The Growing Degradation of Work and Life, and What We Might Do to End It

When we combine relentless time pressure with the mind-numbing and physically destructive nature of most jobs, we have a recipe for acute human misery.

By Michael D. Yates

In a recent New York Times’ article, former labor editor Steven Greenhouse writes about how employers in the service sector often demand that their employees work shifts that allow them little time for rest. For example, a worker might have to close a night shift on Wednesday and open the morning shift on Thursday:

“At Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, Ramsey Montanez struggles to stay alert on the mornings that he returns to his security guard station at 7 am, after wrapping up a 16-hour double shift at 11 pm the night before.”

Given that it takes precious minutes to get home, at least an hour or two to wind down and take care of chores, and an hour or more to prepare and then get back to work the next morning, Montanez probably has to get by on no more than five hours of sleep. If he has children or is responsible for the care of others, then the time crunch is still worse.

The practice of having employees close late and open early has become common enough that there is now a word for it – “clopening.” Management justifies the practice by claiming that turnover in restaurant and other service jobs is so high that only the relatively few longer-term employees are sufficiently trustworthy and “have the authority and experience to close at night and open in the morning.” Labor advocates say that the reason for clopening is that scheduling is often no longer done by actual managers but by “sophisticated software” purchased by companies.

Neither of these explanations suffice. The first implies that the fault lies with workers. However, turnover could be reduced by improved wages, hours and working conditions.

That these have not been bettered suggests that turnover works to the advantage of service-sector businesses. When shifts consist of people who have been on the job for many years, their loyalty to one another might come to outstrip their corporate fidelity, making them more willing to act collectively in opposition to their supervisors. They are more likely to insist on better treatment and to organize a union when demands are not met.

The second justification suggests that scheduling software is bought to lessen the burden of those who previously had to make work timetables. On the contrary, this software is used by corporations to squeeze as much work out of the mass of employees hired as possible. The goal is to minimize unit labor costs and to achieve maximum control over the labor process, which encompasses every aspect of how work is performed.(1) Workers are conceptualized as mechanical cogs in a system that transforms inputs into outputs, and a host of managerial control techniques are implemented to force those hired to perform what they are ordered to do in a machine-like fashion.

An important modern control device is just-in-time inventory, meaning that a business keeps only as much inventory – car seats in an auto plant, frozen French fries in a fast-food restaurant – as will be needed over a very short period of time. This saves money on storage space and storage labor. In combination with other practices such as constantly shortening task times and using work teams in which members will pressure one another to solve production bottlenecks, it can help a business shave a few seconds from any particular assignment, whether it be moving a car along an assembly line or making a Big Mac.

However, today, just-in-time inventory is applied to workers themselves. Rather than assuming the utilization of someone for a week or even a day, scheduling is based upon an analysis of how many total work hours are likely to be needed during any particular hour or set of hours during a shift. If the scheduling program tells you that for an eight-hour shift, seven workers are needed for the first three and the last three hours but 10 are needed for the two-hour period around lunch time, then you will use 10 workers only for those two hours. Employees may be scheduled for two-hour workdays, or “on-call” personnel may be asked to come in.

One reason for the slow recovery of employment in the United States is the rising exploitation of those working. Corporations have used all of the control mechanisms at hand, techniques that have become both more sophisticated and punishing, to get fewer workers to convert ever more of their labor power into actual effort. This is true not just for manufacturing concerns like auto companies, which pioneered modern Taylorism, but by all private businesses (and public sector establishments such as colleges and the Social Security Administration), including especially today those in the service sector.

Some have called the new forms of control, “management by stress,” meaning that employers constantly stress the labor process to force more production out of less labor. (2) In economic terms, every second counts, and eliminating a fraction of a second from the performance of a particular job detail means a great deal of money when applied to tens of millions of repetitions.(3) So, speed up the assembly line and keep inventory, including labor, low. Reduce the size of work teams – but keep raising the output quota; outsource work to lower-wage countries; and super-exploit undocumented immigrants. Threaten those who can’t keep up with demotion or firing; engage in constant electronic monitoring of employees on the job; even, as Henry Ford once did, keep tabs on the worker’s private lives, which today often means eavesdropping on their Facebook and Twitter posts.

From the workers’ perspective, this pressure has consequences deleterious to mental and physical health. In the case of “clopening” – and other rest-depriving features of contemporary workplaces, such as compulsory overtime, split shifts, 10- and 12-hour shifts, and inadequate break times – health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity often follow. Further, accidents and potentially deadly errors of omission are more likely at work, on the highways, and in the home.

“According to the Institutes of Medicine, over one million injuries and between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths each year result from preventable medical errors, and many of these may be the result of insufficient sleep.”

Without adequate sleep, our mental functions are impaired, making it more difficult to comprehend what we are reading or what others are saying. We have little time and energy for meaningful social interactions, and as a consequence, family life can break down, and we are discouraged from developing political awareness and participating in groups that benefit workers, such as labor unions and campaigns to improve wages, hours and conditions of employment, the very things that could stop or radically diminish on-the-job stress.

When we combine relentless time pressure with the mind-numbing and physically destructive nature of most jobs, we have a recipe for acute human misery. There are millions of people toiling in office cubicles, call centers, daycare facilities, nursing homes, vegetable fields and orchards, automobile assembly lines and chicken, beef and pork processing plants. Millions more work as retail clerks, hotel room attendants, adjunct professors, nannies, cooks, chauffeurs, lawn care workers; nonunion and often immigrant construction workers, plumbers, electricians, drywallers, homemakers. Every one of these jobs is stressful and poorly paid; none is secure, and none is immune from constant pervasive and dehumanizing managerial control.

What are some potential remedies? A few unions have clauses that compel minimum hours between shifts. Several others have been agitating for staffing levels that reduce fatigue and long hours, including the United Steel Workers in their current strike against US oil refineries. However, unions cannot effectively combat “management by stress,” in all of its dimensions, until they abandon the labor-management cooperation strategy that still has a stranglehold on them. Rather than confront employers, cooperating unions like the United Autoworkers have large cadres of union staff people who actually help the companies stress the workers. (4)

A second line of attack is legislative. For “clopening,” a model might be the European Union, which has established “a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours per 24-hour period.”(5) But with union density in the United States as low as it was 100 years ago, labor will have a difficult time getting states to enact a similar law, especially with its general unwillingness to politically mobilize members to confront legislators. (A good example is the “Wisconsin Uprising” of 2011. Nearly all national and state labor leaders quickly distanced themselves from the mass protests and retreated back into electoral politics, with disastrous results.) (6) Three states have introduced such a statute, but none has actually enacted one. And “clopening” is just one of many workplace stressors that make employees miserable.

Employers have their own solution. Do nothing. They argue that businesses will voluntarily address workplace problems when the market sends them signals that this is what employees want. This sounds ridiculous, but mainstream economists teach the (il)logic behind this to their students. Workers are assumed to be willing to pay for “good” jobs, which presumably would be those with reasonable scheduling, hours and the like. The demand for such jobs would rise, and the “price” of them would increase.

Here however, price means what employees are willing to pay for good jobs, in other words, what reduction in wages they would accept to have one. The reduction in wages would force employers to provide more such employment, because increasing the supply would raise their profits. By the same reasoning, wages are already factored into the disamenities of “bad” jobs, so, for example, those who “clopen” are already being rewarded for doing so. (7) I can’t take the time here to show all of the things that are wrong with this analysis. Let’s just say that in an economy with an enormous surplus of potential workers – nearly 18 million unemployed and underemployed as of January 2015, for a rate of 13.3 percent – those who own and manage businesses offer the choices to those they employ and not the other way round. (8)

What, then, might stem the tide of deteriorating workplace conditions? The typical strategy coming from progressives is market regulation. This is envisioned as a combination of labor union organization and agitation and political initiatives. In both cases, labor and other markets are taken as given (inevitable), and the only possibility is to set certain parameters, or limits, as to what market results are allowed to prevail. Unions can establish maximum hours per day or week, mandate rest periods, set wage rates, and so forth through collective bargaining. The state can be prevailed upon to do similar things for all workers, not just those in unions.

This strategy has had some success in the past, but today it hasn’t yielded much for wage laborers. The working class struggled militantly for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, and after the Second World War, the eight-hour day became the norm for millions of workers, as did union-won vacations and holidays. Labor’s power made alliances with other liberal groups possible and fruitful, especially in terms of the enactment of legislation beneficial to working men and women. Civil rights laws were passed; social security was expanded to include medical care and benefits increased substantially; workplace health and safety laws were ratified; the minimum wage rose significantly; public employee labor laws helped spur unionization; public housing was built; and affordable higher education, financed in part by the federal government, opened colleges and universities to the children of the working class.

Unfortunately, all of these gains have steadily eroded as employers regained the initiative in the mid-1970s and launched the ferocious neoliberal austerity that has dominated the United States ever since. Unions were caught unprepared and responded in a defeatist, defensive way, while their liberal allies deserted them. Labor leaders began to give employees dramatic concessions, and today givebacks have become so prevalent that it is an open question why a rational person would join a union. Strikes are remembered today mainly by retirees. Nothing much can be expected of government, where the level of corruption is so great and the hold of our corporate overlords so strong that we believe we have achieved a remarkable victory when the government doesn’t take something away from us.

Over the past 40 years, our expectations for a better economic future have steadily diminished. When Walmart agreed a few weeks ago to raise its base wage to $10 an hour, one would have thought from the liberal and labor media that an incredible victory had been won. We seem to have forgotten that the federal minimum wage was worth more than this in terms of purchasing power in 1968. And the question is, what reason is there to imagine that in a global and neoliberal capitalism, matters won’t continue to get worse into the indefinite future? Employers are relentless in their pursuit of profits, and they will always try, usually with success, to undermine whatever victories workers have achieved. Their single-minded focus on what Japanese car companies call “kaizen” or constant improvement guarantees that the stress imposed upon those who toil for wages will never end. The global glut of potential laborers, which is part and parcel of the nature of our economic system, is never going to go away either, and it is this that makes managerial control possible in the first place.

The unhappy truth is that we can never beat those who own the world’s capital at their own game. They rule the marketplace, and we do not; the government of almost every nation exists to aid and abet them; and the control over the billions of property-less people in the world grows and deepens every day. Organizing within this hegemonic system while assuming that the market mechanism is inescapable, and being grateful for a few crumbs from its table, is a strategy guaranteed to fail.

The market is nothing more than a surface phenomenon, behind which lies the critical social relationship of unequal power, which means that focusing our efforts solely on regulation of the market ignores what is fundamental. So perhaps instead, we should make demands and take actions that threaten the market, that is, by directly attacking the power of those who are its masters and not accepting arrangements that allow the system to absorb our efforts and continue much as before. In addition, because the market is enveloped by an array of institutions – the state, media, schools – that buttress the power of those who control it, efforts to radically alter society must aim to change these as well.

How might we begin to do this? Initially, we could get as many organizations and individuals as possible to sign onto a list of general principles, formulated as a set of demands and commitments.

The demands might include:

  • Much shorter working hours;
  • Early and secure retirement;
  • Free universal healthcare;
  • An end to the link between work and income;
  • An end to all corporate subsidies;
  • The immediate termination of all forms of discrimination;
  • Bans on fracking and other profit-driven environmental despoliations;
  • An end to the war on terror and the closing of US military bases in other countries;
  • The abolition of the prison system;
  • Free schooling at all levels;
  • Open borders combined with the termination of US financial support for oppressive governments;
  • Community-based policing;
  • The transfer of abandoned buildings and land to communities and groups who will put them to socially useful purposes.

The commitments could embrace as many forms of collective self-help as imaginable (Cuban-style urban organic farming, cooperatives dedicated to education, child care, health, food provision, the establishment of worker-controlled enterprises); a shedding of excessive unnecessary possessions; a willingness to offer material support to local struggles aimed at empowering those without voice; a refusal to join the military or participate in the mindless and dangerous patriotism so prevalent in the United States; and a promise to educate ourselves and others about the nature of the system in whatever venues present themselves to us.

Four ancillary ideas flow from the establishment of principles and commitments.

FIRST, the details of these will naturally flow out of the specifics of actual events and struggles around them. For example, any efforts to end clopening could be tied directly to the need for shorter hours and more free time, which, in turn, could allow us to pose the question of why employers have the power to determine how we labor and with what intensity. Irregular and stressful shift work could even be connected to US imperialism, which helps global corporations dispossess peasants in poor countries, forcing them unwillingly to migrate to rich nations where they intensify labor market competition and increase capital’s power.

SECOND, whatever relatively small or local changes we fight for should always be connected to the larger and more global principles. Suppose that a coalition of progressive organizations seeks to end city tax subsidies to the builders of luxury condominiums. Why not tie this endeavor to demands for quality, low-rent public housing, the considerable destruction of which is caused by the luxury consumption of the wealthy, and our commitment to limit our own discretionary consumption?

THIRD, commitments should be part of a social process, in which we pledge ourselves to come to the aid of others. In New York City, a labor center named the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association helps employees who have suffered employer abuse, including unpaid wages. However, an aggrieved worker must agree to become part of the organization and help others facing similar problems. This builds the solidarity without which no change will occur, and it also helps members understand the collective nature of their oppression. Every organization like this one – and there should be thousands more, in every town and city – should demand commitment, so that we see that the troubles faced by others are ours as well.

FOURTH, democratic, critical education is essential in all battles for radical social reconstruction. Such education should uncover the relevant facts and also delve deeply into the root causes of the problem at hand. It should conceive every political struggle as an opportunity to change the way we think about our lives and our connections to one another and the larger society. Or, as Henry Giroux said, we must “take seriously the issues of belief and persuasion, and once again give primacy to the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle as crucial weapons in the fight against neoliberalism and global capitalism.” (9) Every organization must encourage and provide such education, seeing it as an integral part of a democratic and liberating politics. (10)

The philosopher Hegel said that “the truth is whole.” The social phenomena that make up capitalist society are all interconnected, both cause and effect of one another. The demands and commitments we choose should encompass what we think are the most important elements of our society. As we act on these in a critical way, our grasp of the multitude of complex interrelationships is bound to deepen and strengthen our movements.

We live in an age of disposability. The drive to make money has now engulfed every part of the world and every aspect of our lives. This has been made possible in large part because movements to counter capital’s power have either disappeared or seen their capacity to resist gravely weakened. Worse, to a considerable degree, this enfeebled ability to contest capital’s strength has been self-inflicted. Labor unions and most organizations that claim to be progressive have no statements of principles, that is, to what they are committed and to what they are unalterably opposed. They hesitate to make radical demands, usually with the argument that such demands are utopian or that the time is not right. There is always an excuse.

The result has been a startling rise in inequality, with income and wealth accumulating at the top and the dominance of those who control the economy’s commanding heights increasing, seemingly without limits. Capitalists now brook no compromises and make no concessions to any who would challenge their right to accumulate riches. No sense of obligation by the wealthy to society as a whole or to the mass of people without much income and wealth, much less a social contract between the rich and the rest of us, now exists or can even be imagined. Now, everyone is disposable; all of us are to be chewed up and spit out, exploited until we are no longer useful as laborers to be exploited and consumers to be shorn of our spending money. And some – black Americans, for example – have become especially disposable, often denied employment altogether, disproportionately harassed and shot by police, and pushed along a fast track to prison. This means that life has rapidly become more precarious, filled with fear and anxiety, as we wonder when we will be dumped in the trash can, when those who wield unchallenged authority will dispose of us.

The administrators at the college where I taught used to tell us to tighten our belts this year so we could fight better next year. Yet all that happened was that we kept getting thinner. And pretty soon our laboring lives were over. Then the next generation was urged to do the same. Isn’t it time for us to become protagonists, go on the offensive, attack our enemies head-on, study and learn from both successes and failures, always look for how things are connected, and see what happens? We don’t have that much to lose.


  1. See Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, 25th Anniversary Edition (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).
  2. See Jane Slaughter, “Management by Stress,” Multinational Monitor, 11, Nos. 12 and 2 (January/February, 1990) . Also, Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Taco Bell and the Golden Age of Drive-Thru,” Bloomberg Business, May 5, 2011.
  3. Kim Moody, Workers in a lean World: Unions in the International Economy (London: Verso, 1997); Kim Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, the Promise of Revival from Below (London: Verso, 2007).
  4. See Gregg Shotwell, Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012).
  5. Greenhouse, “In Service Sector, No Rest for the Working.”
  6. See the essays in Michael D. Yates, editor, Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).
  7. See Michael D. Yates, Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003), Chapter 5 (“The Neoclassical/Neoliberal Dogma”).
  8. Examples here and here.
  9. Henry Giroux, personal correspondence.
  10. The most insightful modern thinker on critical pedagogy is Henry Giroux. For many easy to access essays by him, see here. An excellent recent article by him is “Higher Education and the Promise of Insurgent Public Memory.”
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