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We Must Fight The Disrespectful Devaluation of the Worker
Today I had an article from July that I had totally missed, in which an economist called “Austan Goolsbee” tells us that employers might start expecting more hours in place of our commute. This incredibly long-winded and frustratingly-written piece mostly posits that, because there is a benefit of extra time, that companies will eventually start expecting you to start earlier or work later because you don’t have a commute.
Quick fucking newsflash, Austan - they already do that. In every single desk job I’ve worked on, I’ve received after-hours calls and texts and emails, as well as derision for “leaving work early” despite leaving half an hour after my day was meant to end. This is neither something that remote work causes or cures - despite what this guy thinks. Just take a look at this wonderful paragraph:
But will workers who get to stay home receive the full value of this bounty, or will employers take it for themselves?
It’s not hard to see how employers could. With all the commute time freed up, what is to stop them from simply asking employees to work longer from home — to prepare that report before the meeting starts in the morning or to answer emails or contact clients or file those forms at all hours of the day or night? Blurring the lines between work and the rest of life does not have to benefit workers in the end. Indeed, it was the thing that worried people about working from home before the pandemic began.
Guess what actually blurred the lines? Telecommunications. The advent of email. Smartphones. These are the things that piss workers off the most because they are the things that “blur the lines between work and the rest of life.” You would have to be a colossal dumbass who has not worked in an office for nearly 25 years to not know this. If you were a smart person that actually thought about stuff, you could say that the advent of the smartphone and reliable cellular internet was the real difference-maker here in the abuse of workers - both a means of communicating with those you like and love and a way in which work can sit inside your pocket at all times.
Not this guy!
The first rule of incidence is that it depends on the conditions in the marketplace. The incidence of the working-from-home bounty will depend on whether labor remains scarce over the long run and on how powerful the employers are. Who needs the other side more? If workers have many options and can quit jobs that encroach on their time, they will tend to keep the bounty. If employers can choose among lots of workers, working from home may end up being much less favorable than it first seems.
Again, the central posit of this entire article is that remote work is now, as a result of the pandemic, going to invade people’s lives and demand more of their time. This is such a colossal head-up-one’s-ass article, again published by a New York Times that seems to lack the basic editorial veracity to say “hey, dude, your main point is utterly flawed!” His point, as verbose as it is empty-headed, is that corporations are getting stronger and that the benefits of remote work will be such that employers will invade more and more of our time, despite the fact that this has already occurred and remote work doesn’t seem to be more invasive. It’s the same level! It’s the same god damn level! Austan, I went to a school that nobody can spell, and I have a learning disability, and I’m smarter than you!
Beyond the subtleties, though, the basic issue is simple. Corporations claim a greater share of the national economy than ever before. If the last 40 years of productivity growth ended up benefiting shareholders and corporate profits more than it did wages, the same thing could very well happen with the newfound productivity benefits and time savings of working from home.
Is this guy an economist? Does he not know that this already happened? There is already a massive wealth disparity in America, and the average CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 299-to-1 in 2020 in S&P 500 companies. This has already happened! And if anything, remote work is going to allow workers to have a degree more power because they’re going to have natural portability to jobs - they won’t have moved somewhere or changed their entire life to get a job, which gives the company more power. This, of course, is a thing that I’d expect an economist to know! But why would he? He’s too busy huffing his own farts, I assume.
I Apologize, I Do Have Another Thought
I haven’t felt great physically for the last week, so I’m particularly effervescent in today’s column, but the one thing that really frustrates me here is that this guy, an economist, like all of these columns, seems to be part of a shadow fight against workers in general, not simply those who work remotely. His article mostly warns that the “benefits” of remote work are worrisome - blamed, of course, on stuff that already existed - and while it’s seemingly concerned with workers, it mostly seems to be about giving companies the tools they need to take away what few benefits workers get in the first place.
Similarly, abominably titled “Workers Want to Do Their Jobs From Anywhere and Keep Their Big-City Salaries” seems to immediately take the tact that workers are demanding complainers, expecting companies to pay them for their work rather than pay them for where they are during work. The piece spends an alarming amount of time talking to CEOs and economists and about how companies aren’t going to save money yet because they haven’t had a chance to reduce their footprint…but fails to interrogate the central problem, which is that workers are oftentimes expected to be financially and temporally responsible in a way that corporations aren’t.
Seriously, how different would this article be if each of these people were asking why did you have an office in the first place? What if we began asking similar questions to employers as we asked employees - things like “why is it reasonable to pay someone less for no reason?” Reporters seem quite capable of asking people why they expect to be paid the same - why not ask these companies how much they spend on office space and why? And then perhaps a follow-up question - what’s your plan to reduce your footprint? Where does the money go that you’re saving from paying someone less?
It all comes down to your point of view. All of these articles that I continually get mad at seem to have a focus on the employer and things being done to the employer. The exception is the pieces that are used to do things for corporations - extolling the negatives of remote work, finding the people that want to go back to the office, and so on and so forth. But most of these pieces seem to be desperately fighting to hold a candle for bosses, managers, and corporations - to justify their lossy expenditures on useless office space, their baseless demands that workers “return to work” at the office, their bullshit pay cuts that are blamed on an algorithm but based on corporate greed that sees an opportunity to make money for giving a worker less.
The core of this problem is the disconnection (which I’ve repeatedly reflected upon) between what a worker is paid and what a company is paying for. When you pay someone to work for you, the situation is meant to be that you pay them money for their services - in the case of knowledge workers, you’re paying for their expertise and ability to execute. This exchange is meant to guarantee you a certain amount of time that they are working for you, at which point they are not on working hours and thus not working for you. The exchange of money for labor is meant to be done with the knowledge that they could do something else instead of work for you and that their work is valuable - not that they are arbitrarily in a particular city or state.
Their availability within the hours you set aside, location is irrelevant. It sure didn’t seem relevant when I was, as far back as 2008, getting shitty emails from my boss at 8PM on a Friday. It sure doesn’t seem to be relevant whenever the worker is required to do something for the company - but it sure seems to be relevant whenever the worker wants something from the company. If we’re really opening Pandora’s Box when it comes to the subject of where we are meant to be doing things and when they are meant to be done, how about these companies that are cutting employee pay based on their location start paying overtime? It’s the same logic - if you vaguely expect a worker to be in the physical office because you think they may theoretically have a spontaneous event or collaboration, why are you not evaluating and compensating said worker for the extra work you’re making them do?
It’s because this does not cut both ways and never has, and to approach this subject as anything other than corporations taking liberties is a categorical failure of journalism. The pandemic and forced remote experiment have upended the entire office world precisely because it has removed the central area where control and abuse are manufactured and distributed while not removing the ability for workers to produce. This means that workers have proven that the control and abuse mechanisms do not actually produce more for the company, and are entirely for the emotional benefit of truly evil people. As a result, it’s also highlighted how corporate America has never seen employing people as simply paying them for work but as a means of ownership and control.
Attempts at pay cuts based on someone moving are - ironic, considering that this is very much a thing that Austan was describing in that New York Times piece, yet not what he addressed - a way in which corporations are reaping the rewards of remote work themselves.
The issue with almost everything about remote work is that the narrative is led by companies rather than workers. There are too few attempts to interrogate corporations for their decisions from the perspective of the worker or to ask targeted questions around the decision-making or, indeed, the person making the decision’s existence within the actual work product of their company. These stories frame workers as chesspieces bereft of industry, that should be grateful that they still have jobs in a tough economy and that they’re allowed to work remotely, with no regard as to whether remote work may indeed be better for the company.
It is empty-headed anti-worker nonsense that has the natural assumption that the corporations know what they’re doing and are only being moved by an increasingly demanding and petulant workforce. Companies are rarely-if-ever asked what actually drives them to make these pay-cuts, or if they are, their quotes are left unpublished. Their feet are rarely, if ever held to the fire over the massive, life-changing decisions that they make to save themselves a few thousand dollars, while workers that are interviewed are regularly asked why they expect these things and probing questions about their life and their choices.
The right move here is to start asking the in-depth questions to those in power and pushing toward the second and third and fourth questions that actually get to the meat and reveal something. “Workers are demanding X Y Z” is a pathetic way to view this - the real way to look at it is that companies are willfully pissing off their workers so that they can do something less efficient, and how trillion-dollar companies are absolutely shitting the bed with their decision-making - with the exception of labor-focused reporters like Zoe Schiffer at The Verge and Edward Ongweso Jr. at VICE who have diligently reported about working conditions.
The problem is that labor reporters should not be the only people pushing these stories. When the Journal or the Times or any large outlet writes their next remote work or future of work piece, they need to begin asking companies the probing questions. Workers are the victim here - they are the recipient of offensive levels of judgment, their opinions framed uncharitably and briefly, overwhelmed by the puff statements of large corporations that are scared of losing the ability to control their life and their location.
And that’s really it. When a corporation can’t control where someone lives - and that’s why they’re paying them less, it’s nothing to do with “local market rates” - they lose the ability to control when they work, and whether they stay working for the corporation in question. Failing to ask corporations the right questions is intentionally harming workers, and giving charitable coverage to their inefficient anti-worker policies only seeks to give power those that already have it.