The nature of work, we are told, is being transformed by technology. As the authors of the Second Machine Age explain: “[T]here’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only 'ordinary' skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”
Charles Postel is the author of the Populist Vision,’ which won the Bancroft Prize, and he teaches history at San Francisco State University.
It is, truly, “a worse time” to be a worker. Over the last 30 years, American workers have suffered declining wages, longer workweeks, eroding benefits, and intense insecurity. But technology only explains so much. Government policy and corporate strategy explain much more.
Take meat cutters. Turning pigs and cows into pork chops and hamburger is a grueling job. It is also a job no robot can do. It requires men and women with keen eyes and powerful hands to wield sharp knives through flesh, tendon, and bone. Meat cutters in the big slaughterhouses used to earn a livable wage with health insurance and a pension.
But in the early 1980s, executives in the food industry decided to cut labor costs. With the aid of elected officials, judges, bankruptcy courts—and the National Guard in the case of Hormel workers—corporations broke unions, slashed wages, and pilfered pension funds. Today, despite working one of the toughest jobs there is, meat cutters barely scrape by.
Millions of other mainly low-wage workers face similar realities. They perform labor that requires human intelligence, perception, communication, and movement. No machine has replaced the women and men who wash and feed the sick and infirm, who tend gardens and prune grapevines, who prep salads and gut catfish, who scrub floors and clean windows, who cut hair and bus tables. Yet even as demand for such vital work grows, workers live ever closer to the edge.
The new norm is to live paycheck to paycheck, with little or no savings, and few possibilities of retirement. In a survey by the Federal Reserve, two-thirds of respondents in households earning less than $40,000 a year could not come up with $400 in case of an emergency. Half went without medical treatment in the last year because they could not afford it. And as for retirement, most respondents said they have either no plan to retire or “will keep working as long as possible.”
This precarious normal is one of the byproducts of the destruction of the unions. Corporate belligerence, repressive labor laws, and political decisions have pushed unions to the brink of extinction. And with the death of unions, many of the protections they brought to workplaces have died with them. Corporate managers have imposed inhuman work schedules, shredded seniority rights in hiring and firing, and shifted the burdens of sickness and retirement onto their employees.
The advocates of the new work regime claim that it is paving the way to the “flexible” economy of the future. In the process, it is unleashing the inner entrepreneur of the Walmart “associate” and the Uber “peer.” But for millions of workers the new “flexibility” means little more than overwork and insecurity, and the advertised work regime of the future represents a throwback to the exploitative tyranny of the first machine age.
In the late 19th century, the telegraph, steam engines, and electric power changed everything. But they also changed nothing. Because, as before, most work involved long hours at low pay in domestic service, farm labor, construction, mining, and other strenuous jobs. Hiring was often day-by-day, and many workers operated as semi-independent contractors. The infamous “sweating system” meant families set their own hours, their own pace, in their own living spaces (tenements). Coal miners, too, often worked as their own bosses, getting paid by the ton. This “flexible” work regime translated into hazardous work, child labor, and physical and mental torment. Workers stood one accident or bout of unemployment or sickness from catastrophe.
For half a century, workers and their allies fought to make work more secure. Their efforts bore fruit with the New Deal that legalized unions; set hour and wage standards; and established support for disabled, unemployed, and retired workers. Many African-American, female, and other marginalized workers were excluded from the New Deal. But for millions of workers, union halls, labor standards, and Social Security served as building blocks of a post-war economic security.
Unions are in full retreat and corporate lobbyists and their billionaire backers want to finish them off with “right to work” laws and bans on public sector unions. From this perspective, the future of work looks grim. But with their fixation on breaking unions, corporations have opened the door to other possibilities. Most importantly, they have set the stage for fierce political storms over the nature of work.
The fury of the corporate backlash against health-care reform may point to what lies ahead. Since World War II, corporations have insisted on employer-based health insurance because it strengthens their hand over workers who fear the loss of coverage. But by cutting back health plans, employers have disrupted their favored system and stoked the flames of conflict over government health subsidies and regulations.
The same logic is at work in regard to pensions. There are so many workers with no plans for retirement because so many employers have cut back pension plans. This leaves Social Security as the only place to turn. And this has set up a potentially bruising conflict. The corporate elite wants to push the retirement age to 70 and beyond. But a counter-movement looks to expand Social Security as a more robust pension system that will allow workers to retire in dignity.
Wages, too, are generating political heat. As Walmart and McDonald's insist on wages so low that their employees can only get by with food stamps, workers and the wider public are turning to local and state minimum wage laws. The fight for the $15 wage is gaining traction as a social movement. As 40 percent of employees now earn less than $15 an hour, this would mark a modest but important step toward linking work with economic security.
No one can predict the winners and losers in these political conflicts. Enormous wealth and resources weigh on the side of corporate power. At the same time, the creative force of social mobilization can be formidable. Much is at stake, because the outcomes of such political contests have everything to do with the future nature of work.
For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.