There’s more to life than work

Mike Phipps reviews Work Won’t Love You Back, by Sarah Jaffe, published by Hurst

At a time when leading elements in the UK Labour Party are keen to emphasise the importance of our labour not just to our sense of identity but to our moral bearings, it’s good to be reminded that there may be more to life. This book is a welcome antidote to the rising influence of such ideas – although it certainly wasn’t conceived as one.

We work longer hours than ever before and we’re expected to be available even when we’re not ‘at work’. De-industrialisation in the west has led to more warehouse jobs of the kind offered by Amazon, while manufacturing jobs in the Global South typically come with less protection and longer hours.

This is of course the impact of neoliberalism, but the other side of this ideology is the notion that your station in life is the result of choices you made – even in early education. This propaganda has more traction in the west, where many of the more unpleasant jobs have disappeared, fooling some of us at least into thinking our work is creative and fulfilling. However, embracing this ethos will damage your health, exploit you and undermine worker solidarity.

This idea of ‘fulfilling work’ is also highly gendered. “The labour of love,” writes Jaffe, “begins in the home.” Hired helps and live-in maids were traditionally meant to see themselves as ‘one of the family’, while being constantly aware of their low status. Teachers have been pressed to see their work as a calling, involving long hours outside the classroom. The role of the US Teachers Union – and its persecution in the post-war McCarthyite witch-hunt – is particularly interesting here.  But the idea that teaching is all about caring for the students can also be turned on its head: “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions” was a winning slogan – originally pioneered by Chicago teachers in 2012 – in the 2018 Virginia teachers’ strike, a protest that spread to 14 other states.

Working conditions in the non-profit charitable sector, which employs over 800,000 people in the UK, are also investigated here. Rarely do the progressive goals of many of these organisations translate into exemplary treatment of the workforce. Instead the culture is one of self-sacrifice, while the nature of philanthropy itself involves power relations that put entitled rich donors in the driving seat of policy and practice. Non-profit workers are frequently pitted against their clients when they make demands for themselves – but if they get too close to their clients they are accused of being unprofessional.  The account here of the attempts to unionise Planned Parenthood in the US and the hardball tactics deployed by the organisation’s management give a flavour of the power dynamics in this sector.

Beyond the exploitation of paid workers is the treatment of unpaid interns, whose numbers are growing in fields of work dominated by women, as well as in America’s public and non-profit sectors – often to make up for budget cuts. Consequently, such ‘opportunities’ seldom lead to proper jobs.  Prestigious professions are run on unpaid internships. “When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the socialist member of Congress from Queens and the Bronx, took her seat in 2019, she set shockwaves in motion by announcing that she would pay interns $15 an hour – 90% of House members paid their interns nothing.”

Internships have expanded into the low wage economy. Disney World’s interns work twelve-hour shifts doing menial jobs. Having a two-tier workforce saves the company around $20 million a year. Organising in this sector is not easy, but Quebec saw a strike a couple of years ago against internships that were required for students to complete their degrees.

Then there is the rise of the academic proletariat, as we used to call ourselves, university (or lower) level tutors paid by the hour, working for several institutions, with no tenure, office or facilities.

But the sector I found most intriguing was video-game programming, where programmers go to special (expensive) schools to learn coding and hold as a badge of honour the long hours they put in – often because their co-workers are scattered across several different time zones. Most are young and the turnover is high.

The workday worsened with the onset of COVID. Working from home often makes workers more productive, toiling up to eight hours at a stretch without a break, something that most workplaces would not countenance. Worse, workers “spoke of emails arriving in the middle of the night, followed by angry text messages if they did not answer immediately.” As in many other fields of work, dire working conditions are underpinned by the myth that the work is ‘creative’, but often it’s simply boring.  Yet far more tedious is the drudge-work outsourced to plants in the Global South, where wages are at a fraction of what they would be in the west.

What’s heartening about this book is the fightback against all this. In 2017, tens of thousands of Google employees in different countries all walked out at the same time – a protest against sexual harassment. In 2020, organising among company workers forced Google to end its contracts with police departments, as tech workers solidarized with Black Lives Matter protests.

The long-term impact of these changes to working practices is barely explored here, which is a pity. In the Conclusion, the author simply says, “Many working-class heterosexual women, in particular, are choosing to remain single even to raise children, finding that men’s job-market problems make them poor bets for long-term partners.”

 It would have been interesting to hear more about this, as well as the way friendship also becomes a casualty of our working lives – not to mention creativity, play, love. It’s not surprising that when people fight back, protests often have a carnival spirit of fun – in contrast to loveless work.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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