We keep you alive

March 16, 2020; Publisher: ; Format:

A SURPRISING NUMBER OF PEOPLE start their working life at McDonald’s. Paul Ryan claimed flipping burgers was central to his understanding of the American Dream. Pharrell Williams was fired three times from the chain. James Franco penned a mildly off-putting love memoir to the golden arches in the Washington Post. His affection was forged in the heat of a ruby-red love affair with the acting business that was, at the time, unrequited. “All I know is that when I needed McDonald’s, McDonald’s was there for me,” he wrote. Singer Pink’s take on her early employer had its own dose of drama, but perhaps more sympathetically so: “Sometimes I dream I am back there, broke and working at McDonald’s,” she has said. “It’s like the worst nightmare because I would never want to be back there.”

“One of the things that’s really fun about working at McDonald’s is to get really fast at all of this stuff,” recounted none other than Jeff Bezos, who spent time in his younger days at the fast food giant. “[I would] see how many eggs you can crack in a period of time and still not get any shell in them.” It proved a fitting start for the career of the future billionaire, as the embrace of wage-slave-misery-as-optimized-skill-building has since become a signature of his business strategy. More than seven-hundred-fifty-thousand people work for Amazon, the vast majority in jobs similarly repetitive to Bezos’s first one, picking and packing orders in fulfillment centers for dispatch to customers. McDonald’s used to be the iconic workplace of last resort, but Amazon fulfillment centers now compete for the title. One Amazon worker was less circumspect about the realities of working such a job, describing his designated fulfillment center as an “existential shithole,” according to Emily Guendelsberger.

Retail sales workers, cashiers, and fast food and service workers are some of the most common occupations in the United States. These jobs are low paid, usually repetitive, and largely considered dead-end. The other key feature they share is that are all classified as “unskilled.” There are good reasons to think more carefully about what we mean by this term—and what significance flows from it. While these jobs might be labelled unskilled, the work that is required of people in such roles is often anything but.

Of course, jobs are classified as unskilled for analytical reasons. The label usually attaches to jobs that require minimal training and do not require a high school or college degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in 2018, the percentage of workers in the United States in jobs with no minimum education requirement was 31 percent, while another 40 percent were only required to have a high school diploma. Of course, whether a job is unskilled or not is more complex than this, but educational requirements are a good proxy. That leaves a very significant percentage of Americans working jobs that are classified as unskilled or low-skilled.

Yet almost anyone who has worked in one of these jobs will be able to tell you that, contrary to the label, such jobs demand considerable skill. Waiting tables, talking on the phone, sorting goods, preparing food, and serving customers all require dexterity, strength, memory, stamina, as well as hefty reserves of emotional labor in the customer-facing positions. Unskilled jobs come in many varieties, and so do the skills necessary to do them. While you may not need a formal education, you will definitely learn as you go. As Brittany Bronson explained in the New York Times, “a skilled server assistant can clear a table in one trip versus two, simply with more careful placement of dishes along his forearm or between his knuckles.” Bronson is an adjunct instructor and restaurant server, and her position as a member of both the professional and working classes gives her a unique point of view. “The terms ‘unskilled’ and ‘low-skilled labor’ contradict the care and precision with which my co-workers, who have a variety of educational backgrounds and language fluencies, execute their tasks.”

Performing unskilled jobs may demand skills, but it is a different story when it comes to the management of these workers. The rhetoric we often hear about robots eating our jobs usually relates to the low-paid end of the labor market; less common are discussions about the automation of management. This can include things like just-in-time employee scheduling, which is increasingly optimized using technology and disproportionately affects unskilled work. A BLS report for the period 2017-2018 found that among workers over twenty-five, 31 percent of workers in unskilled jobs knew their schedule less than one week in advance, compared with only 14 percent of workers who held a bachelor’s degree or higher. Such precarity requires people working unskilled jobs to be organized and resourceful, to manage their personal lives around paid work, in ways that are required of those working jobs classified as skilled much less often.

Once at work, the supervision of unskilled jobs generally combines arbitrary rules with strict consequences, which—again—requires workers themselves to be skillful to survive. In call centers, to take one example, workers are more and more subject to black box voice recognition algorithmic analysis that monitors tone and tracks performance. Finding ways to appear energetic or empathetic, especially when managing a challenging customer, in circumstances where you face strict deadlines and behavioral rules, requires multiple proficiencies.

All of these management trends have been accelerated by the development of technology. James Spring, who has worked in a supermarket for nine years, spoke to me about how new technology has changed the experience of working in low-paid jobs. “They deliberately cultivate a feeling of being watched,” Spring told me, whether through earpieces, cameras, or semi-regular reminders from management that workers’ conduct was subject to intense scrutiny. It’s not that all unskilled jobs are particularly hard, but repetitive tasks, in intensely scrutinized contexts, where workers have little control over how they work, can be deeply stressful. Coping with such stress requires resilience and generates emotional costs that workers then lug about with them in their personal lives.

By streamlining and cost-cutting management, employers end up effectively offloading responsibilities onto the lowest-paid staff. I spoke with Josh Cullinan, the secretary of a union for fast food and retail workers in Australia. He explained that workers in customer-facing jobs are often told they bear responsibility for being abused in the workplace on the basis that they failed to de-escalate tensions. Rather than providing a safe workplace where abuse could be dealt with by properly trained security staff, says Cullinan, “management asks, ‘How did that occur?’ and they get the workers to do de-escalation training.” Workers then internalize the idea that the unsafe nature of their workplace is not the responsibility of management. Despite being employed to take food orders, service workers are increasingly expected to have refined skills in managing difficult customers, which can be a daily or hourly occurrence. Because of this, one of Cullinan’s union’s campaigns is organizing around the security of service workers. This includes, in supermarkets, supporting calls by the union’s members for specialized security staff to protect workers.

One reason for the categorical error of “unskilled jobs” is a historic attachment to certain ways of classifying work. Cullinan points out that the modern fast food worker uses skills that are foreign to most workers from generations past. A fast food worker in the average drive-through window will be doing multiple tasks simultaneously. She will take orders from customers via an earpiece, enter them into a program that conveys the orders to the kitchen, collect and hand bags of food to customers, and take payment on electronic systems, all within strict deadlines. On top of this, she is expected to be polite, despite working long shifts that can be physically and emotionally exhausting.

Retail workers are also often required to work with an earpiece to monitor workflow. “These young people are using systems in a way that their grandparents could not understand,” says Cullinan. Workers have to develop skills in managing the emotional and physical toll of such work, which he says “takes knowledge and street smarts.” But this work also calls on new kinds of skills, including acting as an interface between “various technical systems that twenty or thirty years ago no workplace was using.”

Because labor organizing has historically found strength in particular vocations, those tend to be the ones that are subject to more sophisticated forms of classification. One legacy of the tradition of guild and trade unionism has meant that newer jobs that are seen as unskilled are sometimes given less attention from organizers. This reflects a historic tension in working-class organizing. Way back in 1904, the labor reformer William English Walling was grappling with this exact issue. “Intelligence, a general understanding of machinery, an ability to cooperate with the next man, are perhaps more required than ever,” he wrote, “but the old ‘skill’ of the artisan and the old exclusive lines of the trade are becoming a thing of the past.” Skilled workers were often the quickest to organize, and they used their knowledge of the trade as a source of strength in bargaining. Unskilled workers were often perceived by such organizations as a threat to the prosperity of skilled laborers and thereby frustrated from joining industrial organizations or simply overlooked. This is not inevitable, as it is possible to organize unskilled workers, and even find ways to formalize and recognize the skills required by such work—through apprenticeships, for example. The point being: unskilled jobs may be a statistical category, but it is also a historically produced one that in part reflects a particular approach to industrial organizing.

Yet discussing the skills required to do unskilled jobs belies an undeniable reality: much of this work has been deliberately de-skilled in the traditional industrial sense. By breaking up tasks and requiring workers to repeat them endlessly, unskilled jobs both strip away the bargaining power that attends skilled work and makes such work an emotional slog. This is the essence of Taylorism, the scientific management system devised by engineer Frederick W. Taylor at the turn of the twentieth century. Taylorism encourages the creation of discrete, de-skilled jobs in the interest of improving efficiency and productivity. The industrial consequence has been to generate a set of jobs that any worker could perform, making them easily replaced. In this sense, many unskilled jobs have been designed that way—and as a result, the daily experience of these jobs is a landscape of grim tedium.

Put differently, the skills required of workers in unskilled jobs don’t always relate to the actual job itself, but rather to the experience of doing that job relentlessly. As well as working the night shift in a supermarket for years, Spring is a union delegate. When I asked whether she thought of her job as miserable, she was emphatic. “The primary skill you need is psychological fortitude to put up with drudgery, to put up with working in such depressing environments,” she said. The boredom of unskilled work is unyielding; like a deep winter chill, it gnaws away at your sense of life’s possibilities.

This is one of the themes Guendelsberger returns to in her recent book On the Clock. To write it, she worked in a number of low-wage jobs—including at Amazon, a call center, and McDonald’s—all of which were unskilled. Guendelsberger’s time working as an Amazon picker in a fulfillment center is a prime example of an unskilled job and de-skilled work. Every task for pickers is allocated by an electronic scan gun which provides precise instructions and allocates a specific amount of time for completion, with a countdown in seconds. The work was not difficult, but it was stressful and painful, to the point that Guendelsberger was rationing painkillers. Yet for her, the boredom of the work presented a greater challenge to overcome than the physical toll of the vast distances she walked on a daily basis. “It’s hard to communicate how big a deal the boredom is—it’s much easier to write about pain,” Guendelsberger writes. “The long days of lonely monotony brought me close to walking out more than once.”

Unskilled jobs are atomized by design, and as a result, this work can be deeply alienating. “All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force,” wrote Marx in 1856, but such a line could have easily been written today. In her time at the fulfillment center, Guendelsberger’s observation was not far off the mark: “All Amazon’s metrics and ticking clocks and automatic penalties are meant to constrain the inefficiencies of human workers so they act more like robots.” The tendency of the digital revolution, like the industrial revolution, is to treat people as nothing more than productive inputs, devoid of humanity.

For Marx, this was not a simple industrial affair; alienation is a profoundly philosophical indignity that plunders the spiritual essence of human beings. Guendelsberger quotes accounts from Amazon workers, including two from different fulfillment centers in Kentucky.

“The way they make you feel absolutely downtrodden is something that can’t be explained to people who haven’t worked there . . . People say, ‘Well, I’ve worked for such-and-such warehouse, surely it’s not that different—’ No, it is different. It’s downright dehumanizing.”

“The first time I worked there was so soul-sucking I found myself nearly crying in my car right before I was supposed to walk in.”

Unskilled jobs are unjobs for unpeople; Taylorism is the praxis of capitalists who are politically entitled to treat human beings as raw material for the productive process. The “no. 1 rule of survival” as told to Gabriel Mac when he started working at what he calls “Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc.” (presumably Amazon), was to “leave your pride and your personal life at the door.” He describes failing to meet various unattainable goals set by management and being written up as a result, an experience that reduced him to tears when he recounted to a friend. “But so long as I resign myself to hearing how inadequate I am on a regular basis, I can keep this job,” he writes.

As workers become automatons, they also become disposable in economic terms. “As more and more skill is stripped out of a job, the cost of turnover falls,” Guendelsberger writes. “Eventually, training an ever-churning influx of new unskilled workers becomes less expensive than incentivizing people to stay by improving the experience of work or paying more.” There are limits to this—Jeff Bezos recently raised the minimum wage for Amazon jobs to $15, though less from benevolence and more from the consequences of a tight labor market, I would argue. But the general tendency remains: relieving workers of both industrial bargaining power and a sense of self-worth incapacitates their ability to resist exploitation.

It is worth noting that while repetitive, monotonous work is not uncommon, it does not necessarily correlate with low pay or drudgery. Elite sportspeople, for example, often spend their lives practicing a very specific set of skills repeatedly, but such efforts attract a level of recognition and social status that outweigh its downsides. The agonizing snare drum part in Maurice Ravel’s Boléro (which demands playing the exact same two-bar phrase on repeat for fifteen minutes) is excruciatingly stressful by any metric, and yet the glory heaped upon such performers often makes it feel worth it. Even jobs considered skilled, like certain engineering, accounting, and banking jobs, and even some forms of medicine, increasingly rely on technological systems that change or reduce the skill and knowledge requirements workers need to do their job. Such jobs continue to be relatively well-paid and well-respected, yet the repetitive nature of unskilled jobs is still used to justify their workers receiving the lowest pay in the labor market. It also cultivates a widespread indifference to the emotional consequences of this unrelenting indignity.

There is a cultural framing at work, revealed—unintentionally or otherwise—by the father of the assembly line, Henry Ford, in his 1922 autobiography:

Repetitive labor—the doing of one thing over and over again and always in the same way—is a terrifying prospect to a certain kind of mind. It is terrifying to me. I could not possibly do the same thing day in and day out, but to other minds, perhaps I might say to the majority of minds, repetitive operations hold no terrors.

Such work may not be suitable for wealthy industrialists and successful innovators, but it is just fine for the majority of people with far fewer faculties than Ford. Ford’s factories were notoriously awful to work in, to the point where he had to raise the pay to lure back workers, which sounds quite a bit like history repeating itself. To be fair to Ford, for his many failings, he at least paired his obsession with industrial productivity with a stated interest in the health and safety of workers. “Industry need not exact a human toll,” he wrote. Quite optimistically, it seems, because he always maintained that assembly line production was not something that his employees ever particularly objected to, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.

There is now a widely held belief that those working unskilled jobs are getting the pay they deserve. Rather than acknowledging the demands of such work, or appreciating the psychological toll exacted by such labor, the prevailing view is that if these workers had an aptitude for something greater and more worthwhile, they would be unable to tolerate such miserable monotony. “It’s a weird thing,” says Spring, of the cultural connotations that attach to long term work in retail. “It’s like a charitable stigma.” Spring compares this to an aspect of the way people often respond to sex workers: perceiving them as people who couldn’t possibly choose this life, as people without autonomy who need to be rescued. This stigma has political consequences. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently spoke about her time in hospitality working twelve-hour days. She earned less than a living wage and was without health insurance. “I didn’t think that I deserved any of those things,” she said. When the dominant cultural thinking is that unskilled jobs contribute little (if anything) of value, is it any wonder that many who perform them feel the same about themselves?

Unskilled jobs are the ideological insignia of a society founded on industrial alienation and philosophical indignity. Another way of looking at them is simply as work that is undervalued and underpaid. These are jobs in which the downward pressure applied on all cost inputs—labor, safety, management— has been largely successful. In the same way that care workers are underpaid because they draw on skills that the market has not traditionally valued, the skills required of workers to cope in unskilled jobs are considered unimportant. This framing allows employers to monopolize the gains of intense exploitation and defray the emotional, physical, and spiritual costs of it back onto the workers. “Capitalism has no interest in improving the lives of workers,” Cullinan reminds me. It’s the logical practice of a system that values money more than people.

Dignity Regained

One fact remains undeniable but bears repeating: without the work done by people in unskilled jobs, society would cease to function. Building and construction unions have long used the slogan “We built this city.” Barbara Ehrenreich recently spoke about her truck driver friend “who likes to point out that every single thing I get in the supermarket was delivered there by truck. Nothing works without people like him.” The same is true for jobs in food preparation, customer service delivery, and many other kinds of unskilled occupations. People who stock our supermarket shelves, who help us to access food and clothing, are essential to our survival. The slogan of one farm workers union in Australia is “We feed you.” Many unskilled jobs may be boring, painful, and unpleasant, but it is definitely not the case that they are all “bullshit jobs.”

This is not true for all unskilled jobs, of course—many people do work in largely pointless or superfluous workplaces where there is no solace to be found in a wider context. But that does not mean that the experience of work itself is necessarily terrible. Loukas Kakogiannis, who worked in retail for eight years, told me that in his experience of retail and fast food roles, “people work extremely hard.” They don’t love the work, he tells me, but they are not lazy or sloppy. “Even if they don’t necessarily take pride in the product of it all,” he said, in reference to making unhealthy fast food, “they might otherwise take pride in their efficiency or craft of their work.” Working cooperatively as a team doing multiple tasks to keep a supermarket running gave Kakogiannis a sense of satisfaction, even though he took very little enjoyment in the work itself. “We became experts at completing the tasks in the minimum time possible because it made being at work less painful,” he said, and he and his colleagues would use the time they gained to hang out and relax. Such expertise served to build solidarity. As the workplace was organized, Kakogiannis and his colleagues collectively decided to share responsibilities for the worst tasks to avoid such jobs being otherwise unfairly lumped on one person. “We broke the ‘official’ procedures to work in this manner because it was what we deemed fair,” he told me. This kind of camaraderie among workers in low-wage environments pops up repeatedly in accounts of people working in unskilled jobs.

It suggests that we have something to learn from these experiences, that there are many reasons why we need to listen to such workers more often. We are told these jobs are unskilled, but the work is actually skilled; we are told it is often pointless and superfluous, and yet many workers find it to be meaningful. Unskilled jobs may be miserable and alienating, but it is the task of critical thinkers to ask: To what extent is this a regrettable, inevitable reality rather than a socially constructed phenomenon? To what extent does the category of unskilled work bolster the idea that we live in a meritocracy and therefore justify egregious exploitation? If the meritocracy is illusory, then so is the idea of unskilled work.

Karl Marx wrote at a time in which work was similarly being revolutionized, inside the grimy factories of the smoke-filled metropolis. Rather than seeing the industrial revolution as an inexorable slide into a world in which human dignity was irrevocably degraded, he grasped how automation of work could bring about a future of liberation. Industrial development had the potential to create a world in which human labor was minimized such that productive work became simply “conscious linkages” between the “mechanical and intellectual organs” of automated machinery. For Marx, such work would permit:

the free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labor time so as to posit surplus labor, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labor of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.

It’s possible to imagine a world in which automation leads to a reduction in work while redistributing the benefits of these productive advances. That would mean raising the minimum wage, funding universal programs of social welfare, and reducing the necessary labor of society to a minimum in the form of a shorter work week. To win such a world will require organizing as workers on the basis that all work is dignified and provides a contribution to society that is worthy of respect.

For some insight into how this might be done, it is worth looking to the account of a call center worker who became part of a collective effort to organize his workplace. Union delegates talked to members about a range of issues, but one catalyst for change concerned a particularly enchanting demand: the right to read. As an outbound call center for political and private polling, the phones automatically dial, meaning that workers can have a fair bit of time between calls, during which they would customarily read. When one worker was told by management to put her book away and instructed to leave, it became a lightning rod for resistance. The workers downed tools, won the right to read, and reversed the dismissal of their colleague. “The feeling of collectively coming together, to defy ‘business-as-usual,’ to stand up for our workmate and each other, is the most joyous and energizing feeling one could imagine,” wrote Michael Roberts.

Such organizing is undoubtedly challenging, but not impossible. Workers at unskilled jobs deserve solidarity and dignity, and we should support them however we can as they organize to fight for recognition and respect. Jeff Bezos channelled his experience in an unskilled job into creating an empire of misery, exploiting those who now work in unskilled jobs for him. Maybe it is time he was made to listen to his workers instead, and to start showing them some respect.

First published in the Baffler: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/we-keep-you-alive-oshea