We Are Not Things; or, Young Workers Reject Abuse as Management Tactic

8 minutes to read · resistance · posted at 7:37 PM on 02/06/2017

I saw a moderately interesting “trend piece” on Reddit’s r/LateStageCapitalism this morning, and it got me thinking. As I posted on Reddit:

The same could be said about Generation X, or anybody who has gotten themselves a bit of education and realized that capitalism is arrant bullshit. As a worker, I don’t expect to be coddled, but I damn well expected to be treated like a human being.

Necessity might demand that I sell you my labor for pennies on the dollar because the only means of production I own are my own mind and hands, but that same necessity doesn’t obligate me to let you objectify me as “human capital” or a “human resource”, or bully me like we’re still in fucking kindergarten. You can’t pay me enough to tolerate such treatment, even if you make me a partner/stockholder and I get a cut of the profits paid a wage/salary equivalent to the full value my labor contributes to the business.

The Actual Article

The Reddit thread links to an article on Canadian Business called “Young Workers Reject Abuse as Management Tactic” begins with the following lede:

Younger employees keep getting stereotyped as insecure and needy. Perhaps the rest of us need to reconsider why we find it normal for bosses to be jerks.

After the obligatory cover image, the author elaborates with the following:

Recently, the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine circulated a video meant to make its instructors aware of “student mistreatment.” With a minor-chord piano medley providing the soundtrack, viewers were asked to avoid putting students on the spot with questions, to minimize “cold and clinical” interactions, and to cultivate “safe” learning environments for the young residents.

It seems a little like something created by The Onion, but the video was sincere, and its message will be familiar to a lot of employers dealing with people in their 20s. For many who remember what business was like pre-Internet, millennials seem an appallingly sensitive lot, having been protected from the vagaries of the world by helicopter parents, trigger warnings and—to especially cynical critics—sheer narcissism. “Aren’t young people coddled?” is now as safe an icebreaker as, “Did you see last night’s Seinfeld?” would have been 20 years ago.

It’s a stereotypical view and, of course, an incomplete one. But there’s no doubt younger workers are changing the interpersonal dynamics of the modern workplace, much as they’ve already done in high schools and universities. And I have news for you, my fellow judgmental old people: That’s a good thing.

Is It Really Just Millennials?

At least the author is sympathetic toward Millennials, but as I read this I kept asking “Why the focus on Millennials?” Neither Boomers nor Generations X and Y are monolithic; surely there are individuals from every generation currently participating in the workforce who chafe at heavy-handed management tactics.

I certainly did at my first job, when I thought of my boss as and accused her of being from the Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann school of management. If you haven’t see R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, here’s Ermey as a US Marine Corps drill instructor doing his best to “motivate” a hapless recruit. It probably isn’t safe for work, and may be triggering.

R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann in Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Do all workers experience such treatment? Probably not, but when they do the only way out is to find another job. Some people might think that’s fine, but I can’t help but ask why it’s OK for adults to bully other adults just because of their respective positions in a workplace hierarchy?

How Are Workers Mistreated?

If you’ve experienced any of the following yourself, or have seen it happen, then your workplace is inhumane:

  • Harassment (sexual or not) of workers by supervisors
  • Demeaning or humiliation of workers
  • Routine demands for unreasonable hours without compensation
  • Demands for uncompensated emotional labor
  • Mockery or name-calling of workers
  • Disparagement of workers’ distinguishing traits
  • Demands for loyalty from workers when the company offers none in return

This is a non-inclusive list. Basically, if your boss treats you in a manner that you would not tolerate in any other setting or from anybody who can’t deprive you of your livelihood, then you are being bullied or abused at work.

You should ask yourself why. You might arrive at the same answer I did, which is that your bosses have dehumanized you and see you as something instead of someone.

The Objectification of Workers

All of the wrongs committed against workers by management and capital stem from one root: the view on the part of managers and businessmen that workers are just means to an end and not ends in themselves. Nobody who takes time to think about how we treat workers in capitalist society can deny that we view them in any other fashion.

Even the language we use reinforces the instrumental value of workers. We used to have “personnel departments” and talk about “workers” or “laborers” or “hired help”. Now we have “human resources” departments and talk about “employees” and “human capital”.

Just look at the words “employee” and “employment”. Both have “employ” as a root word.

While the primary definitions of “employ” and “employment” pertain to the workplace, they have a second definition. To “employ” is also “to make use of”, and “employment” is also a state of being “in use”.

The very words we use to talk about work indict work as objectification and show the extent to which we dehumanize those who make our society and the wealth of the richest among us possible.

What’s The Big Deal about Workplace Abuse?

Relatively enlightened companies will attempt to clamp down on workplace bullying, but they do it to improve morale (though these days they call it “engagement”) and reduce turnover. That’s their stated purpose, but the real motivation is profit. It’s hard to turn a profit if you’ve got asshole managers bullying workers and these workers spread the word as they leave so that you have trouble finding good help.

If profit isn’t a good reason to treat workers humanely, then what is? How about for the same reason it was wrong for Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road to hold women captive and use them as breeding stock?

artwork inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road

"We Are Not Things" by Chrisdeanisdead

People who work for a living are not things. They are not “human capital”. They are not “human resources”, or resources of any other kind. They are human beings and possess human rights. Workers do not leave their human rights behind when they come to work, even if some managers and businessmen believe otherwise.

What You Can Do

If you want to help create a more humane workplace for everybody, there are some things you can do depending on your place in the hierarchy.

If You’re a Manager, Executive, or Owner

Stop thinking in terms of “human resources” and “human capital”. Stop using words like “employees”. When you change the language you use in thought, speech, and writing, you eventually change your actions.

Take a good, hard look at yourself and your organization. Employee satisfaction surveys are becoming more common now, but I’ve never seen one that outright asked simple, important questions like: “Have you ever been bullied, abused, or treated inhumanely while working at $CompanyName? In what way do you think you have been mistreated, and by whom?”

Or, if you dare, try publicly documenting what happens in your business with something similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that post-apartheid South Africa convened to identify the truth of what happened under apartheid, grant a measure of restorative justice to victims, and offer amnesty to perpetrators who sincerely repented their crimes. Encourage workers and managers to come forward and talk about their experiences. Record them. Learn from them.

If You’re a Worker

The first thing you should understand is that while profit isn’t the worst reason to work toward creating a more inclusive and humane workplace, it isn’t an especially reliable motive. I wouldn’t trust somebody whose only motive for doing good was profit, and neither should you.

If management’s focus is on what’s profitable rather than what’s right, then what’s to stop them from running a sweatshop and putting literal whip-cracking slavedrivers in management positions if doing so is more profitable?

One might argue that if the law doesn’t mandate fair and human treatment of workers, or that law isn’t vigorously and consistently enforced, then the answer is nothing. However, that isn’t true.

Even if the law doesn’t protect us, we can protect each other. Solidarity is the key. We must realize we share a cause in common and work together. We must organize. We must bring back the strong labor unions that helped our ancestors win weekends, the forty-hour workweek, and the minimum wage in the first place.

But first, we must overcome decades of propaganda spread by conservative business owners and politicians designed to con us into thinking that unions are parasitic, or corrupt, or ineffective, or even unnecessary.

Unions Are Not Parasites

If anybody in a business can be called parasitic, it’s the owners and managers. We work. They profit.

What is profit? The standard definition of profit is the difference between a business’ revenues and the expenses it incurs in generating said revenue. What are the expenses? According to the standard definition, the major expenses are wages/salaries, facilities, power, water, equipment, materials, taxes, and regulatory compliance.

Take a look at those expenses. As far as a traditional business’ owners and managers are concerned, our wages and salaries are an expense. To maximize their profits, they will do their best to pay us pennies on every dollar of revenue our productivity makes possible.

And it isn’t just us. The facilities, equipment, power, water, and materials are all also provided by workers, and these workers get paid pennies on every dollar of value they generate.

What about taxes and regulatory compliance? Surely it’s OK to minimize or avoid those expenses, right? That’s what business owners and the conservatives in their pockets would like you to think.

However, businesses benefit from the existence of a government capable of enforcing property rights and creating a stable environment in which to do business. It is only fair that they should pay for this benefit. Likewise, it is only fair that businesses should be regulated to ensure that owners and managers do not focus exclusively on profit at the expense of all other considerations.

Unions Are Not Corrupt

At least, unions are not inherently corrupt, or at least no more so than the church, the government, or any corporation.

Whether a union can resist corruption depends on the integrity of those elected to run it on behalf of the members.

Unions Are Effective

Unions won workers weekends, forty-hour workweeks, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, overtime pay, and heavy regulations on child labor. Unions fight for pay raises, better working conditions, better benefits, and due process to ensure that workers aren’t turned out of their jobs without cause.

If they weren’t effective, conservatives wouldn’t put so much effort into union busting, and businessmen wouldn’t have unions of their own such as the US Chamber of Commerce.

Your bosses understand the value of organization and collective bargaining, as well as lobbying in Washington, DC and in local and state government. That’s why they want to deny us workers the ability to do the same.

Unions Are Still Necessary

No freedom and no measure of justice or equality is ever won without a fight. Furthermore, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, justice, and equality. If you turn your back on the bastards for a second, the capitalists and their pet politicians will try to take back everything we’ve forced them to give us as our rightful due.

The forty hour workweek is already a thing of the past for many workers. Wage theft is rampant. Life for workers will only get worse unless we fight back. To effectively combat anti-worker trends in business, we still need strong labor unions.

Victory Through Solidarity

We can reclaim our dignity as workers, and force those who hire us to work for them to treat us like human beings instead of things. But it’s going to be a struggle, and we need to stand together. If we let ourselves be divided, they will conquer us.

Don’t let that happen. Reach out to your fellow workers, no matter who they are. Talk to them outside the workplace, even if you think they’re assholes. We need every ally we can get if we’re going to win this fight.