Saturday, November 14, 2009

The "Just Something" rule

I read volume 1 of Marx's Capital while working on a production line in a food factory. I don't mean I read it during my tea breaks, I read it while "working" on the line. I had an injury and was doing a 'quality control' job which entailed sitting next to a conveyor watching thousands and thousands of pies streaming past like a river - and removing any damaged ones.

This job seemed to typify 'light duties' in that it is mind numbing and a travesty of Occupational Health and Safety principles of getting people back to work: rather than rehabilitation, the effect is to bore you until you beg to go back to the old job, or just quit. But I digress.

I sat on a stool next to the line, reading Capital, without the approval of anyone -- I certainly wasn't meant to be reading on the job! But it was the only way to cope. The job was not necessary: the packing staff would pick out any damaged product further down the line anyway.
When I saw bosses coming I just hid the book under the conveyor.


Moving forward a couple of years to another job, in a clothing warehouse. The small workforce all got along well with each other, and generally put up with the menial work cheerfully. The youngest guy on the job had a special saying reserved for him, because he was the most often caught slacking off: a good humoured "just something!" would be yelled across the warehouse. As in "just do something!".

During our ritual tea-break darts match one day, the big boss was spotted walking down the stairs from the office, at which point the team leader jumped up and ordered us to jump to work right away. I'm not sure why: I thought we were entitled to a tea break. But it comes under the category of "just something" - make sure you look busy, because no boss wants to see their employees not working!

Moving forward a few more years, during the first year of my apprenticeship I had a boss who obsessed about looking busy. He was repeatedly telling me off for putting my hands in my pockets, regardless of whether I had any work to do, or whether it was a frosty winter morning. I swept the floors over and over during my apprenticeship. This boss was facing hard times and didn't have much work coming in, so he had me doing a lot of sweeping - which is why I left after about six months.

Later in my apprenticeship, I had a foreman with much the same attitude, making me sweep the floor over and over until he bothered to think of something real for me to do. I was sacked from that job after three months for lack of the skills they were supposed to be teaching me. As I was still on probation, the union couldn't prevent my sacking - but I heard they later got that foreman sacked.

Looking busy is important to employers. It doesn't matter whether you are actually doing anything useful; they will assign you tasks as they decide. But looking busy seems to indicate the required degree of slavishness that they expect of employees. In terms of inanity it's up there with the "motivational" signs put up in workplaces (My current favourite is "Make it right first time!") but the effect is more insidious and harmful.

Some employers install cameras in order to watch the shop floor from their office. My current employer claims they are for safety, after recently installing them in one section while the factory was out on strike. It may seem counter-intuitive, but cameras on the job are more likely to be a safety hazard. The "just something" rule and increased pressure on workers is more likely to lead to injury -- if not an immediate injury caused by hurrying and "looking busy", the long term, hidden pain inflicted by stress.

Since when does keeping employees stressed and never stopping work make sense? How does "make-work" help a company's profits? What ideology causes this farce to repeat itself at job after job? Is it neoliberalism? Taylorism? The old fashioned Protestant Work Ethic?

In an era of monopolised industries, companies compete not by prices but by their sales efforts and by reducing their costs, in the thesis put forward by Sweezy and Baran in their famous Monopoly Capital. In the 2009 recession in the US, employers forced labour productivity gains to compensate for lay-offs. According to the November 6 Sydney Morning Herald,


The Labor Department said on Thursday that productivity surged at a 9.5 per cent annual rate, the quickest pace since the third quarter of 2003, as companies squeezed more output from a smaller pool of labor to hold the line on costs.
This is during the supposed recovery period: a "jobless recovery" they call it. 2003 was also coming out of the last recession.

So how does "make-work" help productivity? It's all about having a disciplined labour force. bear in mind that employers argued against the five-day week on the basis that the extra day off would tend to make workers not want to come back to work on the Monday. Sharon Beder writes in Selling the Work Ethic:


Manufacturer H.C. Atkins, along with the president of the National Association of Manufacturers John E. Edgerton, warned that a five-day week would undermine the work ethic by giving more time for leisure. If work took up less of the day it would be less important in people's lives... in particular, employers were concerned that letting the workers have Saturday off would allow them to take their minds off the job for a significant period of time."
Any form of slacking off on the job, even when there is no work to be done, is seen in the same light. Harry Braverman wrote in Labor and Monopoly Capital that

The transformation of working humanity into a "labor force," a "factor of production," an instrument of capital, is an incessant and unending process. The condition is repugnant to the victims, whether their pay is high or low, because it violates human conditions of work; and since the workers are not destroyed as human beings but are simply utilized in inhuman ways, their critical, intelligent, conceptual faculties, no matter how deadened or diminished, always remain in some degree a threat to capital.
It's should not be anarchist utopianism to suggest that when there's nothing happening, one ought to be able to read the paper until the next product comes down the line. But then, anarchist utopianism would make more sense than the way workers are disciplined and regimented in capitalism.

I drafted these thoughts on the back of a packing bag in spare moments on the production line at work, keeping my "critical, intelligent, conceptual faculties" alive. I had to make sure I wasn't observed by the boss. I guess if he sprung me and asked what I was doing I could have answered "Just something!"

(This article first published in the Monthly Review's MRZine)

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