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by Dale Tweedie

Why work?

One influential idea, especially in economics, is that we mainly put up with the pain work causes in exchange for wages. On this view, a key task of management is to ensure that workers don’t avoid or ‘shirk’ their tasks.

An opposing view is that working is itself a human ‘good’. For example, in work we might express our abilities or be connected with others. If this is right, management is not necessary to good work in the same way. Indeed, management might sometimes get in the way.

Our research explores which view was most plausible in cleaning work. Cleaners are an important test case because economists would anticipate that they have compelling reasons to ‘shirk’. Their work is arduous and absolutely necessary. Yet in a peculiar paradox, cleaning is lowly paid and socially stigmatized. Barbara Ehrenreich once described cleaners as ‘the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society’.

However, not only did the cleaners we studied not ‘shirk’, they broke management rules that prevented them from doing a good quality job. This commitment to working well under unlikely conditions suggests that influential views about why people work, and about what management does, can be misleading.

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It may seem strange to say, but we academics who study work sometimes get too caught up in the workplace itself. By that I mean that, much like the workers we study, we get so fixated on workplace events and processes that we forget to attend to the sphere of non-work. If we really want to understand the meanings that work acquires, then it behooves us to attend to the messages about work that are increasingly encoded in popular media –most notably, in film and TV. Here we can often find instances of what Paul Willis once called “penetrations,” or insights into the truth about work and inequality that debunk socially dominant myths.

As Exhibits A and B, consider two recent films that center on the struggles that workers confront in this era of neo-liberalism and new technologies. Both films derive their power at least partly from the sites they invoke, which lie at the very center of power and authority in the advanced capitalist nations. In the one case –“Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo— we get a vivid account of freelance cameramen trawling for lurid footage of violent crime, which they can sell to local TV stations wanting to jump start their ratings.

In the other case –“Good Kill,” starring Ethan Hawke and January Jones— the film centers on military officers assigned to work as drone operators, ordered to rain Hellfire missiles down at Afghani peasants vaguely suspected of being militants. These films seem on their face to be worlds apart. Yet in truth, both capture deeply troubling situations in which workers are compelled to produce and reproduce the very culture of violence that envelops us in our everyday lives. These films raise far reaching questions of concern to workers generally: What to do when morality and authority diverge –and how to achieve a modicum of agency and autonomy in a system designed to support neither.

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dollarIn early June, it came to light that last October, Walt Disney World Orlando eliminated the jobs of 250 data systems employees. The move made national news not because so many workers became jobless, but because Disney offered a severance bonus to employees who remained with the firm long enough to train the young immigrant workers who would assume their tasks.

The heartlessness of this move left workers and consumers reeling. A former Disney employee told a reporter for the New York Times, “It was so humiliating to train someone else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.” Outrage spread across news and social media, fueled by dismay that a company so closely associated with wholesome family entertainment would betray its workers in this way.

Many observers lamented loopholes in the H-1B visa program used to secure the replacement workers’ entry to the US, and endorsed reforms that would reduce impacts on American workers. Relatively few seem to grasp that Disney’s moves are rooted not in policy loopholes or corporate malfeasance, but instead are part and parcel of capitalism. Outsourcing, layoffs and swiftly severed ties – this is what capitalism looks like. As Karl Marx pointed out in his Manifesto of the Communist Party, workers, who under capitalism “must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The “increasing improvement” of production methods “ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.” Manual workers confronted this reality decades ago, as plants in the United States closed and production moved overseas to take advantage of lower-cost labor. Increasingly, professional workers are also feeling the pain of displacement. And there is only more to come.

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Chris Warhurst raises a number of issues that warrant careful attention. One stems from the still-considerable boundary between UK and US sociology – trends “over there” don’t map on to what’s happening in the USA (to the detriment of both sides, I might add). A second and related issue concerns the fate of the sociology of work and employment –empirically rich and ascendant, relative to economics? Or in the doldrums and losing its audience? A third is the jurisdictional struggle between culturally attuned areas of study (cultural studies, gender studies) on the one hand, and more structurally oriented approaches toward the “hidden abode.” Let me comment on these in turn.

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Chris Warhurst takes the 2007-08 financial crisis as a point of departure to ask some important questions. What is the future of the sociology of work? Is there still a place—indeed a need—for those “ethnographic monographs on work and employment” that have long been the backbone of the field?   It was so disheartening to read that new introductory textbooks subsume work within chapters on tourism and sport; while there is “little teaching of the sociology of work and employment in Australia’s top universities.” Yet I don’t think that the problem lies where Warhurst suggests it does, with a dearth of trading floor ethnographies. What we’re confronting is a deeper crisis, what I’ll call a decoupling of work from profits. It is the real culprit behind the marginalization of the sociology of work, and it derives from the financialization of the economy.

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It’s an old question, really, but an important one — are managerial practices and work design responsible for the behavior of employees? Or does worker engagement and behavior come down to individual personalities, with responsibility thus resting primarily with workers? And what are the impacts on a firm’s financial success?

These questions received newfound attention with the publication of a study conducted by the Gallup organization, based on deceptively interesting survey data. Interesting, because they mirror critical concepts we sociologists of work use in our research. Deceptive, because the report stands as a textbook example of the kind of shallow reasoning that results when analysts proceed without concepts such as power, organizational design, and the normative climate fostered by management.

The report, titled “State of the American Workplace:  Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders ” uses data collected from individuals and their employers to show that a variety of factors that Gallup terms “employee engagement” enhance productivity, profitability and customer ratings while reducing accidents, theft, absenteeism, turnover and defects.

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