Labor

6 Ways That Workers Are Being Treated Like Machines

From “shared services” to “value-added” teaching, companies are experimenting with new schemes that turn workers into cogs.

On the week of July 29, fast-food workers in Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New York and St. Louis walked off the job, calling for $15 an hour and the unabridged right to form a union—and setting the stage for a nationwide walkout a month later.

As the strike took off, the Employment Policies Institute, an industry lobby group, put out an ad claiming that the workers, if successful, would be fired.

“Meet the New Minimum Wage Employee,” the ad read, atop the portrait of a server with an iPad for a face. As Rick Berman, longtime corporate fast-food flak, told Fox News, “If people feel that they're not being paid adequately, then they've got to find a job someplace else.... At $15 an hour, many fast-food restaurants are out of business.”

By all accounts, Berman was peddling an idle threat. Minimum wage increases have been shown not to compromise low-wage jobs, and with record profits and growth in the fast-food industry, there’s plenty of money that could go from executives’ pockets to burger-flippers’ paychecks.

There's some truth to the industry line, however: even when workers aren't replaced with machines, companies are experimenting with new schemes to make work more machine-like.

At the shopfloor, wages and layoffs aren’t the only issues. How much work are workers expected to put in for their time? What kinds of rules and measures determine whether they're doing good work, and do they have any say in them? How much power do they have over their lives, on and off the job?

In some cases, work is sliced up and reshuffled to the point that ingrained expertise and relationships are no longer valued. As the godfather of the assembly line, Frederick Winslow Taylor, put it, “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop.” The result is “deskilling,” in which workers are disposable elements of the production process. In other cases, where there aren't enough hands to run the shop, workers are asked to take on new roles or do work that managers would normally do—without breaking free from managerial control.

In the new economy, women and people of color bear the brunt of these schemes. At the Midvale Steel Company in Philadelphia, where Taylor launched his experiments with productivity in 1880, he called for the workforce to be integrated as a way to neutralize resistance from workers. The upshot, workers charged, was mechanized enslavement.

Here are six ways that workers, with or without $15 an hour and a union, are being treated like machines.

1. Productivity Surveillance

In the mid-1980s, UPS bought two technology companies to develop tracking equipment. In the early 1990s, it partnered with four major telecommunications companies to build the first nationwide cellular service. The newest tracking system links up with drivers' handheld devices in addition to their cars.

“They know how fast we're going, when we put our car into our reverse, how fast we're driving in reverse, if our bulkhood door is open, the whole trace of exactly where we drove and where we stop,” says Drew Hill, a UPS package car driver in Seattle. “I make a mental note of things—I went and used the restroom at this particular time and this place—just so I have that ready in case I get talked to.”

Through shop committees, the Teamsters, and Teamsters for a Democratic Union, UPS workers have resisted the overuse of high-tech surveillance and won some protections. This year's tentative contract, which covers the greatest number of private-sector workers in the country, reads, “The Company acknowledges that there have been problems with the utilization of technology in the past,” and prohibits the company from firing workers solely on the basis of GPS feedback.

Workers at non-union multinationals like Amazon and Walmart are under notoriously close watch. A worker from an Amazon fulfillment and distribution center wrote to Gawker, “A dude from loss/prevention spoke to us. This was actually the bulk of our training—to have it pounded into everyone's skull not to steal. He claimed there was 500 visible cameras and over 500 more you could not see in the warehouse.”

Walmart, the world's largest employer, is famous for its employee surveillance—and its health and safety violations. Over the past five years, the company has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration more than 100 times. This month, it agreed to improve safety conditions at 2,800 stores over “repeat and serious” issues.

The contradictions of surveillance and safety are starkest in migrant labor, which fuels production in swaths of Walmart’s supply chain. CJ’s Seafood, for example, has been under fire for providing its guestworkers with squalid working and living conditions, while physically threatening them for not working fast enough and threatening violence against their families back in Mexico for contacting law enforcement.

2. Shared Services

What could be wrong with sharing? When it means pulling staff from different departments and divisions, throwing them all into a new office, dividing and reallotting tasks, and merging departmental responsibilities for maximum efficiency, it can cause systemwide confusion and kill employee morale.

This is the fix for human resource, technology, finance, and other clerical and technical staff at universities with “shared services.” Under shared service schemes plugged by corporate consultants, an IT staffer from one department could be dislocated to a different office and take on IT work for a number of departments—in turn, siphoning off the know-how and relationships that they built in the original department.

By rearranging work in this way, universities claim to save money. Shared services are a form of “insourcing”—or, as one corporate manual puts it, “mining for corporate gold.” In a decentralized system like a university, they can cause chaos. As part of the University of California's “Operational Excellence,” Berkeley is in the process of shipping a subset of clerical and technical workers to a facility 2.5 miles off campus. Alongside dramatic state cuts to higher education, the upshot is speed-up, stress, managerial miscues, and fragmented relationships.

“People are asked to fill roles where they basically don't know what's going on,” says Tanya Smith, a laid-off archaeology department staffer and former president of Berkeley's United Professional and Technical Employees Local 1. “People are left without the support they had previously.”

UC San Franscisco is undergoing a similar overhaul. “Sometimes people will have a specific skill that no one else shares, and when they're gone, we have to come up with a way to fill that void,” says Keith Pavlik, senior publications coordinator at the university's Documents and Media department. With the addition of overall staff reductions, “the expertise that has existed in departments gets diminished so that either people who had longstanding customer relationships or production knowledge are no longer there.”

Like shared services, managed care, the prevailing trend in healthcare delivery, can lead to the consolidation and reparceling of work at the expense of relationships, in this case between patients and workers.

Under managed care, patients are allotted a monthly package of services, and home care agencies are no longer reimbursed directly for the number of hours their workers put in. Smaller agencies, which now get a slice of the overall package rather than a guaranteed hourly rate, are being forced to consolidate or fold. For home care aides, who tend to be low-income women, opportunities for work, as well as in-house training, are greatly diminished.

“When you move to that environment, you're determining the medically necessary services for an individual,” says Carol Rodat, New York policy director for the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, but with the side effect that “you're not starting from what's the best relationship. … More and more workers have reduced hours and they have more and more cases. The patients don't necessarily like it.”

3. Value-Added Teaching

If Bill Gates has his way, all classrooms will be fit with flipcams—ostensibly for teachers to diagnose their own performance, but with nothing stopping higher-ups from using them as blunt devices for evaluation and control. “Everyone needs a coach,” Gates said, in a May TED Talk. “Unfortunately, there's one group of people who get almost no systematic feedback to help them do their jobs better.” Feedback-by-camera, he said, “wouldn't just make us a more successful country, it would also make us a more fair and just one, too.”

While the Gates Foundation has since claimed that it's not looking to put cameras in every classroom, it's at the forefront of a movement to strip teachers of control over teaching by other means. Under an aggressive push from foundations, corporations, fast-track teacher training programs, politicians, and lobbying groups, teachers are increasingly tethered to pre-scripted lesson plans and standardized tests. In this context, how well they “perform”—and, in turn, whether they keep their jobs—is based on how much “value” they add to their students' “achievement,” that is, standardized test scores.

The Obama administration's Race to the Top program, announced in 2009, incentivizes local and state education agencies to increase the role of testing in teacher evaluations. In 2010, only 16 states required teacher ratings to incorporate students’ test scores, according to a report from Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst. As of spring 2013, that figure had ballooned to 28.

Testing has had a monumental effect on how, and what, teachers teach. After 2001's No Child Left Behind, which scaffolded school performance to reading and math scores, test prep shot up. In a nationwide survey published in 2006, 71 percent of districts reported cutting at least one subject to increase time spent on these two subjects. In another study from 2007, districts reported 37 percent more time spent on math and 46 percent on reading in elementary school. In a more recent investigation from the American Federation of Teachers, one district spent 16 full school days preparing for standardized tests, and another spent an entire month. Some districts report significantly more time.

As education scholar Wayne Au writes in the Journal of Curriculum Studies, whereas the standardization of teaching “in the early 1900s was used to expand public education to the growing masses of students, today's New Taylorism is serving the opposite function: It is being used as a lever to attack and potentially even shrink US public education.”

With dwindling resources, the accession of public schools to charter operators, the monomania for testing, and the ascendance of alternative training programs like Teach for America, teacher turnover is rising, online classes are replacing their offline counterparts, students who are hard to standardize are being pushed out, and, as Will Johnson writes in Jacobin, responsibilities within cash-strapped schools are being reshuffled along the lines of “lean production.”

Resistance, on many fronts, is mounting.

4. Corporate Wellness

Michael Bloomberg doesn't need to ban soda when corporations can do it for him.

In corporate “wellness” programs, workers report health measures like body mass index, weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. They can receive bonuses for improving on these metrics—and penalties for declining to report the information or failing to improve. In many cases, those with identified health risks are matched with health “coaches.” Some programs, as Steve Early writesin the Nation, include “health risk assessments,” which mandate information about off-the-job activity like sex, drug use and alcohol consumption.

Wellness programs are growing in the public and private sectors. In a survey of 335 private companies, HR firm Towers Watson found a 50 percent increase in the use of wellness-related incentives and penalties between 2009 and 2011. The Affordable Care Act supports these measures; it boosts the incentives employers can offer from 20 to 30 percent of the total cost of coverage and up to 50 percent for those enrolling in tobacco prevention programs.

Though the programs are pitched as proactive public health reforms, they're also a way for employers to shift healthcare costs onto workers—and eschew their role in creating safe and healthy workplaces. In California, most healthcare is fully paid by employers. John Borsos, the secretary-treasurer of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, sees wellness plans as a slippery slope for employers to negotiate employee contributions into union contracts. In addition, in the health care industry, which ranks among the highest in incidence of worker illness and injury, carrot-and-stick health programs stand out for what they don't do. “If employers were truly concerned with employees' health, they would make the workplace better,” he says.

At Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed care organization in the country, workers covered by the Service Employees International Union and the Kaiser Coalition of Unions, roughly 75,000 total, have a wellness plan. The plan includes surveys asking about sexual partners, depression and drug use. Each work site is split into teams, and group bonuses are pegged to collective participation in the plan.

“Are you going to pester your coworker because she reaches for a donut instead of reaching for an apple?” Borsos says. “That's the world that these programs have the possibility to create.”

So far, NUHW, which covers some 5,000 Kaiser workers, has resisted corporate wellness. SEIU, which has a track record of being overly friendly with employers and attacking NUHW, has welcomed it. Leaked minutes from a July 18 meeting between Kaiser officials, SEIU and the Kaiser Coalition of Unions reveal a joint plan to promote the program to workers and the public. It reads, “Outreach to elected officials and health policy types—promoting what we're doing and why,” and then lists a variety of potential advocates, ranging from Michelle Obama to Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. It also notes plans for a joint op-ed by Kaiser’s CEO and SEIU-United Healthcare West’s president. Intriguingly, it says, “We won't pitch to labor reporters.”

5. Social Media Stealth

In 2006, Stacy Snyder, a teacher-in-training at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, posted a picture of herself on MySpace with a plastic cup, a pirate hat, and the caption “Drunken Pirate.” After her high school teaching supervisor discovered the photo, Millersville denied her a degree. Two years later, a federal judge rejected Snyder's First Amendment appeal, stating that since she was a public employee and her photo didn't relate to matters of public concern, it wasn't protected speech.

Since then, the lesson for anyone looking to get a job has become universal: your social media isn't yours. This is equally applicable to those who wish to keep their jobs—even if, as in Snyder's case, what you post on social media has nothing to do with the job itself.

According to an August 2011 study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Labor Relations Board has reviewed upwards of 129 cases involving social media. Workers have alleged that employer policies around disclosure of company activity, anti-company statement, or professional courtesy have been applied too broadly; that the employer unilaterally imposed the policy without properly notifying or negotiating with their union; and that they've been unlawfully threatened, interrogated, or surveilled.

In these cases, the key chip is Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects engagement in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” In other words, you have to prove that your post or tweet denotes or calls for some form of collective action.

In a 2011 case, a Walmart worker wrote on Facebook, “Wuck Falmart! I swear if this tyranny doesn’t end in this store they are about to get a wakeup call because lots are about to quit!” and “You have no clue … [Assistant Manager] is being a super mega puta! Its retarded I get chewed out cuz we got people putting stuff in the wrong spot and then the customer wanting it for that price.”

The post wasn't considered a form of concerted activity, and the worker was punished.

In December 2012, five workers from Hispanics United of Buffalo were rehired after getting the axe for criticizing a co-worker on Facebook. The case, Josh Eidelson reported in Slate, sets a new precedent for what counts as concerted activity. Still, he writes, “That protection is still pretty narrow—it remains the exception, not the rule.” For the most part, social media postings—and the semi-private lives of workers—are still in the boss's hands.

6. Emotional Management

Starbucks's mission reads, “Together, we embrace diversity to create a place where each of us can be ourselves.” Last summer, baristas were tasked with selling wristbands reading “Indivisible,” with proceeds going to Create Jobs for USA, a small business fund. This past December, as Congress squabbled over the federal budget, baristas in D.C.–area stores were directed to write “Come Together” on customers' cups.

“It was an extra ask at the window,” says a Madison, Wisconsin barista, who asked to remain anonymous, of the Indivisible campaign. “It was another weird display we put up.”

Meanwhile, as Sarah Jaffe puts it, baristas have to “grin and abhor it.” At Starbucks, not atypical for the industry, workers have to wear black or white collared shirts with no added color, can't have facial piercings, and recently had to put on name tags. It's desexualized,” theMadison baristasays. “You get better tips if you flirt. But you're supposed to be this bland, uninviting nice that no one actually wants to approach.”

In food service, directives on how to emote or not to emote are part and parcel of the industry’s demographics. Women make up 60 percent of fast-food workers and 73 of the tipped workforce, and in addition to making 83 cents to every dollar of their male peers, have to put up with rampant emotional and physical abuse.

For many women, “The first experience is through the restaurant industry,” Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and author of Behind the Kitchen Door, told AlterNet. “You've got young women who have to put with all kinds of sexual harassment and take that with them.”

Over the past 12 years, ROC-United has built a base of 10,000 members in 30 cities, with 100 partner employers who promote high-road job standards. The organization employs participatory research, policy work, and rank-and-file organizing for good jobs and worker advancement. Despite wins on a variety of fronts, Jayaraman says of industry standards on emotional abuse, “I have not seen any change.”

For fast-food workers, union protection would provide untold power for them to pursue, say, discrimination or wage theft complaints. Still, in any setup, employers maintain the incentive to square labor relations with productivity goals. Short of replacing workers with iPads, this means doing whatever it takes to automate them—that is, control them. This tug-of-war at the workplace, though less flashy than coordinated street protests, is where workers’ fight for dignity and voice begins.

James Cersonsky is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. Follow him on Twitter: @cersonsky.