White Collar Unions


Writing in The Democratic Strategist, ex-labor organizer and current union PR consultant Jim Grossfeld summarizes the results of a survey he and his partners conducted into modern attitudes about unions at the request of the Center for American Progress. The results aren’t so much surprising as they are cohesive. It’s not that, as David Kusnet points out in his reply in the same magazine, any of what Grossfeld says is all that new; but it’s knowledge that’s been scattered all over the place. Joining it all together helps bring the problems of labor organizing in the new millenium into sharper focus.

Grossfeld’s findings suggest that today’s workforce has what he calls a “nuanced” attitude toward unions. I call it “confused”. Basically, today’s employees are caught between identifying with management and a management that treats them like disposable tissue.

[A]s unstable and stressful as their jobs have become, few white collar workers will tell you that they’re being ground down under the boot heal of capitalism. Instead, they will say that instability and turmoil are unavoidable in today’s economy. And employers? They’re just doing what they have to do. In the words of another focus group member:”Most owners want to maximize their investment out of every employee and they’re going to push you beyond your limits until they can reach some sort of capacity that’s going to support one more person or whatever. So there’s that time frame in there that you’re way overworked and that’s just a part of getting to the next level…. No it’s not fair, but unfortunately the economics plays into that.”

Grossfeld himself seems to accept the premise that white-collar workers would naturally identify with management because many of their goals are – supposedly – the same, and because the nature of the work world has changed so dramatically. In the report itself, he notes that:

The categorization of workers as professional or technical employees — or even as management or non-management — has also grown increasingly imprecise as new information technologies and nontraditional employment arrangements continue to reconfigure jobs and workplaces. For example, an office secretary with a two-year degree from a community college may use his or her desktop computer to design brochures that would otherwise be created by a professional graphic artist. Similarly, a college graduate with a degree in electrical engineering may work at a call center until a position to his or her liking becomes available. Yet he or she may also be using a home computer to pursue opportunities as a freelance consultant, or even as an entrepreneur.

Certainly that’s true as far as it goes, but it accepts without comment a situation that we must not forget was quite deliberately created by corporate fiat to keep labor costs low. His use of passive language (“categorization of workers…has grown increasingly imprecise”), as if this were all the result of some historic momentum outside human control, avoids the stark truth: corporations are taking advantage of technology to get work they don’t have to pay for. And even this example from his own study doesn’t seem to enlighten him:

“I’ve been actually pretty much covering three people’s jobs,” another worker said. “Two people are out on disability so I jumped in the spot where I’m covering three people’s jobs. Then when they bring in the temp into the office I have to take time and train him, but I don’t have the time because I’m covering three people’s jobs!”

Buried beneath this worker’s complaint is the unspoken and probably unrecognized reality that the company was most likely short-handed in the first place, and that each of the two people whose jobs she took on were actually doing the work of four people who should have been but never were hired – or who were downsized.

I watched the downsizing fad seize corporate thinking (if that isn’t an oxymoron) during the 90’s, and I saw even profitable companies firing white-collar workers and then dumping the work they had been doing onto fewer and fewer backs. As the gentleman said above, “Most owners want to maximize their investment out of every employee.” Yes, indeed, but you have to define “maximize” as “give them more work than they can possibly do in an 8-hour day but not so much that they burn out and quit.”

At the beginning of the fad, they were cheerfully firing 6 of the 8 members in a department, leaving the last two with an amount of work that had once kept all 8 of them busy. But after a few months of 16 and 20-hour days and still the work was piling up, they lost those two, who were stressed beyond endurance. They then hired four people to do the eight jobs, usually right out of college so that they were not only cheap, they didn’t know enough to realize they were being asked to do double-time and double-workloads. That ratio – one person for each two jobs the company needed done – turned out to be an edge-point balance. An employee, especially a young one, could keep that up for years as long as s/he was willing to give up the rest of his/her life in exchange. Which is precisely what corporations began to demand: “We’ll give you the job, but we own you.” As a result, corporations now routinely overload job descriptions and job expectations to the tune of Two, and employees routinely accept overwork as the price they pay for their paycheck.

There was nothing accidental about the formation of this arrangement. It didn’t come from some disembodied economic imperative. It was done by corporate executives for one simple reason: to boost their stock price a penny or two.

The problem with this as a union organizing argument is that a) none of today’s workers seem ready to admit that they are routinely overworked, even though stress is a major concern for them, and b) they don’t realize that there was once a time it wasn’t thus. Look at that worker’s statement we just quoted:

“Most owners want to maximize their investment out of every employee and they’re going to push you beyond your limits until they can reach some sort of capacity that’s going to support one more person or whatever.”

This guy actually believes that he has to be overworked so his company can afford to hire one more person. There was a time when overwork was the accepted sign that the company had grown enough to hire another person. Now they push their employees to the breaking point before they give up the extra profit.

But people aren’t ready to accept that, even though the corporatocracy is making its highest level of profits since the days of the Robber Barons, so Grossfeld is probably wise to sidestep the issue and concentrate on what potential union supporters see as problems unions might successfully address. But this issue is going to have to be faced at some point.

To be cont’d

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for the informative article on the white collar worker.

    what are some of the challenges facing the management of white collar unions?

  2. Thank you for highlighting not only the problems unions are having with gaining new members but also how workplace safety and health is affected.

    Between the ‘behavior based safety strategies’ (known as BS to those of us in the OSH field) being used to reduce reporting of injuries (and as such leading to the “inevitable” conclusion that workplace injuries and illnesses are on the decline) and how corporations have removed pretty much all labor history from the educational system it is of little wonder that the workers have little understanding of what is killing and maiming them on a daily basis.

    In most schools there is a strange leap from the Industrial Revolution and Civil War to the World Wars I & II with little mention of anything in-between. This is due largely by companies such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola providing product dispensers in the school cafeteria or under righting the school athletic teams, stadiums and/or uniforms.

    We wouldn’t want to upset the hand that gives us so much funding since it would then require raising taxes to cover those things or doing without. There seems to be nothing so unAmerican as doing without unless it is doing without sleep, a living wage, health insurance or an individual personality. It might even require us to learn critical thinking rather than complacently accepting whatever the corporate owners spoon feed us through the news media.

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