shrinks. For those less well off, life becomes a daily struggle for survival. The increasing gap between the very rich and everyone else produces a wide range of social ills, from mental illness to addiction to chronic diseases. The social fabric becomes unraveled.
Not a very promising reflection for Labor Day, is it?
Tech’s toxic political culture: The stealth libertarianism of Silicon Valley bigwigs
Marc Andreessen is a major architect of our current technologically mediated reality. As the leader of the team that created the Mosaic Web browser in the early ’90s and as co-founder of Netscape, Andreessen, possibly more than any single other person, helped make the Internet accessible to the masses.
In his second act as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Andreessen has hardly slackened the pace. The portfolio of companies with investments from his VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is a roll-call for tech “disruption.” (Included on the list: Airbnb, Lyft, Box, Oculus VR, Imgur, Pinterest, RapGenius, Skype and, of course, Twitter and Facebook.) Social media, the “sharing” economy, Bitcoin — Andreessen’s dollars are fueling all of it.
So when the man tweets, people listen.
And, good grief, right now the man is tweeting. Since Jan. 1, when Andreessen decided to aggressively reengage with Twitter after staying mostly silent for years, @pmarca has been pumping out so many tweets that one wonders how he finds time to attend to his normal business.
On June 1, Andreessen took his game to a new level. In what seems to be a major bid to establish himself as Silicon Valley’s premier public intellectual, Andreessen has deployed Twitter to deliver a unified theory of tech utopia.
In seven different multi-part tweet streams, adding up to a total of almost 100 tweets, Andreessen argues that we shouldn’t bother our heads about the prospect that robots will steal all our jobs. Technological innovation will end poverty, solve bottlenecks in education and healthcare, and usher in an era of ubiquitous affluence in which all our basic needs are taken care of. We will occupy our time engaged in the creative pursuits of our heart’s desire.
So how do we get there? Easy! All we have to do is just get out of Silicon Valley’s way. (Andreessen is never specific about exactly what he means by this, but it’s easy to guess: Don’t burden tech’s disruptive firms with the safety, health and insurance regulations that the old economy must abide by.)
Oh, and one other little thing: Make sure that we have a social welfare safety net robust enough to take care of the people who fall though the cracks (or are eaten by robots).
The full collection of tweets marks an impressive achievement — a manifesto, you might even call it, although Andreessen has been quick to distinguish his techno-capitalist-created utopia from any kind of Marxist paradise. But there’s a hole in his argument big enough to steer a $500 million round of Series A financing right through. Getting out of the way of Silicon Valley and ensuring a strong safety net add up to a political paradox. Because Silicon Valley doesn’t want to pay for the safety net.
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The conflict between labor and the environment is a neoliberal construct. What we need is a broad coalition that can fundamentally transform production.
Nowadays it sounds so familiar, almost natural: the mutually exclusive demands and apparently opposing agendas of labor and the environmentalist movement. But in fact, this artificial division is nothing more than a crucial neoliberal strategy to divide two of the most powerful social movements of the industrial era, whose alliance could be a dangerous liaison with the capacity to call into question the very essence of the capitalist “treadmill of production.” It is thus essential that labor and environmental/public health organizations gain a historical perspective on their current state of conflict and become aware of the revolutionary potential of a common political project.
One place where this fact has become much clearer in recent years is the Italian city of Taranto, Apulia, where a number of citizens’ organizations and “committees” emerged in response to one of the most serious occupational, environmental and public health crises of the last decade. These organizations and committees have now begun mobilizing different resources and forms of action — from cyber-activism and film-making to street demonstrations and campaigning — to fight against the occupational blackmail of a local employer. At the last May Day celebrations, they managed to gather more than 100,000 people for a self-organized, crowd-sourced mass concert, held in open competition with the one traditionally organized in Rome by the trade unions confederation and RAI, the national public television.
As the biggest and one of the oldest steel factories in Europe, counting about 20,000 employees in 2012 and belonging to the formerly state-owned ILVA group (now controlled by the Riva family), the Taranto plant rose to national attention in 2011. A court decision found the company guilty of outrageous violations of environmental regulations and ordered its immediate closure until a thorough technical renovation and the environmental clean-up of damaged areas would be put into place.
The company’s response consisted in arrogantly restating the incompatibility of environmental regulation with its economic plans, thus re-enacting the occupational blackmail strategy which has traditionally functioned as way to structurally block any actions against business interests. The management even went so far as to actively organize workers’ demonstrations against the court decision, gaining ample and complicit media coverage, in order to convince public opinion that there was in fact real opposition in the city of Taranto — in which ILVA is by far the largest employer — against the public prosecutors and local environmentalist organizations.
Taranto is just one striking manifestation of the unbearable contradiction forced upon people of what Allan Schnaiberg has called the “treadmill of production” (and consumption and waste): the contradiction between production and reproduction. This can be imagined as a Hydra-like monster with many heads: occupational illnesses, job accidents, environmental contamination and ecocide, public health disasters, the annihilation of possibilities for alternative/autonomous forms of local economy, and so on. For the past 50 years, this monster has provoked an unbearable concentration of cancer, malformations and other health disorders in the Taranto bay area, something rendered even more unbearable by the weakness of public health infrastructure and the lack of adequate healthcare. Like the Alien of the science-fiction movie, the Hydra-like monster has now entered the local space and people’s bodies, taking possession of them from within.
In important ways, Taranto’s May Day concert was therefore a manifestation of discontent with what the organizers (and much of the city’s inhabitants) perceive to be the politics of the main trade unions in matters of ecology: 1) they are seen to be largely complacent with corporate occupational blackmail; 2) they are insensitive to the threats to public health that come with environmental contamination; and 3) they often strongly oppose grassroots environmental mobilization at the local level.
The truth, however, is that it is simply impossible to separate or to alienate life from work — as the industrial economy and society have tried to do for so long. Another type of economy must be built; one that makes work the human activity that sustains life and that all members of a community share in its different forms across space (the city, its sea, its hinterland, and the local ecosystem), and even across species, in respect for the daily work made by non-human nature in sustaining life in the local environment.
Another type of economy is undeniably, urgently needed. All the rage, the frustration, the pain and the conflict that working-class communities of industrial areas have embodied and carried in their lives must now lead towards a new horizon of struggle, a new and better dream than those fabricated by the market and the neoliberal state, and by the unions and political parties associated with them. A dream that can finally liberate local people from the unbearable contradictions of the “treadmill of production”; of the Alien within. The slogan Taranto libera! (“liberate Taranto!”) which was screamed again and again during the concert, spoke to just that.
Instruments of liberation
But for another world to become possible, it has to be imagined first, not only by individuals or activist groups, but also at the political level. Imagining a new world becomes essential for the struggle not to close in on itself and reproduce the contradictions of the old world, but to become constructive and hopeful. Here it is that political memory becomes essential, as a project of activist knowledge-production which engages with the world’s transformation as an instrument to usher in new possibilities for politicization. By becoming aware of what has already been done by other people, past and present, with their struggles and movements, either in our own communities or elsewhere, we will immediately get a much clearer perception of the possibility of not just one but many other worlds.
Seeing those possibilities in their reality, with their dreams and their challenges, with their victories and their contradictions, will help us envision our own possibilities here and now and better organize our own struggles. This is the contribution that this article aims to give to all those who are struggling for self-liberation from the straitjacket of occupational blackmail. In the following part, I will “unearth” a few stories, in the hope that they may become (figurative) axes of war, as the Wu Ming writers’ collective would put it: instruments of liberation operating through the political imagination.
Worker/environmentalist coalitions operating on common platforms of labor and political struggle are not uncommon in the history of the post-war world. When truck drivers and eco-activists marched together in the streets of Seattle during anti-WTO demonstrations in 1999 under the banner of “Teamsters and turtles”, this was nothing new, but simply the resurgence of a political strategy that had already been successfully experimented with during the Fordist era, leading to important legislative reform in occupational and public health as well as in environmental protection. It was the active collaboration between labor, environmental, student and feminist movements that allowed the passage of the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts (1972) in the USA, strongly supported by the most powerful trade-union confederation of the time, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW).
In Italy, the very institution of the Public Health System (Sistema Sanitario Nazionale) in 1978 was the result of a decade of intensive struggles and two general strikes, promoted by what was known as the “environmental club” within the unions’ confederation: a coalition of labor physicians, sociologists and union leaders who had previously produced revolutionary changes in the regulation of the work environment, promoting the principle of direct workers’ control (articles 4 and 9 of the Labor Statute, passed in 1970).
Other relevant examples of such strategic coalitions can be drawn from very different places and economic sectors, such as the successful struggle against pesticide use that was conducted in the mid-1960s by the United Farm Workers union, organizing the Latino wage laborers of the orange fields and vineyards of California to obtain decent working and living conditions and the recognition of labor rights. A struggle centered on the serious health threats that agro-chemicals posed not only to the farmers and their families, but to the American consumer and environment at large.
But perhaps the most striking example of workers’ environmentalism can be found in the deep of the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, where, in the mid-1980s, a union of rubber tappers — the seringueiros — successfully organized to defend the forest from the attack of powerful lumber companies and ranchers, while at the same time defending their right to live and work in the forest, forming cooperatives for the management of sustainable extractive activities, such as rubber and nut collection or fisheries. Despite the violent opposition raised by powerful local interests, leading to numerous assassinations of trade unionists and environmentalists, the rubber tappers’ struggle did succeed in obtaining the creation of a number of “extractive reserves”, where landless local people are legally recognized and supported by the state as the legitimate “owners” and safeguards of the forest.
What the above stories tell us is that it is indeed possible to build social struggles that are, at the same time, environmental struggles, even though they emerge from a working-class experience, and vision, of what ecology is.
More solid premises
However, the renewed alliance between labor and environmental movements must be rebuilt on more solid premises than in the past. The ideology of economic growth as a panacea for all social problems and the only way to produce social welfare must be thoroughly questioned and ultimately abandoned by the labor movement, because growth imperatives are powerful justifications for the most shameless disregard for the well-being of people and of non-human nature. The same applies to the illusion of greening the economy (i.e., capitalism) through eco-efficient technologies and market mechanisms; an illusion embraced by large parts of both the labor and the environmental movement, with support from governments and financial institutions.
The process of de-industrialization in “developed” countries in the last 20 years shows how the greening of the economy has led to the simple transmigration of industrial hazards and their death toll to less developed countries, acting through the ferocious logic of the “double standard” regime, by which multinationals can shift abroad those productions/technologies which are banned or heavily regulated in their countries of origin. This same mechanism makes working-class communities in the first world more and more vulnerable to occupational blackmail, threatening them with the shifting of industrial activities elsewhere.
Moreover, many of today’s so-called “green” technologies actually have a very negative impact on the environment, on labor conditions, and on public health as well, especially when implemented on a large scale — a fact that has been demonstrated by grassroots struggles (and engaged research) on a number of such “green economy” projects over the last decade. Windmill parks, for instance, have been strongly opposed by local communities in Greece and Spain due to the impact they have had on extended rural areas, altering local climates and landscapes, as well as heavily conditioning land use patterns.
Even greater impacts on soil, local climate and ecosystems are associated with large solar power plants — also an object of contestation and a cause of serious occupational hazard. But the most striking example comes from the biofuel business in Brazil (and elsewhere in Latin America), where extensive monoculture plantations of sugarcane have replaced millions of hectares of forest, and are often run through semi-slave laborers working in conditions of horrible toil and health risk.
Clearly, the point is not to cynically dismiss any form of alternative energy production as equally threatening to environmental and public health. There is no doubt that renewable and non-fossil energy sources must be developed as the only possible way out of the current climate crisis. But the issue of dimension and scale is of fundamental importance: alternative energy can and should be developed on the small scale, aiming at autonomous and decentralized forms of self-provision for households and local communities. Renewable energy technologies can be really sustainable only if implemented at such a de-centralized and locally-controlled level, even if this is not the scale at which huge concentrations of profit (and political power) can be made. But this would imply a thorough transformation not only of the form and structure of urban life, but of the social organization of work itself.
Breaking out of the multiple crises that afflict the world today — both in the domains of the economy and work as well as in the domain of ecology and public health — requires no lesser effort than completely abandoning the “treadmill of production”, including the politics, economics and ideology of unlimited growth. This requires an ecological revolution as theorized by Carolyn Merchant: a complete shift in the social organization of production, reproduction and consciousness. Another way of working and living, of producing and distributing wealth, rooted in non-alienated work, in respect for life and in commonality, must be the political platform on which to build this new alliance. Workers and environmentalists of the world, unite!
Stefania Barca is an environmental historian and political ecologist working at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. She has published extensively on the history of the commons and on working-class environmentalism.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com
The media are all abuzz with the changing nature of work. Exciting words like “creativity” and “adaptability” get thrown around, specifically in connection to the shift away from steady, full-time employment to a gig economy of freelancers and short-term contracts. Proponents of the gig economy, from the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman to bright-eyed TED pundits, tout it as a welcome escape from the prison of the standard workweek and the strictures of corporate America. Working on a project-to-project basis will set you free, they tell us. Wired magazine has called it “the force that could save the American worker.”
But when you’re actually stuck in it, the gig economy looks quite different.
Consider the New York Freelancer’s Union: According to a report in the New York Times, 29 percent of the union’s New York City members earn less than $25,000 a year, and in 2010, 12 percent of members nationally received some type of public assistance. Turns out that life with no health benefits, vacation pay or retirement plan is not a rosy picture.
Writing for Fast Company, Sarah Kessler, who went undercover to hustle for work in the gig economy, put it this way:
“For one month, I became the ‘micro-entrepreneur’ touted by companies like TaskRabbit, Postmates, and Airbnb. Instead of the labor revolution I had been promised, all I found was hard work, low pay, and a system that puts workers at a disadvantage.”
What’s really going on is the desire of businesses to chop wages and benefit costs while also limiting their vulnerability to lawsuits, which can happen when salaried employees are mistreated. The burden of economic risk is shifted even further onto workers, who lose the security and protections of the New-Deal-era social insurance programs that were created when long-term employment was the norm.
I caught up with Gerald Friedman, who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written about the gig economy, to find out how this trend happened and what it means to workers and our increasingly unequal society.
Lynn Parramore: How did the shift away from full-time employment to the gig economy come about? What forces drove the change?
Gerald Friedman: Growing use of contingent workers (in “gigs”) came when capitalists sought to respond to gains by labor through the early 1970s, and in response to the victories capital won in the rise of the neoliberal era. Because contingent workers were usually not covered by union contracts or other legal safeguards, employers hired them to regain leverage over workers lost when unionized workers gained protection against unjust dismissal, and courts extended these protections to non-union workers under the “implicit contract” doctrine.
Similarly, the rising cost of benefits due to rising healthcare costs and government protection of retirement benefits (under the 1974 ERISA statute) raised the cost of full-time employment; employers sought to evade these costs by hiring more contingent workers.
In the early- and mid-20th century, employers created careers and job-ladders to lock valuable workers into particular jobs. Job-lock reduced the danger that low unemployment would lead to competition for workers, wage inflation, and would undermine their control over their workers. (The other side of job-lock, as Richard Freeman among others noted, was the organization of labor unions among workers who could not “exit” from no-longer-agreeable employments, and therefore, engage in collective action to improve conditions.) Reduced market regulation, the opening of markets to international competition, and a shift in macro-economic policy focus from full-employment to price-stability all reduced the danger that workers would quit to gain higher wages or better jobs.
Instead of using job-lock to protect themselves from labor-market competition, employers rely on repressive macroeconomic conditions, relatively high unemployment, and therefore, do not need to offer job ladders, careers, or benefits to attract and to hold workers.
LP: We hear a lot of buzz from trendwatchers on a new wave of “microentrepreneurs,” “minibusinesses,” and empowered freelancers who are changing the nature of work. Why do people find this vision so intoxicating?
GF: Talk of “microentrepreneurs” presents a favorable view of the rise of the gig economy, one consistent with liberal values of individualism and opportunity, even while ignoring the oppression and poverty-wages many find in the gig economy.
There are certainly some who enjoy the uncertainty of irregular employment. When unemployment rates fell to levels traditionally associated with full employment in the late-1990s, however, we saw how workers really feel about gig jobs: they rejected them and the contingent economy contracted.
Given a choice, workers choose careers and jobs, not freelance gigs.
LP: The reality of the gig economy often seems to be a system that puts workers at a disadvantage. From your research, how do you see the gig economy playing out in people’s lives?
The gig economy is associated with low wages, repression, insecurity, and chronic stress and anxiety. Freelance workers fear to complain about working conditions, fear to ask for higher pay, and fear to reject any conditions imposed by prospective employers. By removing any social protection, the gig economy returns us to the most oppressive type of cut-throat and hierarchical capitalism, a social order where the power to hire and fire has been restored to employers, giving them once again unfettered control over the workplace.
LP: How can we create jobs that are flexible and adaptable, but also give workers some security and decent benefits?
GF: We should not romanticize the situation of organization workers on careers and with job ladders. While providing more security and protection than the gig economy, this was a type of contract established by capitalists to enhance their power over workers. Instead, we should seek to enhance worker security and independence outside of work through systems of income security (enhanced unemployment insurance and guaranteed income and universal health insurance), by establishing worker-controlled guilds to regulate access to gig work through hiring halls and hiring lists, and by extending legal protections to workers’ civil rights and health and safety while doing freelance and gig work.
LP: To what extent do you see the gig economy impacting growing economic inequality?
The gig economy has been a giant vehicle transferring income from workers to capitalists. Gig work has become a vehicle not only to drive down wages but to eliminate employment-related benefits (including health insurance as well as retirement pensions and government social security). By undermining labor unions and promoting individualist competition among workers, gig work drives down wages and reduces the possibilities for effective working-class political action.
The mass strike at the Yue Yuen factory shows how China’s workers are increasingly relying on autonomous and horizontal structures of labor resistance.
INTERNATIONAL WORKERS’ DAY 2014:
Five Inspiring Struggles to Celebrate on May Day
1. Hotel Bauen and workplace recuperation in Argentina
By Marina Sitrin
2. Vio.Me: workers’ control in the Greek crisis
By Theodoros Karyotis
3. Workers’ control at Fralib: the brand with the Elephant
By Dario Azzellini
4. Tuzla: the workers’ revolt that spawned a Bosnian Spring
By Chiara Milan
5. Yue Yuen: wildcat strikes and labor struggles in China
By Michael Caster
In China, the Communist Party (CCP) and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) promote and protect workers’ rights. In reality, however, elite interests most often prevail, submerging workers’ rights in the tide of global capitalism. The response has been increasing civil resistance. According to one study, there were 1.171 strikes and labor protests between June 2011 and the end of 2013, and much of April 2014 was marked by one of the largest episodes of resistance in modern Chinese labor history.
On Monday, April 14, 2014, 10.000 workers at the Yue Yuen Dongguan shoe factory took to the streets in protest of the company’s ongoing failure to pay its 70.000 employees their full social security and housing allowance. Worker grievances also included the thousands of fraudulent contracts they had been forced to sign, which prevented their children from enrolling in local schools, forcing them to pay for migrant worker children’s schools. These are common grievances among China’s some 250 million migrant workers.
The strikes, which had been intermittent since April 5, came to their first crescendo that Monday as hundreds of riot police swarmed the crowd. Despite the show of force and minimal arrests, the workers were undaunted, and by the following week the demonstrators numbered around 40.000. Government censors instructed domestic media to delete content related to the incident.
The strike at Yue Yuen, the largest sports shoe manufacturer in the world, supplying Adidas, Nike, Puma, Crocs and others, was supported by labor rights organizations, such as the Shenzhen-based Chunfeng Labor Justice Service Department. Meanwhile, union presence was minuscule. That substantive union support was conspicuously absent in one of the largest labor rights demonstrations in modern China is telling.
China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong rights organization, quoted one striking worker: “I personally have not seen any union staff, although I heard that they have issued a comment, which no one gives damn about… They are now giving us instructions, but where the hell were they when the company violated our rights?! I have worked at Yue Yuen for almost two decades, and I don’t even know who our union president is.”
The ACFTU is the largest trade union in the world, with around 239 million members according to 2010 figures. However, the legitimacy of the ACFTU as a representative of workers’ rights has been tarnished by perennial subordination to the interests of the CCP. There is a regulation that party officials must approve all union chairs and the CCP’s position on labor rights is clear.
On March 27, 2001, when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), China issued a reservation to Article 8.1(a), the right to form and freely join trade unions, that its application must be consistent with the Chinese Constitution and other domestic laws. The word union does not appear in the Chinese Constitution. Furthermore, China has continually failed to ratify fundamental International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions CO87, The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and CO98, The Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.
For these reasons China’s workers have increasingly been relying on autonomous structures of labor resistance organized horizontally within or between small groups of factories with support from independent labor rights organizations and third parties. Students in the nearby city of Guangzhou, for example, left posters outside of Nike stores in solidarity with the striking workers.
After several weeks of demonstrations, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor and Social Security acknowledged that Yue Yuen had been underpaying its workers and noted that the department had ordered the factory to comply.
Still, we must not forget that China is increasingly outsourcing cheap labor to countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. While victories for individual factories are milestones in the Chinese labor movement, until the engines of global capitalism come to a halt the same exploitive practices will continue in their voracious race to the bottom.
After all, following the initial outbreak of demonstrations at Yue Yuen, Adidas moved a bulk of its orders to other suppliers. This move earned the company criticism from the International Union League for Brand Responsibility, which, as a reminder that the struggle for workers’ rights is universal, responded by organizing solidarity protests at Adidas and Nike stores from Hong Kong to Istanbul and Los Angeles.
Michael Caster is an independent researcher, writer and activist, specializing in Asia. Follow him on Twitter @michaelcaster.
From the Organization Man to open-plan design, a new history of the way the office has shaped the modern world
Over the past week, as I’ve been carrying around a copy of Nikil Saval’s “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace,” I’ve gotten some quizzical looks. “It’s a history of the office,” I’d explain, whereupon a good number of people would respond, “Well, that sounds boring.”
It isn’t. In fact, “Cubed” is anything but, despite an occasional tendency to read like a grad school thesis. The fact that anyone would expect it to be uninteresting is striking, though, and marks an unexpected limit to the narcissistic curiosity of the average literate American. The office, after all, is where most contemporary labor takes place and is a crucible of our culture. We’ve almost all worked in one. Of course it’s a subject that merits a thoroughly researched and analytical history, because the history of the office is also the history of us.
Saval’s book glides smoothly between his two primary subjects: the physical structure of offices and the social institution of white-collar work over the past 150 years or so. “Cubed” encompasses everything from the rise of the skyscraper to the entrance of women into the professional workplace to the mid-20th-century angst over grey-flannel-suit conformity to the dorm-like “fun” workplaces of Silicon Valley. His stance is skeptical, a welcome approach given that most writings on the contemporary workplace are rife with dubious claims to revolutionary innovation — office design or management gimmicks that bestselling authors indiscriminately pounce on like magpies seizing glittering bits of trash.
Some of the most fascinating parts of “Cubed” come in the book’s early chapters, in which Saval traces the roots of the modern office to the humble 19th-century countinghouse. Such firms — typically involved in the importation or transport of goods — were often housed in a single room, with one or more of the partners working a few feet away from a couple of clerks, who copied and filed documents, as well as a bookkeeper. A novice clerk might earn less than skilled manual laborers, but he had the potential to make significantly more, and he could boast the intangible but nevertheless significant status of working with his mind rather than his hands.
Even more formative to the identity of white-collar workers (so named for the detachable collars, changed daily in lieu of more regular washings of the actual shirt, that served as a badge of the class) was the proximity to the boss himself and the very real possibility of advancement to the role of partner. Who better to marry the boss’ daughter and take over when he retired? Well, one of the other clerks is who, and in this foundational rivalry much of the character of white-collar work was set. “Unlike their brothers in the factory, who had begun to see organizing on the shop floors as a way to counter the foul moods and arbitrary whims of their bosses,” Saval writes, “clerks saw themselves as potential bosses.” Blue-collar workers, by contrast, knew they weren’t going to graduate to running the company one day.
The current American ethic of self-help and individualism owes at least as much to the countinghouse as it does to the misty ideal of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer. An ambitious clerk identified and sought to ingratiate himself with the partners, not his peers, who were, after all, his competitors. He was on his own, and had only himself to blame if he failed. A passion for self-education and self-improvement, via books and night schools and lecture series, took root and flourished. So did a culture of what Saval calls “unctuous male bonding,” the ancestor of the 20th century’s golf outings and three-martini lunches, customs that would make it that much harder for outsiders like women and ethnic minorities to rise in the ranks — once they managed to get into the ranks in the first place.
The meritocratic dream became a lot more elusive in the 1920s, when the population employed in white-collar work surpassed the number of blue-collar workers for the first time. Saval sees this stage in the evolution of the office as epitomized in the related boom in skyscrapers. The towering buildings, enabled by new technologies like elevators and steel-frame construction, were regarded as the concrete manifestation of American boldness and ambition; certainly modern architects, reaching for new heights of self-aggrandizement, encouraged that view. They rarely acknowledged that a skyscraper was, at heart, a hive of standardized cells in which human beings were slotted like interchangeable parts. Most of the workers inhabiting those cells, increasingly female, could not hope to climb to the executive suites.
Office workers had always made observers uncomfortable; the clerk, with his “minute leg, chalky face and hollow chest,” was one of the few members of the American multitude that Walt Whitman scorned to contain. After World War II, that unease grew into a nationwide obsession, bumping several works of not-so-pop sociology — “The Lonely Crowd,” “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “The Organization Man,” etc. — onto the bestseller lists. In turn, the challenge of managing this new breed of “knowledge workers” became the subject of intensive rumination and theorizing. Saval lists Douglas McGregor’s 1960 guide, “The Human Side of Enterprise,” as the seminal work in a field that would spawn such millionaire gurus as Tom Peters and Peter Drucker.
Office design — typically regimented rows of identical desks — was deemed in need of an overhaul as well, and perhaps the most rueful story Saval recounts is that of Robert Propst, hired to head the research wing of the Herman Miller company in 1958. Propst made an intensive study of white-collar work and in 1964, Herman Miller unveiled his Action Office, a collection of pieces designed to support work on “thinking projects.” Saval praises this incarnation of the Action Office as the first instance in which ” the aesthetics of design and progressive ideas about human needs were truly united,” but it didn’t entirely catch on until the unveiling of Action Office II, which incorporated wooden frames covered with fabric that served as short, modular, temporary walls.
Oh, what a difference 30 degrees makes! Propst’s original Action Office II arranged these walls in 120 degree-angles, an orthogonal configuration that looked and felt open and dynamic. One of Propst’s colleagues told Saval of the dismal day that “someone figured out you don’t need the 120-degree [angle] and it went click.” Ninety-degrees used up the available space much more efficiently, enabling employers to cram in more workstations. The American office worker had been cubed.
The later chapters of “Cubed” speak to more recent trends, like the all-inclusive, company-town-like facilities of tech firms like Google and wacky experiments in which no one is allowed to have a permanent desk at all. Saval visits the Los Angeles office of the ad agency Chiat/Day, which is organized around an artificial main street, features a conference table made of surfboards and resembles nothing so much as a theme park. Using architecture and amenities to persuade employees that their work is also play is a gambit to keep them on the premises and producing for as much of the day (and night) as possible. It all seems a bit desperate. In my own personal experience, if people 1) are paid sufficiently; 2) like the other people they work with; and 3) find the work they do a meaningful use of their energy and skills, then they don’t really care if they work in cubicles or on picnic benches. Item No. 3 is a bitch, though, the toughest criteria for most contemporary corporations to meet. Maybe that’s what they ought to be worrying about instead.