Sunday, July 21, 2019

Book Review: On the Clock

Image result for On the Clock Guendelsberger

Emily Guendelsberger, On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane

Ironically, Amazon* recommended this book to me. Ironic, because one of the jobs Guendelsberger works, and deconstructs, in this book is a job at an Amazon warehouse. I am now amused by the idea that Amazon warehouse workers are shipping her book out to people.

(I seldom buy books from Amazon. What I do is go over there and read their New Books page. Then I see if our library has whatever books look good, which it often does. But apparently I have bought enough books that Amazon now knows what sort of thing I like.)

Guendelsberger, who was laid off from her position as a journalist after her newspaper went out of business, spent what looks like a year or so working minimum or low-wage jobs around the country. The three jobs she examines in this book are

  • picker at Amazon
  • phone bank in a call center
  • counter at McDonalds
I worked several minimum wage jobs in high school and while I was getting my BA; but as Guendelsberger notes, that was then. Low-wage work in the 1980s and low-wage work in the second decade of the 21st century are two different propositions.

What changed low-wage work -- which was never pleasant, but is now destructive? A few things:

(1) The use of computers to analyze and set work schedules. This leads to people's work schedules being shifted constantly -- you never know when you're going to work, and you lose all ability to schedule your life outside of work.

(2) The idea of running a "lean" business. This -- the "lean" model -- means that managers will deliberately under-staff their places of business, so that everyone must work full-out every minute that they are on the job.

(3) "Taylorism," which is the efficiency model created by Frederick Taylor. Taylor is why so many jobs are so miserable today -- his model assumes that workers are morons, and also lazy thieves. So every workplace starts from that assumption, and managers end up treating workers as if they were lazy, stupid, and dishonest. 

(4) No benefits, including no sick days. Not just no paid sick days -- no sick days at all. If a worker calls in sick, they can count on being punished for it. (Because they're lying, right? Remember Taylorism.) There are some horrific examples of what this lack of benefits does to both workers and to the workplace. I won't give spoilers, but one word: MRSA.

This is an excellent book, both for the close look it takes at these three jobs, and for Guendelsberger's analysis of just why these jobs are so bad for people and for the country. 

For instance, she connects the crisis of opioid addiction to the fact that life as a low-wage worker (and something like half the country works low-wage jobs now) is so awful and so badly paid. When you are this stressed and this miserable, you will self-medicate. Some people do that by eating carbs; some do it by smoking; some do it with narcotics.

There's also a nice section on the economic benefits of this system -- the cui bono section.

Every few years, I teach a section on Working Class Literature at our university. Next time I do, this book is going on my list.

Highly recommended.


Bardiac said...

It sounds like an even smarter (and updated) take on what Barbara Ehrenreich was doing in Nickel and Dimed.

delagar said...

The author mentions having read Nickel and Dimed and being inspired to write the book because of it, so yes!

D Shannon said...

"managers end up treating workers as if they were lazy, stupid, and dishonest."

In real life, it seems like the administrators are the "lazy, stupid, and dishonest" ones.