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Unformatted text preview: mfififiimfikfimumfiimxmmm_.mn43“,“):#01 .. C ONTESTED TERRAIN I The Transformation Of . the Workplace in the Twentieth Century RICHARD EDWARDS H I _ . BasicBooks A Division of HarperCollinsPubiishm .511}; .CHAPTERJ' Three Faces from the PfiddenJAbode ROUGHLY one hundred million Americans must werk for a living. About ninety—five million of them, 'when they can find jobs, work for someone else. Three oftho'se workers, who reflect both the unity and the diversity of the "American working class, are Maureen Agnati, Fred Doyal, and Stanley Miller. These three share a condition common to all workers, past and present: they must sell their labor time to support themselves. Yet they also lead very different work lives, and the differences contain in kernelform the "evolving history of work in twentieth-century America. Indeed, the study of how their jobs came to be so different goes far toward explaining the present Weakness and future potential of the American working class. Maureen Agnati assembles coils at Digitex, Incorporated, a small Boston- area manufacturer of electronics components.‘ Digitex's founder established ‘ the firm in the 19303 and continues to manage it today. The company employs about 450 people, four-fifths of whom are production workers. The labor force‘is mainly female and Portuguese, with a sprinkling of other ethnic workers—Italian, Haitian, Greek, Polish, and Asian. Maureen is a white,‘ twenty-six-year-old mother of two girls. Her husband Tom works 'in a warehouse at a nearby- sheet-metal company. Maureen has worked for Digitex off and on for a number of years; she started after her junior year in high school, quit at nineteen when her first child was born, returned for one month to get Christmas money, quit again, and then returned again to work the spring months until the end of+ her older _ daughter's school term. Frequent job changes do not seem to be any problem at'Digitex, and indeed, in some ways the company appears to encourage high - turnover. "making CONTESTED TERRAINIH Maureen's 'work involves winding coil forms with copper wire. To do. this, Maureen operates a machine that counts and controls the number of I wraps put on each collar. She does the same task all day. , Nearly half of 'Digitex’s workers are on the piece-rate system, which ' means that their wages partly depend on how fast they work. The company - pays both a guaranteed base wage and a piece-rate bonus on top of the base. 'But the guaranteed wage is always low—roughly equal to the legal minimum wage—so the worker’s attention turns to making the bonus. To be eligible for extra pay, a worker must exceed the particular job's “rate”; that is, the - _ assigned minimum level of output needed to trigger the incentive system. The worker then earns a bonus depending on how many units she produces 3 above the rate. The problem is that the rates are high and are often changed. For example, when Maureen returned to work this last time, she found that the rates were so "tight" that she frequently did not make any incentive pay at all. It seems to be common that when workers begin to make large premiums, the time-study man appears to “restudy” the job, and the rates cause a great deal of resentment. The pay system causes resentment among the hourly workers too-The company keeps most of the information about wages secret; a worker cannot learn, for example, what her job's top pay is, how the job is classified, or even what the. wage schedule is. Often two workers will discover that, while they are doing nearly the same work, their pay differs greatly. As for the conditions of work, employees are watched constantly, like children in a classroom. The design of the machinery pretty much dictates what tasks have to be done at each work station, but in other ways the foreman actively directs the work. One way he does this is by assigning workers to particular stations. For example, Maureen was not hired specifical- ly for "winding" and when she returned to work her foreman simply put her at the station. Buthe can change job assignments whenever he wishes, and he often moves people around. Since some jobs have easy‘rates and others have tight ones, the job he assigns Maureen to will determine both how much she makes and how hard she has to work. The foreman and supervisors at Digitex have other ways of directing the 'work, too. They watch closely over the hours and pace of work, and they ring .a bell to signal the beginning and end of work breaks. Workers must get permission to make phone calls or leave the work area. And despite the piece- rate system (which might seem to leave it up to the individual worker to determine how fast to work and hence how much pay she would receive), the bosses take a direct hand in speeding up production; workers who talk to nearby workers, who fail to make the rates, or who return late from breaks or THREE FACES FROM THE HIDDEN ABODE ' s . lunch are likely to be targets for reprimands and threats. The various bosses ,(foremen, general foreman, and other officials) spend their days walking among the workers, noting and correcting any laggard performance. _ 7 :The supervisors’ immediate role in directing production gives them considerable power, of course, yet their full power springs from other sources as well. No real grievance process exists at Digitex, and supervisors can dismiss workers on the spot. Less drastically, foremen maintain a certain degree of control because they must approve any "benefits'f' the workers, receive. They must. approve in advance any réquests for time off to attend a funeral, see a doctor, and so on. For hourly workers, the supervisors determine any pay raises; since the wage schedules are secret, supervisors can ‘ choose. when and whom to reward, and in what amount. For piece—rate workers, who are not eligible for raises. the supervisors’ decisions on rejects—— what to count as faulty output and whether to penalize the workers for it-—' weigh heavily in bonus calculations. Foremen also choose favored workersfor the opportunity to earnovertime pay. And when business falls 0E and the company needs to reduce its workforce, no seniority or other considerations - intervene; the foremen decide which workers to lay off. Through these powers, supervisors effectively rule over all aspects of factory life. Getting on _ the foreman '5 good side means much; being on his bad side tends to make life miserable. Maureen, like other- production workers at Digitex, has few prospects for advancing beyond her current position. All people. working under the piece- rate system, regardless of seniority, earn the same base pay. There are a few supervisory slots, but these jobs are necessarily limited in number and are currently filled. There simply is no place for them to grow. This fact perhaps accounts for the high turnover at Digitex: over half the employees have worked for the company for less than three years, and Maureen's pattern of frequently quitting her job does not seem to be unusual. ' There has recently been a bitter struggle to build a union at Digitex. Maureen's attitude-—-—"We could sure use one around here, I'll tell you that'lu— was perhaps typical, but thereal issue was whether the company's powers of intimidation would prove stronger than the workers’ desire for better condi- tions. Initially, the union won a federally monitored‘election to- be the workers’ bargaining agent. The company's hostility toward the union persist- ed, however; after signing an initial contract with the union it launched a . vicious campaign to decertify the union. The second time around, the union lost. No union exists at Digitex today. Fred Doyal works as process control inspector at General Electric’s " zzL‘uat.£b,i:~4's’,=ur..am...—.\;\a.__;m.._.~...manna-nu“ r;.. Telechron Clock Company, a small independent firm, but GE bought it out. Today, the plant’s thousand or so workers manufacture small electrical motors, the kind used in clocks, kitchen timers, and other very small appliances. The plant is highly automated, and slightly over half of its workers are women. Fred operates sound-testing machinery to check the motors’ noise levels. He monitors .two hundred or so motors a day. The prooedure is routine—he picks up the motors from the assembly area, returns to the "silent room,"- mounts them on the decibel counter, and records the result—and he performs virtually the same sequence every day. GE pays Fred about $13,000 a year. - There is little need for the supervisor to direct the wdrk pace; the machinerydoes that, and when ”ybu come on the job, you learn that routine; unless there is some change in that routine, the foreman would not be coming to you and telling you what to do; he just expects you (and you do) to know your daily routine: when you do repetitious work." In fact, the foreman generally appears only when a special situation arises, such as defective materials or machine breakdown. Other than that, workers mainly have contact with their bosses on disciplinary problems. , Evaluation and discipline do bring in the supervisors, but the union’s presenge tends to restrict their power. In a sense, the company evaluates Fred's. work daily: "Everything I do, I record, and I turn in daily reports.” The reports provide information not only about the decibel level of the motors but also coincidentally about Fred’s output. Yet he is very confident that if he does a reasonable amount of work, his job will be secure. If the company. tried to fire him, it would have to demonstrate to an outside arbitrator that its action is justified. In fact, any time the company takes disciplinary action, the union contract says that arbitration is automatic. In arbitration, Fred notes, the union has found that “discharge on a long-service employee, unless there's a horrendous record on this person, or if it was for something like striking a supervisor or stealing, discharge would be consid- ered too severe by an arbitrator. Usually, you know? Don't bet on it, but that’s ' the usual case.” There are, of course, lesser penalties. The disciplinary procedure begins with the written warning, and when the worker gets three written warnings, he or she can be suspended. Fred himself has been suspended for two days for “refusing to do a certain type of work." Suspension means the loss of pay, and it is probably the most common discipline at Ashland. Fred has known people who were suspended for up to a week because of absenteeism, and for lesser periods because of tardiness and insubordination. ' ' CONTESTED TERRAIN Ashland (Massachusetts) assembly plant. The plant used to be run by IV THREE FACES FROM THE HIDDEN ABODE 7 Fred is in his mid-fifties, and he has worked for CE for thirty years. He started as a stock handler in the Worcester (Massachusetts) plant, moved up 'to be a group leader in the packing departm’ént, then transferred to shipping. At one point he had several employees underhirn, but he was "knocked off that . job in a cutback.” When they consolidated the plants he moved to Ashland to ' work in quality control. Presently he does not supervise anyone. While Fred was moving up, the company had no formal. procedure for filling vacancies. Switching from one job to another depended on merit and . so forth . . . some of it was ass-kissing." Now, however, in a change that Fred traces directly to the coming of the union, a new system prevails. If any ]ob( , opens up, it must be posted, and everyone can apply for it. Qualifications and H EL seniority are supposed to be taken into account in determining who gets the job. The company usually wants to decide unilaterally who is qualified, but “the union fights the company on this all the way." In fact, in Fred 5 experience the union is usually successful: "The company, rather than get in a hassle, and if they have no particular bitch against this individual who has the most seniority, the company will give that person the job." .. , Men do a lot better at Ashland than women. The plant jobs seems quite rigidly stereotyped. Women fill most of the lower-paying positions on the clock-assembly conveyors, while the men tend to get the more skilled jobs . elsewhere in the plant. Men's jobs are also more secure. In the event of a partial layoff, any worker in a higher-classified job can bump any other . worker of equal or lesser seniority in a lower—classified job; but of course one cannot bump upwards. Women, since they tend to be in the lower classifica- . tions, have few others (mainly women) whom they can bump. Men have most - of the women to bump. ' Fred believes that General Electric has not overlooked the benefits of thissystern. they really build the clocks, see-ma long. assembly conveyor, thirty-five, forty womfln working on it. Those women are working every minpte of the day; those women {ea y make money for the company! The company didn t get rich on me, and the o dler I get, the less rich it's gonna get on me. But they got rich on those women. T ose ' women are there every second, every second of their time is taken up. Now, they have on each of these conveyors what they calla group leader, and it's a woman, right? . . . These women are highly qualified, highly skilled, these group leaders. .Way under- paid. There's a man that stock-handles the conveyor_—man or a boy, whichever yolu want—-he's just a 'hunky,' picks up boxes and puts them on the conveyor for the gr 5 or moves heavy stuff. That man makes ten to fifteen dollars a week more than a woman who’s a group leader." In the supervisory staff, the sexual stereotyping is even more apparent. “Where that company has made all its money is on the conveyors; that's where ' tr) CONTESTED TERRAIN :' There are quite a few bosses, counting all the foreman, general foreman, and higher managers. Yet there are only two. women. “There have always been two; not always the same two, but two." ' Recently, the rigid sexual division seems to have lessened somewhat, and women have applied for jobs that formerly were oi} limits. According to Fred, the company is wary of turning them down, because it is worried about a government antidiscrimination suit. (GE subsequently settled the suit, agreeing to pay damages.) The union has made some attempt to change the ratio of women's to men’s wages, but Fred acknowledges that 'it has been "unsuccessful.” At the plant, men .and women alike are very concerned about the. _ possibilities of a general layoff: As Fred puts it, I'll give it to the company; they're great with the public relations bit. CE puts out two, three bulletins a week. and they’re always telling those people [the plant’s workers] about the foreign competition. ‘What they're trying to do, and they're successful. is getting the idea across that if they don't work harder, if they don’t stop taking off days off, and quit taking so much time on their coffee break, and so forth, that they're gonna have to take the plant and move it to Singapore, which, by the way, they have a plant in Singapore that makes clocks. . . . They've been very successful at this productivity thing, you know. They've scared people with it. This company, like a lot of companies, runs the thing by fear. ' Frggl is a strong supporter of the union (the United Electrical Workers), and he has from time to time held various official positions in the local. He is completely disillusioned about“ the AFL-CIO ("They sold out a long time ago”). For him, just following the Democratic Party is not enough: “Any union movement that doesn't have a political philosophy in this country is doomed." - Stanley Harris works as a research chemist at the Polaroid Corporation. “Research chemist" may sound like a high-powered position, and indeed the pay is quite good: Stanley makes about $18,000. But in terms of the actual work involved, the position is more mundane. Stanley’s bachelor degree equips him to do only relatively reutline laboratory procedures. He cannot _ choose his own research, and he does not have a special area of expertise. He supervises no one, and instead his own work is done under supervision. Stanley is, in effect, a technical worker. On first meeting Stanley, one is not surprised to learn of his middle-level occupation. He is white, roughly fifty years old, and seems well educated. Despite the fact that it is the middle of the workday, his profiered hand is clean (and soft). He wears no special work clothes, spurning both the heavy THREE FACES FROM THE HIDDEN ABODE . ' 9 fabrics necessary in production jobs and the suit and tie aEected by the managers.‘ In the lab, of course, he wears a white protective smock, but beneath is an unstylish, small-collar Dacrpn sports shirt and chino pants. Here and there, traces of a blue—collar} background appear. Stanley has a few teeth missing. His speech retains a slight working-class accent, and occasionally his grammar betrays him. He mentions that he lives in Lynn (Massachusetts), an old working-class city outside of Bostoh. Stanley's career tells much about the employment system at Polaroid: He joined the company nineteen years ago as a production worker, when he ‘ ran out of money going through college." Having already completed the science curriculum, he went to night school to fulfill his liberal arts requirements while continuing to work at Polaroid. After obtaining his BS degree, hebegan applying for the research openings advertised on the company's bulletin boards, and since Polaroid's hiring policies give preference to those who are already employees, the company eventually promoted Stanley into one of the lab jobs. These jobs encompass many ranks, from assistant scientist all the way up to senior scientist. Stanley started at' the bottom, and his current posrtron, research scientist, appears'in the middle of the hierarchy. In most of the research jobs, the specific work to be done combines a particular product assignment with the general skills and work behavior expected of a research chemist. Stanley's supervisor assigns him a project within the “general sweep of problems, anything having to do with a company product." Stanley then methodically applies standard tests ( the state of the art”), one after the other, until he finds the answer or his supervisor redirects his efforts. *Bather than having his workday closely supervised by his boss or directed by a machine, Stanley follows professronal work patterns, habits that are, in fact, common to the eight hundred or so other research workers at Polaroid's Tech Square facility. Stanley's supervisor formally evaluates .his work performance in the annual review. Although the evaluation format seems to change frequently—: “Right now it is very curt, either ‘gopd,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘indiffere'nt'; but in previous years it was something like four _page‘s"—-—the purpose and importance'of the review have not changed. Stanley believes that the evaluation is crucial to his chances for promotion. "It goes to someone who has to okay it, and if he doesn't know you and he sees on a piece of paper 'poor worker,’ it hurts you. The formal evaluations are especially important because, while Stanley's boss assigns him projects and evaluates his work, he ”has little say in Stanley's promotions or pay raises or discipline. Those decisions are made higher up, by applying the company's rules to the individual's case. As Stanley explains it, the company contributes the formula while the individual provides the unions pwieu reins-us 10 CONTESTED TERRAIN numbers, and then somebody "upstairs" just has to do the calculation. The rules for advancement seem pretty clear. An important illustration of Stanley's point is the company's layoff policy. When-demand for Polaroid’s cameras fell off during the 1974-1975 recession, the company laid off sixteen hundred workers, about 15 pe...
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