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Tag Archives: globalization

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Media headlines of late are challenging our presumptions about what is invisible labor.

Amazon, for instance, announced the opening of a store that eliminates the frontline job of cashiers – as well as the checkout lane and all the self-checkout machines. Instead, this work will be done through the automatic scanning of consumer movements around the store and on the shelves. Live employment will be diverted to locations behind the scenes, in labors of preparing and stocking the food.

Likewise, in my home state of Missouri, a waitress at Hooters was fired for failing to do the work of looking right on the job. That labor involved wearing a wig (bought at her own expense) to cover scar on her head after returning from brain surgery, and thus upholding gendered and sexualized appearance rules at work.

Even acts of resistance on the job are telling, like when an African-American employee broke a stained-glass window in the Yale dining hall where he washed dishes. Outraged by a scene depicting slaves picking cotton, he was no longer willing to do the work of idly supporting in a discriminatory organizational environment.

Automation, aesthetic labor, and racial tasks are examples of contemporary ways that the workplace is disempowering workers and submerging the types of tasks they are expected to do. This is the starting point of a new book I co-edited with two legal scholars, Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry.

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In the lede article in Tuesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt pointed out that a critical topic has been glaringly absent from the presidential debate: the standard of living of Americans.

Hats off to Leonhardt and the Times for bringing this issue to the front page. Unfortunately, as is typical of the Times and other media outlets, the article was based exclusive on interviews with mainstream economists.

A particularly sharp juxtaposition between economic and sociological analyses of living standards and inequality was posed today with the publication of a symposium of sociologists in the journal Work and Occupations on Arne Kalleberg’s recent book, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.

Based on his interviews with economists, Leonhard lists the top two causes of “a decade of income stagnation” as automation and globalization. No one to blame here, just impersonal forces we can’t control!

Among a “second group” of forces, he notes rising health care costs and “shrinking” unions.

In contrast, neither Kalleberg nor any of his commenters highlight technology as playing an independent role in wage stagnation and growing inequality, unmediated by the decisions of managers and policymakers. Instead, Kalleberg focuses on the rise of low-wage work, driven by a shifting balance of power between employers and workers as employers, aided by policymakers, engaged in corporate restructuring to achieve flexibility.

Globalization is a key force here, indeed. But rather than viewing it as an impersonal force to which corporations respond, sociologists emphasize how globalization is actively created by American corporations through global outsourcing.

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The Luddite sees industrial robots everywhere and, fearing negative effects on employment, begins to rage against the machines.

Seeing the same robots, the (liberal) economist exclaims, “What marvelous labor-saving technology. This will maximize productivity, and jobs that are lost in this factory will be replaced with high-tech jobs elsewhere in the economy!”

The Marxist sighs, and responds, “Is this some sort of joke? In the US today, seventeen percent of the American workforce – 27 million individual workers – is unemployed or underemployed.”

 

I imagined this scenario as I read the most recent entry in the New York Times’ consistently excellent series on the iEconomy, which focused on a new generation of robots being deployed in manufacturing.

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