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Imagine a World Where People Love Their Jobs

With 15 million men and women unemployed, the first step to fixing the job crisis is re-imagining what Americans should be working on in the first place.
 
 
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When the Ford Motor Company opened in 1903, “jack-of-all trades” mechanics were needed to build the first cars. This kind of labor still belonged to the craft tradition—“worthy work” that required skill, knowledge, and experience obtained through years of apprenticeship. The work was varied and interesting and carried with it, as William Morris once put it, “the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.” In the face of growing demand for the Model T, however, the knowledge and experience of mechanics were found to be expendable. To increase productivity, Ford’s managers broke up the craft of building cars into its constituent parts; highly skilled mechanics found themselves turned into mere assemblers, reduced to performing an ever more limited set of tasks.

By 1910, these once-independent craftsmen refused to accept what they experienced as the mind-numbing and degrading division of their labor and began to walk off the job. During the next few years, Ford took even more extreme measures to step up production, instituting the endless-chain conveyor system; car assemblies now moved past fixed stations where men carried out ever more simple, repetitive operations. Again, these men registered their revulsion at this systematic destruction of their knowledge and skill by walking off the job, this time in droves. “It was apparent,” writes Keith Sward in his The Legend of Henry Ford, “that the Ford Motor Co. had reached the point of owning a great factory without having enough workers to keep it humming.” For the year 1913 alone, the employee turnover rate reached 380 percent. “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system,” Sward reports, “that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

This crisis only intensified when the Industrial Workers of the World began a unionization drive of Ford workers during the summer of that same year. To put down both threats, Ford introduced his much-trumpeted five dollars a day. Harry Braverman, in his groundbreaking Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974), questions whether even this pay rate, which was almost double that of Ford’s competitors, would have kept the men on the job had there been any other viable options for skilled mechanics. But there were not; by this time, competing manufacturers, in an effort to keep pace with Ford’s increased output, had also forced the assembly line on their skilled mechanics, thus wiping out all alternative modes of work in the burgeoning car industry. Ford’s workers had no choice but to stay put and their union representatives began their long fight for concessions from management.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama announced with some urgency that, “jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” But as I have been reading about how to create jobs for the fifteen million men and women who are currently without work, I have been struck by how much space is devoted to breast-beating about declining standards of living and fear-mongering predictions that America will be a “second-rate” power by the end of the decade, and how little is given to any serious consideration about what kinds of work people will be doing.

The near collapse of the auto industry and the way it was averted, in large part, by unionized workers accepting deep cuts in their ranks, hours, wages, and benefits, herald the end of the kind of blue-collar occupations that afforded generations of working people secure, comfortable lives.

It is an historical irony that in last two years’ public discussions about bailing out Detroit, what was once perceived as the death of dignified labor was portrayed by Republican lawmakers and reactionary journalists as a kind of overpaid, over-compensated worker’s paradise. This characterization of the reasonable wages, paid vacations and sick days, health insurance, and retirement packages that labor unions gained in exchange for workers relinquishing the skills required to build cars reveals a distressing loss of historical memory. What is more, this talk of pampered workers is an outrageous libel on the uneasy bargain to which middle-class workers—both blue and white-collar alike—eventually submitted, trading meaningful work for the promise of better working conditions, a higher standard of living, and increased leisure time.

For decades now, manufacturers have demonstrated their contempt for this trade-off. Claiming competitive threats from “the global market,” more and more manufacturers and associated industries have moved their factories outside the United States to take advantage of poor people who have no choice but to accept meager wages. As for the few remaining manufacturers that have kept their factories in the U.S., most notably, the automobile industry, last spring we heard their obscenely rich executives explain to Congress that the main reason their companies were failing was the extreme financial burden of their workers’ benefits.

As we know, President Obama has been intent on saving Detroit. Last year, in his address to Congress on February 24, he announced, “We are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it; scores of communities depend on it, and I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.” It is certainly not too much to expect that this “re-tooled, reimagined” auto industry, instead of manufacturing gigantic, polluting, profligate S.U.V.’s and light trucks, might produce fuel-efficient, “green” cars. But by what means? The old assembly line has largely been replaced by fully automated, robotic production, leaving many workers with the repetitious, one-dimensional job of tending machines. Will they continue to tend machines, but now with lower pay, fewer benefits, and less security so that, before long, their work will be indistinguishable from the dead-end, often demeaning jobs of the so-called service economy? And to what end? So that instead of drivers sitting for hours in traffic jams during their daily commutes to and from work in cars that pollute, they will now sit for hours in their plug-in, hybrid eco-cars? This is a matter of some urgency, as 90 percent of Americans drive to work and a staggering 76 percent of them drive alone.

When oil prices surged dramatically in the summer of 2008, there was much talk—especially during the presidential debates—about the need to find alternative energy sources as well as about the compromised political situation in which America found itself economically hostage to oil-producing Arab countries that are actively hostile to American interests. (A nice turn on the old saying that capitalists will buy the rope to hang themselves.) Although it is well known that Americans count for only 5 percent of the world’s population but use up over 25 percent of the world’s energy resources, the moral dimension of our gluttonous appetites rarely enters any mainstream public discussions. Paul Kennedy, in his Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, published back in 1993, gave life to these statistics: “According to one calculation, the average American baby represents twice the environmental damage of a Swedish child, three times that of an Italian, thirteen times that of a Brazilian, thirty-five times that of an Indian, and two hundred and eighty times that of a Chadian or Haitian because its level of consumption throughout its life will be so much greater.”

It is this picture that we need to keep in mind as we imagine how we are going to move out of the world—ugly and shoddy, morally and aesthetically—created by the ideology of growth without end and the unrelenting piggish desire for more things that have become hallmarks of the American way of life. We must also keep sight of the historical fact that not only did monopoly capital and the division of labor emerge together in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but so, too, did those alarming “plague clouds” and a sun that was “blanched” rather than “reddened”—those first unmistakable signs of industrial pollution that John Ruskin decried in a lecture entitled “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884). To address one of these historical developments without the other two is to ensure that we will never move beyond the narrow confines of current thinking about our present moment or about what the future might look like.

In the same speech to Congress last year, President Obama made a more explicit connection between jobs and the environment than he did in his recent State of the Union speech. He rightly believes it is time to repair our disintegrating infrastructure and announced that over the next two years, the government “will save or create 3.5 million jobs. More than 90 percent of these jobs will be in the private sector, jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges, constructing wind turbines and solar panels, laying broadband, and expanding mass transit.” What is more, Obama promised that American universities will turn out “the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by the year 2020. But what will these students study? What kinds of work will their college educations prepare them for? Here President Obama seems unable to picture a world significantly different from the economically and morally bankrupt one that we now find ourselves in: “In a global economy, where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity. It is a pre-requisite.” I am sorry to have to notice that the President’s formulation of knowledge as “the most valuable skill you can sell” belongs to the technocratic world view of the professional-managerial class—the very “experts” who, from the time of the first factory line, have been repackaging once-complex sets of skills into simple instructions that can be mastered in a few days or even a few hours of “training.”

Instead of putting forward, as so many of our elected officials, policy analysts, pundits, and journalists predictably do, a picture of our world that is essentially the same, except that it is somehow “green” and somehow peopled with college-educated or better “trained” workers, we need to focus our attention on the more pressing and more basic question of what kinds of work people should be expected to devote their lives to doing. The last time this question—the question of meaningful, satisfying, dignified labor—got a public hearing was in the nineteen sixties and seventies, with Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital being the intellectual high-water mark. What Braverman convincingly demonstrated is that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our system of labor; that it came about through conscious decisions made by industrial capitalists in the name of profit for them alone; and, so long as there were living alternatives to it, that assembly line work was forcefully resisted by skilled craftsmen who walked off the job rather than submit to work that they felt demeaned them. William Morris spoke for those men when he declared the new factory work “worthless; it is slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.”

In this context, it is worth recalling the profusion of skilled practices that once existed. In the mid-sixteenth century, a book described ninety different crafts, including jewelers, metalsmiths, goldsmiths, coiners, tapestry makers, printers, musical instrument makers, dyers, potters, tanners, weavers, carpenters, bakers, and millers. Two centuries later, Diderot’s Encyclopedia counted two hundred and fifty. By the middle of the nineteenth century, in a medium-sized town in England, over fifty crafts were still being practiced. Over the last century and a half, however, the social division of labor penetrated ever more dimensions of daily life, with the result that very few occupations requiring skill, knowledge, experience, and long apprenticeships have survived.

Thus it has become increasingly difficult to imagine how to revive what has vanished both from practice and from memory, let alone how a world might come into being where the greater number of things we use or, better yet—to suggest the enormous change in consciousness that is required—things we enjoy using in our daily life are made by people who enjoy making them. I have in mind here the kind of pleasure and pride that accomplished craftsmen at the Waterford Crystal factory in Kilbarry, Ireland, lost when their factory shut down earlier this year. Sean Egan, who worked as a crystal engraver for twenty-five years, spoke of his ten-year apprenticeship: “It’s extremely hard to learn, and machines can’t do it. It’s like playing the piano. You can learn three chords and get away with it, but if you want to learn classical piano, you have to practice all the time.”

We might also take a lesson from the movement for sustainable, organic, local farming. For decades, champions of this movement have been all but banished to the fringe of respectable discourse, but lately they have been getting a hearing, as evidenced by Michael Pollan’s lengthy “Open Letter to the Next Farmer-in-Chief” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, in October 2008. It seems to me that a good starting point for how to bring about a similar revolution in thinking and practice when it comes to work is the principle that just as monoculture is disastrous for our health and security when it comes to food, lack of variety in work is just as disastrous for our well-being and happiness. The ideology of ceaseless economic growth, made possible by the division of labor that has filled our world with ugly things from the Styrofoam cup to smog in our skies, has always been vapid and destructive. Now, with the implosion of the global financial system, the American way of life as model for global expansion stands exposed as unsustainable as well.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of Repeal Of Reticence. She is currently working on a book tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty and writes a monthly column about how the world looks and feels for The New Republic Online. Her essays on aesthetic and political matters have appeared in The New Republic, Salmagundi, Raritan, and other “little magazines.”