On America, part 4: I hate my job

On America, part 4: I hate my job

When it comes to problems on the job, we're generally given few options: quit, vote, join a union. Here's why that's not good enough.

The final part in a series challenging some of the underlying assumptions of American political thought, earlier parts here, here, and here.

Work sucks.

And when it gets too much to bear, we're told we have roughly three choices. One: look for another job with better pay, where the manager isn't a d*ck, one that maybe even offers some benefits. Two: we can join a union. At least then we'll have some representation on the job. Three: we can vote, placing our faith in some politician or political party to make the world a better place.

I think it goes without saying that option one is a dead end. If our only option is to leave a bad job, we're constantly leaving all the power in the hands of the bosses. We're left pinning our hopes on the benevolence of some future employer.

So what about the unions? What unions offer seems pretty good: collective bargaining, a strong contract, an independent voice on the job. Yet, we've all heard stories about unions selling out workers – about union bosses who care more about their cushy jobs and big salaries than getting a good deal for their members. And, of course, this does happen.

But there's more to it than that. Some union officials are careerist sell-outs, but lots aren't. Oftentimes, they're shopfloor militants who got the gig precisely because they wanted to use their skills and experience to help other workers.

Yet, for anyone who's ever been in a union, too often we're left feeling abandoned – that the union is too close to management and never really prepared to push when it comes to supporting us at work.

So what's going on here?

Part of the problem is legalistic.

Labor law basically demands unions adopt a top-down structure, provide extensive information about their membership and finances to the government, and limits the type of industrial action workers can take. Unions can be sued, have their treasuries confiscated, and be taken over by the government. Officials can be fined and sent to jail if the union steps out of line. None of this makes for militant unions.

The structure of the unions doesn't help either. They are hierarchical and bureaucratic. Leaders are far removed from the grassroots. It's no surprise, then, that union leaders settle when workers want to fight. Or that officials put the brakes on action when it looks like it's going to break out of the control of the union.

But, more than anything, it's about the role of a union: to represent workers, to mediate between employees and the boss. This means that if an agreement is made, the union must be able to ensure the boss follows it. On the other hand, it must also ensure the workers follow it, too. This is why, when workers go out on an unofficial strike, the union is right there next to the boss telling the workers to go back.

Just as importantly, capitalism finds ways to incorporate unions into its managing structures, whether at the company or national level. Before continuing, let's be clear here: employers don't like unions. And workers under a union contract generally have better pay and conditions, better job security, and extra employment protections. However, when employers are given the choice between a militant, unruly, strike-prone workforce and the formal, orderly negotiations offered by unions, they are going to choose the union.

And, I know, this sounds a bit far-fetched. Most of us have so little experience with unions we have to go by what we see on TV or what we hear in those awful anti-union videos we watch when we start a job. But talk to anybody who's ever organized a strike: more often than not, the unions are, at best, a nuisance. And, at worst, actively stop us from taking effective action.

If there's a union at your work, you should probably join it. But don't have any illusions: at some point, the interests of the unions diverge from our interests as workers. And, at that point, we're going to have to take independent action. Seems to me we should get in the habit of doing that sooner than later.

So, that's the unions, perhaps we can look to politics instead?

This is tempting. Politicians talk a good talk. What politician doesn't want to create jobs or raise living standards?

And I have a certain sympathy for politicians. While some politicians are just straight-up scumbags and liars, a lot of them are idealists who really believe they can make the world a better place by getting elected. The problem is that once in power their decisions are extremely limited by their role as managers of national capitalism.

We can witness this in the extreme by looking at Syriza, a radical left party that came into power Greece. I don't doubt the sincerity of most of the people who got voted in when Syriza – running on an anti-cuts, anti-austerity, anti-capitalist program – swept the election. Yet, after just a short time in power, Syriza is enforcing austerity – against not only their own party platforms, but against a referendum explicitly rejecting any more austerity.

That's the reality of achieving power within capitalism. Ideals and beliefs are subsumed to the needs of capital. This is why all politicians – conservative, liberal, even socialist – talk about the need for a “growing economy”. What this means, of course, is the need for companies and employers to continue producing profit.

There is one group, however, who doesn't have to achieve power, one group who already has power: us. As workers, we keep companies functioning and we keep the entire economy functioning.

If we flex that power – going on strike, going out into the streets – we don't need unions or politicians to represent us. We can identify our own needs as working people and force concessions from both government and capital.

What about more radical solutions like state ownership? After all, public sector workers tend to have better pay and conditions and government services can be mandated to serve everyone. And we can and should fight against privatization and even for government takeover of certain industries to improve services. But let us have no illusions: government ownership in no way eliminates the conflict between employer and employee.

I don't have all the answers, but acknowledging dead ends is a pretty good place to start.

Broadly, I'd say we need to develop a culture of solidarity at work. Union or no union, we need to support each other and not blame each other for problems caused by the boss. We need to learn to respond to problems at work with self-organisation and to link-up with other workplaces. And, of course, never cross picket lines. Finally, we need to recognize our own power and avoid the temptation to let others - even those who claim to have our interests at heart – speak or act on our behalf.

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
Sep 6 2015 18:51

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  • There is one group, however, who doesn't have to achieve power, one group who already has power: us. As workers, we keep companies functioning and we keep the entire economy functioning.

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Comments

Schwarz
Sep 6 2015 23:22

Ya killed it again, man!

wojtek
Sep 7 2015 03:33

It presumes a universal experience when there isn't one, what about those who enjoy their work? One could argue that those who don't are just in the wrong one...

Noah Fence
Sep 7 2015 07:52
wojtek wrote:
It presumes a universal experience when there isn't one, what about those who enjoy their work? One could argue that those who don't are just in the wrong one...

Yeah, I know what you mean but I would say the vast majority of workers have beef with their work situation. I really love the work I do and get paid way higher than average for my sector but the pressures that are put on us, long hours, weekend work, working away from home, lying manipulative site managers that just want to cover their own arse etc still make work into a stressful experience that eats up your personal life.
Sure, there are all sorts of nuances that Chilli could have covered but he kept it simple and nailed it.

Chilli Sauce
Sep 7 2015 12:45

Thanks for the kind words Webby (and Schwarz) and, yeah, you're right that's exactly the approach I was taking. As it turns out, I also work in a job in which I find a lot of and satisfaction, but work - as a concept - still sucks. I hate getting up early. I hate having a manager. I hate the pressure. And no matter how good the pay or conditions, conflict with the boss is inevitable.

I could have included all that in the piece I suppose, but I'm a great believer in brevity - and this piece was already running a bit long. And, really, I think the vast majority of people in the world identify with the statement "work sucks" without needing much caveat or explanation.

omen
Sep 7 2015 22:02
Webby wrote:
I would say the vast majority of workers have beef with their work situation

A while ago now I spent some time poking around the British Social Attitudes survey website. It's a horrible site to use, and you have to sign up to use it, but it has quite a lot of detailed information on what people think about various things.

"Question: How satisfied are you with your main job?" [had no option but to split into two, because the question had different possible answers in different years]:


"Question: How would you describe relations between management and other employees at your workplace … very good / not at all good?" [I did this only for the mid 80s and mid 2000s onwards, but the results are more or less the same for all years the question was asked]:

"Question: About the management at your workplace. To what extent do you agree or disagree that … Management at my workplace … can be relied upon to keep their promises." [Not all questions are asked every year.]

So, according to the survey data, most people are more or less happy with their job, and more or less get on with their boss and a significant minority trust their boss. However...

"Question: How much do you agree or disagree that … ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation's wealth."

And on the plus side...

"Question: About your current job. How much do you agree or disagree that … I can get support and help from my co-workers when needed." [Apparently not considered important enough to ask regularly.]

Noah Fence
Sep 7 2015 22:31

Omen, that may well all be so but have you never heard of the maxim 'don't let the truth get in the way of a good argument'? So how about getting back to creating gutbustingly funny cartoons(Comrade Appleton is well overdue a comeback) and stop making me look like a fuckwit?

omen
Sep 7 2015 23:46

[This is a horrible mess, but it's late and I'm tired.]

Ha! I'd been wanting to post that for a while now, but never got around to it. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. wink

[I'm just talking generally here, rather than to Webby:]
I think there is a tendency amongst (some) "anti-capitalists"* of all stripes, at least when they are younger, to assume that other people must hate capitalism and all that it entails as much as they do, and then as time goes on, and they get a little older and disenchanted, they have to come up with various reasons why people aren't trying to overthrow capitalism (ignoring the obvious one that most people** aren't all that bothered by it, though they'd like it to be a bit nicer, a bit fairer, etc).

Obviously people who hate their jobs and their bosses are going to be over represented among "anti-capitalists". That's why I started reading the BritSocAt surveys. It turns out most people don't hate their jobs; most people don't hate their bosses; and that's something communists (etc.) have to deal with. That stuff in my other post really surprised me when I first saw it. (Just to add quickly: I don't think that trying to persuade people to hate their job or boss really counts as dealing with it -- I think the whole point is developing worker solidarity, class confidence, etc.)

[Note: IIRC, when I plotted the data for job satisfaction v income group, or boss-likeiness v income, there wasn't much variation between different income groups, so it's not a matter of middle class people being over represented in the survey. IIRC.]

One of the problems with the BritSocAt surveys, is that it rarely digs deep into any of these questions. For example, on working hours, it asks if people would like to work more, less or the same. But this doesn't really tell you how long people would like to work in principle : if you work less you get paid less, which is presumably why most people say they don't want to work less.

I guess I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say, except maybe: work sucks and bosses are shit, but most people don't agree with me, and that's something I've got to deal with. And rather than making assumptions about what other people think (which is a dangerous thing for someone with niche political views), look at the data and deal with it (rather than cherry picking news stories and anecdotes that fit my agenda).

[*intentionally using the term broadly.]
[**with caveats.]

Agent of the In...
Sep 8 2015 00:17

Then what about this survey which showed that more than two-thirds of U.S. workers were either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" in their jobs?

[Edit: I pretty much agree with the points your trying to convey in your post Omen.]

Chilli Sauce
Sep 8 2015 00:04

Thanks for posting that, Omen, interesting stuff. Blog material, I might suggest...or at least a witty comic.

So, randomly, I've been listening to those Freakonomics podcasts. They're interesting but in need of a good critiquing - certain capitalist assumptions are left entirely unquestioned.

That said, one of the things they harp on about is that survey data is the "least reliable of all data". People tend to give answers that (a) they think the surveyors want to hear (b) that they think will be in keeping with most respondents and (c) are, by the nature of surveys, limited in their responses.

You're supposed to like your job and I'd argue the anonymity of a survey (or, alternatively, the 'authority' of the surveyor) probably makes people overstate their satisfaction with their job. Perhaps that's me projecting my politics, but I've never had a workmate who've I've gotten close with who hasn't expressed frustration with their job - including people who, before I got to know then, we're pretty shy about being critical of the boss.

omen
Sep 8 2015 01:35

Agent: That's a survey in the US not the UK, and it's also asking a different (though superficially similar) question, so it's not too surprising it gets a different result. (And the wording can affect the outcome.)

Chilli: I know there are issues with surveys, but I'm not sure I really buy that such a large majority would lie (or exaggerate) about job satisfaction in an anonymous survey to some bored (or happy!) telephone surveyor. (I'm also not particularly fond of the tortuous arguments of the Freakonomics guys.)

Bearing in mind that BritSocAt is not some sleazy newspaper poll designed to try and misrepresent and manipulate public opinion, but more of an opinion litmus test used by the ruling class, I think it is worth at least considering that the results are more or less an honest expression of the respondents opinions, if framed by the limited survey questions. Even if they don't accord with our everyday experience (personal experience gives a limited vantage point and is subject to personal biases, and I'm not excluding myself, which is why this sort of data is collected).

Quote:
Perhaps that's me projecting my politics, but I've never had a workmate who've I've gotten close with who hasn't expressed frustration with their job - including people who, before I got to know then, we're pretty shy about being critical of the boss.

Is it possible you tend to get close to workmates who share your opinions? Can you be sure your other workmates (the one's you aren't close to) feel the same way? Is your job fairly typical, or is it unusually shitty? What about workers in other jobs that you haven't met?

And that last question is kind of the point: you don't know. I don't know. (Your boss doesn't know.) It's beyond our everyday experience. That's what the survey data is for (and it's meant more for your boss's benefit than ours).

Chilli Sauce
Sep 8 2015 03:12

That's all fair enough, Omen, and I think it's really useful to dig into that sort of data.

I'm not sure I'd argue people exaggerate or lie, but that work is, for all of us, a mixed experienced. And when it comes to reporting our feelings on the matter, there's going to be a pressure - conscious or not - to respond in a way that meets up to certain societal expectations.

And that's not going to be that difficult. After all, it's not surprising that we all make some attempt to find satisfaction in an activity that takes up such a large percentage of our waking life. Between social expectations and being away from an immediate conflict, people with real day-to-day problems - and who complain about them regularly - may report being "satisfied" at work.

And, to be fair, that's all speculation and my anecdotal experiences are definitely subjective. But just talking to people day-to-day and seeing just how much cognitive dissonance occurs around the topic of work makes me think there's a only a certain amount of utility to such surveys.

In any case, I really agree with this:

Quote:
I don't think that trying to persuade people to hate their job or boss really counts as dealing with it -- I think the whole point is developing worker solidarity, class confidence, etc.
jef costello
Sep 8 2015 06:05

I think to a large extent we make our peace with the aspects we don't like because no-one wants to be the one who's always whining and complaining and because we ultimately would rather be happy than not. Like with the hours, we accept that we need to work a certain number to make the salary we want/need and make our peace with the time that we give up.

And I'm going to requote this, because the point is not to make people hate their job, but to realise that it could be better

Quote:
I don't think that trying to persuade people to hate their job or boss really counts as dealing with it -- I think the whole point is developing worker solidarity, class confidence, etc.
Joseph Kay
Sep 8 2015 14:47
Chilli Sauce wrote:
That said, one of the things they harp on about is that survey data is the "least reliable of all data". People tend to give answers that (a) they think the surveyors want to hear (b) that they think will be in keeping with most respondents and (c) are, by the nature of surveys, limited in their responses.

This is true. Surveys often also use quota sampling, which isn't random (e.g. it would typically involve someone being sent to stand outside a train station and told to get 100 responses). Because it's not random, it can introduce systematic biases. So to take the train station example: you're probably missing all the migrant cleaners who start work before dawn. You're probably missing the lower paid workers who have to spend hours on buses to and from work (a source of dissatisfaction in itself). You're probably missing the people who aren't confident English speakers. You're probably missing the stressed-out people stuck in the office doing unpaid overtime when the surveyer clocks off their shift. You'd probably get quite different answers on a Monday morning and a Friday evening. Etc etc.

Quota sampling is used cos it's cheap and easy, but you've got to be extra careful about introducing systematic bias (the textbook example is calling 100 people to ask whether they have a phone, and concluding 100% of people have phones). Even with properly randomised samples, the issues of respondant bias and survey design you mention etc still apply though (poorly framed questions, limited responses, leading questions etc).

Chilli Sauce
Sep 8 2015 14:57
Quote:
the textbook example is calling 100 people to ask whether they have a phone, and concluding 100% of people have phones

D
Sep 12 2015 11:26

Regarding social attitudes towards work another big flaw in stats showing lots of people 'liking' work or 'being satisfied with it' is when asked questions about work most people answer within a frame of knowing they HAVE TO work. So when people say they 'like' their job what they normally mean, imo, is that of all the realistic work options they have this one is one of best.

Its not the same 'like' as say liking a hobby which we choose to do with no pressure to do so. All of the people I've known who 'liked' their job (me included) still looked forward to the weekend, holidays, wanted more pay etc

If someone really likes something then they should choose to do it without any pressure to do so......Yet how many people would continue working if say they won the lottery? Hardly any imo......yet winning the lottery would actually increase hobby participation imo cos that is something we actually genuinely like doing rather than recognising an obligation as better than most others.

Steven.
Sep 12 2015 11:39
D wrote:
Regarding social attitudes towards work another big flaw in stats showing lots of people 'liking' work or 'being satisfied with it' is when asked questions about work most people answer within a frame of knowing they HAVE TO work. So when people say they 'like' their job what they normally mean, imo, is that of all the realistic work options they have this one is one of best.

Its not the same 'like' as say liking a hobby which we choose to do with no pressure to do so. All of the people I've known who 'liked' their job (me included) still looked forward to the weekend, holidays, wanted more pay etc

If someone really likes something then they should choose to do it without any pressure to do so......Yet how many people would continue working if say they won the lottery? Hardly any imo......yet winning the lottery would actually increase hobby participation imo cos that is something we actually genuinely like doing rather than recognising an obligation as better than most others.

This is exactly what I meant to say I didn't get round to.

When people ask me, I say my job is okay, I'm reasonably satisfied with it compared with other available options in this society.

If you want to see what people really think about their jobs, ask them if they would turn up if they didn't get paid!