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How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream
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Popular discussions typically focus on overworked professionals. But as Jamie K. McCallum demonstrates, from Amazon warehouses to Rust Belt factories to California’s gig economy, it’s the hours of low-wage workers that are the most volatile and precarious — and the most subject to crises. What’s needed is not individual solutions but collective struggle, and throughout Worked Over McCallum recounts the inspiring stories of those battling today’s capitalism to win back control of their time.
THE HOURS OF INEQUALITY
IF YOU HAVE EVER STOPPED AT A DUNKIN’ DONUTS IN NORTHERN New Jersey, before or after work, there’s a chance that Maria Fernandes poured your coffee. She worked at three different Dunkin’ locations, often back-to-back-to-back, and was described as a “model employee” by a company spokesperson. From 2:00 to 9:00 p.m. she worked the counter at a Dunkin’ kiosk inside Newark’s commuter rail station. She then headed to a second shop, open 24/7 in downtown Linden, where she worked until 6:00 a.m. If business was slow, she took a respite by settling into piles of doughnut containers to rest for a few minutes. On weekends she picked up a third shift beginning at 8:00 a.m. at a shop in Harrison, and always took on additional hours when asked. On average she worked about eighty-seven hours per week. Though she worked hard, New Jersey’s minimum wage was not enough, and she often fell behind on the $550 rent for her basement apartment in Newark. Between shifts, Fernandes napped in her car, the engine running to keep her warm.
On Monday, August 25, 2014, Maria’s shift ended at 6:00 a.m., and the next did not begin for two hours. Grainy security camera footage of a local Wawa convenience store shows her car pulling in and parking just after 6:47 in the morning.
“U can call if you like,” she texted her boyfriend just as he got to work. After they chatted, Fernandes tilted back the driver’s seat of her white Kia with the engine running, the windows shut, and the doors locked to catch up on sleep.
She never woke up.
A Wawa employee noticed her sleeping in the car and was shocked to find her there—eyes open, foaming at the mouth—when his shift ended hours later. Fumes poured from the car, reeking of gasoline. Fernandes was pronounced dead on site from a mixture of exhaustion and carbon monoxide inhalation. She was wearing, of course, her brown-and-white Dunkin’ Donuts uniform.
Fernandes, a thirty-two-year-old immigrant from Portugal, quickly became the face of an endemic problem—overwork and poverty amid great wealth and prosperity. Her name appeared in the speeches of politicians for a time, and her plight made it into the mainstream media. There was even talk of a law in her name that would regulate work hours and schedule predictability. “The death of Maria Fernandes demands a call to action,” a union leader wrote in an op-ed just after her death. But no action materialized. Still, the name of Maria Fernandes is revived episodically, when another person dies too early because he or she was working too late, too hard, or too often.
In May 2018 thirty-four-year-old Pablo Avendano was struck by an SUV and killed on his bicycle in Philadelphia while working for the Silicon Valley–funded food delivery app Caviar. Just days after his death, a banner was hoisted near the scene of the accident: “The Gig Economy Killed Pablo.” Caviar, following the norm among Silicon Valley startups, classified Avendano as an independent contractor, making him ineligible for company healthcare and union protections, and rendering his family ineligible for any benefits upon his death. To collect money for his funeral expenses, friends launched a GoFundMe campaign, which claimed that he died “working a gig economy job that incentivizes riding a bike in dangerous and inclement weather.” His best friend, George Ciccariello-Maher, penned a piece in The Nation that said Avendano had been riding through bad weather for hours the day he was hit. Where others see dangerous conditions, Caviar sees opportunity. The day before, the company texted its couriers an emoji-laden message that read, “When it rains the orders POUR on Caviar!… Go online ASAP to cash in!”
But few riders were really cashing in no matter how long or hard they worked or how quickly they got online. Couriers at Caviar made close to ten dollars per delivery until 2014, when the company switched to an algorithm that matched delivery demands with riders. As with other algorithm-based models, such as those adopted by Uber and Lyft, the software transfers power to those who design and own the technology. A 2018 study by JPMorgan Chase found that a flood of gig workers caused the wages earned by platform-based food deliverers to fall by more than 50 percent since 2013. Mirroring this larger trend, corporate profits at Caviar soared but wages per delivery declined, forcing many couriers to work longer hours, leaving them exhausted and overworked in dangerous conditions. As Avendano was the night he died.1
In Working Ourselves to Death, Diane M. Fassel argues that an increasing number of people are simply “addicted to incessant activity.” Bryan Robinson, a psychotherapist and author of the book Chained to the Desk, compares “workaholism” to a disease like alcoholism. Other accounts blame our cultural endowment of American individualism, which manifests itself as a self-destructive need to get ahead. These explanations are common ones, but it is unhelpful to attribute a widespread social problem to a singular category—addict, workaholic—that raises far more questions than it answers. Workaholism can’t explain why Fernandes and Avendano died.
Are we really just hardwired to work hard? Obviously not. Historical changes in the amount of time we work can easily dispel a psychological explanation. Fernandes didn’t want to be sleeping in her car any more than Avendano wanted to be weaving through traffic for an app. Nor, it seems, are the vast majority of workers giving their all out of an irrational commitment.
So what, then, are the social forces that have kept our work lives stubbornly long and unpredictable? For a fuller explanation, let’s look at the structure of the economy and recent trends in work time. In the decades leading up to the 1970s, most workers enjoyed a condition they would relish today—declining hours and rising pay. But it didn’t last. To find out what happened, we need a better understanding of the complex relationships between rising economic inequality, longer hours, and the American class structure.
Work hours declined precipitously starting in the middle of the nineteenth century. This data has led some to argue that there’s a built-in structural bias of capitalist economies to translate productivity gains into increased leisure. This is erroneous. We can attribute the vast majority of that decrease in work hours to trade union pressure and political interventions. It was striking carpenters in Philadelphia in 1791 who inaugurated the movement to win the ten-hour day, a two-hour reduction. And about one hundred years later, on May 1, 1886, thousands of strikers in Chicago, eight of whom were later hanged, demanded “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will,” the slogan of the struggle for the eight-hour day. These fights for shorter hours culminated in two major pieces of legislation toward the end of the sloping trend. The Wagner Act of 1935 gave unions the right to bargain collectively with their employer, offering them a clearer avenue to negotiate over hours reductions. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 attacked “starvation wages and intolerable hours.” It also outlawed child labor and set the standard forty-hour workweek, mandating overtime pay to de-incentivize employers to compel longer hours.2
Historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt shows that hours dropped so low that workers basically stopped fighting for further reductions even as the context for doing so was perhaps better than ever. Instead, as leisure time grew, American families needed more money to take advantage of these opportunities and began advocating for higher pay more fervently than for fewer hours. Higher wages, in turn, made longer hours more desirable, and workers increasingly sought relatively lucrative overtime benefits to earn more. Still, high rates of unionization and relatively high wages ensured the downward trend in hours continued until about the mid-1970s.3
Social scientists disagree on how exactly to calculate the change in work time since then. The average workweek has remained relatively constant for the past few decades. But we’ve increased our hours dramatically by working more weeks per year. Juliet Schor ignited a debate about longer hours in her 1991 book The Overworked American. When she updated her book a decade later she found the trends had only accelerated. Using data collected by the Current Population Survey, she found that from 1973 to 2000 the average worker added 199 hours (about five weeks) to his or her annual schedule. The surge was staggering for some subgroups within that sample. For example, those in the middle of the income distribution saw an increase of 660 hours per year, a rise of more than 20 percent.4
Among Schor’s main explanations was that as union strength waned and the state retreated from its commitment to shortening the hours of work, firms were able to restructure jobs as fundamentally longer-hour positions. Increasing employer power eroded a “market for shorter hours,” a system in which individual workers were able to negotiate hours or trade hours for time off. Schor also found that workers adjusted their expectations as work time increased. On surveys, they reported satisfaction with their hours despite reporting a preference for shorter hours in previous years. She concluded that workers ended up “wanting what they get rather than getting what they want.” Her research overturned the myths that working time today is a matter of individual preference for income over time and that personal choice plays a significant role in determining work time. To put it bluntly: employers decide, employees abide.5
Schor was criticized for overestimating the hours trend, and some critics argued that leisure had actually increased during the time period she studied. These scholars relied on time diaries in which survey participants recorded their daily activities in fifteen-minute increments. As such, bathroom breaks or time spent around the water cooler was not counted as “work time.” By the mid-1990s, however, even these survey methods showed an increase in work hours. Still, some estimates today show only a modest increase in work time since the seventies. The difference is determined by the data that is used and the way the data is analyzed. When supervisory and managerial workers are excluded, or when women are excluded, the upward trend is less pronounced, because supervisory and managerial workers put in longer hours and men’s share of annual hours worked has changed far less than women’s share. Including all of the working-age population, not just those employed, creates a steeper increase.6
My calculations are based on data from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that conducts research and analysis to help inform policymakers. This data shows that the average worker put in 1,664 hours in 1975; that figure rose to 1,883 in 2016, a 13 percent increase equivalent to about five weeks. Though the workweek remained relatively stable over this time, this change reflects an increase in the number of weeks worked per year. Most of the change occurred from 1979 to 2007, during which time hours grew by about 11 percent, the equivalent of every worker putting in an extra 4.5 weeks. Hours declined rapidly in the wake of the Great Recession but fully recovered to their pre-recession high by 2016.7
One part of the story is that women have increased their work hours significantly while men’s hours have fallen, a fluctuation that explains a good portion of the overall increase in work time. Men still work the most, buoyed by their overrepresentation in careers in long-hour and high-wage legal, corporate, medical, and technology fields, while working women have substantially increased their hours in part-time jobs and in jobs with irregular schedules.8
Stories of women who are overworked, underemployed, or who have no control over their schedules dominate this book. But the increase in women’s paid work alone isn’t enough to explain the historic reversal of the trend toward shorter hours. After all, women entered the paid workforce in comparable ways in our peer countries, and they have actually decreased their hours in the past two decades in the United States.9
The overall trends are even more pronounced when we compare the United States to other countries. Typically, richer countries are more productive and work fewer hours. But the United States is different. Americans average 289 more working hours per year than comparisons with peer nations suggest is necessary to maintain our high level of productivity. Germans, for example, produce a comparable level of well-being in much less time. In 2018, the United States was only slightly more productive than industrious Germany, yet Americans worked 31 percent more hours, equivalent to more than two months of work. The gap between how much Americans actually work and how much our wealthy economy predicts we should work, has also widened. We’re not just overworked. Our tendency to overwork has expanded year after year. And what do we have to show for all those extra hours? We have greater income inequality than any peer country.10
Rising hours are the result of, and contribute to, economic inequality. The skyrocketing profits generated by productive workers since the 1970s could have allowed us to work significantly fewer hours without a decline in our standard of living. But instead of being shared equitably, those profits were kept at the top by a small elite. About two-thirds of all income gains from 1973 to 2007 went directly to the top 1 percent of households. Analysis in 2019 by the policy expert Matt Bruenig shows that since 1989 the top 1 percent increased its total net worth by an incomprehensible $21 trillion. During the same period, the bottom half experienced a loss in net worth of $900 billion and now owns less than nothing, meaning more debt than assets. Simply put, most Americans today can’t afford to work less.11
ANNUAL HOURS WORKED AND INEQUALITY, 1975–2016
The graph above plots the classic measure of economic inequality, the Gini coefficient, alongside the number of annual hours worked. A Gini measure of zero expresses perfect equality, whereas a value of one signifies absolute inequality. Side by side it is easy to see a strong correlation between the two trends. As economic inequality increases since 1975, the amount of work we do each year does as well. Within the general trend, however, the two variables fluctuate together. The downward spike in 2007 shows the trends at the onset of the Great Recession, after which point both recover and rise again. It’s important to remember that the drop in hours during that time doesn’t signal a leisurely respite from hard work, but rather a quick slashing of work time by employers in the midst of the crisis.
Economic inequality helps maintain long and unpredictable hours because it creates precarious work, forcing people across the wage scale to put in more hours either because their wages are so low or because they’re afraid the boss might see them leaving the office early. The relationship also exists from the other direction: long hours also drive income inequality because the pay that elites take home is so high at the top of the wage pyramid that it pulls the working rich away from everyone else.
In the past forty years CEO pay soared by an inconceivable 1,070 percent, and productivity increased by 70 percent, but hourly wages of average workers limped forward just 12 percent. From 2016 to 2017 average CEO pay rose to $18 million, making the CEO-to-worker pay ratio 312 to 1. Try to imagine someone working 312 times harder than someone else, or being 312 times more deserving, and the criminally disproportionate nature of our polarized economy becomes clearer. Anyone who tries to pin the blame on lazy workers will need to contend with this basic math.12
The graph below, produced by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman, and the New York Times, depicts the change in income between 1946 and 2014, illustrating the decades-long trend toward top-heavy rewards for the superrich. The light gray line, labeled “1980,” shows the change in income from 1946 to 1980. Just a few decades ago, the incomes of the middle class and the poor were rising faster, in percentage terms, than the pay of the wealthiest Americans. The dark line charts the growth from 1980 to 2014, which is mostly flat until it jolts dramatically upward at the end, illustrating the shocking gains that have recently gone to the richest Americans. Recently, only a sliver of the most affluent families have received such large sums. And as working families have been left behind, the main way they’ve tried to keep up is by increasing their work hours.
THE INEQUALITY OF INCOME GROWTH
Most Americans lost their piece of the pie because they lost the power to take it. The destruction of labor unions is the crucial omission in most explanations of inequality and the return of protracted hours. When unions were strong, wages rose with productivity. Today, American workers are being denied the profits they are generating because they have no strong organization to demand their fair share. As a direct result, wages across the board have stagnated, social inequality has deepened, and intergenerational mobility—what we commonly think of as the American Dream—has been stunted.
AS UNION MEMBERSHIP DECLINES, INCOME INEQUALITY RISES
The graph above helps us understand why. It illustrates the relationship between union power and inequality. As union organization spikes after the Great Depression, the share of income going to the top 10 percent nose-dives. Things flatten out for a few decades in the middle of the twentieth century, as the middle class blooms. Then, as attacks on labor become fiercer in the early 1970s, the rich once again regain power, and as a result they take more of the money that had been going to workers. This graph demonstrates a fundamental truism about American life today—class power, not “the market,” is the primary factor determining what society looks like. When workers are in unions they have more power, make more money, and work fewer hours—and the rich get less. When workers lose their union power, it’s the reverse.
Unions reduce inequality not only by raising the wages of the lowest-paid workers, but also by placing constraints at the top—by taxing the rich, fighting against absurd compensation packages at the peak of the income ladder, and decreasing the overall percentage of upper-level managers within firms. Yet their ability to do so is determined by the ability to help elect politicians sympathetic to labor’s cause. And their influence in this regard has been deeply eroded. In the 2016 election, corporations outspent labor sixteen to one, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It also found that whereas unions spend $45 million a year lobbying Washington, business elites spend $3 billion, more than sixty times as much. These numbers should make any notion of an equivalency between Big Labor, which really doesn’t exist anymore, and Big Business, which has never been healthier, seem laughable.13
About one-third of US workers carried a union card at midcentury, and inequality decreased as unionization increased. During these prosperous (and anomalous) decades, unions helped keep the wages of ordinary workers high and also put a ceiling on what bosses took home. Moreover, high union membership helped elect politicians who favored, or at least dealt with, organized workers, providing broad support for unions. Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s midcentury platform promised to increase unemployment benefits, create laws making it easier to join a union, and eliminate sex discrimination to ensure equal pay for equal work. As president, the five-star general addressed the American Federation of Labor, assuring the assembled crowd that “only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
Well, the number of fools grew and grew. And then it exploded in the 1970s. Although the weapons used to fight the union wars changed—companies stopped hiring armed thugs and relied more on lobbyists and lawyers—the answer to corporate woes was still union-busting. Nevertheless, throughout the midcentury, absolute union membership continued to rise even as union density, the proportion of worker members, declined.
Early in the neoliberal period, many workers still won shorter hours. In 1976, the United Automobile Workers won twelve new paid personal holidays, inspiring confidence in a new shorter hours movement. “The four-day week is inevitable,” said UAW president Doug Fraser in 1978. “The only question is, How fast do we get there?” That was the question when, that same year, 700 unionists attended the first All Unions Committee to Shorten the Work Week conference in Detroit. “Across the country, in shop and union after union, a mighty demand for shorter hours is developing,” said UAW Local 22 president Frank Runnels in his opening remarks.14
The conference brought together union members committed to reinvigorating labor’s forgotten cause of less work for more money. They gathered to promote a legislative agenda for shorter hours across all industries, prohibit compulsory overtime, and persuade unions to bargain over hours during contract negotiations. These steps would ease unemployment by spreading more work around. “The forty-hour system has built a wall around our jobs… that wall has locked out ten million people,” Runnels said. “It is time to tear that old wall down!” By today’s standards, however, the wall wasn’t impervious.
By that time many unions had secured every existing holiday as paid time off, and they were fervently creating more paid leave any way they could. The UAW more than doubled its number of paid personal holidays in its 1979 contract, taking them to twenty-six. Many other industrial workers won seven weeks of paid vacation for their members. The United Steelworkers of America even secured a thirteen-week sabbatical for high-seniority workers. Reporting on the conference, the New York Times argued that unions were committed to a “less-work ethic.”
Subsequent attacks against unions, however, were major drivers of extended work hours. President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, even after the union broke ranks with the wider labor movement to back his election campaign, was truly a turning point. The controllers’ unmet demand for a four-day week helped push the stalemate toward a strike, even though federal workers didn’t have the right to a work stoppage. Though the union was convinced it would win handily, Reagan held strong against the workers. Their mass firing, and even the arrest of some leaders, reverberated like a warning shot throughout the union movement. The following year, General Motors workers, who had been among the most successful at shortening hours, lost every paid personal holiday they had won over the previous few years. Throughout the eighties, with their bargaining power crippled, workers sacrificed time off in exchange for maintaining wages. Autoworkers at Chrysler, Ford, and GM lost two to three weeks of paid vacation. Rubber workers lost one week of time off, and the steelworkers’ union even sacrificed its thirteen-week sabbatical program in certain places across the country.15
Nonetheless, American workers have continued to report increasing desire to join unions but have found far less success doing so. In 2019 public support for unions hit a fifty-year high, with a 64 percent approval rate. In other words, workers lost their voice at the same time a rising number of them said they wanted it. The same year, private sector union membership, which has historically had the largest impact on workers’ livelihoods, clocked in at a dismal 6.4 percent, about the same level it was during the first year of the Great Depression. Unions not only promoted widespread pay equity; they also moderated the working day.16
As union strength has waned, the main mechanism that gave average workers shorter hours has ground to a halt. And as earnings have fallen, workers have made up the difference by working longer hours. Without a strong counterweight to business, workers have had to abandon their long-standing mission—less work for more pay—and instead accept the opposite. Today, wages are down and hours are up. Workers in countries with stronger unions tend to work fewer hours and enjoy longer paid vacations than those in countries where unions are weak. A recent study by Project: Time Off shows that Americans worked during more than 700 million of their earned vacation days in 2017 because they feared they’d be labeled lazy, grounds for replacement in the no-rest culture, earning us the moniker “no-vacation nation.” These changes have thrown the working life for many Americans into a tumult.17
ON THE BACK of Amanda’s ecru-colored Chevy is a bumper sticker that says, “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.” When I point it out she feigns ignorance. “You mean like a two-day break? In a row?” she asks, sarcastically. “That’d be nice, but that’s not really how we live.”
Amanda is fair-skinned, with light hair and a welcoming smile. She wears small wire-rimmed glasses that sit loosely on her face and jostle around when she talks. Hers is a peripatetic life. In the time I’ve known her she has moved five times in five years—often dependent on the kindness of friends to keep her family from going homeless. It seems that just as often she and her family are offering the less fortunate around them a place to crash as well. A mutual acquaintance once described her as “the neighbor we need but don’t deserve.”
Years ago, when I was at her home, her son, Kaleb, was performing his “rain dance” in their living room, in the Lemon Fair Valley of Weybridge, Vermont, whirling his body from side to side, arms raised to the sky in exaggerated prayer.
“Boy never sees his dad except in bad weather,” Amanda explained. “So he started doing this to get it to rain. It’s not lookin’ good today though,” she said, half smiling, squinting into an eye-blue cloudless sky.
- “Well-written…[McCallum] explores the reasons that Americans’ work hours have been growing since the 1970s, including the gig economy and the moribund labor movement.”—New York Times
- “Workers of the country need bold ideas like those McCallum offers.”—The Washington Post
- "McCallum wants us to reignite the fight to raise wages, reduce work hours, and make work satisfying simultaneously. But, as he stresses, we must focus on the neglected aspect of time. The less time we spend at work, the more time we can spend looking for meaning where we will more likely find it -- among our families, friends, and communities."—Nation
- "McCallum's latest work stands out among a spate of recent books about the dismal conditions of workers by offering a unifying focus on employees' loss of control over their jobs.... Rich with examples of middle- and working-class responses to job-related time pressures.... Subtly drawing on classic Marxian theory that capitalism steals laborers' lives as well as their work, [it] will find a welcome audience among those concerned about global working conditions."—Library Journal
- "A thought-provoking look at the systemic problem of overworking in America."—Booklist
- "McCallum may be the only social scientist who has worked as a longshoreman on the Seattle docks and marched in a picket line with the Exotic Dancers Union at the Lusty Lady peep show in San Francisco. Drawing on such colorful experiences as well as deep scholarly research, he makes the compelling argument that Americans are losing control of their work time.... A sobering analysis of quasi-Orwellian tactics that permeate American work life."—Kirkus
- "An informative examination of the strains placed on American workers by 'overwork, unstable schedules, and a lack of adequate hours.' Interweaving anecdotes from the history of American labor with profiles of contemporary workers, union organizers, and social service administrators, McCallum lucidly explains how the current system came to be and offers hope that the resurgence of socialist principles can lead to improved working conditions.... A cogent, persuasive, and witty call for change."—Publishers Weekly
- "Jamie McCallum's sharp and clarifying analysis links workers' freedom to control work time -- and thus their lives -- to our ability to have a functioning, genuine democracy. Worked Over underscores the need for workers to have significantly more power over the anti-worker decisions currently in the hands of the corporate elite."—Jane McAlevey, author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age
- "Worked Over examines an important, but little appreciated, aspect of America's out-of-control inequality: millions of Americans have scant say over when they work and how many hours they work. In this eminently readable, well-researched book, Jamie McCallum combines smart analysis, on-the-money anecdotes, and moving profiles of individual workers to explore the many ways that American workers are being squeezed by unfair, onerous work schedules."—Steven Greenhouse, author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor
- "As America grew more unequal, most people's workloads just kept growing and growing -- and there was little they could do about it. Worked Over helps us see what's going on and also how we might fight against it."—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
- On Sale
- Sep 8, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Basic Books