The Wear and Tear of Working in America

Workers sell the hours of their lives as a commodity for capitalists to buy and use. The capitalist pays a wage to acquire labor power—the workers’ capacity to come into work and produce goods and services. These hours of the working week belong to the company and not to the people who live and work them.

Often, the peculiarity of this arrangement is discovered by new hires in restaurants. When they try to catch their breath and rest in between “rushes” of customers, the manager will bark, on cue: “You’re here on my time! You’re here to work!” Then a more experienced employee will take the new hire aside and tell them to “grab a broom and look busy, even if the floors are already clean.”

The capitalists, having bought the commodity of labor power, are not content with their purchase until a profit is exacted from it. If they can work an employee to the physical limit—or even beyond—then they can make more profit. As Marx put it, they are happiest when the worker is reduced to “a mere machine for producing foreign wealth,” and like all implements of production, the human laborer accumulates wear and tear. An intensification of the exploitation of labor power is matched by a depreciation in the physical and mental well-being of the laborer.

Construction Helmet
If they can work an employee to the physical limit—or even beyond—then they can make more profit. / Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout

These economic facts manifest wherever wage labor toils for capital. In America, this coincides with a yawning chasm of inequality and the myth that “anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they work hard enough.” For more than one hundred years, when people across the world think of words like “success” and “capitalist,” the United States has come to mind. But the condition of ordinary Americans is a very different story from the gold-paved dream that has been advertised.

In 1906, the socialist muckraker, Upton Sinclair, embedded himself as a worker in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards to investigate conditions in this industrial center. Sinclair dramatized his findings in the novel The Jungle, which narrated the harrowing degradation and wear and tear imposed on the workers—and climaxes with the protagonist’s discovery of the Socialist Party.

The following excerpt describes the death of just one among many anonymous workers in American industry at the time:

He worked in a place where his feet were soaked in chemicals, and it was not long before they had eaten through his new boots. Then sores began to break out on his feet, and grow worse and worse. Whether it was that his blood was bad, or there had been a cut, he could not say; but he asked the men about it, and learned that it was a regular thing—it was the saltpeter. Everyone felt it, sooner or later, and then it was all up with him, at least for that sort of work. The sores would never heal—in the end, his toes would drop off if he did not quit.

Yet old Antanas would not quit; he saw the suffering of his family, and he remembered what it had cost him to get a job. So he tied up his feet and went on limping about and coughing, until at last, he fell to pieces, all at once and in a heap, like the One-Horse Shay. They carried him to a dry place and laid him on the floor, and that night two of the men helped him home. The poor old man was put to bed, and though he tried it every morning until the end, he never could get up again. He would lie there and cough and cough, day and night, wasting away to a mere skeleton. There came a time when there was so little flesh on him that the bones began to poke through—which was a horrible thing to see or even to think of. And one night he had a choking fit, and a little river of blood came out of his mouth. The family, wild with terror, sent for a doctor, and paid half a dollar to be told that there was nothing to be done.

The rise of industrial unionism and the ascent of the United States as the world’s greatest imperialist power transformed the working conditions of millions. The mighty post–World War II economic boom allowed American capitalism to grant a few “crumbs off the table” to a more organized working class in return for relative social peace. Generally speaking, rates of workplace injuries declined, and the effects of this change are evident even today. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a decline in work-related injuries and illnesses over the last twenty-five years.

However, in the last decade, the organic crisis or—in neo-Keynesian terms—“secular stagnation” of American capitalism has spawned a new normalcy of austerity, low wages, and precarious work. In this context, there has been a spike in fatigue and burnout. At the same time, the average age of retirement has climbed, life expectancy has declined, child poverty and malnourishment have increased, birth rates have fallen, and the time parents have available to spend at home caring for children has fallen.

In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated burnout as a “syndrome” for the first time. The WHO characterizes burnout as entailing “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

The nursing sector is a glaring example of the problems at hand. Over the last few decades, nurses have simultaneously experienced intensified workloads and staffing shortages. Studies indicate a 7% rise in risk of death for each additional patient over four added to a nurse’s workload. Nursing is one of the leading occupations for worksite-injuries, and one-third of nurses report emotional burnout.

Nearly half of nurses are considering leaving the profession, and over half report forced overtime work. Shift workers such as nurses are 23% more likely to suffer heart attacks, and overnight workers are 41% more likely to have coronary problems. In this context, nurses experience “compassion fatigue,” and they are often insulted by supervisors as being “uncaring” or “lazy.”

Nursing is one of the leading occupations for worksite-injuries, and one-third of nurses report emotional burnout. / Image: Public Domain

Teachers are also under unbearable pressure and are leaving the profession at a rate of 40% within five years. 89% of teachers polled indicated that the statement “I am very enthusiastic about my profession” described them “very strongly” at the beginning of their careers, compared to 15% “at this point in my career.” In the same American Federation of Teachers survey, a litany of major stressors was detailed, including time constraints, “lack of opportunity to use the restroom,” mandated curricula, large class sizes, and unmanaged classroom behaviors.

18% of respondents said they had been physically threatened in the last year, 9% assaulted, and 30% bullied—most commonly by an administrator or supervisor. 26% reported that in the last thirty days, their mental health was “not good” for nine or more days. As one teacher told The Washington Post, “Our work is never done. We take grading home, stay late, answer phone calls constantly, and lay awake thinking about how to change things to meet student needs.” Today, one in four teachers clock in over sixty hours a week.

In 2016, the turnover rate in the restaurant and hospitality industry stood at 73%, with the vast majority of turnover due to employee resignations. Many downplay high turnover in restaurants as industry-specific; after all, “burger-flipping” is for teenagers. This conventional wisdom insults both teenage workers, who often have bills to pay and family obligations of their own, as well as their older coworkers. And these jobs are no child’s play⁠—between the “front” and the “back” of the restaurant, screaming and shouting, burns, blistered feet, sexual harassment, extraordinary profanity, and exhaustion are the norm.

If you don’t smoke cigarettes, but you take a restaurant job, there’s a good chance you’ll start. Often the only way workers get rest time during a shift is by demanding a smoke break. A new hire in the food industry will seldom be drug tested, as employers accept habitual substance use as well as binge-drinking as common and appropriate behaviors for coping with the stress of the job. Irregular hours in the industry, including the “clopening”—working the closing shift late at night only to come right back to open early the next morning—wreak havoc on workers’ ability to get any quality sleep or establish a healthy rhythm of life.

Restaurant Kitchen Workers
In 2016, the turnover rate in the restaurant and hospitality industry stood at 73%, with the vast majority of turnover due to employee resignations. / Image: Pxhere, Public Domain

Like restaurant workers, tech workers often face irregular schedules and are rarely drug tested—the use of drugs to recover from work or even artificially focus on it is often implicitly expected. Despite the image of tech workers as highly skilled and paid, the field is experiencing an overall trend of proletarianization. A 2017 New York Times article describes the “crunch,” a period of intensified demands similar to the “rush” in a restaurant: “a sudden spike in work hours, as many as 20 a day, that can last for days or weeks on end. During this time, they sleep at work, limit bathroom breaks, and cut out anything that pulls their attention away from their screens, including family and even food.”

All proletarians have some experience of the wear and tear and degradation of working life, whether they labor in restaurants, warehouses, daycares, or a big rig. White-collar workers, another sector perceived as “higher-status,” face around-the-clock pressure to take their work home with them and respond to emails at all hours. Maids and cleaners who use cleaning chemicals are at risk of respiratory problems roughly equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. In June, dozens of farmworkers were exposed to the hexythiazox pesticide in Fresno County when the wind changed direction, and three were taken to the hospital with symptoms of nausea and vomiting.

Occupational stressors are closely linked to severe chronic illnesses and diseases, and someone’s income level may be a primary reason they have high blood pressure or high blood sugar. As Maria Castellucci explains in a Modern Healthcare article, “From 1999 to 2014, the risk of cardiovascular disease declined by 2.5% for high-income individuals while the risk for the disease increased by 1.6% for low-income individuals.”

An April 2019 study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that increases in the minimum wage or federal aid to low-income earners significantly reduced suicide rates. A July 2019 study in The Lancet found that low household income and higher incarceration rates are “major driver[s] of the epidemic in drug-related deaths” in different American counties.

Drug-related deaths and suicides have driven an ongoing three-year pattern of declining life expectancy in the United States. The last time this happened was from 1915 to 1918—thanks to World War I and a global influenza pandemic.

In Capital and the pamphlet Wage Labor and Capital, Marx explained that the price of machines includes the expectation of wear and tear. In their industrial application, machines confer their value little by little to new commodities, themselves depreciating over time. The worker is unique in that the price of their labor power is not dependent on how strenuous or hazardous their job may be. Often, it is just the opposite, as many of the most abused laborers are the lowest paid. Employers may wear and tear them to death and forget their names, with little thought as to whether a wage increase is justified.

Factory Machine Worker
Marx explained that the price of machines includes the expectation of wear and tear—but the worker is unique in that their wages aren’t dependent on how strenuous or hazardous their job may be. / Image: jotoler from Pixabay

While a machine is owned outright by the company, the worker is only bought in “shifts” of working hours. The boss is not responsible for where the worker goes when their shift is over, or their term of employment is finished. Whether or not the worker eats or starves, can afford rent, is diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease, can pay the medical bills, or even experiences suicidal ideation—all of this takes place “in private” outside the doors of the company.

The worker is effectively enslaved, not to an individual capitalist but to the capitalist class as a whole, and as part of the working class. Marx explained that the cost of wear and tear calculated into the price of labor power is not the wear and tear on the individual worker but “the cost of propagation, by means of which the race of workers is enabled to multiply itself.”

Again, Marx:

The owner of labor power is mortal. If then his appearance in the market is to be continuous, and the continuous conversion of money into capital assumes this, the seller of labor power must perpetuate himself, “in the way that every living individual perpetuates himself, by procreation.” The labor power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear and death must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labor power. Hence, the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labor power must include the means necessary for the laborer’s substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market.

The dead end of capitalist society is evidenced by falling birth rates—a legacy of the Great Recession. In a New York Times poll of young adults who plan not to have children, respondents cited childcare costs, lack of time, worries about the economy, personal financial instability, and an inability to afford children as the leading reasons for their decision. Concerns about global instability, political turmoil, and climate change also featured. If they were deciding to have fewer children thanks to a higher degree of choice and control over their lives, that would be one matter. But the fall in birth rates instead reflects young workers having less control over their lives.

Working adults who do have children “say they feel stressed, tired, rushed, and short on quality time with their children, friends, partners, or hobbies,” according to the New York Times. By a large margin, both parents are more likely than ever to be full-time workers. The transformation of women into permanent, full participants in the modern workforce is undoubtedly a step forward. However, under capitalism, the potential of this advance has been made to fit the Procrustean demands of the profit motive. Under socialism, universal, quality, and voluntary childcare, laundry services, food preparation, etc. could end the wastefulness and oppression of domestic slavery. Under capitalism, working women, in particular, face the double burden of working both for the employer and the family household, while children have fewer parental resources than before.

For all the riches of this country’s ruling class, the safety net of social welfare programs has been cut to ribbons by austerity. As Nicholas Kristof explains in the New York Times, “a child is 57% more likely to die by the age of 19 in the US than in our peer countries.” One-fifth of children live in poverty, and in West Virginia, that number is almost one-fourth—which is why striking teachers organized food pantries to ensure that students did not go hungry while school was out during their recent strike. Along with food insecurity, many children even face water insecurity. Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water, and that is the new normalcy for an untold number of cities.

Family Eating Meal Public Domain
Capitalism talks a lot about “family values,” but the reality is another matter. Millions of workers do not have the freedom to have children and love them and raise them. / Image: Public Domain

An anonymous comment shared by the Facebook page “Target Workers United” sums up the situation of many working parents:

I am crying. I got paid $345. I used to get 30hrs a week. I’m literally crying. I have a 4-month-old, and I can’t afford my bills, let alone diapers. Idk what I’m going to do. I’m fucked. Thanks, Target. You fucked me and my baby over. Thanks.

Capitalism talks a lot about “family values” and the “American dream,” but the reality is another matter. Millions of workers do not have the freedom to have children and love them and raise them without the shadow of precarious work and an insecurity of basic needs looming over them. For generations, workers tolerated the most vicious wear and tear to “put food on the table”—if only their children could “have a better life.” Today, in a new normalcy of secular economic stagnation, climate change, and political turmoil, capitalism can no longer even pretend to make this promise.

The price of every worker’s labor power, their wage, includes provisions for the “wear and tear” of the current workforce and the raising of a new generation of workers. However, capitalism’s failure to pay adequate wages and provide “good jobs” reflects that instead of investing in production to become more competitive, capitalists are simply grinding the working class at greater intensities of exploitation to collect profits—and this, in turn, reflects their lack of faith in their own system.

Marxists are currently a minority in the working class. But our strength comes from our ability to see the long view of history. We can explain to our peers that their struggle and degradations are not just a matter of their private lives but a social condition experienced by the vast majority. We also confidently explain that the working class possesses the social power to overthrow our exploiters and transform human life as we know it.

More than a century and a half ago, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx described our present circumstances—and pointed the revolutionary way forward:

In order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence. The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern laborer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

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