An article by a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) about 'job conditioning', which is when when workers slowly and subtly change the practices or the culture in their workplace, to their advantage.
An important Wobbly concept is job conditioning. This is when workers slowly and subtly change the practices or the culture in their workplace, to their advantage. Job conditioning doesn’t involve an explicit agreement with the boss to change workplace conditions. It’s more like creating “facts on the ground” that make our job better.
Because job conditioning doesn’t involve an outright confrontation with the boss, usually even more timid coworkers will join in. It can build solidarity on the shop floor, change how everyone feels about going in to work and build up our confidence in relation to the boss.
Here are some of my favorite memories of job conditioning:
I worked part time in a mom-and-pop retail store, getting paid in cash. We had no water cooler, or fountain, or kitchen. Our only source of water was the tap in the bathroom, which was gross. However, we sold cases of bottled water. The owners helped themselves to these but never offered them to us. In the mornings on the way to my shift, I didn’t have money for both a coffee and a water, so I just bought a coffee. Some days my thirst would overtake me, though, and I would cave and buy a bottle of water from the boss, noting it in my book where I recorded my hours, so that he could deduct it from my pay. One day my co-worker said that this was ridiculous; we shouldn’t have to pay for water. So we started telling him when we were taking water, but “forgetting” to write it in our books. And then we just stopped telling him altogether. This let us stop agonizing over whether to drink some water when we were thirsty.
I worked in one of those first class airline lounges—the private ones where the first class travelers get to chill before getting on their planes. Catering and janitorial services were contracted to Sodexo, which was the company that my coworkers and I worked for. We kept the bar stocked, put out cheese platters, cleaned the bathrooms, and so on. We didn’t have a break room of our own. One day we heard we were getting a new manager. Before he came on the job, my co-workers and I installed a full-length mirror in his office and put a bunch of boxes of tampons in there. When he arrived we told him that his office doubled as our break room. To reinforce the point, my co-worker and I ate our lunch in there every day, while playing cards on his desk. He got the point and started leaving when it was our break time. It was fun to pull one over on the boss and it was nice to have a break room. We also now had access to the company’s labor manuals, which showed us all kinds of benefits we were supposed to be getting but weren’t.
I worked a full-time, 9-to- 5 job for a government department. I was one of seven interns or entry-level young people there. We did things like answer letters from constituents using boilerplate formulas. We had plenty of work to do, and even more during politically heated times. We had a one-hour paid lunch break, but the more ambitious or more guilt-prone among us would work through it, eating at our desks. One particular co-worker was a friend of mine. I started insisting she come for lunch with me, using it as a chance for us to socialize and catch up. Then we started inviting more people to join us. Eventually, all seven of us would go for lunch for the full hour, every single day. We’d try out the restaurants nearby or chill in the park. Our workplace culture had changed so that everyone took the breaks we were entitled to, and our bosses couldn’t pressure us to work through lunch because we simply weren’t there. Plus, we got a chance to build camaraderie and to talk about our bosses.
Job conditioning can involve a lot of things, whether it’s appropriating more free stuff for yourself, getting some flexibility in your schedule, ensuring everyone gets their breaks, or pushing back on the constant supervision we often face on the job. You can start it on your own, or just involving one co-worker, and then radiate out from there. You can talk about your reasons for doing it with your co-workers, or just start doing it. But it can really make a difference in terms of how you relate to each other, and to your job. It’s a way of making work a little more human, and it’s a subtle way of pushing back against the boss’s power to dictate everything in the workplace. Once those “facts on the ground” are established workers will instinctively defend them.
We’re trained at work to think that the boss has all the power. Ultimately, job conditioning is a way of reminding both ourselves and the boss that we don’t need them, they need us.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2013)