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14

We Keep You Alive

Unskilled labor does not exist

by Lizzie O'Shea

1
terms
6
notes

hell yeah

O'Shea, L. (2020). We Keep You Alive. The Baffler, 50, pp. 14-24

17

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.

—p.17 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago

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.

—p.17 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago
18

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.

—p.18 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago

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.

—p.18 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago
19

[...] 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.

—p.19 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago

[...] 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.

—p.19 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago

(verb) to give a false impression of / (verb) to present an appearance not in agreement with / (verb) to show (something) to be false or wrong / (verb) to run counter to; contradict / (verb) disguise

19

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

—p.19 by Lizzie O'Shea
notable
5 months, 3 weeks ago

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

—p.19 by Lizzie O'Shea
notable
5 months, 3 weeks ago
22

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.

—p.22 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago

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.

—p.22 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago
23

[...] 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.

love this framing

—p.23 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago

[...] 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.

love this framing

—p.23 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago
24

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.

—p.24 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago

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.

—p.24 by Lizzie O'Shea 5 months, 3 weeks ago