The Wear and Tear of Working in America (Part 1)

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.

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.”

In part two of our series, we will explore how this condition is the “new normalcy” of the US working class and how this condition in turn shapes the life of the worker from the cradle to the grave, representing a downwards spiral of an economic system that is no longer fit to rule.

To be continued…

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