A sketch on the future of work (the future for workers). One method to grasp the future of work (and the broader economy) is to look closer at the history of systems reshaping work. Below is my attempt to take an exploratory look at these systems (in-progress).
1. One of the earliest engines that signified the move from work in the home to the factory was the invention of the spinning jenny in 1764 by James Hargreaves – a time of technological innovation in Great Britain.
2. In 1844, Frederich Engels documented the horrific working conditions of this new, industrial working-class in England.
3. The history of work over the last 200 years in New York City, and across the country, is marked by the rises and falls of movements and struggles within movements for those who were excluded. Work over this period included slave labor, indentured servants, housework and other forms of unrecognized, unpaid work (see MCNY’s exhibition, City of Workers, City of Struggle for an excellent survey of New York City’s labor history. I have a text on the show I’ll post here shortly).
4. Fast forward to the mid-20th century. The 1950’s and 60’s represented the rise and power of strong unions, and a growing anti-capitalist movement. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States, one of the first U.S. unions to have a primarily female membership, and a key player in the labor history of the 1920s and 1930s.
5. David Harvey states that one of the catalysts for the rise of neoliberalism. Harvey defines as a class project to accumulate wealth and power in a small, elite class. According to Harvey, one of the catalysts for neoliberalism in the United States was Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo calling for businesses to unite. Powell’s memo kick-started an organized effort against labor to take America back through privatization, deregulation, and austerity.
Excerpt of the Powell memo. Source: https://environmentlawhistory.blogspot.com/2018/09/the-powell-memo.html.
6. Work was radically reshaped during the shift from the industrial age as companies pursued globalization and outsourcing for profit-maximizing. For example, between 1960 and 2000, New York City lost 650,000 manufacturing and port jobs.
7. Union membership eroded, while wealth inequality increased.
8. By the 90’s, after the economy recovered from the fiscal crisis of the 70’s and multiple recessions, it was a dramatically different landscape powered by services, finance, tourism, real estate. Wall Street, 1987, directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, told the story a young stockbroker who becomes involved with Gordon Gekko, a wealthy, unscrupulous corporate raider. In the scene below, Gekko says, “This painting here. I bought it ten years ago for $60 000. I could sell it today for $600 000. The illusion has become real and the more real it becomes the more desperate they want it. Capitalism at it’s finest.” The painting is by Joan Miro.
9. In the 1999 movie, Office Space, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) tries to make it through each day at his company Initech. Even the restaurant he visits at lunch, the waiter is trying to go above and beyond. It’s just a matter of time until Gibbons can’t take it anymore. While undergoing hypnotherapy, his therapist dies during the session, leaving Gibbons in a blissful post-work state. Office Space signified the millions of white-collar jobs that seemingly had no meaning.
10. Enter the financial crisis of 2007-2008 when the big banks took the world financial system over the edge.
Sources: Vanguard, Financial Crisis Inquiry Report: Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States, and “The 2007–2009 Financial Crisis: An Erosion of Ethics: A Case Study” in Journal of Business Ethics, December 2017, Volume 146, Issue 4, pp. 805–830.
11. The banks were bailed out. During the blackout after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the power remained on at Goldman Sachs in Lower Manhattan, a sign of corporate power and climate inequality.
Image: Lower Manhattan in New York City on Oct. 30, 2012, after Hurricane Sandy. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters.
12. Over the past 40 years, profits have skyrocketed, while worker wages have stagnated.
13. Occupy Wall Street attacked the greed of the 1% with the message, “We are the 99%.”
14. Enter 2020, and the struggle over work continues. Amazon, a market darling, pursues relentless growth in sharp contrast to a well-documented record of anti-union policy, and worker abuse and injuries, while seeking to extract incentives from cities across the country.
Photo: Brett Wallace. Protests before the hearing between Amazon and New York City Council, January 30th, 2019.
15. The gig economy promotes flexibility and individualism while removing hard-won labor protections fought for in the 20th century. Risk is shifted from the company to the worker. Labor platforms, such as Uber, fight against even recognizing their workers as employees.
16. We are all now looked at as startups. We are told if someone fails, it’s not the system, it’s them. Every worker understands there’s no offseason. Employers continue to look to remove workers from the game before they burnout. Regenerating is key. In some companies, another survival mechanism is to keep building new skills, becoming a utility player.
17. New technologies, such as artificial intelligence, are quietly seeping into the workplace. While millions of jobs are not likely to disappear overnight, workers will see their work shift in more coordination with machines, while parts of jobs become automated over time. Surveillance technologies, originally built for military use, increasingly monitor workers.
Photo: Brett Wallace. Still from the film, Truckers, 2020.
18. All this change, combined with monitoring, leads to increased psychological stress and anxiety on the job. In addition, institutions are not doing enough to help their workers re-skill for this future. Workplace cultures struggle with sacrificing short term efficiency for long term planning.
19. UBI is now making its way into the conversation. Examples exist such as the Alaska Permanent Fund. Since 1982, the fund has paid every Alaskan resident anywhere from a few hundred to $2,000 annually out of its oil revenues. But, be careful, the current proposals of UBI pushed by private industry (and folks like Peter Thiel) could be used as a way to reduce other needed social benefits, actually hurting those most in need of a safety net.
20. New movements, organizations, and approaches have emerged to continue the fight for a more just, inclusive, and dignified future and build alternatives for a post-capitalist future.
- New autonomous groups, coalition groups, and worker centers are building support for immigrant and working-class communities to achieve dignity and justice.
- New coop movements such as the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives.
- New platform cooperative movements, such as the Platform Coop Consortium at the New School. And, groups in those movements, such as SignCo.io in the UK offers health interpreting services for Deaf people, Beceer in Indonesia is a co-operative vegetable delivery service, Mensakas is a unionized platform co-op of delivery and messaging workers in Barcelona.
- Vertical integration with new activist movements, such as Tech Workers Coalition, rising in the “techlash.”
- New movements, such as the Culture Workers Education Center, providing space and resources for cultural workers looking to organize for better protections.
- New research calling for Principled AI.
I think need more companies deprioritizing profit maximation and committing to social and environmental justice (beyond merely setting aside a % of profits for good). Who’s doing this the best?
I am also excited about the possibilities of new models of artistic production, growing out of examples from the past, such as Artist Placement Group – an experimental project founded in 1966 in London – here artists were placed inside corporations and government agencies to propose radical ideas and possibilities.
In closing, how’s this economy working for you? At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2020, Trump credited his presidency for an economic boom stating the “The United States is in the midst of an economic boom the likes of which the world has never seen before,” according to The Washington Post.
More to come….