Work so “Flexible” it’ll Break your Back

Clocks are just pie charts with dashes and sporadic numbers.

Just to refresh your memory (or if you’re just getting into the conversation now), last time we talked about work and “time poverty”. We concluded by looking at some possible solutions to this dilemma of workers not having enough time. I posited that it was fairly obvious that giving workers more hours doesn’t actually help the workers or the boss, company or the economy as a whole.

Another suggestion was flexible scheduling which is where we’ll start off from:

Workplace flexibility programs, too, could help workers. The Washington Post reported an increase in worker happiness when employers adopted such programs, but this solution doesn’t address the overall increase in hours.

Let’s concede, for sake of the argument, that an increase in worker happiness can happen when employers start scheduling programs. The problem is that this might not address the bigger issues in play on a systematic level. The writer whose quoted above concedes this but he’s only talking about the increase in hours. But what about the decrease?

Before we get to that though, it’s worth quoting The Washing Post article linked on a particular point:

While Kelly and her colleagues have yet to prove whether the workers in the flexibility program were productive or healthier, they did find a definite increase in those employees’ positive feelings about their jobs.

Sure, it’s great, in a way, that the workers are feeling better but I’m not actually sure this proves much if the programs aren’t even necessarily helping them be more productive or even just more healthy in their work. Hell, even if it was making them more productive they could still be doing work that isn’t producing much of value and a myriad of other side-constraints worth considering. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that people can feel good about a given thing but if that thing is still bad for them then the feelings might not count for as much.

In the end, Kelly and others couldn’t even get the targeted companies to accept the programs so even if we could concede all there is to concede about these studies, there’s still the “larger corporate culture” as Kelly calls it to convince. Unfortunately, as Kelly points out such a culture, “…expects long hours in the office, high visibility and the willingness to travel at a moment’s notice. We have a mismatch.”

Exactly. The larger corporate culture and the idea of workers having “flexibility” (in any meaningful sense) isn’t going to actually be that great of a match. And when it is a supposed match this “fix” ignores the systematic and institutional issues of hierarchy, bossism and so on. Ignoring these issues makes trying even half-baked reforms in the workplace a lost cause. The solution is to develop counter-power and work to displace these prevailing institutions that pit us against each other and console us with piece-meal offerings.

But as a potential counter-point to this what do “flexibility” programs end up looking like when they get accepted by a given company?

Writing for The Nation, Michelle Chen points out how the notion of “flexibility” is (once again) foreign to corporations:

Another problem with unstable hours is that there are often too few of them, since many part-time workers just aren’t able to earn enough to live on their erratic schedules. A Uniqlo sales worker interviewed in the study explained how coerced “flexibility” minimizes stability: “I have been scheduled for as few as six hours in a week, and as many as 40, so my paycheck is always different. How is anyone—a student or parent—supposed to plan their budget with such erratic schedules?”

The flexibility, if you couldn’t tell by now, isn’t for the workers but for the corporations.

Hell, we don’t need to use the examples of worker and bosses if that doesn’t strike your fancy. Take someone who has an appointment with a doctor or an appointment with some particular institution. How much do you want to bet that they’ve gotten a call the day before that they need to reschedule? Or that the appointment needs to be moved back a half-hour, “and can you please be flexible about this?” while if you did the same you might get the receptionist annoyed saying something like, “Well Dr. X is very busy so this will be very inconvenient to him…“.

In such situations it seems like it doesn’t matter that you have a busy life yourself. All that matters is that this might impact the doctor’s life and yours can go to hell for all they care.

This is a bit of an exaggeration but especially for poor folks (like myself) this is how it often feels. People who have limited transportation are especially at risk for these sorts of institutional fuckery. If you’re depending on the good-will of a friend or of a private transit service then it’s going to be a bit inconvenient to try to get all of that changed a day before.

Roderick Long, a professor at Auburn University, points out this institutional disparity of power in other scenarios:

Suppose you forget to pay your power bill (or your phone bill, or your cable tv bill, or your internet access bill, or your credit card bill, or whatever). What happens? Your provider disconnects you, and you’ll probably have to pay an extra fee to get service reestablished. You also get a frowny face on your credit report.

On the other hand, suppose that, for whatever reason (internet glitches, downed power lines after a storm, or who knows), you suffer a temporary interruption of service from your provider. Do they offer to reimburse you? Hell no. And there’s no easy way for you to put a frowny face on their credit report.

Now, if you rent your home, take a look at your lease. Did you write it? Of course not. Did you and your landlord write it together? Again, of course not. It was written by your landlord (or by your landlord’s lawyer), and is filled with far more stipulations of your obligations to her than of her obligations to you. It may even contain such ominously sweeping language as “lessee agrees to abide by all such additional instructions and regulations as the lessor may from time to time provide” (which, if taken literally, would be not far shy of a slavery contract). If you’re late in paying your rent, can the landlord assess a punitive fee? You betcha. By contrast, if she’s late in fixing the toilet, can you withhold a portion of the rent? Just try it.

Now think about your relationship with your employer. In theory, you and she are free and equal individuals entering into a contract for mutual benefit. In practice, she most likely orders the hours and minutes of your day in exacting detail. As with the landlord case, the contract is provided by her and is designed to benefit her. She also undertakes to interpret it; and you will find yourself subjected to loads of regulations and directives that you never consented to. And if you try inventing new obligations for her as she does for you, I predict you will be, shall we say, disappointed.

So no, these little bits of window-dressing on our capitalist system may be helping the feelings of workers and that’s all fine and good. But don’t pretend you’re actually systematically challenging what’s going on in our lives.

On the sidebar of The Nation‘s website I noticed that Chen advocates for workers to take cues from some workers who sued their employees.

First off, I’ll say I’m certainly happy that the workers got their due and that they feel vindicated about the result. I generally don’t support using the state services to resolve issues but that doesn’t mean I’m going to tell anyone to not do it if it’s what makes the most sense in their situation. There’s a lot of risks even if you know them though. The workers admit to feeling threatened throughout the trial and even Chen seems surprised that they won given that “settlements” were the usual result of these kinds of trials.

There’s also the obvious point that the employers who own the business may have more social and material capital with the courtroom and could certainly help blacklist these employees even after they win the court-ordered several hundred thousands. You could even argue to some extent that the employees blacklisted themselves by doing such a move but that heavily depends on the economic context of their neighborhood and how the larger community sees their struggle. In a generally supportive community it may be a good idea (especially if this is the culmination of a long-term protest using other means so it doesn’t have to come to this) but in non-supportive communities it could make the employees be nigh unemployable.

I’m not suggesting that the workers should always care about how blacklisted they are because, to a certain extent, fights against oppression are always going to make you blacklisted by some people to some extent. That’s just inevitable as a part of the process of fighting power. But it should still be kept in mind by those who want to make sure their lives are still together after the dust has settled. Something like that can be just as important as the trial itself.

Chen points out that the businesses actually couldn’t afford good lawyers (which may be part and parcel why they couldn’t fight it as effectively as other businesses may have) and while the workers were even poorer than that, “…their stories spoke for themselves”.

Still, these sorts of victories shouldn’t be taken to be seen as radical challenges to the economic status quo. After all, the state had intervened before, according to Chen and that hadn’t ameliorated the workers conditions. And even after this court case is over and the dust has settled there’s no telling what the results will be for the workers.

My main point is that these victories seem unstable, irregular and at best seem to only ameliorate perceived bugs in the system instead of the features that they are.

The culmination of all of these things is to look at the prevailing economic order as something that just can’t be reformed, court-ordered or window-dressed away. It’s something we need to actively engage with in ways that are meaningful, systematic and institutional. Things that will actually empower workers in the long-term.

One way to oppose this “just-in-time” system in an effective and radical way is to find methods to undermine the prevailing labor laws. Two good examples of such laws would be the Taft-Hartley and Wagner acts that restrict workers ability to organize and effectively undermine the bosses’ authority.

Doing this might expose some vulnerabilities the mutualist anarchist Kevin Carson has pointed out:

Absent the restrictions of the Wagner and Taft-Hartley labor regime, today’s “just-in-time” economy would likely be far more vulnerable to such disruption than that of the 1930s. Prominent labor journalist Jane Slaughter argued as much:

“Just-in-time”… has made the union potentially more powerful than ever. The lack of buffer stocks makes
with labor power—if workers in a department refuse to work, management has no extras to replace them. Action by even a few members could affect production drastically.”

A British management consultant warned, in similar terms, about the vulnerability of just-in-time to disruption:

“Without buffer stocks between production each process is entirely dependent on the upstream one to deliver. Hence JIT bestows upon those who work it the capacity to create disruptions which, intentionally or otherwise are likely to be extremely pervasive….A mere refusal to work overtime or to be flexible about tea breaks and working practices could cause severe problems, and a work-to-rule or stoppage could be disastrous….

The ideal JIT system has no inventories, no buffer stock, and no stocks of finished goods.If the supplier fails to deliver, production stops; if any one process fails to deliver, production stops; and if transport fails, production stops.” (p. 4)

Over in Jolly Old England, they’ve been having similar issues of “flexibility” through things called “Zero-hours contract” that, surprise, favors the employers sense of flexibility over the workers. The Guardian has a few articles on it and I’ll just link to an example of that.

So the solution to the plight of the workers, whether it be too many hours or too few seems to be to less rely on the generosity (institutional or individual) of the bosses. It seems to be less based on using the state as an intermediary where we can somehow have our rights better respected. And it also doesn’t seem to be through piece-meal reforms.

I’ll close with a great quote from one of my favorite anarchist and writers, Voltairine de Cleyre:

For me there had never been a hope there should be no more rich and poor; but a vague idea that there might not be so rich and so poor, if the workingmen by combining could exact a little better wages, and make their hours a little shorter. It was the message of these men (and their death swept that message far out into ears that would never have heard their living voices) that all such little dreams are folly.

That not in demanding little, not in striking for an hour less, not in mountain labor to bring forth mice, can any lasting alleviation come; but in demanding much — all — in a bold self-assertion of the worker to toil any hours he finds sufficient, not that another finds for him – here is where the Way out lies. (emphasis mine)

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3 thoughts on “Work so “Flexible” it’ll Break your Back

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