Worker consciousness-raising... What's wrong with work these days?
Dee Bernadette
October 1996

A person's job should be a source of pride and accomplishment, pay enough to live on and produce useful goods or services, but a group of workers who gathered at the Civic Media Center during the summer said that basic problems block this from being true in their jobs.

About twenty people gathered for a series of four worker consciousness-raising sessions at the Civic Media Center over the summer. Participants answered questions about their work lives, working conditions, the things they like or hate about jobs they've had, and what they really want to see change about work in general and their jobs in particular.

People spoke about a range of jobs including shelving books at a library, house painting, newspaper reporting, computer work, archaeology, teaching, secretarial, health care, child care, construction, engineering, agricultural and restaurant work. Both union and non-union workers participated. Ages ranged from student-age to retirees.

While many different types of work were discussed, several common themes emerged from the discussion.

Benefits, and in particular health care, were a constant worry. For those who had benefits, they felt trapped because so few jobs provide them anymore. Even when they wanted to get out of their job, they stayed fearing that they would not be able to find other work with healthcare. The workers who had benefits generally had them because their workplace had a union (e.g. UF's public worker union AFSCME, or CWA which represents city workers) or because it was a non-profit which was started by people who put a priority on benefits for their workforce.

For those who did not have benefits, especially health care, workers compensation insurance or retirement, these were a main worry about their job situation. In professions where it was rare to have benefits, this did lead to a certain ability to move around from job to job without losing anything. A cook said that one of the good things about restaurant work is being able to get a job pretty easily and to change jobs when he felt like it. A waitress said she felt self-reliant because she knew she could get a job anywhere.

One private sector worker said she was supposed to have benefits such as sick leave but the boss made it so difficult to actually use the sick leave that it was almost as bad as not having any. The employer would refuse to pay for sick days, saying that the employee had just "taken the day off". A county worker said she liked the family leave provision which means that she can take sick time off if her child is sick.

Pay ranged from minimum wage to $15 a hour in skilled trades and professional jobs. People testified about constantly juggling bills even though they were working full time and the unfair "pay hierarchy" at their jobs, where, for example, the director of a state agency with 20 employees made ten times what some of the office workers made. One worker commented that in the sales section of the company he works for, the workers were consistently paid more, whereas in a support capacity, he made less, even though his job was just as necessary to running the business.

A participant who shelves books at a library said that he thought that the director of the library should definitely be paid more, since she thinks about the library from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to bed, whereas "I start thinking about it after I've been at work for an hour." But the pay disparity was much too large, in his view, and people's needs are not taken into account. He gave as an example a co-worker who was a single mom trying to make ends meet on the same low wages he was making.

"A loaf of bread costs me the same as it does management" a low-paid office worker commented to me later. "But [management] is always crying that they won't be able to survive without a raise."

One office worker said he'd been working at UF for over a year under the "temporary" Other Personnel Services (OPS) classification. Although he worked over 35 hours a week, he received no health insurance, sick leave, vacation days or other benefits which "full time" USPS-classified workers working in the same office did receive. This two-tiered system seemed arbitrary and unfair. Full time "USPS" workers are represented by the public employee union AFSCME, but OPS workers do not have this protection. In fact, UF is not supposed to hire non-student OPS workers for more than 6 months full time or a year half time. In reality, departments save a lot of money by keeping 20, 30 and 40-hour a week staff in the no-benefits category. In the worker consciousness-raising, it was pointed out that it doesn't have to be this way, as part-time workers for the City of Gainesville, by contrast, do receive benefits such as health insurance, which is bargained for by the union representing city workers, Communication Workers of America (CWA).

Who gets the goods?
Some testifiers felt their jobs were pointless paper shuffling or served a tiny elite and they could not see much positive effect of their work. Other workers said their work was desperately needed, but the main problem was a lack of resources to do the job right or to get paid enough to be able to live. There was little middle ground.

For example, while some UF departments were well-funded to engage in esoteric academic pursuits, workers in nonprofit or public health care had no resources to help people who were very sick and had no other care available to them. A worker in a non-profit abortion clinic testified that many women call up needing abortions but when they hear the price, they hang up, knowing they can't afford it.

The painter who testified said realtors would hire him to paint just one wall of a shabby rental unit to save money, while people with lots of money would hire him just to change the color of something that didn't really need painting at all. Meanwhile, the people moving into the rental unit had to live with grime and old paint.

One man testified that he found a job he really liked being an apprentice making stained-glass windows. He enjoyed the art and technique of it, and the beauty of the final product. But he was dismayed when he went to help install a complicated and time-consuming piece and it was in the home of a rich person. He would have rather seen it in a public place like a school, a library, or a clinic--where many people would be able to see it and enjoy it. In this case, the job was enjoyable, but the purpose it was put to ruined it for him.

A child care teacher said that in a for-profit childcare center where she worked, with the company skimming profits off the top there was never enough money to pay decent wages or hire enough people to have good teacher-pupil ratios. But even in non-profit child care centers, since many parents don't have the money to pay more for child care, the centers are squeezed financially and most of the workers there have to get second jobs to make ends meet. She said there's a "crazy distribution of resources as to what is valuable and what is not valuable" and characterized child care as one of the more important jobs in society. She said that she thought child care should be publicly funded like public schools are, and free for parents.

Another worker in a state agency described the waste of money on computer equipment when it could have been used on direct services--and in this case the direct services cut were for people who were very poor.

"I like to work"
Nearly everyone said they liked to work and several described themselves as "hard working". Some of the positives they talked about included "liking to get things done", "liking to work in a team", "seeing the finished product", "helping people with problems" and "creating something."

Several people mentioned doing a lot of volunteer work for political and social causes in addition to their paid work. But in many cases, the general enjoyment of work was blocked by job circumstances such as disrespect from the boss, long hours and a lack of free time. Many times the day to day content of the work wasn't so bad, but the purpose of the work was the main thing worker didn't like about their job. This led to feeling like they were doing "useless work", "wasting my life" or actually contributing to things they didn't agree with. "There has to be armies" said one military veteran, but he said the military was the only job where he felt "trapped" and that he "had to eat shit every day." Another ex-army person said, "I was being trained to be a paid assassin... I was learning to kill people." He said he didn't learn any job skills he could use, although that's one of the reasons he went in.

Said one worker, "I have felt often that I'm these doing jobs that are useless, essentially... it's a consumer society. We make stuff to make money, we don't do stuff to make things for us. Like pet rocks ... like if your job was making pet rocks." He described a job selling textbooks, where every year or every other year there is always a new edition of a required text, all to make more money for the textbook companies and the bookstores. "You can't sell back your old books because there's always a new version."

"I was surprised how few people said they had pride in their work" one participant reflected later. Only an electrician and a house painter said they felt pride, while several people cited lack of pride in their work as a painful aspect of their jobs. A health care worker described feeling that she was doing an important and good job, but it was patching people up and the clinic where she worked was unable to provide for all the people who needed care. A child care worker said one of the really bad things about child care (apart from the low pay) was the lack of respect child care teachers get.

40 hour week?
Most people said their ideal job would have between a 15 and a 30 hour week. But those who had that week length (through part time or contingent work) were either working at another job or looking for an additional one just to make ends meet. "If I was making $10 or $15 an hour, I would definitely work fewer hours," said one woman with a part-time health care job where people were constantly pushing to get more hours.

Does the nature of certain the work made it necessary to have inflexible or long hours? One woman said that because she's in charge of payroll, she can't take vacations. A nursing student said she didn't think that the typical nurse's schedule, 12 hours on for seven days, was good for either the nurses or the patients, nor was it made necessary by the work. The cook said that the reason more cooks aren't hired is the nature of restaurant work, where two or three nights a week are busy and the rest are slack. "You could hire another cook, but then he would only have a few hours," he said, "or you could even out the hours" but then no-one would have 'enough' hours. "I'd move on to another job where I can get more hours."

It was agreed that the reason workers are in a constant struggle to work more hours is simply financial: without the extra hours the jobs don't pay enough to live on. In Florida, workers are paid overtime when they work over 40 hours a week rather than over 8 hours a day (which is the law in California and many other states). This means that employers can use weird schedules, and the employees are not compensated for the long hours and aggravation. A woman who now works 8-5 for the County said she much prefers that schedule to the rotating shift work she has done before.

From the employer's point of view, many said, fewer staff is a simple cost-cutting measure. Three office workers said the reason more people aren't hired is to save the business money, but they noted that the product suffered and the employees suffered.

Speed up
Since short staffing was a problem, workers in both the public and private sector testified to experiencing speed up on their jobs, while others said that there had always been too much work. Two office workers said their workplace has been trying to do more work with less staff and the result has been a mind-numbing workload. "I can never catch up, so after a while I stop trying." The result was that the workers felt bad about their work and the customers would not get prompt responses, or things would be done wrong because they were being so rushed. "Next time you order something and it takes a long time, or they send you the wrong thing, I bet it's because the worker on the other end is trying to do two people's jobs" one commented. "They're always trying to say that computers will fix it" said another office worker. But someone still has to enter the information, she pointed out. The speedup at "My job actually makes me less hard-working" said one speedup victim. "If I do more work, they give me even more work to do, so why should I try to get through it?"

Another worker said that when one of his co-workers left they didn't hire a replacement, and expected him to do both jobs. Then, if he got behind in the work, he would get in trouble for not being sufficiently prompt. All of these experiences made it hard to muster any enthusiasm, and some of the sped up workers came to hate their jobs because of these problems. "I don't have time to do the job right" said one, "and then I lose any remaining pride I had in the work."

Fighting back
Testifiers reported that when they had successfully countered some of these problems, it was in a group with other workers, either through a formal union, or just grouping together to make demands. In the case of a machinist, he said that engineers set the standards for how long it takes for a certain task to be done--and because it's set by people who do the work, they always build in plenty of leeway. An archaeologist said that she and her co-workers countered speed up and other mistreatment on her job (including paychecks that bounced and demands that they cover up findings which would inconvenience construction companies) by organizing a union. In another case, a secretary said that a union protested outside her workplace and while they didn't get a union at her job, the pay was increased as a result of the pickets.

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