Friday, April 20, 2012

Management Manipulation of an Economic Crisis

Richard Wolff
One of my favorite economists, the open and unabashedly Marxist Richard Wolff, states the following about a concept very foreign to American workers, democracy in the workplace. He begins by commenting that for a democracy-loving people, Americans sure do make a glaring exception for the world of work:

"If democracy belongs anywhere, it belongs in the workplace. Yet we accept, as if it were a given, that once we cross the threshold of our store, factory, or office, we give up all democratic rights. If this agreement at least delivered a rising standard of living, it might make sense that people would accept it. But now we have an economic system that imposes an undemocratic workplace and doesn’t deliver a decent economy in exchange."

Wolff finds it both stunning and amazing that a freedom-loving, group of people who extol the virtues of individual initiative should find an authoritarian-style work environment inevitable.He finds the uncritical acceptance of status hierarchy not only oppressive to workers but counter to productivity as well. 

Of course, the fact that co-operative style workplaces where everyone has a voice and an interest in the organization's success operate more efficiently and humanely is a no-brainer. Even when the product is public service at, for example, a large urban library, a democratic workplace could improve both morale and efficiency, making the institution more relevant and meaningful to all who are involved in its operation.

The current concept of increasing productivity involves a certain type of management that plays down any human commonality between those on the serving end of instruction and those receiving it. This strategy is basically just the sugar-coating of a management manifesto of manipulation. The workshop tips that proliferate in the civil service workplace are indicative of the contempt in which employees are held.  

What exactly are these apprentice managers, some of whom make only about $5,000 a year more than their charges, learning? Shocking, anti-human things like how to avoiding exchanging personal information or having any kind of a genuine relationship with inferiors. They are boning up on ways to ward off and field questions from underlings in order to avoid any degree understanding or emotional intimacy. They are provided a treasure trove of stock phrases to parrot back regarding sick pay, vacation pay or any kind of personal leave. In short, the foundation of this "management training" consists of indoctrination in the "skills" of remaining aloof and barking out directives at people who are assumed to be lazy, devious, potential scammers.

I have worked at my library workplace for seventeen years and have, of late, witnessed its deterioration into a sweat shop. It started when the San Francisco City Librarian gave birth to the idea to keep on only a skeletal staff. This wasn't done by layoffs but simply by no replacement workers being hired after folks move on or retire. This natural attrition has left a skeletal staff in the place where a full staff used to be. A micro-staff that is expected to work just as hard as the full staff used to. Why not five hours a day on the public desk instead of three? Why not have everyone work some evenings and weekend days? Why not have one person order books in three subject areas instead of just one?

This kind of "experiment" is taking place right now in workplaces across the country: speeding up production as salaries drop due to furlough days, fewer sick and vacation days, increased employee contributions to health and pension benefits or the elimination of these benefits altogether.

Yes, if nothing changes the workplace for the "lucky" few employed workers of the future will be upper management's wet dream and the working stiff's nightmare. The way they put it on 60 Minutes was that it's a "buyer's market" for employers. But all it really means is the value of labor has become dirt cheap and those who perform it, totally expendable.