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labor The Battle Over Working Time: A Countermovement Against Neoliberalism

Campaigns for social control of capital look different from social democratic movements that began in the 1870s and endured through the mid-1960s. Thus many underestimate the significance of the Occupy Movement, the mobilization of domestic workers, immigrants, restaurant and fast food workers, home healthcare workers, self-employed women workers, tomato pickers or the landless. Nonetheless, we should recognize that these campaigns all challenge capital.

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Though it would be hard to see it in the midterm election results, we live in the opening phase of a great countermovement against neoliberalism. The evidence is everywhere you look, and not only in the United States and Latin America. The stunning success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century can only be understood in this context.

Throughout America, there are campaigns for raising the minimum wage and for setting a $15 floor. (On November 4, four red states approved ballot initiatives to up the minimum wage, and San Franciscans voted to follow Seattle’s lead by setting the floor at $15 per hour.) There are also accelerating campaigns for fair workweeks, a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, and for granting home-care attendants the employment protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Fast Food workers, taxi drivers, port truckers, Wal-Mart employees, car washers, Fed Ex freight truck drivers and many health-care workers are all organizing unions.

The campaigns by worker centers to combat wage theft and end misclassification of so-called independent contractors has been joined by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service

The slow-growing international effort to govern global supply chains has produced a comprehensive Rana Plaza Accord, binding leading apparel retailers (though not Wal-Mart or The Gap) to enforceable commitments to pay professional engineers to inspect factory buildings in Bangladesh for structural integrity and fire safety. The campaigns by worker centers to combat wage theft and end misclassification of so-called independent contractors has been joined by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as 15 state governments. Fast food workers’ uprisings have prompted the National Labor Relations Board to consider making franchisors share responsibility for the working conditions of the employees of their franchisees. The midterm elections also advanced the movement for paid sick leave, which won approval by 60 percent of Massachusetts voters, and was approved by voters in two New Jersey municipalities (bringing the total to six), as well as by Oakland residents.             

It’s a global phenomenon. In France, it was expressed by the sans papiers movement, which brought progressives into alliance with immigrant groups in a struggle for civil rights. In Greece, Spain, Belgium, and Slovenia, protests against austerity, deregulation and privatization are challenging the E.U.’s turn from social democracy into neoliberalism. In India, female agricultural workers are organizing to assert rights denied by governments and male heads of households. In Brazil, there is the landless people’s movement. Elsewhere in Latin America, the emergence of indigenous people’s movements against deforestation, dam construction and environmentally devastating mining projects reflects signal a thoroughgoing rejection of neoliberalism. In China, workers’ protests against low pay and excessive overtime, which are beginning to develop into campaigns for free association and collective bargaining, are emblematic not only of growing anger at Communist Party rule, but also at the soulless capitalist road the party has embarked on. On the world stage, the effort of the BRICs nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to organize a development bank to serve as an alternative to the World Bank demonstrates the determination of nations outside the sphere of Western domination to build institutions supporting a different path to development.

Whether or not progressive forces can find common ground with these elements in right-wing populism will help determine our future

In addition to these progressive tendencies, right-wing populist movements also contain elements that reject neoliberalism in the name of individual freedom and/or communitarian values, as Ralph Nader has recently pointed out in Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance for Dismantling the Corporate State. Although there are many facets of the Tea Party, the anti-immigration movement, the French National Party and Golden Dawn that are poisonous, there are also tendencies calling for reining in Wall Street banks and opposing trade deals that weaken national sovereignty in favor of corporate domination. Whether or not progressive forces can find common ground with these elements in right-wing populism will help determine our future.

15 Now/Seattle

Activists at an April demonstration demanding a $15-per-hour minimum wage in Seattle.

The Death of Neoliberal Hegemony

The Lesser Depression of 2008-2014 laid the foundation for this countermovement. The spectacle of great financial institutions collapsing amid shocking revelations of fraud, malfeasance, incompetence and cover-ups decisively destroyed the neoliberal myth that financial innovation incubates technology-driven progress. As Barbara Garson lyrically chronicled in Down the Up Escalator, the ensuing collapse of housing prices, massive layoffs, and wage stagnation disillusioned hundreds of millions of middle-class, working-class and poor Americans. Optimism about the future of the world’s dominant economy, and belief in the spirit of capitalism gave way in successive stages to denial, desperation, despair, and sometimes nihilism.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in 2011, in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, gave voice to the new rebelliousness. Its theme of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent might have lacked credibility before the economic collapse, but Americans who had seen their wealth destroyed by the evaporation of home equity, and who had experienced joblessness so prolonged that unemployment benefits were exhausted, ultimately lost their faith in finance-led, free market capitalism. Neoliberal ideological hegemony, which had blinded people in many countries from the reality of rising inequality, mass immiseration, and piratical exploitation, slowly collapsed as the Depression maintained its grip, and millions of people withdrew from the labor market, where the labor-force participation rate fell to an historic low, below 63 percent. Though the Occupy Wall Street movement, which sprang up in the wake of the financial collapse, left behind no lasting institutions, without it the discourse of rising inequality, which swept across the country in 2013, would have been inconceivable.

The Emergence of the Working-Time Issue

While the global rejection of neoliberalism is broad, varied and uneven, the most promising development in the United States is the far-flung movement to counter the corporate drive to free managers of all restraints on their ability to hire and fire freely, to employ workers where and when they were needed to meet shifts in demand, and to rearrange work schedules and environments as new technologies emerged. As David Weil brilliantly explains in The Fissured Workplace, the change often takes the form of fragmenting workplace institutions, creating layers of subcontractors, suppliers, and franchisees.

The employers’ campaign to gain complete control of work was in part motivated, and in part enabled, by new technologies such as digital communications, laptops, tablets and cell phones, bar codes, computer-aided machine tools, shipping containers, and point of sale inventory management. The new technologies spurred managers to devise new work systems such as project-based teams, lean manufacturing, lean retailing, remote call centers, supply chain management, just-in-time scheduling, freelance odd-jobs agencies such as Task Rabbit, on-line employment, and so on. As Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt argue in Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street, financialization greatly facilitated the ability of corporations to dismantle old work systems and to create new ones.

The great transformation of work has weakened regulations, driven down wage standards, weakened protection against discrimination, made workplaces more dangerous, and reduced workers’ employment security.

The drive for employer control has caused the standard employment relationship to lose its normative status, as Katherine Stone, and Harry Arthurs demonstrated in Rethinking Workplace Regulation. The great transformation of work has weakened regulations, driven down wage standards, weakened protection against discrimination, made workplaces more dangerous, and reduced workers’ employment security.

An important dimension of neoliberalism’s attack on labor was the assault on standards for working time. During the postwar golden age of capitalism, social democratic and New Deal regulations produced a standard employment relationship, which featured life-time employment, career ladders, the eight hour day, the weekend, collective bargaining, dispute resolution, seniority and stable schedules. While this workplace ruled by law was bureaucratic, hierarchical, patriarchal and regimented, it provided workers with security and a modicum of control of their working lives, although this was far less true for women workers.

Mandatory work at home eats away at the separation of family time and work time

The movement of capital in the past 35 years has destroyed employment security and undermined workers’ control of their working lives. When it comes to the dimension of time, the emerging reality is disturbing. Workers’ tenure at work has decreased, especially among men, middle-aged and above. As corporations fissure workplaces, workers can no longer count on moving up an internal job ladder, accumulate seniority, build up pension credits, or gain regular wage increments. In lead corporations, they may work far more than 40 hours, and as so-called supervisors, they are not paid overtime. In contracted workplaces, they may work part-time, or for short periods. Scheduling software makes work time ever-changing and unpredictable. For temp workers, part-timers, independent contractors, or freelancers, the bouts of unemployment between assignments may be extended, and are often uncompensated. Mandatory work at home eats away at the separation of family time and work time. So does work-related e-mail.

The flexibilization of work—or, more accurately, employers’ control of work—is spurring a countermovement to contest the disruption of working time. Campaigns for fair scheduling, paid sick leave, and family medical leave are challenging the neoliberal domination of working time by asserting contemporary norms and values that profoundly conflict with the so-called sharing economy, or perhaps more appropriately, what American Prospect Co-editor Robert Kuttner has deemed the “task-rabbit economy.” This conflict is crystallized in such epiphenomena as Starbucks’s hurried announcement eliminating back-to-back closing/opening scheduling one day after the New York Times published an article exposing the practice. It is manifested in UPS’s announcement, in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in mid-October, that it would cease discharging pregnant workers, and instead make accommodations for them. And it is revealed in the announcements by Costco, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Gamestop that they would not require employees to work on Thanksgiving.
(AP Photo/Detroit News, John T. Greilick)

Jarvis Jarbo of Sterling Heights, a UAW worker at Chrysler's Warren Stamping Plant, tries to get passing motorists to honk while holding a sign protesting "alternative work schedules" outside the plant on Mound Road in Warren, Michigan, Thursday, February 28, 2013. 

The countermovement that is pressing companies to make work time compatible with other dimensions of social life is driven by several motivations. One of course is economic: wage stagnation, wealth destruction, growing inequality, and deepening indebtedness of working families are fueling people’s sense of grievance. People want more steady income, higher wages, longer part-time hours, paid overtime, more predictable schedules, and the ability to take a second or third job, or go back to school, because they are presently having trouble paying their bills, maintaining their living standards, paying off student debt, and saving for home ownership and retirement.

There is a second, deeply cultural motivation for the countermovement, and that is not widely recognized. What people want from work is now different from what they wanted in the past, because working people’s cultural sense of identity is changing. This historic cultural shift is related in large part to the increasing participation of married women and/or mothers in paid employment. This increase in labor-force participation, which accelerated in the past half century, has added needs and values into the mix of what working people expect and demand as they confront flexibilization.

First and foremost, many working women have family responsibilities to which they give priority. They want and need to work, but they also want and need to raise their children, care for aging parents, maintain their households, provide support for their husbands, partners, or lovers, and so on. Furthermore, since their needs and goals vary over time in a different way than those of male workers, they find that the human resource systems of both the old, patriarchal and bureaucratic workplaces and the new, flexible work institutions are in conflict with their work-life trajectories.

While women are as various as humanity as a whole, many young women want to be able to vary their work schedules to meet their need to further their education, develop their professional qualifications, network, travel, pay off student debt, and conduct a social life. When they are middle-aged, they want flexibility to take care of children, aging parents, partners, and households. They want to transition from full-time to part-time and back to full-time work without paying a penalty. When they are older, they want to be paid overtime for supervisory work; they want flexibility to travel and work at home, to take care of ill and aging parents, to spend time with grandchildren. They want to break glass ceilings and to take on leadership roles without compromising their other commitments.

Most of these needs and values that women bring to the contemporary workplace are in conflict with the neo-liberal movement to flexibilize work and to establish employer control of the work relationship, although, as I will discuss, some are in sympathy with some aspects of flexibilization. As a result of these conflicts, we see women playing leading roles in the drive for paid sick leave, freedom from discrimination due to pregnancy, family medical leave, fair scheduling, retail action, domestic workers’ rights, restaurant opportunities, and so on. There is a lot more to be said on this point, but I would like to go on to discuss a second, deep cultural motivation for the countermovement I have described above.

I believe that the move toward flexibilization, which is at the same time a move for greater corporate control of work, is also in conflict with a long-term trend that is changing the way people conceptualize who they are and what they want, in other words, their identity. This change has been emerging over a long time. It can be seen as part of a process that saw people move from identifying themselves on the basis of their social status—peasant, freeholder, nobleman—to identifying themselves on the basis of their employment status—laborer, craftsman, domestic, clerk, operative, manager, entrepreneur, executive—to identifying themselves on the basis of their class status, middle-class, usually.

In the late 1950s, sociologists and social psychologists began observing another way people were identifying themselves. In such works as The Lonely Crowd, The Organization Man, and Growing Up Absurd, they documented how people’s individuality was being suppressed by mass society, and its bureaucratic, standard employment relationship. In the 1960s, a cultural revolution took various forms, including utopianism, communes, feminism, gay liberation, free love, self-exploration via hallucinatory substances, new forms of spirituality, and so on. Central to this myriad of cultural forms was an insistence that the individual possessed an essential identity that needed to be expressed, free of social restraints. In the 1970s, we saw these themes elaborated and transmuted with demands for casual dress at work, equal employment opportunity, disability rights, LGBT rights, subsidized day care, etc. Wildcat strikes, drug use at work, sabotage, demands for workers’ control, and growing interest in cooperatives all proclaimed dissatisfaction with the way authoritarian institutions were repressing the expression of individual identity. In the 1980s, a growing interest in entrepreneurship expressed the idea that employment itself might be in conflict with self-actualization. In the 1990s, freelancing, independent contracting, and the right-to-know and the anti-sweatshop movements all expressed changing cultural norms in various ways. Now we have Uber, Lyft, the Freelancers Union, the paid sick leave movement, campaigns for decent work and fair scheduling.


Nurses are among the many workers who suffer from unpredictable schedules that often lead to working double shifts.

A third factor motivating the countermovement is new technology. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other mobile instruments of communication and information not only make working remotely possible, they also enable people to imagine working under their own control, within networks that they knit together themselves. Mobile information technology is so new that we cannot imagine all the ways that it is transforming how people see themselves in relation to their work and their society, but college professors can see its impact in their own classrooms. When I introduce a guest speaker to the class, students do not accept his or her authority simply because I have introduced them. Nor do they reject their authority because I have introduced them. Instead, they Google the visitor in their smartphones or laptops, so that they can make their own judgment about the value of the source of information being offered to them. The same process goes on at work. Supervisors give orders, or present interpretations of a law, but technology-equipped workers have a means to verify and challenge authority immediately to hand.

Young workers today have not only been staring at and using digital devices, they’ve been watching their parents get laid off during the Lesser Depression

This last point is connected to a generational phenomenon. Young workers today have not only been staring at and using digital devices, they’ve been watching their parents get laid off during the Lesser Depression, seen “flat corporations” outsource and offshore work. They’ve been working at task-rabbit jobs, working part-time in retail in positions that used to be filled by full-time, experienced professional salespeople. As a result, many of them don’t believe in the promises of corporate recruiters, and they don’t expect to gain long-term employment. They are looking for many of the same things working women want: predictable hours, a living wage, flexibility to pursue education, professional development, networking opportunities. Their needs and values have been shaped by the realities and shortcomings of neoliberal society.

Taken together, these four streams of cultural demand, one powered by economic distress, one by the long-term evolution of human identity, a third by many working women and young workers asserting their needs and values, and a fourth enabled by new tools, are fueling new demands on social systems to do a better job of governing work. Some of these demands coincide with employers’ desire for flexibility. All of them conflict with employers’ desire for total control.

The fact that the countermovement contains cultural demands means that the campaigns for social control of capital will look very different from the social democratic movements that began in the 1870s and endured through the mid-1960s. The fact that they look different makes it easy for us to underestimate the significance of the Occupy Movement, the Rana Plaza Accord, the mobilization of domestic workers, immigrants, restaurant and fast food workers, home healthcare workers, self-employed women workers, tomato pickers or the landless.

Nonetheless, we should recognize that these campaigns represent new challenges to capital. In the 1930s, the Fair Labor Standards Act defined employment narrowly and in a way that does not comprehend contemporary work arrangements. David Weil has made that excruciatingly clear. Less recognized is the fact that the Fair Labor Standards Act did not recognize workers’ rights to fair schedules, or more broadly, to a voice to the shaping of their working time. I predict that this will emerge as a new labor right, and ultimately as a human right.

An important consequence of this will be that the countermovement will not be demanding a return to the Standard Employment Relationship. The SER, for all its virtues, was sexist, authoritarian, and inimical to workers’ desire for individuality, creativity, and self-expression. The new work relationship that will emerge as the countermovement presses for new social control will be different. The employment and labor laws will have to be changed to meet the demands of new technologies, new cultural values, new consumer demands, and changing economic realities, including global labor markets, global product markets, global supply chains, and global governance movements and institutions.

At the present moment, the most fruitful way to tackle the changing workplace is to focus on new values and demands for the control of working time. The progressive movement, spearheaded by women’s groups and organized labor, should rally around the campaign for paid sick leave, and should broaden it to incorporate the full dimension of worker voice in controlling working time.