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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.

Photo Credit: Susanto


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.