The New Face of Toil

BRAVE NEW WORKPLACE byRobert Howard. Viking, $16.95.
AS AMERICA’S ECONOMIC complacency has eroded, its regard for big, powerful machines has increased. Nearly every proposal for improving the economy starts with a lecture about the need to raise the industrial-productivity rate. Inventing and installing new machines are not the only ways to do this, but they come high on most lists. What was the American steel industry’s sin, if not its delay in turning to continuous casters? When the Japanese are envied for their high savings rate, it is mainly because their frugality leaves them with extra money to invest in advanced production equipment.
Today’s renewed enthusiasm for applied technology is only one side of a familiar pro-and-con discourse in American life. The practical-minded Yankee culture long embraced the machine as the surest way to prosperity, even while worrying about its unsettling side effects. Fifteen years ago, when the problem of creating wealth seemed to have been solved, attention was focused on the side effects. Now, in the lengthening shadow of Nippon, worries about too rapid growth seem like luxuries of an innocent bygone age.
The cautions about technology have traditionally fallen into three categories. One is environmental: How can we cope with nuclear waste products, sulfurous emissions, the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and threats to the tropical woodlands? In the past the world has avoided Club of Rome-style environmental disasters mainly through further technological tinkering. Eighty years ago the United States seemed in danger of deforestation because of the increasing demand for railroad ties and lumber to build frontier towns. When the price of wood began to climb, people found ways to conserve, and today the United States is more heavily wooded than it was at the turn of the century. But environmental effects are not always so nicely reversible (England lost its forests and never regained them), and the persistence of radioactive material gives new meaning to the idea of irreversibility and the need for environmental control.
The second category of objection is aesthetic: Life grows less lovely when shaped by the machine. Wasn’t Main Street nicer than these ugly new malls? Didn’t the berries taste better when they came fresh from the farm? America’s most eloquent anti-technological aestheticians have been Henry Adams and Lewis Mumford. More recently a political scientist named Langdon Winner has published a series of essays, collected in The Whale and the Reactor, warning that we are embracing new technologies, notably the computer, without stopping to think how they may alter our daily lives. Like Adams and Mumford, Winner sees the alteration as baleful. Also like them, he does not dwell on trade imbalances and productivity rates. In this view economic “growth,”as measured by the gross national product, is a narrow and misleading concept, and a nation can easily make itself poor in all the important ways while imagining that it has grown rich.
The third category represents a more distilled political ideology. Its objection to new machines is not that they change society but that they leave it the same. Each invention represents merely a new weapon in the endless struggle between labor and management for social and economic control.
This line of reasoning, which was started in earnest by Karl Marx, was well summed up a decade ago in Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. Braverman argued that the workplace was, always and inescapably, a battle zone (always, that is, under capitalism). Managers, guided by the time-and-motion studies carried out by Frederick Winslow Taylor, constantly sought to increase their control over the pace and nature of work and to reduce the workers’ discretion. Workers constantly fought back. If technology allowed a machine to perform tasks for which a skilled worker had previously been necessary, the machine would strengthen the manager’s hand and leave the worker powerless and “de-skilled.”
The finest piece of writing to come from this school was David Noble’s Forces of Production, a history of the machine-tool industry which was published in 1984. Noble emphasized that technical innovation was not good or bad in itself; its worth depended on how it was applied in the workplace. For example, when computerization came to the machine shop after the Second World War, managers had to decide between two approaches for automating their equipment. Noble demonstrated that the choice between the systems turned not on their engineering or economic merits but on in-house politics. One approach (“record-playback”) left the machinists in control of the machines, while the other (“numerical control”) transferred power to programmers who worked at desks, not on the shop floor.
Robert Howard’s Brave New Workplace is a reportorial work that shares the Braverman-Noble perspective. Indeed, its obvious lineage is responsible for my main complaint about the book. Howard explicates Taylorism but never mentions Harry Braverman. He talks about numerically controlled machine tools but not about David Noble. In a dozen ways he shows that he has drawn from both men’s work, and from that of Barry Bluestone, Bennett Harrison, Harley Shaiken, and Robert Kuttner, among others, but none of their names appears in his book. He studs his discussion with talk of “contradiction” and “crisis” but does not mention Karl Marx. Perhaps these omissions are merely an unforeseen consequence of Howard’s decision to dispense with source notes altogether; perhaps he was striving to produce an unencumbered, readable book. Whatever the reason, the result is weird and vaguely insulting to the reader, as if someone had written a book about Robert Moses without mentioning the fact that Robert Caro had already said a few words on the subject.
Howard, a young journalist and man of the left, bases his book on interviews about and investigations of high tech in America’s industries. He intends his material to advance two themes. One is that the newest wave of technology is being misused in the same old struggle over power and submission in the workplace; the other, that the struggle is doomed to continue, despite the new American ideal of flexible, cooperative working arrangements. The rise of spiffy-looking no-smokestack offices where secretaries call their bosses by their first names should not blind us to the realities, Howard says.
The essential fact [is] that work in America is a relationship of unequal power, that conflicts of interest are endemic to working life, and that this new model of the corporation, much like the old, is founded on the systematic denial of influence and control to the large majority of working Americans.
To Americans at large, computers may have come to stand for industrial renaissance, but for managers they represent
nothing less than the welcome realization of an ideal that has tempted industrial managers throughout much of the twentieth century—a captivating image of the workplace as a realm of perfect control.
Howard’s evidence for his claims consists of vivid journalistic portraits of working life in the industries most affected by technological change. Some of his stories concern health and safety: one fifty-four-year-old woman, exposed to a variety of esoteric chemicals during her tenure at a scientific-instruments plant, became so “sensitized” that she broke out in a rash when exposed to anything from store-bought bread to metal clasps on pants. “‘My doctor,’ she tells me, ‘says I’m allergic to the twentieth century.”’ Howard also provides familiar illustrations of jobs that have been eliminated by automation, though he admits that new jobs may have been created elsewhere.
BY FAR HIS MOST powerful material concerns the use of the new technology for plain oppression. As more and more clerical work has been shifted to computers, larger and larger numbers of people have discovered that their work may be automatically monitored from afar. As Howard describes it, this possibility has been exploited with a singleminded fixation on numbers that makes the Vietnam body count seem a marvel of flexibly subtle thinking. He draws his examples from business operations— banking, insurance, accounting, and the telephone system—that are ideally suited to computerized monitoring.
For example, Howard describes how computerization changed life in the revenue-accounting department of Texas International Airlines. The company hired a computer consultant to observe the work of some 130 clerks in its accounting office, mainly women, as they riffled through flight coupons and tabulated revenues. Howard says that the consultant operated surreptitiously, without informing the clerks that he was trying to design a system to streamline and “rationalize” their work. Once the consultant had finished his report and the computerized system was in place, it enabled supervisors to keep minute track of how many tickets each clerk was processing each day.
On their productivity print-outs the supervisors could discern an alarming pattern: “Office productivity would dip, like clockwork, at the same two points of every day—around nine in the morning and three in the afternoon.”The problem was the company’s “flextime” policy, which allowed employees to arrive for work any time between six and nine in the morning and leave nine hours later.
When the last of the office workers arrived at nine, those who had been working since six would stop to say hello. Productivity, says Taylor [the consultant], would plummet. And when those who had been working since six left at three, the same thing would happen again. “So,'' says Steve Taylor matter-of-factly, “management decided to cut back on their flextime.”
When a similar but more onerous system was imposed on telephone operators, it produced print-outs of each operator’s performance for each quarter hour; apparently, it allowed supervisors to determine who had been working hard enough to deserve a bathroom break. At a Southwestern Bell installation in Houston, clerks were given video-display terminals for routine work but were discouraged from using the Tutor program that would teach them the computer’s full capacities. “You could learn anything—the sky’s the limit—if only they’d let you,” one clerk told Howard after she had tried Tutor. “I could learn things even some of the engineers didn’t know.” The clerk had discovered Tutor’s password by chance; her supervisor had kept it secret.
Obviously, businesses have a right to insist on certain standards of performance, but Howard convincingly argues that this kind of small-minded, dehumanizing control does not advance anyone’s legitimate ends. Computers can be instruments of broader human possibility as well as greater efficiency, he says, but not when they are used for pettifogging Taylorist control. (He points out that writers and editors love their computers and rarely complain of eye fatigue or back strain, because for them machines mean independence. To the insurance clerk who knows that each keystroke is being counted and timed, the new technology presents a different face.)
In the computerized workplace, workers need more access to information, . . . more integrated jobs, and more autonomy. . . . The effective computerization of work depends upon motivated workers who are willing to adapt to new technology, to perform their jobs responsibly, to persist in the face of abstract tasks.
The more a company denies its employees reasonable liberties, Howard says, the more it deprives itself of their best efforts and the full efficiency of the machinery.
Monitoring often does not even serve the narrowest ends of economic efficiency that are its ostensible justification. One Citibank supervisor, for example, tells the story of a two-minute ‘average working time’ placed on all calls to customer representatives at the bank’s bank-card processing center in South Dakota. What happened was that as workers anxiously approached the end of the time limit on each call, they would hang up on their customers whether the conversation was completed or not. . . . Yet no matter what misgivings about monitoring individual managers might have, the temptation—and the pressure—to rely on such quantitative data is enormous and virtually irresistible.
In keeping with his idea of constant struggle in the workplace and of managers’ insistence on even economically ruinous forms of control, Howard holds out no hope that companies will grow more flexible on their own. He claims that management will yield only in the face of superior force and that the force can come only from workers united. Therefore, he presents at the end of his book something truly novel these days: specific suggestions for the renaissance of labor unions.
If unions are to avoid going the way of the Whigs, Howard says, they must adjust their vision to the real source of discontent for today’s workers. During the Depression, unions could base an organizing crusade on questions of pay, security, and representation. Pay and seniority will always matter, but Howard says that control of workplace technology may be the only cause that can motivate people to join unions once again.
The solution today may prove to be much the same as it was fifty years ago: to create a social movement with the vision and the power to make the brave new workplace serve more social ends, much as industrial unionism did for the mass production economy.
Howard is so enthusiastic about the potential of a revived union movement that he careens into the realm of neo-liberalism in describing its virtues. If organized labor could make technology seem less threatening, he says, it could help the whole economy adopt new machinery that much more quickly. But he does not sound sincere when discussing cooperative arrangements from which everyone might benefit; endless, grueling struggle in the workplace is at the heart of his social idea. All that is necessary—or possible—in his view is to make it a more equal fight.
What if you do not share this fundamentally Marxist vision? What if you are convinced by Howard’s illustrations but also believe that the American companies with the most adversarial labormanagement relations have been among the first to succumb to competition from abroad? (Exports, imports, balance of trade, and Japan do not appear in the index to this book; Japanese management, which does, gets two one-line references in the text.)
Could a revived labor movement bridle misused technology without turning every factory into Northern Ireland? Could it fight for control of technology without fighting over everything else?
To Robert Howard, I suspect, these would seem silly and sentimental questions, since the answer is obviously no. In his call for a newly militant labor movement he seems almost nostalgic for the days when a boss was a boss, a scab was a scab, and no one was confused about fighting the good fight. Because so many unionists joined the bloody strike-breaking fights at the turn of the century and the political battles that climaxed during the New Deal, American capitalism was humanized and American workers prospered in the 1950s and 1960s. But is it any disrespect to the memory of Reuther, Lewis, and even Haywood to suggest that today’s struggles are different, and that American labor and management are both endangered by competition from overseas? Perhaps a recognition of shared interests and vulnerabilities would do more than a renewed class war to curb the abuses that Howard has documented.