Today, working people in the United States are faced with a cruel paradox: Productivity is off the charts, and yet they work more hours than their parents’ generation did at the same age, and their real wages haven’t budged in decades. Many can’t make enough money at their jobs to dig themselves out of debt. Jamie K. McCallum argues in his new book, Worked Over, that these coinciding trends all began in the early 1970s and were partly initiated by a concern that well-paid union factory workers couldn’t stand their jobs.
In July 1972, Senator Edward Kennedy highlighted the discontent in a two-day Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare hearing on worker alienation. He began by mentioning that some people in the federal government thought that workers were interested only in “their paychecks and their families.” Decades of organized labor militancy had led to reduced work hours and higher pay, but he observed that compensation could satisfy workers only so much. There was rising discontent among factory workers, evidenced by a spate of wildcat strikes, drug and alcohol abuse on the job, and rampant absenteeism.
Kennedy noted that autoworkers in Lordstown, Ohio, repeatedly protested the “robotlike monotony” of their work. One disgruntled autoworker in Detroit shot three foremen, blaming the chaotic, polluted conditions of the factory for driving him insane. The Lordstown factories’ production lines were among the fastest, most efficient in the country. At the same time, testimony from union leaders and workers there confirmed, drug abuse in the factories was a rising problem. Working on an assembly line, doing one task repeatedly, was not a satisfying activity. The union’s president said, “The jobs are so fragmented that [the worker] is offered very little as far as input to the product.” Blue collar workers wanted their factory jobs to be meaningful and humane, even if they were being paid well. It is almost the opposite of the workplace today, in which we are told to love our jobs but are paid the bare minimum.
The hearings were textbook evidence of the type of alienation that Karl Marx predicted a century before, and even years of virulent anti-communism in America couldn’t prevent the committee from coming to the same conclusion as Marx. Its solution was to, as the committee’s report put it, “encourage the humanization of working conditions and the work itself.” The factories needed to be made safer, the schedules made more flexible, and the workweek reduced, possibly to four days. But no significant legislation came of these hearings.
The country’s business leaders got the message, though it was colored by capitalism’s historical tendency toward repression. The head of the New York Stock Exchange, William Batten, declared, “With dollar compensation no longer the overwhelmingly most important factor in job motivation, management must develop a better understanding of the more elusive, less tangible factors that add up to ‘job satisfaction.’” Management had to create the “necessary philosophy” to ease tension on the job or companies would lose productivity. That is, management didn’t need to make the workplace better; it needed a new coercive ideology that would pay lip service to these new demands. Management took up this task with aplomb. After the 1970s, firms almost unilaterally began to stress the importance of loving your job. In 1962 a poll found that 6 percent of people thought success at work required a meaningful job. Twenty years later, it was 49 percent.
McCallum, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, finds that this shift toward meaningful work coincided with wage stagnation. Worse, it also accompanied a dramatic increase in the number of hours that Americans worked, reversing gains that labor unions had made in more than a century-long fight to raise workers’ wages while reducing their required hours. Labor has since lost its battle over the clock. “Concern over time has largely been forgotten,” he writes, “pushed aside by demands for higher wages, healthcare, safety, and job security. But we’ve forgotten this concern at our peril: a major worsening condition for workers has been the intensity, duration, and unpredictability of their working life.” He argues that if labor wants to see a better world, it needs to deprioritize the idea about meaningful work that persuaded us to work more and more and it must once again take up the fight for the clock.
These days, we only occasionally hear about fights for reduced work hours, but as McCallum writes, “in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, work time was a hotly debated public issue.” In 1791, a group of carpenters in Philadelphia struck in order to demand a two-hour reduction in their workday, to 10 hours. Almost a century later, a massive strike in Chicago demanded, as their slogan went, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” Labor unions later fought for and won a standard 40-hour, five-day workweek. The strategy was clear. “You want to enrich the job?” the union leader William Winpisinger once said. “Enrich the paycheck…. Decrease the number of hours.”
Activists knew that reduced work time had benefits beyond individual leisure. The early 20th century socialist writer Mary Marcy stressed that “it is obvious that men or women working from ten to sixteen hours a day have little strength or [free time] for study, or activity in revolutionary work…. The eight-hour day…would insure us [time] for study and recreation—for work in the Army of the Revolution.” If there was to be a vigorous working-class political movement, workers couldn’t be stuck at work all day.
But as union membership declined by almost half from 1983 to 2018, the number of hours that workers put in went up. While it is difficult to get exact figures, the sociologist Juliet Schor suggested in an update of her 1991 book The Overworked American that between 1973 and 2000, workers on average added 199 hours (almost five standard workweeks) a year to their schedules. For some in the middle of the income distribution, the increase was 660 hours per year.
While some workers are now tremendously overworked, others have to fight for enough hours to survive. We see this with Walmart employees who have protested for more hours and regular schedules, what some call the fair workweek movement. Many hourly workers, possibly up to 80 percent, are subject to irregular, or dynamic, scheduling, which uses algorithms—or is based on managers’ whims—to constantly adjust schedules and give workers the fewest possible hours. What binds workers suffering from overwork or underwork is a lack of control over their time, the ability to determine their own fate.
As union membership declined, working hours went up. But why and how? For one explanation, look to the discourse around meaningful work: When your job is a source of meaning and not just an exchange for material benefits, working more hours naturally seems like a good thing. This shift, McCallum writes, “transformed work from a personal sacrifice into something we do for our own good.”
Employers found another benefit of stressing this rhetoric: Workers would agree to work for less if work was thought of as more enriching. McCallum cites one study that found workers would accept $20,000 less per year to take a job that wasn’t meaningless and another that suggested 90 percent of workers would surrender some benefits for a more meaningful job. And workers who find their jobs fulfilling take less time off. He quotes a trio of economists who declared, “The provision of meaning can be a low-cost instrument to stimulate work effort.” This hints that employers have kept wages down in part by suggesting work is the path to our personal salvation. It might help explain why we pay nurses and teachers so little. Many go into those fields because of a sense of mission and community and are put in a position in which they work for far less than they are worth. “It’s almost as if the meaninglessness of a job contributes to its economic value,” McCallum writes.
But meaningful work did not emerge for the first time in the 1970s. William Morris, the 19th century designer and socialist, wondered if wealthy societies would have “meaningful work or useless toil.” And McCallum suggests that the rising middle class of managers of that era defined its new position in society in opposition to the aristocracy by the bourgeoisie’s rigorous and performative work ethic. Soon, the working class adopted this framing, too. Those who worked hard were more valuable than the idle rich.
The calls for better working conditions for factory workers in the 1970s arose from the routine, dirty, mind-numbingly dangerous conditions in manufacturing. Factory jobs were good ones because they paid well, and it isn’t unreasonable that workers would demand good pay and humane conditions. One study from 1983 found that workers preferred more subjective input in their jobs. What they didn’t know is that they would exchange subjectivity for labor protections
When manufacturing fled the United States for Germany, Japan, and elsewhere, many of the jobs that replaced those factory jobs were sort of what workers were asking for: nonroutine, somewhat creative, and flexible. Most of them were service positions. The problem was that labor law and worker protections were slowly crumbling and traditional unions failed to organize that sector. What resulted was the economy we have now, which is almost three-quarters service, highly nonunion, and overworked.
While meaningfulness has supplemented wages, there’s little evidence we’ve created more meaningful work. “The difference,” McCallum writes, “is that today we generally assume the added burden of having to look for meaning through work anyway, even if our jobs fail us.” It’s our neoliberal era’s obscene preference for individual responsibility, tasking workers with the creation of a humane workplace. “Do what you love” as Miya Tokumitsu wrote, is an oppressive myth that heavily focuses on the word “you.”
A satisfying job is not a bad goal, but it’s not everything. And we can’t keep romanticizing the factory work of the midcentury for its high wages. It’s often assumed that the drive toward meaningful work is limited to the upper middle class, but history shows us it is otherwise. As the congressional hearing of 1972 demonstrates, even blue collar workers weren’t happy to be cranking out cars for their entire lives. Surely they wanted more creative, subjective work, but they also wanted good wages. This means the solution cannot be either/or.
McCallum wants us to reignite the fight to raise wages, reduce work hours, and make work satisfying simultaneously. But, as he stresses, we must focus on the neglected aspect of time. The less time we spend at work, the more time we can spend looking for meaning where we will more likely find it—among our families, friends, and communities.
One potential effect of reducing hours while not totally reducing income is immediately evident in a moment when the coronavirus pandemic has left millions of people out of work. In the light of a recent wave of police brutality, millions were free to take to the streets and protest, provide mutual aid, and organize politically. They were people, of course, whose wages had been held down for so long that they had little savings and economic security in general. A few months of unemployment ignited a blaze of anxiety about the future. The protesters are people who might have worried that their arrest would get them fired or who hadn’t had the free time to engage in politics. In this case, it wasn’t McCallum’s goal of higher wages coupled with lower hours, but the temporarily expanded unemployment benefits had similar characteristics. It may be one reason lawmakers have been so eager to diminish unemployment benefits for the past 50 years, because having time away from work with income gives people a chance to think about other things.
In a system in which most people are indebted and dependent on a job to keep them out of poverty, there is much less space, not just for leisure but for political action. Still, it’s important to remember that reducing work time doesn’t guarantee there will be an upsurge in radical politics, it only clears space for them to happen. (It’s even easy to imagine that fewer young people protested in 2014 because they were working long hours digging themselves out of the student debt incurred in the last financial collapse.) “Voting is hardly democratic if people can’t get to the polls.” McCallum writes, “Who needs national parks if there’s no time to pitch a tent and do a little stargazing?” Overwork, that is, not only inhibits pleasure, but it strangles democracy. ”Time isn’t money,” McCallum concludes, “It’s power, control, and justice.”