Work, Rest, and What You Will
We at Basecamp love to preach the virtues of the 8-hour work day, but where did it come from? (Hint: Not from Henry Ford!) Labor historian Emily Twarog explains the origins of the 8-hour work day and why it was so short-lived in the U.S.
- "This CEO thinks it's crazy to work more than 40 hours a week" (CNN) - 00:34
- "Extreme Capitalism with Jason Calacanis," the episode that credits Henry Ford with the 8-hour work day - 1:04
- "Did the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week come from Henry Ford, or labor unions?" (Politifact) - 1:06
- Emily Twarog | Twitter - 1:10
- "The Mill Girls of Lowell" (National Park Service) - 1:54
- The Lowell Offering - 3:04
- "Fire of 1871" (Encyclopedia of Chicago) - 3:51
- A history of McCormick's reaper works factory - 4:59
- An overview of the Haymarket Riot - 5:24
- A history of the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 - 5:54
- The U.S. Department of Labor's history of the Fair Labor Standards Act - 11:02
- The National Labor Relations Board's FAQs on the National Labor Relations Act - 11:06
- Fight for $15 - 29:17
- "She was Instacart's biggest cheerleader. Now she's leading a worker revolt" (Washington Post) - 29:29
- Emily Twarog's book, Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America - 31:25
- Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor by Steven Greenhouse - 31:36
- On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger - 31:45
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:02] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is a software tool for project teams. It centralizes everything the team needs to know: tasks, files, and discussions, in one easy-to-use place so nothing gets lost and nothing slips through the cracks. Learn more and sign up at Basecamp.com.
[00:00:24] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:00:25] Welcome to Rework, a podcast about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:00:30] And I’m Shaun Hildner. Here at Basecamp, we’re really big proponents of the eight-hour workday. You hear our co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson all the time talking about not working more than eight hours a day. We’re not even supposed to have notifications turned on during evenings and weekends, even though I know for a fact you do, Wailin.
Wailin: [00:00:47] First of all, how dare you? Secondly, all this talk about the eight-hour workday got me wondering: How did we arrive at this number in the first place?
Shaun: [00:00:56] Actually, on this very podcast a few weeks ago, we had an episode where a guest credited Henry Ford with creating the eight-hour workday. That’s something you see repeated on social media, too, but it’s just not the case.
Wailin: [00:01:08] Today on Rework, I sit down with Emily Twarog. She’s an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the School of Labor and Employment Relations and she specializes in Labor Studies and Labor History. She’s here to talk about the history of the eight-hour workday and its shockingly brief heyday in America.
[00:01:26] If, like me, you went through 12+ years of the American public education system without really learning anything about organized labor, I think you’ll find this conversation very interesting. For starters, Emily says that a lot of historians look at the Great Upheaval of 1886 as the starting point. In Chicago alone that year, some 88,000 workers went on strike to demand an eight-hour workday. But Emily likes to begin the story in the early 1800s in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Emily: [00:02:00] The first American factories are in the Massachusetts area along the riverways because they’re dependent on the river for the energy to run the factories and these are our first textile factories. They hire farm girls to come work and they figure, okay, we can hire these farm girls because they’ll be obedient and docile and they’re nearby. They speak English. These women are working 12, 13, 14-hour days in the factory six days a week. They have Sundays off. They wake up, usually around 4, 4:30. They go work for a couple hours, come back to the boarding house that they live in, they’re required to live in. Eat breakfast in 15 minutes, go back to the factory. Work until midday meal, go back to the factory and work until nightfall.
[00:02:46] So they’re working very hard, and they begin to organize for higher wages, safer working conditions, and shorter days. So that would be, I would argue, kind of the first beginnings, but that’s early 1800s.
Wailin: [00:02:56] Did they find any success in what they were advocating for?
Emily: [00:03:01] Yes and no. So, they started publishing a newspaper called The Lowell Offering. The publication was a mix of poetry and short stories, but it was also political, where they would write about work issues. They would then petition the Massachusetts legislature to cut the work hours. They did begin to see some traction, however, very quickly, we have an influx of Irish immigrants. And so, the owners of the mills figure, okay, well, these women are starting to cost us more, they’re starting to create more problems so let’s just replace them with low-wage immigrant work.
[00:03:39] When it really gets off the ground is when you see full-blown manufacturing up and down the east coast, heading out west to Chicago. Chicago is seen as the future. The city burned, we rebuilt really quickly, so we have all of the pioneering architects coming here to build the first skyscrapers. And we have massive industry as well as agriculture as well as steel. And then of course, we are the crossroads for the rail tracks.
[00:04:08] So, Chicago’s where the eight-hour day really kicks off. The slogan was Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, and Eight Hours for What you Will. The idea being, you’re making a lot of money off of us and we deserve to earn this wage, but then also to have a high quality of life. So that was really the motivation behind the eight-hour day, because at this point, people were working six days a week, 12, 13, 14 hours a day. And this is, of course, before we have any kind of labor legislation that would mandate overtime pay or anything like that.
[00:04:38] And the conditions were atrocious.
Wailin: [00:04:40] And this is across industries and all kinds of factories?
Emily: [00:04:43] This is across industries. So, yeah, where we are right now recording, this whole area was the garment factory area. Of course, we’re also the meatpacking capital, so meatpacking, which is amongst the worst jobs. Steel. Equipment manufacturing, some McCormick reaper works was manufacturing farming equipment. McCormick reaper works had a lot of unskilled laborers on their assembly lines, but they were trying to eliminate the highly skilled workers, the iron workers who created all the molds that they needed to do their work, and the iron workers went out on strike and it was a very lengthy strike. And a lot of activists fighting for the eight-hour day went to support the strike. That’s actually the strike that kicked off the Haymarket Square Massacre and the big fight for the eight-hour day all happened right around that same time in 1886.
[00:05:33] The Lowell mills and all the textile mills continued to expand in New England well into the 20th century. So you see, later on, organizing efforts that are successful in the early 20th century that are still predominantly female. Women tend to be textile workers. By the point of the uprising of 1912, you have predominantly women working but it was more of a mixed immigrant workforce so not just farmgirls, right? Italians, Irish, Polish. And during the 1912 Bread and Roses strike, it was that similar campaign of we deserve bread, we deserve a wage, but we deserve a good life as well, the roses. And so that was a very, very powerful strike that gained national attention.
Wailin: [00:06:19] How did the factory owners sell the ideas of such a long workday to, let’s say, the general public, which would be paying attention to this kind of thing. What was the kind of language that you would see coming out of the people at the top of the ladder? Would they say, this is just how many hours needs to be worked if we want to maintain production at a certain level? I mean, it’s like, how did they try to sell it to the public?
Emily: [00:06:47] I mean, these are the first factories. These are the first wage jobs. I mean, we take it for granted that you get a job and you get a paycheck. This was the first time that was happening. People didn’t earn paychecks. They had small family farms. They bartered, they sold goods maybe in the market. They ran their own businesses. People didn’t have a model for anything else.
[00:07:09] For the mill girls, those jobs were seen as supplemental. I have this kind of made up family when I teach about the Lowell mill girl family, where it’s like, mom and dad end up having a bunch of kids and they have a bunch of girls. Girls are expensive, they’re seen as not profitable. You don’t hand down your land to girls. If you want to marry them off, you have to have a dowry of some kind. Not a high end dowry, but you need to have some land, you need to have a chest full of things to start off your household. If you have five daughters, that’s an expensive proposition if you’re just a small landowner in New England.
[00:07:43] Mill start to post these advertisements in the local broadsheets and in the little stores in the communities to say here is an opportunity for your daughter before she gets married to earn all this extra money for the family. So it’s really seen as an opportunity to increase the family’s wealth so that they can marry off their daughters.
[00:08:02] So it wasn’t so much selling the idea of the work itself as this is an opportunity to earn more. And the economy is changing because at the same time what’s happening is factories are developing so that you can produce things in larger quantities, more quickly, and people are less and less relying on homemade goods and now able to go to the general store and purchase something that’s made for them. Or they can purchase more of something. More dishes or more forks and spoons whereas your family only have one of each for each family member. That kind of mass production begins to make things more affordable and converts us into what we now know of ourselves as a consumer economy.
[00:08:45] But the cost of that is that artisans lose their jobs so they have no other means to support themselves but to go work in factory labor. Quickly, people realize this is an unsustainable way of living. And so organizing begins right off the bat, but they’re also in this difficult situation where you have to pay your bills and you have to earn a wage. You have to feed your family.
[00:09:10] Because there’s always somebody willing to work for less, as soon as that workforce begins to agitate and organize, you replace them with a different workforce. So the capitalists, the factory owners have a big advantage over the workforce and the massive amount of immigration and the end of the Civil War, and the Great Migration from the south to the north give them the advantage to be able to divide and conquer the workforce to replace folks who are resisting the status quo.
Wailin: [00:09:38] In the agitation for the eight-hour workday, was that usually the headline demand in a list of other demands around better working conditions, safer working conditions? Was it usually part of a package and then eight-hour day was just a nice, elegant way to summarize it?
Emily: [00:09:59] Yeah, I mean, people wanted a shorter day for the same amount of wage. Right, so we want a shorter day but we still want to earn the same amount. So if you’re going to cut our day from 12 to eight hours a day, we still want to earn what we would earn at 12 hours a day. We want safer working conditions, that’s a huge, huge piece of it. But, you’re right. I mean, it was a good tagline, right. A good hashtag, the eight-hour day. So it worked really well for them, but yeah, it was definitely an umbrella term that meant a higher wage. A breadwinner wage. The idea being that the family norm should be the man works, the woman stays home. So a husband should be able to earn enough to feed his family without the wife having to work.
[00:10:44] So it meant making sure that he was working shorter hours, still, probably six days a week.
Wailin: [00:10:49] When did we get the weekend?
Emily: [00:10:49] It’s kind of, it’s an end-result of union contracts, so you start to see that in the ‘40s after World War II when we’re at peak unionization in the United States. You have the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of the 1930s, the National Labor Relations Act gives all private sector workers the right to organize, which is an important distinction because it excluded two segments of private sector which was agricultural workers and domestic workers and didn’t include public sector workers of which there was an increasing number.
[00:11:23] So after World War II comes to a close, the economy’s booming as a result of the war, we have relatively high union density. One in three private sector workers are unionized. They’re able to negotiate this idea of the eight-hour day, giving folks overtime after either 40 hours of work a week or eight hours in one day. And the idea of two days off in a row. You don’t get that idea of the America middle class standard of living until the late ‘40s, yeah.
[00:11:54] And it’s a blip, really. I mean, it’s like ‘50s, ‘60s and then it starts to decline in the ‘70s.
Wailin: [00:11:58] So that’s like the whole golden era of the true eight-hour workday is just a few decades in the…
Emily: [00:12:04] Pretty much.
Wailin: [00:12:04] Mid-20th century?
Emily: [00:12:06] Yeah, I mean, people think of it as like, this is what I deserve. The American dream is that I’m going to… forget about getting filthy rich, right? A house, two cars, being able to retire, going on a nice vacation where you can afford to buy groceries and your prescription drugs. You don’t have to worry about money on a day-to-day basis, where you don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck and you have some level of comfort. In order to do that in America today, you have to earn a lot of money.
[00:12:33] So we’re really only able to pay that off for a couple of decades. And even then, you have to think about it through an intersectional lens of what black workers have access to, what immigrant workers have access to, what Latino workers, but the bottom line is that we do have high enough union density and jobs are good enough that they’re raising even those non-unionized jobs up. There’s an expectation when you go to work that your workplace is going to provide you with health insurance, that they’re going to provide you with what was then a pension, now a 401k, right? That was an expectation even without a college degree, that you could go work at a place and it was their job because we don’t have Universal Health care here to get your health care through your job and to get some vacation time and to get some kind of retirement, usually a pension.
[00:13:20] And when public sector workers started unionizing in the ’50s and ‘60s, those jobs opened way more opportunities for black workers, which is why you see a much larger percentage of black workers in public sector jobs like the post office becomes a haven for black workers. And those become unionized jobs that also offer those kinds of benefits, so that’s the expectation for work, but my undergraduates think that they’re going to get all that because that’s a bill of goods we’ve been sold, right? This is what you’re going to get and it’s less and less likely that that’s what you’ll get if you don’t have a union involved.
[00:13:52] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:13:57] So, what happened to the short-lived eight-hour day? Emily gets into it right after the break. But first, I’m going to turn things over to Basecamp’s head of product strategy, Ryan Singer to tell you a little more about Basecamp.
Ryan: [00:14:09] Yeah, so, I was talking to one of our customers and he runs a non-profit and they do social work for refugees. They had a really interesting situation where he’s trying to fix their communication problems that are starting to bubble up as they grow, but it’s really hard to get everybody into the office to talk about something like software. Holding these training meetings and trying to gather everybody together to learn software was really interrupting and getting in the way of the social work that the staff was trying to do. They felt like every hour that they weren’t in the field was an hour wasted, that was affecting somebody’s life.
[00:14:43] He had tried, actually, on three different occasions to try and put some different software into place and every time it was kind of this, “Ugh, you want us to learn another piece of software,” and none of them really stuck so there was kind of some stuff in one app, and some stuff in another app and they started to grow and they had a few more people and they had more projects happening, and all of a sudden it kind of reached a tipping point when they missed a funding deadline because somebody put a message in the wrong app. They put a message in an app that people weren’t looking at and they missed a really key deadline.
[00:15:18] And then, for him, this was the moment of like, all right. Look, we’ve got some more hires coming and if I don’t fix this, we’re going to break. He was hesitant to even look at software again, because he was afraid of this hump he was going to have to go through to train everybody and get everybody out of the field and into the office. But he does a search, he comes across Basecamp, and when he gets to the How it Works page on our marketing site, he sees this video that in less than 3 minutes walks through the whole app. And he says, wow. I’ve looked at other tools and they had hours and hours of training material, and here I watched a three-minute video and I understood everything end-to-end.
[00:16:00] So he’s thinking okay, I’m not going to have to actually pull them in for a whole day, I can just show them this short video. Everybody’s going to be able to understand it, everybody’s going to start using it right away. This gave him the confidence to actually give it a shot.
[00:16:10] He was able to tell his staff, look. You’ve seen the video, you get how it works, just start putting your to-dos in these projects and now nothing is going to slip through the cracks and we’re not going to have that problem again. And everybody did. They were able to delete Slack, they stopped using Google Drive, they kind of put an internal ban on email for just messages between staff and they had a couple other apps on the side that they were all able to totally clean out. Everything’s just in Basecamp, and this gave them the confidence that they weren’t going to miss something again.
[00:16:41] For us as the makers of Basecamp, we’re always trying to look at it through our customers’ eyes to really understand what’s important about it and why does it work for them. We’ve known that having everything in one place prevents you from losing things and from things slipping through the cracks, and this helped us understand also what does it mean for Basecamp to be easy. Easy doesn’t just mean that you can figure it out. Easy means that it’s fast to learn so you don’t have to waste everybody’s time.
[00:17:08] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:17:08] Basecamp is the all-in-one app for organizing your work and communicating company wide. Oh, and it’s extremely easy to use. Give it a shot with your team at Basecamp.com.
Wailin: [00:17:21] I mean, what happened to put an end to that brief halcyon period?
Emily: [00:17:27] I mean, a lot of things. There was a decline in unionization. We saw more automation. You don’t need that many people to do the same kind of work. Free trade. Free trade had a huge impact. Those were all things that were just going to change as the economy changed, as technology changed. I would argue that a lot of labor unions kind of sat on their haunches and didn’t think 10, 20 years down the road, like, what is the impact of this going to be? What should we anticipate and how should we change? I think if they had there would have been less slippage with union membership. There would have more retraining programs earlier on.
[00:18:06] But the other piece of where I’m critical of labor movement is that they also stopped organizing. In the ‘30s, the ‘40s, they were organizing everybody. And it was a radical organizing drive, and then we had the rise of the Cold War, which was a huge factor. So, we’re terrified of anything that even sniffed of collectivism, which a labor union does. There was legislation that was passed in 1947 that said, if you’re union leader, you have to sign an anti-communism pledge.
[00:18:36] As we saw manufacturing decrease and the service sector increasing, what the labor movement should have been doing was organizing all those workers, but instead they kind of held onto the heyday mentality of the ‘50s and ‘60s and blamed immigrants for driving wages down. So, instead of supporting immigrant reform in the ‘80s, they opposed it. Instead of organizing those new workers and turning service sector jobs, which are essentially what manufacturing jobs were in the ‘30s and ‘40s, turning them into middle class jobs. Now they’re scrambling. Now it’s the 21st century and it’s like, oh we—now we have to organize all these workers. It’s like, they should have been organizing them in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
[00:19:14] Y0u also saw a huge increase in office work by the mid-‘80s. You have 55% of adult women are in the work force as opposed to their generation earlier which was like 1 in 3, around 33%. They’re in the work force a little bit because of feminism but mostly because their husbands are no longer earning wages that can support the family. So you have seven million women working in predominantly non-union, low-pay, low-career ladder to no-career ladder office jobs to supplement the lost wages of the ‘70s.
[00:19:46] So that’s another place where the labor movement began to try to organize but wasn’t hugely successful in organizing those workers. So there’s a lot of different things but I do believe, I hear the talking heads on the radio talking about well, what happened to the American dream, why can’t our children work in a job and support their family and not have student loan debt and be able to afford childcare? There’s a couple of reasons but the one thing they never really talk about is union decline.
[00:20:14] And the reality is is that employers don’t give you health insurance because they want to do it out of the bottom of their hearts because we believe that that’s the right thing to do. They do it because they’ve been pressured to do it and we don’t have universal health care and collective bargaining agreements require that you do it and so all the other employers had to do it. But as soon as that starts slipping away, employers are going to figure out how to maximize their profits.
[00:20:34] And there’s also a whole element of shareholder influence. So you have demands from shareholders who want better returns. So how do you get better returns? Well, you could cut CEO wages, you could say to shareholders, you know, we’re going to offer a pension and really good health insurance so you’re just going to have to get 10% less. That’s not going to fly, right? No one’s going to invest in your business. So where do they cut it from? They cut it from the bottom. And without any kind of government regulations stepping in to keep that from happening, so with the election of Ronald Reagan and this idea of trickle down economics, we still have that belief. If you just work hard enough you’ll do great and there’s few enough people that show that that’s maybe possible.
Wailin: [00:21:17] We latch onto the exceptions and the outliers.
Emily: [00:21:19] Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. Because want to believe that, right? We want to believe that if I just work hard enough, I’m going to hit it big. We have other business leaders who are the exception, but we then tag that onto every single business leader, right? And because union density is now hovering around 11%, so that’s 1 in 10 workers, that’s not enough leverage to pressure other employers to keep it up. And because the government has remained very distant both under Democratic and Republican administrations since the ‘80s.
Wailin: [00:21:47] Do you think that interrogating the eight-hour workday in this current economy, is that a useful question to be asking or when you want to rethink the current economy we have to make it more equitable, do you think we should be looking at other questions?
Emily: [00:22:06] I mean, I think it’s still a central question. It’s a matter of how we talk about it, but I think at the end of the day what workers really want is, whether you’re working in an hourly job that you kind of leave at the workplace or… a job that you’re not highly invested in, versus a career. People want discrete time that they work and that time that they’re home. And then time that they get to sleep. And so that is essentially the eight-hour day. That doesn’t exist anymore. I have a very good job, you know. I’m a university professor, I make a good wage. I feel guilty when I don’t check my email on the weekends. There’s an expectation that because we have devices in our hands we’re going to constantly be responding to emails. We expect an instant response. God forbid I get an email on Friday and don’t answer it until Monday.
[00:22:58] I’ve actually been trying to be much more conscientious of this, to say, you know what? I’m not going to check my email on the weekends, and that’s a very successful professional job where it really… I mean, I’m an academic. At the end of the day who really cares if I answer my email or not. The world is not going to cease to exist. But we also have the problem that people, when they were fighting for the eight-hour day, were working too many hours.
[00:23:20] For a lot of low-wage workers, the issue now is that they’re not getting enough hours. So for workers in fast food industry or the service sector, one of the issues is there’s all of these computer programs that… You know, McDonald’s uses this technology like, okay, based on what was happening in downtown Chicago last year at this time, we served X number of meals so we need X number of workers today between 8 and 10, and then we need a bunch of workers again between 6 and 10 at night. So workers are scheduled to work from 8 to 10, then they don’t have any hours, and then they’re expected to come back between 6 and 10. They’re not being given an 8 to 10 workday where they would actually earn overtime. They’re being told to come to work for a couple hours, go home, and then come back to work for a couple hours. These split shifts.
[00:24:07] Or, because, under Obamacare, businesses, if you work 38 hours or more, businesses are now expected to provide health care or pay into a health care fund of some kind or pay into the marketplace. Workers are being kept under 38 hours. So now workers are piecing together two, three jobs, right? And then you have, of course, the whole gig economy. So it’s like, okay, great. So I work at McDonald’s. I have a car, so I’m going in in the morning, then I’m going to do Instacart from 11 to 6, and then I’ll go back into work. So you eventually basically just work like a 12 hour day, and then, oh, you know what? I’m also an Uber driver, so I’ll just drive a couple hours until maybe 1am. You’ve worked three jobs and you’ve earned no benefits. You have no paid time off, you have no sick leave, you have no retirement and you’re living paycheck to paycheck.
Wailin: [00:24:58] Right.
Emily: [00:25:00] But you’ve worked your ass off, but you’re exhausted—
Wailin: [00:25:00] But you’re still teetering at the edge of the abyss, always.
Emily: [00:25:03] Always. And, then you have people saying, well, you don’t deserve $15 an hour because it’s not skilled labor. I have union members who say this to me, literally. It’s just flipping burgers. But you know, that’s what people said about auto workers. It’s just screwing bolts. That’s not skilled work. They’re easily disposable, and that’s how the employers thought of them as easily disposable—they were not highly skilled. I mean, I worked in food service for 15 years. Working the Burger King drive through is not actually that easy. It is actually—requires very good multitasking skills. But people assume that this is not difficult work. Is it becoming a lawyer and arguing a case in court? No, of course not. But it is still a job that requires some skill set.
[00:25:40] So yeah, you’ve worked 12, 13 hour day just like folks in the late 1800s, and you don’t have any benefits. The job’s kind of dangerous. You could get in a car accident, you could hurt your back. You could slip on the ice, any number of things could happen. You could burn yourself with scalding hot oil at McDonald’s while you make french fries. But you don’t have health insurance, you don’t qualify for Family Medical Leave Act because you don’t work for an employer for a certain number of time and you don’t earn enough hours. So you don’t even have unpaid leave time that would guarantee you job security.
[00:26:10] It’s really no different than being a miner in 1890. I mean…
Wailin: [00:26:13] So we’ve just come, we’ve come all the way back.
Emily: [00:26:16] Yeah.
Wailin: [00:26:16] Yeah.
Emily: [00:26:18] Yeah. I mean, really, we have.
Wailin: [00:26:19] That’s so bleak.
Emily: [00:26:21] It’s super bleak. It’s super bleak. And the difference, I argue, and my research is that we had a much stronger sense of collective identity as workers and as people struggling before, say, 1970s than we do today. People are very individualistic and they’re very ashamed. People are genuinely ashamed that they can’t pay their bills, and they can’t make ends meet that they don’t want to tell anybody that. You’re not going to disclose that I haven’t paid my—you know, if you’re lucky enough to have a mortgage. I haven’t paid my mortgage for three months, or I had to ask for financial aid for my kid to go to after-school programming, or we actually go to the food pantry for our groceries. Back in the day it actually was like, people relied on each other. Someone was getting evicted, everyone stood on the doorstep and kept the police from evicting them. Today you lose your house and people are like, just worried about their own housing value, and they think, oh, well, they shouldn’t have bought such an expensive house.
Wailin: [00:27:15] And we equate poverty, we tie it up with morality.
Emily: [00:27:20] Yeah, yeah. That you are lazy, that you haven’t done what you need to do because this is a meritocracy and you just have to work harder. But what’s changed, you know, I mentioned deregulation earlier, I mean, we had much more government intervention. The difference between the 1950s and today, or the 1890s was, during the 1930s under FDR, the New Deal introduced all sorts of government regulations. And the government held corporations accountable and made them pay taxes. Walmart opens up and they don’t pay any taxes. Amazon… it just opened up in Skokie where I live and they’re not paying any taxes. Those large companies, if they paid even a fraction of what corporations had to pay under President Eisenhower, who was a Republican president in the 1950s, we would have tons of money.
[00:28:07] We could have regulations that kept jobs in the country. Oh, you want that tax break then you need to guarantee that X number of jobs are not going to be exported. Having representatives on the National Labor Relations board that are truly open to workers’ rights. Increase employee ownership programs. I mean, there’s a lot of different options, so it doesn’t have to be bleak. We have the models. The models exist for success but the question is, is, isn’t enough money enough money? If somebody’s working three jobs, shouldn’t they have access to a very minimum standard of living? The reality is, your kid gets the flu and is out of school for three days, you could lose your job.
[00:28:49] Somebody… appendix bursts and you don’t have health insurance, you’re going to go bankrupt.
Wailin: [00:28:53] I mean, it’s interesting, this economic reality we have now where people are working multiple low wage jobs, none of which give them benefits. Does that, you think, require some rethinking on the organization, the labor side, to be like, well, we traditionally have organized unions in terms of everyone who does a certain particular job, right? And you have, for example, the Fight for $15, or something that has been very good at organizing fast food workers. But fast food workers are also driving Uber and they’re also picking up groceries for Instacart. And I know at Instacart there’s also a movement afoot to try to organize. And I wonder, it’s like, do we need some kind of completely radically rethought union just to represent everyone in the precariat?
Emily: [00:29:38] I think organized labor’s trying to figure that out now. The Fight for $15 is a great example of a campaign that hasn’t necessarily resulted in unionization of thousands of workers but I don’t think we would have seen all of the minimum wage increases on a municipal, state level without the Fight for $15 campaign. So, the challenge is, when you have everybody spread out, so the Uber drivers, Lyft, all of that, kind of services, that we all use at this point. Because it’s become such a fabric of our lives. That’s where the government needs to come in saying, we have a new economy here. We have this service economy that looks very different than it did in 1920. Or even 1970. How are we going to adjust our policies?
[00:30:25] The fact is is that we need to update our idea of what an independent contractor is. We really probably just need to get rid of that at this point, right?
Wailin: [00:30:33] Right, and just make them employee so that they’re—
Emily: [00:30:35] It doesn’t make, right. You can’t—we can’t be a nation with no actual workers. That’s what we’re heading towards. So if we don’t change what we mean when we say independent contractor, then we’re going to basically have a country that exists with no actual employees. Just a bunch of individuals trying to scrape it together. As a nation that has a responsibility to the people in the nation, and the workforce, we’re going to have to make some changes.
[00:31:02] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:31:11] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art. We are on Twitter at @reworkpodcast. Emily Twarog is on Twitter at @etwarog. That’s E-T-W-A-R-O-G. She’s the author of the 2017 book, Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America.
Wailin: [00:31:32] I read a couple books to prepare for this episode that I recommend. One was Beaten Down, Worked Up by Steven Greenhouse, which is a very readable history of the American labor movement through the present day. And the other is On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger. She’s a journalist who takes jobs at an Amazon warehouse, a call center, and a McDonald’s and it’s so much worse than I imagined. I will link to those books in the show notes, which you can find at rework.fm. Do not buy these books at Amazon.
Shaun: [00:32:04] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp puts everything you need to get work done in one place. It’s the calm, organized way to manage projects, work with clients and communicate company-wide. Check it out for yourself at Basecamp.com.