Posts Tagged ‘Work’

The world outside our heads

July 31, 2015

Matthew Crawford’s new book, THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, is a good follow-up to Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries.

Crawford attacks what he calls “freedomism”—the idea that individuals can or should be free not only of external coercion, but of external influence of any kind.

This is the philosophy of thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who sought to free people from the moral authority of kings and priests.

51YMx.crawford.worldbeyondyourheadThe fact is, Crawford said, is that human beings are born into a world of people and things which are objectively real, and which can be understood only after a long period of learning and apprenticeship.

The fact that one’s individual desires do not, in and of themselves, change things is the first thing a baby learns, but which 21st century Americans sometimes forget.

Crawford makes custom motorcycle components as a business.  His work involves individual creativity, but is based on mastery of pre-existing knowledge of materials and technique, and is expressed in solving real-world problems.  He feels validated only when a customer—especially one who understands motorcycles—willingly pays his bill.

In different parts of the book, he discusses techniques by which people master arts and vocations—hockey player, martial arts fighter, short-order cook, glassblower, motorcycle rider, racing car driver.

Masters in all these fields have the ability to focus their attention on what is important, and to train their reactions, in ways that can’t necessarily be articulated, so that they respond appropriately to the situation at hand.

For Crawford, we are what we pay attention to.  Freedom consists in the right to choose to focus our attention on worthy objects.


The passing scene: November 1, 2014

November 1, 2014

Common Core and the End of History by Alan Singer for Huffington Post.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

Is the purpose of public education to educate citizens or to train employees?   Alan Singer described how the New York State Board of Regents voted to allow high school students to skip final examinations in either American history or global history and substitute an exam or proficiency test in some unspecified vocational-technical subject.  He quoted a teacher on how a school dropped social studies so students would have more time to cram for Common Core standardized math and reading assessments.

Living wages, rarity in U.S. fast-food workers, served up in Denmark by Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse for the New York Times.

A Burger King employee in Denmark is paid the equivalent of $20 an hour, about two and a half times his U.S. counterpart.  He gets his work schedule four weeks in advance, and cannot be sent home without pay just because it is a slow business day.  And he enjoys the benefit of Denmark’s universal health care plan.  What’s the secret?  A powerful labor union, which negotiates wages and working conditions on an industry-wide basis.  And employers who are satisfied with a smaller profit as the price of not having extreme poverty.

Americans are working so hard it’s actually killing people by Esther Kaplan for The Nation.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

Under-staffing is dangerous, but it is on the rise as a means of cutting costs and increasing short-term profit.  Workers such as nurses, who are tasked with preserving life, are stretched too thin to be able to do their jobs well.  Workers in dangerous occupations, such as coal mining, neglect safety precautions in order to get the job done on time.  This is a major factor in industrial accidents.  And workers who are pushed to their physical limits are worn down over the years.

Teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked by what she learns by Valerie Strauss for the Washington Post.

An experienced high school teacher spent two days shadowing high school students, one a 10th grader and one a 12th grader, and did everything the students did.  She learned how exhausting it is to spend most of the day sitting still and passively listening, and took away lessons she will use in her teaching.  I think the shadowing exercise should be required in college courses in education.

As infrastructure crumbles, trillions of gallons of water lost by David Schaper of National Public Radio.

Trillions in global cash await call to fix crumbling U.S. by Mark Niquette for Bloomberg News.

Get ready for deja vu in the credit markets by Ben Eisen for Market Watch.

With interest rates being held down by the Federal Reserve System, this would be a great time to issue bonds to perform needed repairs and reconstruction of water and sewerage systems, roads and bridges and other public works.  But now the Fed has decided to end its “qualitative easing,” which held down interest rates, so that window of opportunity is going away.

The Caliph fit to join OPEC by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

Pepe Escobar speculated on whose interests are served by the fact that ISIS is allowed to sell oil on world markets.

The War Nerd: Crunching Numbers of Kobane by Gary Brecher for Pando Daily.

Gary Brecher discussed the public relations war against ISIS and the appeal of terrorism and war to sexually-frustrated young men.

David Graeber on Communism’s achievement

June 4, 2014

I have a lot of friends who grew up in the USSR, or Yugoslavia, who describe what it was like.  You get up.  You buy the paper.  You go to work.  You read the paper.  Then maybe a little work, and a long lunch, including a visit to the public bath…

David Graeber

David Graeber

If you think about it in that light, it makes the achievements of the socialist bloc seem pretty impressive: a country like Russia managed to go from a backwater to a major world power with everyone working maybe on average four or five hours a day.

But the problem is they couldn’t take credit for it.  They had to pretend it was a problem, “the problem of absenteeism,” or whatever, because of course work was considered the ultimate moral virtue.  They couldn’t take credit for the great social benefit they actually provided.

Which is, incidentally, the reason that workers in socialist countries had no idea what they were getting into when they accepted the idea of introducing capitalist-style work discipline.  “What, we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?”  It seemed just as totalitarian to them as accepting a Soviet-style police state would have been to us.

via David Graeber –


Chipotle profits by investing in employees

April 12, 2014

The Chipotle Mexican-style restaurant chain enjoys good profits and good growth, while paying its employees generously and promoting from within.

220px-Chipotle_Brandon_Its current policy began about nine years ago when founder Steve Ells and then-COO Monty Moran visited the restaurants, and notice that the one that were best-run were all managed by employees who had started as restaurant crew members and worked their way up.

They decided to make that into a system, and reward restaurant managers, not for achieving set targets of holding wages and other costs down, but for mentoring employees and training them to be managers.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Why do so many managers ignore the examples of Chipotle, Costco and other companies and instead grind their employees down instead of building them up?  

I am reminding of a saying Bertrand Russell once made about human nature, When people are mistaken as to what is in their interest, the course they believe to be wise is more harmful to others than the course that really is wise.


The economic scene: Links & comments 8/23/13

August 23, 2013

Here are links to articles I found interesting and you might find interesting, too.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber for Britain’s Strike! magazine.

Some 80 years ago the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that advances in technology would make it possible to do all the necessary work of society without people having to work long hours at low pay.

David Graeber said that this, in fact, has happened, but the necessary work of society is being crowded out by unnecessary work.  He knows people who say frankly that their work serves no useful purpose, and they do it only to earn an income.

How do you distinguish between necessary and unnecessary work?  Simply imagine what would happen if all the people doing a particular job went on strike?  Society would be seriously inconvenienced if nobody taught school or staffed fast-food restaurants.  But if all tele-marketers ceased work, most people would be glad.

Graeber wrote that it is the people who are doing the meaningful work—teachers, factory workers, health care workers—who are under attack in the current economic struggle, and that they are targets of resentment by people trapped in meaningless work.   This is a good instrument of social control, he thinks.

An Open Letter to President Barack Obama by Ani McHugh, a high school English teacher in New Jersey.

Ani McHugh appealed to President Obama to abandon corporate school “reform” which, she says, prevents teachers from doing their jobs.  She would be an example of people with meaningful and important jobs who are under attack.

How to Become a Part-Time Worker Without Really Trying by Barbara Garson for TomDispatch.

The trend to part-time work is not just a result of fewer factories and more fast-food restaurants.  Barbara Garson described how companies are switching from full-time to part-time work, with the same work requiring the same skills and sometimes by the same people, but with less pay, fewer benefits and no job security.


Honesty in the workplace

July 31, 2012

Things to do about Chinese sweatshops

February 16, 2012

Foxcomm and other Chinese electronics suppliers force their workers to work under conditions so inhuman that Foxcomm requires its new hires to sign a no-suicide pledge.   American, European and Japanese companies that hire these suppliers are well aware of these conditions, but do nothing.  The late Steve Jobs demanded action in six weeks to produce a scratch-proof surface for the i-Phone, but procrastinated for years about doing anything about his own company’s reports on substandard working conditions.

Bill Black, associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri and an expert on white collar crime, gave a good rundown on the situation in this interview in the Real News Network.   He points out that the Chinese suppliers violate their contractual obligations with their U.S. customers and their Chinese workers, and also violate Chinese law.

So it is not a question of imposing American standards on the Chinese.  We have a right to hold the Chinese to their own standard, just as other countries have a right to hold us Americans to the standard of our laws and Constitution.

How could this be done?  Congress could enact a law empowering the U.S. Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration to impose penalty tariffs on imports of products made under conditions that violate international labor standards and the domestic laws of the country of origin.

The U.S. government could adopt a policy of only purchasing electronics equipment, especially for the military, with U.S.-made components.  This would be wise on national security grounds.  If the U.S. has a military confrontation with China, we don’t want the Chinese to be in a position to cut off supplies vital to our military.

Labor and consumer organizations could recognize companies that obey the law and refrain from fraud, and we the people could patronize these companies.

Congress probably would have to revise or cancel the World Trade Treaty.  The World Trade Organization authorizes punitive action against countries that engage in unfair trade practices, such as dumping products at prices below cost.  But it has never, so far as I know, authorized action against unfair labor standards.

Globalization under these conditions could be a force for raising wages and improving working conditions around the world, rather than driving them down to the lowest possible level.

It’s not as if having suppliers pay decent wages would force Apple Computer and other electronics companies to go broke.

Click to enlarge.

Progressives and the work ethic

November 16, 2011

One of the differences between self-described conservatives and progressives is that that conservatives are judgmental about the moral failings of those below them on the social and economic scale, and progressives are judgmental about the moral failings of those above them on the social and economic scale.

Another is that conservatives emphasize the responsibility of individuals for their own fate, while progressives emphasize how individuals are affected by the social and economic structure.

I recently read some on-line criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street movement on the grounds, not that the protesters are wrong on the facts, but that protests against economic injustice cause people to sit on their hands and do nothing about their personal situations.

The grain of truth in the conservatives’ criticism is that no matter now badly off you are, there are things you can do to try to improve your condition.  If you wait until the world becomes just, you’ll have a long wait.  This is the Bill Cosby attitude.  He tells young black people that just because things are stacked against them, that’s all the more reason to commit yourself to self-improvement, education and hard work.

It is possible to imagine a situation in which people use the unfairness of life as an excuse for idleness and irresponsibility.  But that not is anywhere near the situation in the United States today.  All the people I know are working harder and taking on more stress, with decreasing reward.  Financiers and corporate executives as a class are not getting an ever-increasing share of the national income because they work harder than everybody else.  They get it because they know how to leverage their access to other people’s money.

I admit that I personally do not have a strong work ethic, and never have.  I work hard on things that I care about or things that I enjoy, but otherwise I work only as hard as I have to.  I don’t think unremitting hard work is a value.  It is a means to an end, and the end should be the freedom to live a full life.

Click on A New Declaration of Independence for Salon’s suggested demands for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which touched off the debate.

Click on The Only Thing Missing from “A New Declaration of Independence”: Any Sense that Adults are Responsible for Their Choices for Matt Welch’s critique of the Occupy movement in Reason magazine.

Click on Tea Party vs OWS: The psychology and ideology of responsibility for Will Wilkerson’s follow-up comment on the Big Think web forum.

Click on Who Killed Hard Work And Personal Responsibility? to read Matt Yglesias’s rebuttal on the ThinkProgress web log.

Click on Who is against individual responsibility? for Tyler Cowen’s rejoiner to Yglesias on the Marginal Revolution web log

“Cut the pay of Joe the Machinist”

August 12, 2011

Booz and Co., a management consulting firm, published an essay recently inviting companies to consider the problem of Joe the Machinist.

Joe has been a machinist for 25 years at the same company, a steady and reliable worker.  Although Joe is a significant asset to his firm, his wages have gone up steadily while his responsibilities have remained largely unchanged.  The result is that Joe is significantly overpaid as a machinist compared with co-workers who have been doing the same job for just two years.

Struggling to ride out the worst of the recession and credit crisis intact, Joe’s company has fired dozens of workers — and considering Joe’s salary, he would seem to be a likely candidate for the next round of layoffs.  Or maybe not.  Joe’s a stellar employee who knows the ins and outs of the organization, the result of his many years on the job.  If management let him go, not only would the company lose his wealth of institutional knowledge, but a troubling message would be sent to the other workers — namely, loyalty goes unrewarded.  At Joe’s age and tenure, moreover, there could be legal implications to such a move.  In short, the company would rather not fire Joe.  But what’s the alternative?

The alternative is to cut Joe’s pay.   The company could retrain Joe for a job whose job description calls for a higher pay grade, but such a job may not be available.  The company could offer Joe a job buyout or it could terminate his employment, but that would be inhumane.  But in any case, the company doesn’t want to pay Joe more than the “market” rate, which in practice means the lowest pay they can get anybody to accept.

If a company regards its most experienced and loyal employees as liabilities, what kind of employees will it have?  It will have employees who work hard at doing those things that supervisors notice and take into consideration on merit pay evaluations, and never do anything else.  It will have employees who leave as soon as they have an opportunity.  Can you have a profitable, thriving business under those conditions?  A large segment of American business is making that experiment, and we can see the results.

Click on Retooling Labor Costs for the Booz & Co. article.

Click on Outrageous CEO Pay? How About Lowering Salaries on Longtime Workers? for comment in Harvard Business Review.

Click on Joe the Machinist, Better Watch Your Back for comment by Sam Pizzigoti on the Too Much web log.


Chinese workers asked for no-suicide pledge

May 11, 2011

Foxconn, headquartered in Taiwan, is reported by Wikipedia to be the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic components, and the largest private employer in China.  It employs an estimated 1 million Chinese workers, including 300,000 to 450,000 at its walled factory complex in Shenzen province.  It is a subcontractor for Apple, Amazon, Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Microsoft, Japan’s Nintendo and Sony, Korea’s Samsung and Finland’s Nokia.

Recently Foxconn has had so many suicides by stressed-out  Chinese employees that it requires new hires to sign a no-suicide pledge.  As England’s Daily Mail reported:

Factories making sought-after Apple iPads and iPhones in China are forcing staff to sign pledges not to commit suicide, an investigation has revealed.

At least 14 workers at Foxconn factories in China have killed themselves in the last 16 months as a result of horrendous working conditions.

Many more are believed to have either survived attempts or been stopped before trying at the Apple supplier’s plants in Chengdu or Shenzen.

After a spate of suicides last year, managers at the factories ordered new staff to sign pledges that they would not attempt to kill themselves, according to researchers.

And they were made to promise that if they did, their families would only seek the legal minimum in damages.

An investigation of the 500,000 workers by the Centre for Research on Multinational Companies and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (Sacom) found appalling conditions in the factories.

They claimed that:

# Excessive overtime was rife, despite a legal limit of 36 hours a month. One payslip showed a worker did 98 hours of overtime in one month … .

# During peak periods of demand for the iPad, workers were made to take only one day off in 13.

# Badly performing workers were humiliated in front of colleagues.

# Workers are banned from talking and are made to stand up for their 12-hour shifts. … …

Foxconn admits that it breaks overtime laws, but claims all the overtime is voluntary.

Some officials within the company even accused workers of committing suicide to secure large compensation payments for their families.

Anti-suicide nets were put up around the dormitory buildings on the advice of psychologists.

via  Mail Online.

I suppose that, from the standpoint of management, things could be worse.  The Chinese workers could be attempting to form labor unions.


The decline of respect for work

April 13, 2011

My friend Anne Tanner e-mailed me a link to a fine article by Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s magazine, in his new magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, about the devaluation of work and the worship of wealth and consumption.  Here are some highlights of the article.

Lewis Lapham

… The stock markets may have weathered the storm of the recession, as have the country’s corporate profit margins, but unless jobs can be found, we wave goodbye to America the Beautiful.

Not being an economist and never having been at ease in the company of flow charts, I don’t question the expert testimony, but I notice that it doesn’t have much to do with human beings, much less with the understanding of a man’s work as the meaning of his life or the freedom of his mind. Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention the harm done to the country’s credit rating, deplore the trade and budget deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help. … …


Money capital and human capital

December 7, 2010

Capital is wealth that can be used to create more wealth.  Money is capital when it is invested in physical capital – machinery, buildings, vehicles, generators – that is used to produce more wealth.  Of late we have learned to speak of human capital – the investment in skills and know-how which makes a human being more economically productive.

Currently our government’s and our society’s priorities favor financial capital over physical capital, and utterly neglect human capital.  This priority is exactly backwards.  Financial capital has no value to society unless it is invested in physical and human capital.  This item from the Obsidian Wings web log expresses the problem well.

I’ve been working in the software industry for a little over 25 years.  Over that time, I’ve become competent in a handful of programming languages, and a handful of technology stacks, on a handful of platforms.  …

I’ve learned how to orient myself quickly in strange code bases numbering in the hundreds of thousands of lines.  I’ve learned how to spot the problems that are really going to kick your ass from a mile away, and I’ve learned how to know which ones you can kind of let go of.

I’ve learned how to lead people through the process of understanding what it is they’re trying to accomplish with the software they’re paying me to write.  I’ve learned how to translate that into a description of something you can actually go and build.

I’ve learned how to ship useful, practical product – product that people will pay money for – out the door in a timely and profitable way.

All of this is normal for somebody with my level of experience, in my profession.  Any script kiddy can write code, all of the above is what professional software engineers get paid for.

And this is not unique to software, every occupation and trade has its own unique and particular domain of knowledge and expertise.

All of this generally gets described as a “skill set”.  As a factor of production, since I don’t own the business I work in, it generally gets lumped, somehow, under the general heading of “labor”.  As “labor”, it’s a cost center.

But to me, personally, it’s hard to see it as anything other than capital.  It’s an asset that I bring to my work, that multiplies the value – the productive output – of my time, just as much as any other capital asset that is involved in what I do every working day.


Working class is middle-class no more

October 18, 2010

It is a proud boast of the United States that we were the first country, and for a time the only country, in which members of the working class could enjoy a middle class income and standard of living.  Unfortunately this is becoming a thing of the past.

What’s happening is well-described in an article by Andy Kroll on the Tom Dispatch web site.  Here are some highlights.

Sometime in early June — he’s not exactly sure which day — Rick Rembold joined history. That he doesn’t remember comes as little surprise: Who wants their name etched into the record books for not having a job?

For Rembold, that day in June marked six months since he’d last pulled a steady paycheck, at which point his name joined the rapidly growing list of American workers deemed “long-term unemployed” by the Department of Labor. In the worst jobs crisis in generations, the ranks of Rembolds, stranded on the sidelines, have exploded by over 400% — from 1.3 million in December 2007, when the recession began, to 6.8 million this June. The extraordinary growth of this jobless underclass is a harbinger of prolonged pain for the American economy.

This summer, I set out to explore just why long-term unemployment had risen to historic levels — and stumbled across Rembold. A 56-year-old resident of Mishawaka, Indiana, he caught the unnerving mix of frustration, anger, and helplessness voiced by so many other unemployed workers I’d spoken to. “I lie awake at night with acid indigestion worrying about how I’m going to survive,” he said in a brief bio kept by the National Employment Law Project, which is how I found him. I called him up, and we talked about his languishing career, as well as his childhood and family. But a few phone calls, I realized, weren’t enough. In early August I hopped a plane to northern Indiana.


Tough times: the social contract

September 11, 2010

I count myself lucky to have lived and worked in what, in retrospect, was a golden age for the United States.  When I came of age in the 1950s, I took it for granted that each decade would be better than the more before – that progress toward higher wages and more leisure was a law of nature.  There was an implied “social contract” – that if I was loyal to my employer, and did a good job, my employer would do his best to keep me employed at a decent wage.

I didn’t need to read Steven Greenhouse’s 2008 book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, to understand that this belief was an illusion.  Automatic progress is like getting something for nothing.  Things don’t get better unless people are doing things to make them better.

The golden age rested partly on the unique position that the United States enjoyed in the quarter century following World War Two, as the world’s only intact industry economy.  In college, we were taught about the problem of the world “dollar shortage.”  The problem was that the U.S. economy was so rich and productive that the rest of the world had almost nothing to sell that we Americans wanted to buy, and therefore had no dollars with which to buy products of American industry.  In this age of globalization, that seems like another world.

The United States in the earlier era was not only a wealthy nation, but the wealth was spread around.  It was said in wonderment by visiting Europeans that you couldn’t tell an American’s social class by looking at him or her.  Prosperity was spread so widely that working people were well-fed and well-dressed.  This, too, was not a law of nature.  It rested on a balance of power between big business, organized labor and the government.


Industrial labor unions, whose right to bargain collectively was guaranteed by the government, negotiated improvements in pay, benefits and hours with big manufacturing companies.  Because of their position in the marketplace, they could afford to raise prices to pass along the costs.  The union wage tended to push wages up generally.  Few of us newspaper reporters were represented by strong unions, but it would have looked bad if our pay had been much below the members of the International Typographers Union.  Because of high wages, Americans could afford to buy the products of American industry.  It was a benign spiral upward, not a vicious spiral downward.

All this started to come apart in the 1970s.  That was when foreign cars and other products started making inroads into the U.S. market.  It was also when American business decided to once again treat labor unions as the enemy rather than as a combination of junior partner and loyal opposition.  President Ronald Reagan, by breaking the air traffic controllers’ strike, became the first anti-union President since before President Franklin Roosevelt.  All this is described very well in Thomas B. Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality – a book written more than 25 years ago, but still worth reading because the trends Edsall described are still in motion.

In my experience, American working people, including union leaders, are much less class conscious than business executives.  Labor leaders always act as if they need to justify and explain themselves.  Business executives are confident that they rule by divine right, and they don’t want to share their authority with either their employees or the government.


Tough times: wage theft and other crimes

September 11, 2010

I first learned the term “time theft” when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a first-hand account of low-wage work.  Her last job was working for Wal-Mart, and she was told that any time she spent speaking to a co-worker, or going to the bathroom, or just caching her breath was “time theft” from her employer.

Reading  Steven Greenhouse’s 2008 book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, I learned another term – “wage theft” –  which is about how employers coerce employees into working unpaid overtime or falsify their records so as not to pay for all hours worked.

I knew that undocumented workers – illegal immigrants – constituted an underclass outside the protection of U.S. law that could be exploited at will.  I knew that salaried “professionals” – programmers, college instructors, journalists, lawyers – often worked 60 hours or more a week, sometimes voluntarily but often not.  And I knew that companies found ways to redefine employees as managers or independent contractors to avoid having to obey labor laws.

The shocking thing about Greenhouse’s book is how many companies simply violate the law.  This is not just fly-by-night employers, but some of the best-known U.S. companies – Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, Family Dollar, Pep Boys, Toys “R” Us and others.  Sometimes they require employees to work after they’ve clocked out, or before they’ve clocked in.  Sometimes employees are given workloads that a normal human being can’t complete in the hours allotted, and have no choice but to work through their breaks and lunch hours. Sometimes managers simply alter the computer records.

The risk of getting caught, according to Greenhouse, is exceedingly small, because governments have cut back on enforcement of labor laws, and the penalty for getting caught is seldom enough to be a deterrent.  One of his main proposals for reform is simply the enforcement of existing law.

Not all companies do this, as Greenhouse noted.  McDonald’s, for one, has an excellent record of compliance with wage and hours laws.


Eastman Kodak and the idea of loyalty

September 10, 2010

I don’t know if there was ever was a Fortune 500 company more paternalistic than Eastman Kodak Co., and I am certain there never was one that enjoyed greater loyalty from its employees.

When I first came to Rochester, N.Y., in the mid-1970s, Kodak seemed more like a cult than a company.  Kodak never asked its employees to sing a company anthem or do gymnastics in the morning, as Japanese companies of that era did, but if it had, I am sure they would have been glad to do so.Kodak was one of the last examples of the age of the “organization man,” in which security was given in return for conformity.

I wouldn’t really want that era to return, but I don’t regard the age of the disposable employee as an improvement.People in Rochester said that once you were hired by Kodak, you were set for life.  There were people who were the second or third generation in their family to have worked all their adult lives at Kodak.  There were people whose whole lives revolved around Kodak.  They spent their spare time at the Kodak recreation center, they attended plays at the theater in Kodak Building 27, they banked with Eastman Savings and Loan Association (not actually a part of the company) and saved up for retirement in the Kodak Savings and Investment Plan.

All this security was repaid by a devotion to the company that is hard to understand in the light of the way things are today.  In 1980, Kodak announced a new consumer product – a snapshot camera with film on a disc instead of a roll.  We reporters at the Democrat and Chronicle naturally wanted to find out in advance what the announcement was going to be.  All of us had friends and neighbors who worked for Kodak (one in eight employed persons in the Rochester area worked for Kodak), and thousands of them knew what the announcement was going to be.  But nobody said a word.  The Kremlin-like secrecy was complete.

I had just started to cover Kodak for the D&C.  The company gave me a Disc camera to try out, and, as luck would have it, the camera short-circuited and melted the internal parts.  I wrote a light-hearted article about it, treating it the subject fairly gently, I thought.  Kodak loyalists in the community didn’t think so.  I was inundated with angry phone calls accusing me of playing into the hands of the enemy, Fuji Photo.Kodak Disc 4000

The Disc didn’t turn out to be as successful as Kodak hoped and, for that and other reasons, the company began layoffs a couple of years later than continued for more than a decade.  Kodak employed 50,000 people in Rochester through the 1970s, and in 1982 employment here shot up to 60,000.  The following year Kodak began a series of layoffs that have continued ever since.  Employment locally is now below 7,500 and falling.

By the time I left the Kodak beat in 1992, the feeling of loyalty had been replaced with a sense of betrayal.  The angry phone calls came whenever I wrote anything that reflected favorably on the company.

A friend of mine, a Kodak patent attorney who lost his job in the downsizing, said he came to realize the profound ambiguity of the idea of loyalty to a corporation – or any other organization.  You can be loyal to people, and you can be loyal to ideas, he said.  But if the people change, and the ideas change, what are you being loyal to?

Business executives such as CEO Jack Welch of General Electric – called “Neutron Jack” because, like the neutron bomb, he made the people disappear and left the buildings standing –  said that companies such as Kodak did their employees no favor by holding out the false hope of lifetime employment.  The employees were set up for a worse fall than if Kodak had been tougher all along.

I think there is truth in that, but there is a middle ground between treating employees as children and treating them as commodities.  A business corporation can’t be like a Mommy and Daddy to its employees, but it doesn’t have to follow Welch in terminating the supposedly worst-performing 10 percent of employees every year.


Tough times for the American worker

September 7, 2010

Over Labor Day weekend I read Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. It was published in 2008, so it doesn’t deal with the results of the current Great Recession.  Rather it covers the condition of the working class of the United States in supposedly good times – the alleged prosperity we’re trying to get back to.

I knew the story in broad outline – the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base, wage stagnation, the loss of job security, rising debt – but Greenhouse’s reporting, with many poignant individual stories and backed up by statistics, brought home to me just how bad things are.

Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, famously said that what American workers want is “more.” What they are getting is more stress, more hours of work, more unpaid overtime, more insecurity, more debt, more years to work until retirement, but not more pay or benefits.

I was surprised, which may show my naivete, at the amount of lawbreaking by employers.  Greenhouse tells story after story of workers being forced to work overtime and through their lunch hours without pay, of workers being dismissed on trumped-up charges because they were injured on the job and became financial liabilities, of workers being locked in to their workplaces like the women who died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

There are two aspects to the story.  There is what I call the Adam Smith story, which is about the need to adapt to a highly competitive global economy, and the Karl Marx story, which is about class warfare and redistribution of income upward.

You can’t ignore either aspect.  American industry did grow complacent after World War Two.  The United States had the world’s only intact industrial base, and, for about 30 years, our industries had no serious competitors. There used to be an urban legend about the city of “Usa, Japan” which existed for the purpose of being able to stamp products “Made in USA.”  Corporate management grew complacent, as did government and organized labor.  The U.S. government, instead of trying to strengthen international competitors such as Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and IBM Corp., broke up their market power through anti-trust suits.  Organized labor, all too often, resisted new technology and clung to outmoded job classifications and work rules.

But in fact the U.S. economy is not doing all that badly.  It is just the human beings in the economy who are struggling.   Corporate profits, national output and productivity continued to grow in the 2000s, as do the incomes of Americans in the highest brackets.  But wages were flat, benefits were eroding and the majority of workers were under increased pressure to work harder and longer, even in a time of economic expansion.


Law of vacations

August 22, 2010

For every week you’re away and get nothing done, there’s another week when your boss is away and you get twice as much done.

Mr. Plummer and the string stretchers

February 26, 2010

Mr. Samuel Plummer (I still think of him as Mr. Plummer), who was principal of Williamsport (Md.) High School when I attended, gave a talk to a high school assembly on the benefits of education which was remembered for years.  I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember the gist of it.  It went as follows: –

If you look outside the windows of the auditorium, you’ll see men digging ditches for the new sewer main.  It is important work, and it is very hard work, in the hot sun.  If you keep on watching, you’ll see other men putting little pegs into the ground, and stretching string between the pegs, to show where the ditch is supposed to go.  Now stretching string between pegs is much easier work than digging a ditch with a shovel, but strange to say, the men who stretch the string are paid more than the men who dig the ditch.

Now what is the difference between the men who dig the ditch and the men who stretch the string? The men who stretch the string have high school diplomas. The men who dig the ditch dropped out of high school before they graduated. So it is up to you.  Do you want to be a ditch-digger or a string-stretcher? If you want to be a string-stretcher, stay in high school until you graduate.

And if you keep on watching the ditch digging, you’ll see men walking around with clip boards who are doing hardly any work at all. They are college graduates. So you can see the value of education.

Mr. Plummer probably would be gratified to know that the wage gap between college graduates, high school graduates and high-school dropouts still exists. Click on this chart or its duplicate for recent figures.  The chart shows that from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the average real earnings (meaning pay adjusted for inflation) of people with college educations rose, while the earnings of those with lesser education fell. Since then all groups made slight gains, but the education gap remained.

The difference is that nowadays high school dropouts have a hard time finding any work at all, while high school graduates are competing with college graduates for the jobs equivalent to string stretcher. It really takes a college education to get the kind of job a high school graduate could get 60 years ago.  And while high school education is free, college education is not affordable to increasing numbers of people.

But I don’t think that more schooling for everyone will necessarily close the wage gap.  I’ll go into the reasons below.


The economic generation gap

February 23, 2010

One of the promises of American life is that each generation should have a better material standard of living than the generation that went before.  That was true of me and my parents.  The house I live in alone is larger than the house in which my parents raised my brother and me.

But this is not true of the generation coming after me.  Younger people face a more restricted world than the one I grew up in.  When I was in high school and college, anybody could get a job of some kind.  The high school graduate got a better job than the high school dropout, and the college graduate got a better job than the high school graduate, but nobody who really wanted to work went without work very long.

Education at a state university was affordable for the middle class, and working your way through college was do-able for poor students.  Nowadays students graduate with a crushing burden of debt that can take decades to pay off; it is a form of indentured servitude.  Yet the need for educational credentials is greater than ever.

When I became a business news reporter for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle in 1978, my qualification was that I was a capable reporter and that I wanted the job.  By the time I retired in 1998, we were getting job applications from young people with MBA degrees.  I often remarked in the 1990s that if I had been applying for the job I had, I would never have been able to get it.

Labor unions accepted two-tier (and sometimes three-tier) wage contracts, in which younger workers started at a lower wage rate than their seniors did, and would never catch up with the older generation.  We see a similar philosophy with proposals for so-called Social Security reform, in which the reductions in benefits are supposed to fall on those still in the work force while existing retirees such as myself were “grandfathered” in.

All these things have been going on for a long time, but the current recession makes things much worse.  The economy is still bleeding jobs, and it is not clear when, if ever, this can be made up.  It is no joke to be middle-aged in this economy, but it is tough to be young and competing with middle-aged people for entry-level jobs.  No matter so many young people are living at home.

All the things that are necessary to wean the country off debt will mean a slower-growing economy and less opportunity for young people.  It will not be possible to bring the federal budget under control without reducing military spending, and the military is a major employer of young people.

There is a good article on the impact of the recession in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  The author, Don Peck, points out that many members of the younger generation are psychologically unprepared for the harsh world they will face.  I came of age in the greatest economic expansion this country has ever known, but remembering the admonitions of my parents, based on their experience of the Great Depression, to work hard, save my money and be prepared for the worst.  The generation coming of age now has been taught to expect the best, but faces the worst economy since the 1930s.

[Update 9/5/10]  This infographic shows how college students are being exploited by lenders.

The Laws of Utopia

February 21, 2010

Responsibility for essential tasks stays with the people who are doing the work.

The power to determine how work gets done stays with the people who are doing the work.

Rewards for creating value flow back to the people and organizations that are creating it.

This is my spin on something I took off Teresa and Patrick NIelsen Hayden’s Making Light web log.

Work and worth

February 7, 2010

In our discussion group this morning at First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, we talked about how much our sense of worth and dignity as human beings is bound up with the work we do.

My friend David Damico, who led the discussion, has been looking for work in graphic design for a couple of years in his field of graphic design. He has been unable to find a regular job in his field, but scrapes by with a series of temporary and part-time jobs. He tells about the job search effort in his own web log, which is one of my links. and talked about it some more this morning. If all the ingenuity and effort that he and the other members of his networking groups put into job-seeking were put into the service of an employer, what valuable employees they would be!

David thinks it is especially hard for men to maintain a sense of dignity and worth when they are out of work, because it is the traditional role of the man to be the provider. I think this is true, although it also is true that more and more women are embarrassed to be “just a housewife” and base their self-esteem on doing work for which they are paid.

I guess it is significant that on my “About Phil Ebersole” page, the first thing I say about myself is not that I am a Unitarian Universalist, or a lover of books and conversation, or a member of the Bertrand Russell Society, but that I am a retired newspaper reporter.

It is like the Wall Street financiers of the 1920s who committed suicide after the 1929 stock market crash. It is one thing to say, “I am worth one million dollars,” and it is another thing to really equate your self-worth to hour financial worth. When that happens, the day can come when you say, “I am worth zero dollars” or “I am worth a negative number.”

Here’s the thing. The only thing that is under the control of the individual is whether you’ve done the best you can. If you are in a job market where the unemployment rate is around 10 percent, and everybody (or more than 90 percent) are doing the best they can, you don’t have any control over the result.

The moral is: Never let your self-esteem depend on anything somebody else has the power to take away from you.