Work is central to the human experience. Societies are organized to allocate work to produce the goods and services needed by the society and its members for sustenance, clothing, shelter, defense, and even luxury.
- Work provides individuals with their social identity.
- It provides people with economic resources.
- Work is one means where by people achieve social location.
- Work dominates people's time.
- Finally, work is a primary source of life's meaning.
The world of work also has a dark side. The structure of work is a major source of social problems. Work is alienating for many people. The organization of work sometimes exploits, does harm to workers, and often dehumanizes them. The distribution of work and how it is rewarded are major sources of inequality in society (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:444).
Alienation is the separation of human beings from each other, from themselves, and from the products they create. In capitalism, according to Karl Marx, worker alienation occurs because:
- Workers do not have any control over their labor
- Because they are manipulated by managers
- Because they work in large, impersonal settings
- Because they work at specialized tasks
Under these circumstances workers use only a fraction of their talents. They have no pride in their own creativity and in the final product. In short, worker alienation is linked with unfulfilled personal satisfaction.
1. Accidents on the Job
Many owners of mills, mines, and factories continue to consider the safety of their workers a low-priority item, presumably because of the high cost (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:367).
Many of the dangers today are invisible contaminants such as nuclear radiation, chemical compounds, dust, and asbestos fibers in the air. Dangers from invisible contaminants are increasing because the production of synthetic chemicals has increased so dramatically (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:367).
- There are approximately 5.5 million jobs related injuries yearly
- hospital treatment required for 3.3 million
- Each year 6,000 workers are killed and 6,000 severely injured in occupational accidents
- Most significant, "30 percent of industrial accidents are caused by illegal safety violations" (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:367)
2. Illness on the Job
The extent of job-induced illnesses is much more difficult to determine than the number of job-related accidents.
Some diseases takes many years of exposure to affect the skin, lungs, blood chemistry, nervous system, or various organs (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:367).
- There are at least 100,000 worker deaths each year from exposure to deadly chemicals and other safety hazards.
- 390,000 new cases of occupational disease.
- Of the thirty-eight million workers in manufacturing industries, industries expose 1.7 million to a potential carcinogen each year. Workplace carcinogens are believed to cause an estimated 23 to 38 percent of deaths resulting from cancer each year.
The following are examples of specific risks due to continued exposure to dangerous chemicals:
- Workers in the dyestuffs industry (working with aromatic hydrocarbons) have about thirty times the risk of the general population of dying from bladder cancer (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:368).
- About 10 percent of coal miners suffer from black lung, caused by years of breathing coal dust in areas with inadequate ventilation (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:368).
- Migrant farm workers have a life expectancy of forty-nine years. This low rate is a consequence of living in poverty or near-poverty and, most significant, of the exposure to herbicides and pesticides sprayed on the fields where they work (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:368).
Historically, work in factories was sometimes difficult, often tedious, and usually boring. There was always the threat of lowered productivity and worker unrest under these adverse conditions.
Factory owners and their managers used several tactics to counteract these potential problems and especially to maintain high productivity (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:365).
1. Scientific Management: Taylorization
Scientific management is also called Taylorization after its founder Frederick Taylor. It came to the fore in U.S. industry around 1900. The emphasis was on:
- breaking down work into very specialized tasks
- standardizing tools and procedures
- speeding up of repetitive work
These efforts increased worker efficiency and therefore increased profits. It meant, however, that workers developed a very limited range of skills.
Specialization also made the workers highly susceptible to automation and to being easily replaced by cheaper workers.
Scientific management also increased the repetition, boredom, and meaninglessness of work. Workers became alienated and restless (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1998:365).
2. Hierarchical Control (Bureaucratic Control)
Closely related to scientific management is the use of bureaucracy to control workers. Work settings, whether in factories, offices, or corporations, are organized into bureaucratized hierarchies. In the chain of command each position in the chain gives orders to those below, taking responsibility for their actions and following orders from above.
The hierarchical arrangement controls workers by holding out the possibility of advancement. More prestigious job titles, higher wages, and greater benefits accrue as one moves up the ladder.
Upwardly mobility in the organization accrues to those who are rule followers and who do not question authority (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:445).
Example: Upward mobility and the myth of success via a "promotion" from hourly to salary.
3. Technological Control
Management's use of technology to monitor and supervise is a form of control.
- Some businesses use lie detectors to assess worker loyalty.
- Telephone taps have been used to decide whether workers use company time for personal use.
- Management has used closed-circuit television, one-way mirrors, and other devices to learn whether workers are using their time most productively.
- The most common contemporary technology for worker control is the computer. The computer can count keystrokes, time phone calls, monitor frequency of errors, assess overall employee performance, and even issue citations when the employee falls short of the ideal. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates that two-thirds of video display terminal operators are monitored (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:445).
If workers become too militant in their demands for higher wages, safe working conditions, or benefits, management can threaten them with reprisals.
- In the past owners threatened to hire cheaper labor (new immigrants, for example) or to use force to end a strike.
- Today, the a common management tools is the threat to move the plant to a nonunion state (or even outside the United States)
- Today management can also threaten to replace the workers with robots or other forms of automation (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:445).
1. What is Unemployment?
The official unemployment rate is provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Eitzen, 2006:424).
Click Here for the Latest Unemployment Rate Information
2. The Official Rate Underestimates Unemployment
The official unemployment rate underestimates the true extent of unemployment (Eitzen, 2006:424). People who are not included in the unemployment rate are in school, disabled, retired, homemakers, or those not seeking work.
a. Discouraged Workers:
People who have not looked for work within four weeks of being interviewed are not included in the official unemployment rate. There are two million discouraged workers (Eitzen, 2006:424).
b. Part Time Work:
People who worked for as little as one hour for pay the week before being interviewed are counted as being employed in the labor market. There may be as many as five million part-time workers who fall into this category (Eitzen, 2006:424).
c. Structural Unemployment
Structural Unemployment occurs when workers' skills and educational levels do not match employers' requirements or when unemployed workers do not live where jobs they could perform are located (Kendall, 1998:333).
Tight labor markets lead employers to revise their hiring requirements. If workers with the desired training and experience are not available employers tend to eliminate unnecessary job requirements, which often serve as a screening device to simplify the handling of large numbers of job applicants. Employers WILL have an incentive to provide the training essential for the job (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:454).
3. High Unemployment is Functional
Ironically, there are those who favor having part of the population unemployed.
a. Unemployment Reduces Inflationary Pressure
Economists generally consider 6 to 6.5 percent to be the nation's long-term, underlying jobless rate, below which it is difficult to reduce unemployment without causing inflationary pressures.
b. Increases Profits
Unemployment deflates wages and therefore increases profits. When there are unemployed people willing to work, workers will not make inordinate demands for higher wages for fear that cheaper labor will replace them. Thus, even unionized labor becomes relatively docile when unemployment is high.
1. What is Full Employment?
Genuine full employment means an economic condition in which all those willing and able to work can find a job reasonably suited to their skills and training in a short period of time. That would prevail if the official rate fell to the 2-3 percent range. Such a low rate reduces "frictional" unemployment, attributable to people changing jobs, to its minimum. A person wanting to leave a job can expect to find another one quickly when the unemployment rate is that low (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:454).
2. Individual benefits to Full-Employment
Full employment offers benefits that go beyond the gains of the previously unemployed, who are afforded an opportunity to work.
- Full employment provides workers with significant power over their wages and conditions of work. This power shift operates both on the individual and the collective level.
- The ease of finding an alternative job, and the difficulty of replacing a worker who leaves, gives the individual worker bargaining power.
- In unionized workplaces, the workers' ultimate weapon, the strike, is much more effective when labor markets are tight. Strikers can support themselves by finding temporary jobs, and the struck employer finds it difficult to find temporary replacements (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:454).
3. Benefits that Accrue to Workers in General from Full-Employment
The changed power relation produced by full employment makes it possible for workers significantly to alter working conditions to meet their needs.
- Job safety issues can be effectively taken up.
- Flexible work scheduling suddenly becomes possible. Example: Nursing
- Employer subsidized day care for workers' children becomes an attainable demand.
- Full employment reduces the severity of racial oppression. Racist employers are more likely to put aside their prejudices in tight labor markets. The expanded job opportunities especially benefit those who previously had the fewest options. Even if the traditional "non-white"/white unemployment ratio of two-to-one remained, a reduction in the overall unemployment rate from 6 percent to 2 percent would reduce the rate for minority workers from 12 percent to 4 percent, which would be a vast improvement. While all workers wages tend to rise under full employment, the pay at the low end tends to rise fastest, which promotes equality generally within the working class and particularly benefits workers of color (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:455).
- Full employment would eliminate the single largest source of waste in the U.S. economy. Unemployed workers could be producing useful goods and services but are denied that possibility. If the unemployment rate had been 3 percent instead of 7 percent in 1986, the GNP would have been approximately 11 percent greater than it was. That means about $468 billion of additional goods and services would have been available (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1992:455).
New employment has shifted toward service occupations and the collection, storage, and dissemination of information (Eitzen, 2000:323).
Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. We cross. . . a "divide." Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself, its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world. And the people born then cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. We are currently living through such a transformation (Eitzen, 2000:323).
Many call the newest stage of human development the service / information economy. Several powerful forces are converging in the United States to transform its economy, redesign and redistribute jobs, exacerbate inequality, reorganize cities and regions, and profoundly affect families and individuals (Eitzen, 2000:323).
The computer chip is the technology that is transforming the United States toward a service/information economy.
1. Microelectronics-based systems of information allow for the storage, manipulation, and retrieval of data with speed and accuracy unknown just a few years ago. Computer transactions are measured in multiples of picoseconds (10 to the twelfth power). Late in 1998 IBM claimed that it had the world's most powerful computer, capable of performing 3.9 trillion operations a second (Eitzen, 2000:324).
2. Information can be sent in microseconds via communications satellite throughout the world. Parallel processing with supercomputers gives machines the ability to reason and make judgments (Eitzen, 2000:324).
3. Computer-aided design (CAD) permits engineers to design and modify an incredible array of products in three dimensions very quickly. Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), or the industrial robot, is replacing conventional machines and workers (Eitzen, 2000:324).
4. The problem with industrial robots is that although they increase productivity, they displace rather than create jobs. Moreover, the robots will replace the higher-paid semiskilled workers, not the unskilled manual workers (Eitzen, 2000:324).
1. The Decline of U.S. Supremacy in Manufacturing
The United States, once the world's industrial giant, employing 35 percent of the world's manufacturing workforce, has lost its premier status, now employing about 15 percent of the workforce in manufacturing. Many of the goods now used in the United States are produced in low-wage societies (Eitzen, 2000:324).
2. The Tearing Down of Tariff Barriers
The shift to a global economy has been accelerated by the tearing down of tariff barriers. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), are examples (Eitzen, 2000:324).
3. The Consequences
- First, low-wage jobs in the United States are eliminated as U.S. companies move to low-wage countries and as goods are produced by low-wage employees in other countries, whether in U.S.-owned plants or not (Eitzen, 2000:324).
- Second, foreign competition means reduced profits to U.S. corporations. Their typical response has been to cut costs by demanding concessions from workers, laying them off, or encouraging early retirements. Many corporations in the hardest-hit areas such as steel simply shut down plants throwing thousands of employees out of work and the communities in which they were located into difficult dislocations. Another strategy by U.S. corporations was to compete as strongly as possible through massive investments in labor-saving devices, which, of course, does little to help workers (Eitzen, 2000:324).
Capital flight includes the investing U.S. money and other resources in facilities located in other nations where indigenous workers do the work previously done by U.S. workers (Kendall, 1998:333-335).
1. Overseas Locations for U.S. Firms
U.S. multinational corporations have invested heavily in production of their goods in foreign countries because manufacturing overseas is profitable. Overseas production seeks cheap and nonunionized labor and the relative lack of government regulations over their operations (Eitzen, 2000:325).
The main reason for overseas location is greater profit from lower wages.
Maquilas in Northern Mexico
More than 1,100 U.S.-owned plants -- owned by corporations such as Ford, General Motors, RCA, Zenith, and Westinghouse -- are located in Northern Mexico close to the U.S. border (these plants are called maquiladoras). The corporations are allowed to ship raw materials, components, equipment, and machinery to Mexico duty-free. They are delivered to factories in Mexico and then assembled by low-wage workers. The finished products are then exported back to the United States, with duty paid only on the value added (Eitzen, 2000:325).
2. Relocation of Business
Corporate administrators may decide to move their business to another locality. Such decisions involve what is called plant migration or, more pejoratively, "runaway shops" (Eitzen, 2000:325).
a. International movement
Corporations are also moving some of their operations to other English-speaking countries such as Ireland, Barbados, Jamaica, the Philippines, and Singapore, where cheap labor performs such tasks as data entry for accounting, medical transcription, airline and hotel reservations, and telemarketing (Eitzen, 2000:325).
b. Domestic Movement
Capital is also moved within the United States as corporations shut down operations in one locality and start up elsewhere. Profit is the motivation for investment in a new place and disinvestment in another. Corporations move their plants into communities and regions where wages are lower, unions are weaker or nonexistent, and the business climate more receptive (that is, there are lower taxes and greater government subsidies to the business community) (Eitzen, 2000:325).
c. The Consequences of Business Relocation
- Workers in the affected plants are suddenly unemployed and so, too, may be many people in the affected communities whose jobs were directly and indirectly tied to that plant (such as transportation, supplies, and services) (Eitzen, 2000:326).
- Real estate, banking, schools, and other businesses are adversely affected. The local governments can no longer provide the same level of services because of a lower tax base (Eitzen, 2000:326).
- The recipient "boom" communities benefit from the increase in jobs, greater tax revenues, and the image of growth and progress. The communities, however, often cannot meet the greater demand for new roads, sewage treatment, schools, hospitals, recreation facilities, and housing that the new plants engender (Eitzen, 2000:326).
Another type of capital flight occurs when corporations use their capital to purchase companies in related or unrelated enterprises rather than to expand and modernize their plants. In 1997 there were mergers worth $1.6 trillion and in the first half of 1998 there were already $1.1 trillion in mergers announced or completed (Eitzen, 2000:326).
This trend toward megamergers has at least three negative consequences:
- It increases the centralization of capital, which reduces competition and raises prices for consumers.
- It increases the power of the huge organizations over workers, unions, and governments.
- It diminishes the number of jobs (Eitzen, 2000:326).
In 1917 the largest U.S. corporation, with three times the assets of its nearest competitor, was U.S. Steel. Today U.S. Steel is worth about one-fifth what it was in 1917. Replacing U.S. Steel as the nation's corporate elite are companies such as Microsoft, Intel, and Merck. Today the largest employer in the United States is Wal-Mart, replacing General Motors.
Manufacturing, once the backbone of the U.S. economy, has been replaced by the service sector of the economy. In 1947 employment in the service sector of the economy reached 50 percent, and now it is over 78 percent. Whereas in the past people mostly worked at producing goods, now they tend to be doing work in offices, banking, insurance, retailing, health care, education, custodial work, restaurant work, security, and transportation (Eitzen, 2000:326).
This transformation of the economy has changed the fundamental nature of jobs. Since 1980, for example, the U.S. economy lost some 43 million jobs. These declining sectors are known as sunset industries (e.g., , steel, tires, shoes, and various defense-related industries). Over 1,500 plants in these industries have closed permanently since 1975. And literally millions of jobs have been lost that will not be replaced (Eitzen, 2000:326).
71 million new jobs have been created. Many of these new jobs are in the sunrise industries, which are characterized by increased output and employment. They are involved in the production of high-tech products (computers, communications equipment, medical instruments, fiber optics, bioengineering, and robotics). These industries are creating many new and exciting products. The employees are typically highly skilled, but most of the jobs are routine, with labor-saving technologies. Unlike the production jobs in heavy industry, these jobs tend to be nonunionized and to receive relatively low wages and benefits (Eitzen, 2000:327).
Another category of manufacturing involves those industries that have gained in output but have lost employment (for example, food processing, metal products, industrial machinery, and automobiles). The source of this seeming incongruity (high productivity with a loss in employment) is automation, a topic discussed shortly (Eitzen, 2000:327).
The quality of U.S. jobs has deteriorated since 1973, as measured by wage levels, benefits, working conditions, and job security. . . . The median real wage of non-supervisory workers was lower in 1998 than it was in 1973. New jobs have been heavily concentrated in low-wage sectors. Between 1979 and 1995 there was a net loss of 2.2 million jobs in the goods producing sectors, while 29.1 million jobs were created in services. The former sector had an average wage of $20.22 in 1993, whereas services' average wage was $15.51. The relatively low-paying retail trade and business, personal, health, and temporary services accounted for some 80 percent of new jobs (Eitzen, 2000:327).
Another source of low-wage jobs is the proliferation of contingent employment. This employment arrangement refers to employees who work part-time, in temporary jobs, or as independent contractors. Approximately 34 percent of female workers and 25 percent of male workers are contingent workers. This trend represents a dramatic change in work. Businesses argue that they need this arrangement for flexibility in a rapidly changing competitive economy.
- The upside of tempting is that a growing numbers of workers are not tied to an employer, which makes them free to choose from available work options. Example: Nursing
- There is a downside to this trend is that about 60 percent of these nonstandard jobs are low-quality, paying less than regular full-time jobs held by similar workers.
- Temps earn on average 40 percent less per hour than full-time workers.
- Fringe benefits are much worse in these nonstandard jobs, with only 16 percent of men and 23 percent of women getting health care or pensions from their employers, compared to 80 percent of their full-time counterparts.
- In short, this trend has meant the proliferation of marginal jobs, with employers now shifting the burden of fringe benefits to individual workers and their families (Eitzen, 2000:328).
Eitzen, D. Stanley and Maxine Baca-Zinn
1992 Social Problems. (5th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
1998 In Order and Conflict: Understanding Society. (8th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
2000 Social Problems. (8th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
2003 Social Problems. (9th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
1998 Social Problems in a Diverse Society. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.