Generation Jobless: Are STEM Students Next?

As college students return to classes this fall, many feel both excitement and apprehension about the future. After all, they are about to invest tens of thousands of dollars in education that they hope will lead to bright economic futures. Some probably feel pressure to pursue STEM degrees because they’ve been told that this will guarantee a good return on that investment. Unfortunately, as Andrew Hacker shows in a recent book review about education and high-tech work, there is clear evidence that this idea is wrong. Indeed, while those who tout the knowledge economy promote the idea that higher education is the key to economic opportunity, recent college graduates are having difficulty finding work, and many of the jobs they have found don’t require the kind of education they have. This led the Wall Street Journal to describe recent graduates as “Generation Jobless.”

Robert Reich thinks the problem is the result of businesses requiring only a small workforce of innovators and strategists He believes that over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work, including many with advance degrees. He predicts that corporations will continue to expand their use of algorithms to measure their value and develop spot-auction networks. Under this system, corporations would have a small number of core employees and would require others to bid on work opportunities. Using Apple as example, Reich notes that the company employs fewer that 10 percent of its 1 million employees who design, make, and sell their product. The rest are largely contingent workers.

But do the concerns of most college graduates apply to those earning STEM degrees? If you listen to business and higher education administrators, science and technology workers are in short supply. But Hacker finds that underemployment and joblessness include STEM graduates and employees. In reviewing a series of books concerning the need for high-tech talent, Hacker found that business and higher education leaders have greatly exaggerated the employment opportunities for STEM graduates. For example, he cites a National Science Board study that shows that of the 19.5 million STEM degree holders, only 5.4 million actually work in those fields. That suggests that extending STEM programs will probably not increase employment or lead graduates into better quality jobs. Hacker finds that employers blame the inadequate educational preparation of STEM employees, turn to low cost foreign workers, or increasingly replace workers with more technology. The result is increasing job insecurity even among STEM employees.

Put differently, despite claims that education is the path to better economic opportunity, workers in the knowledge economy are already and will continue to experience limited employment and economic mobility. Of course, this has long been the experience of the working class, and some would suggest that this is simply the proletarianization of STEM workers. But is it?

In his study of precarity, Guy Standing draws a distinction between prolitarianization and what he calls precariatization. He argues that proletarianization is the late nineteenth century historical term for the habituation of labor. The precariat, including STEM workers, are losing control over their time and the use of their capabilities, which represents a different situation than what the proletariat faced 150 years ago. Standing writes, that “the precariat has distinctive relations of production, or labour relations they [flit] in and out of jobs, often with incomplete contracts or forced into indirect labour relationships via agencies or brokers.” In essence, the precariat can be seen largely as a class of contingent workers regardless of education level.

We see this already in “taskers,” as Standing wrote here last spring, but we should expect to see a similar shift for STEM workers. They will lose control over their time as they spend longer hours at work and more time looking for work. They will also experience increasing levels of job insecurity. Because unstable work opportunities rarely if ever include employer-financed insurance such as Social Security, unemployment benefits, workers compensation and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, these workers will be deprived of economic benefits and government protections. Instead, they will have to take responsibility for their own employment costs — education and retraining, health insurance, and pensions. The changing work conditions disrupt more than just workers’ schedules or bank accounts. They also wreak havoc on workers mental health and personal lives. STEM graduates are not inheriting the economic future they envisioned. Some are learning tough lessons about the “race to bottom” and the experiences of the working class.

As I have said many times, deindustrialization and economic restructuring not only cost many people their jobs, they also undermined the stability of communities and made the American dream inaccessible for many working-class people. This has been clear for decades in places like Youngstown, which relied so heavily on manufacturing. The change is not only about technology replacing human work, the focus of a recent article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. It’s about the gap between claims about STEM education and the reality of STEM employment. The knowledge economy was supposed to bring a better future, especially for those who pursued the education necessary to enter the middle class, but as science, engineering, and technology jobs become increasingly contingent, the educated workforce is joining the working class and becoming part of the precariat. No wonder young people are worried.

John Russo
Visiting Scholar
Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor
Georgetown University

Taskers in the Precariat: Part 2 – Essential Reforms

In “Taskers: The Precariat in the On-Demand Economy: Part 1,” I defined three types of taskers — on-demand, crowd labour, and zero hours employees – and highlighted the problems associated with these new forms of work: insecurity, low and fluctuating incomes, chronic uncertainty, lack of control over time, and the dismantling of occupational communities. I now want to propose policies that could improve taskers’ economic status and work conditions.

The on-demand economy and the precariat are here to stay, and we must fight for new forms of regulation, redistribution, and social protection to redress growing inequities. Real wages for the precariat – including taskers and others — will continue to stagnate. Income redistribution will have to come by other means. Forging a new system will not be easy, but is vital. As even intelligent conservative economic interests recognise, growing inequality threatens economic, social, and political stability.

However, the specifics of tasking also demand remedial policies. Let us start by considering policies for society, then policies directed at labour brokers, and then policies for protecting and enhancing the position of taskers themselves.

At society level, we should stop trying to compress taskers into the category of employee. Labour statistics define workers as either “employees” or “self-employed.” Neither of these terms, nor “freelancers”, is appropriate for describing the status of most people doing tasking, since they lack freedoms associated with being an independent seller of services, and they not employees in the old sense of mutuality of obligations. We should designate “tasker” as a separate category.

In the US, several class action cases are being heard to determine whether taskers in certain sectors should be classified as employees. While we might debate the specific conditions under which taskers could be identified as employees, we would do better to overhaul old labourist rules that privilege employees. It would be better if legislation dealt with the issues more generically. And in any case, why should only “employees” be covered by the protections built up in the 20th century? All forms of work should have the same rights and entitlements. The term ‘labour rights’ is a contradiction, since it is people who have rights, and these should apply to everybody, regardless of their specific labour or work status.

The emergence of taskers has intensified the frictions and divergent interests of different groups of worker. Anybody who thinks there is a unified working class in current circumstances is hallucinating. This is why we need a new system of collaborative bargaining between complementary and substituting occupational groups. The collective bargaining capacities of taskers must also be strengthened. On the one side are employers and labour brokers; on the other are employees, taskers, and freelancers.

Another social concern arises from the fact that the labour brokers are rentiers, earning vast amounts for doing very little if we accept their claim that all they do is provide technology to put clients in touch with ‘independent contractors’ of services. Thus, Uber and its rival Lyft say they are technology, not transport, companies.

By treating taskers as ‘independent contractors’, brokers avoid paying contributions that would entitle taskers to state benefits, and they avoid paying non-wage benefits that employees should receive. In return for their intermediary role, brokers typically take 20% of earnings. But they are free-riding on the public, since if taskers fall on hard times, they will need benefits from the state. Normal employers have to make a contribution to pay for benefits; brokers currently avoid doing so.

Accordingly, the authorities should establish a tasker levy (tax) of, say, 20% of labour brokers’ earnings or for each tasker they contract. Similarly, if they require taskers to use their own equipment, such as a car or machine tools, brokers should pay part of insurance costs. If this is meant to be a “sharing economy”, as its apostles claim, then costs as well as benefits should be shared.

As for the brokers, if we accept that they represent an emerging ‘profession’, they should be pushed to establish stronger professional associations whose members develop and subscribe to formal Codes of Ethics. All brokers should be registered and required to join an association that could monitor conduct of members.

As for the taskers, occupational licensing must be rolled back. Licensing is the form of state regulation promoted in the neo-liberal era in place of guild regulation. In the US, over 1,000 occupations are now subject to licensing, mostly unnecessarily. Licensing often operates as a barrier to the right to practise. The insurance industry and commercial interests dominate licensing, transferring risks, uncertainty, and costs onto workers, and often enabling licensing boards to block or punish someone without due process. Labour brokers and the precariat in general should be united in wishing to see less licensing.

Licensing should be limited to occupations that involve real dangers, as in the case of surgeons, architects, and builders. Otherwise, occupational self-regulation should be revived. And there should be more reliance on accreditation, that is, membership in an association that testifies to competence or experience. For all professions, an international accreditation system should be constructed, with standardised rules. This would allow anybody to practise a particular form of work, but it would ensure that they were competent and met set standards. For example, Uber drivers should be required to display signs indicating whether they are licensed, accredited to a drivers’ association, or neither. They should also be required to show they are insured. Failure to inform a client in advance should be sanctionable.

On wages and prices, in the case of crowd labour, all taskers involved in Dutch auctions should have the right to know what rates are paid to successful bidders and what conditions have been applied. Those on zero-hours contracts should be compensated for inconvenience and insecurity based on hours. Such “stand-by bonuses” are required in Germany and could be set as a base salary. They should also be allowed to do other work without exclusivity clauses in their contracts. Both zero-hours employees and crowd-labour taskers should have the right to decline on-demand tasks without loss of pay or opportunity unless given at least 24 hours’ notice, so that they can gain more control of their lives.

All forms of on-demand labour should involve written contracts (signed and scanned), drawn up and agreed before tasks are allocated or performed, with at least one witness to each party in broker-tasker agreements. Taskers should also be compensated if the broker obliges them to undergo more than one round of consideration before a decision is made to contract them.

Taskers must have a right to know what information brokers share about them and to have false information withdrawn from electronic circulation. To protect taskers, no company should be allowed to inform other firms that a tasker has brought a complaint or sued for compensation, unless a conviction for fraud by the tasker has been obtained. In other words, blacklisting must be banned.

Similarly, customer rating of individual taskers should be curbed. Some brokers dismiss taskers if they receive several poor ratings (made feasible by the app). That might sound reasonable, but it could lead to crude discriminatory practices, and it lacks due process. Prejudiced customers could use the app to grade taskers from ethnic minorites negatively solely because they do not like such people. There should, at least, be demonstrable evidence and opportunities for taskers to defend themselves before actions are taken.

One exploitative aspect of crowd labour requires a special response. Some corporations, such as the Los Angeles-based Business Talent Group, Fox Mobile Entertainers, and Tongal, pay modest prizes to taskers who submit commercially viable ideas. The firms buy ideas at a fraction of their commercial value, since they can patent them, creating a monopoly income stream lasting for twenty years. This is one of the most exploitative tricks in labour history. Regulations should stipulate that taskers should receive at least 50% of the income stream of any of their ideas that is patented.

Finally, taskers should have a right to publicly-funded legal advice, subsidised by contributions from labour broker corporations. Taskers should be required to make a partial payment, to discourage frivolous actions. But having access to legal advice would encourage both sides to make agreements transparent and standardised as much as possible.

Achieving these reforms will require social struggle by and for the precariat. We must realise that the precariat’s vulnerability today is a threat to all of us tomorrow. When sweating spreads to taskers, the threat to wages and working conditions for those outside the precariat grows. We must wake up to that threat.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London.

The Fissured (Working-Class) Workplace

One of my favourite exercises when teaching the sociology of work is to ask my students about the concept of a ‘job for life’. I started doing this a decade and a half ago at the beginning of my lecturing career. I asked the eighty odd twenty-somethings in the class in front of me ‘who’s heard of the phrase “a job for life” ’? When I first did this, maybe half the hands went up. I then asked, ‘Who here expects one’? That first time, and in subsequent trials, no hand went up. One guy did shout out, ‘But who would want one’? Over the years I’ve often tried this experiment with different classes, even asking it during open-day presentations for prospective students where the presence of their parents give an intergenerational frisson and a knowing look from the greyer heads in the audience. The receding knowledge of the term and the expectations that went with it speaks volumes about what has happened to our contemporary ideas about work.

I was thinking about that experience reading David Weil’s book The Fissured Workplace, a thoughtful and thought provoking reflection on the contemporary US workplace. By ‘fissured’ Weil means the wide range of ways in which work has been desiccated. Where traditional work was stable and intelligible, increasingly one is never sure who is responsible for the product supplied or service purchased. Weil outlines a number of types of fissuring, from subcontracting to outsourcing to franchising. Weil persuasively groups together a range of diverse strategies through which ownership and control are exercised through layer upon layer of intermediaries. The book offers a litany of corporate attempts to squeeze more profit from the bottom-line by laying-off risk and responsibility, citing examples from industries as diverse as cell phones, hotels, and coalmining. Fissuring is about saving money and restricting liability, ideally removing it all together.

Many of the instances of fissuring that Weil gives are not new for working-class people. Many working-class and trade union struggles have been over the attempt to secure at least some kind of work stability. The interesting thing about Weil’s metaphor is that it transcends blue-collar work, where poor conditions are more common, and increasingly affects traditionally middle-class white-collar environments such as journalism and publishing. This idea of fissuring adds to the emerging lexicon describing the contemporary and potential future nature of work. Like the idea of precarity that Guy Standing has talked about, fissuring makes sense of the common features and patterns that cross industries, sectors, and whole labour markets. The concept describes the splitting apart and the simultaneous corrosion or erosion of workplace sociability and culture. Fissuring gets to the heart of how contemporary work offers workers, their families, and whole communities even less of the limited stability that they enjoyed in the past.

For working-class people on both sides of the Atlantic, the ability to access good work is important for a number of obvious and perhaps less obvious reasons. Ask anyone why they work, and as like as not they will say ‘money’ and give you a look as if to say ‘are you crazy’? But dig deeper and it becomes apparent that while the cash is vital, so too are a whole range of other features of work that Studs Terkel described as things that ‘make the day go faster’. To some extent, all work socialises us, and that, in turn, allows us to play our part in socialising others. When I interview workers, the older ones especially, they often reflect on the significant people who have marked out times of transitions in their life — the most obvious moment being the initial move from school or college to their first place of employment. It often takes a whole lifetime of work before the subtlety of what they enjoyed becomes apparent to them, the way people and places helped to shape them as humans. It is only in the reminiscence that they see the value of workplace culture, even though their younger self may have ignored or hated the experience at the time. In various ways it moulded them, and they in turn help to cultivate and mature others. I am not saying that all work in the past was great, nor that ‘good work’ was accessed by all. Rather, I think a critical mass of working-class people experienced a level of stability that made a difference to their lives inside and outside the workplace. I’d go further and say that critical mass made a difference to the quality of work elsewhere, too. It afforded some working-class people the space to think and grow through employment.

When I read the David Weil’s book, I thought of the effect this fissuring has on working-class employment. The patterns of workplace culture have been undermined and changed hugely over the last three decades, but the shifts explored in The Fissured Workplace add a new and urgent dimension. What Weil describes is nothing less than the breaking down of any sort of medium or long term stability for workers. In the fissured workplace, relationships are contractual rather than social. The ability of people to join together, to socialise and be socialised, becomes increasingly limited.

For the young people I teach, The Fissured Workplace probably reads like a description of their experience of the world of work rather than as a critical analysis. We should not to romanticise the work of the past, indulge in ‘smokestack nostalgia’, but equally we need to acknowledge a world we may be losing. While the ‘job for life’ may have been a fleeting experience for a few, the social patterns that that stability engendered were profound for generations of workers and can still be seen working their way through the contemporary workplace. As for my student’s question about who would want a job for life, I would probably answer now that many working-class people would at least like the option of one.

Tim Strangleman

Bottom Chefs: A Working-Class Lens in the Competition Kitchen

Last week Top Chef Boston aired its Thanksgiving episode (filmed in July) in which the chefs had to squat over open fires, stir pots with large wooden spoons, and to try to cook a Thanksgiving feast limited by the ingredients (venison, blueberries, clams, squash, goose, etc.) that would have been available during the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621. Katsuji Tanabe, an eccentric, funny, mouthy chef, the son of a Mexican mother and a Japanese father, won the competition with a dish that combined squash, lobster, and fresh herbs. Tough-as-nails Stacy Cogswell, the only chef who is actually from Boston, was sent home for getting dirt in her clam dish when she had to plate on the ground at the famed Plimoth Plantation.

In the last decade we have seen a prodigious spike in the number of reality shows that feature labor in the kitchen. From the Food Network competitions, to the Master Chef empire, to the Emmy winning Top Chef, if you like to watch people braise, chop, and sauté on TV this is a Golden Era to be sure.

Right now we’re in season 12 of Top Chef, and the Boston area cooking challenges have been decidedly working-class in their orientation. So far the challenges have included cooking a meal for “Boston’s bravest and finest” (police officers) and contributing a humble dish to the Boston Food and Wine festival that the chefs had to base on the first thing they learned how to cook as children.

On Top Chef the humble sous chefs, once just a notch above dishwasher, are now celebrities in waiting—gracing home town newspapers when they appear in these competitions, and often starting new businesses with their new found fame, if not the prize money, when they win. Many of the contestants hail from working-class and/or immigrant families, and their working-class backgrounds are featured in multiple interviews during the show.

Top Chef trades heavily in the exoticization of working-class bodies and voices. Many of the contestants are heavily tattooed, tough, and prone to excessive cursing. They tell genuinely moving stories, direct to camera, about growing up poor, and/or immigrant, and/or being raised by a single mother.

These personal narratives are real—the cheftestants are not faking their hardships, and we know that cooking has long been a working-class vocation. But Top Chef trades heavily in the contestants’ hard luck pasts, in part to increase the drama and/or the tears as contestants talk about how badly they want to win, the sacrifices of their immigrant parents, how they couldn’t afford culinary school, or how their moms worked two jobs when they were growing up.

During the competition the chefs are forced to cook under harsh conditions, including extreme heat, and limited cooking accouterments (as in the Thanksgiving episode). These conditions are designed to increase the tension on the show, but sometimes they cause real injuries. Chefs have cut and burnt themselves, and in some extreme situations, chefs have collapsed or passed out during the filming of an episode. Ironically, perhaps, by forcing the cooks to work in these conditions, and by frequently invoking their working-class lives back home, Top Chef reminds us that for most workaday line cooks, sous chefs, and aspiring “wanna be’s,” the food industry is brutal—the ultimate combination of overworked, underpaid, and uninsured.

This season, Top Chef has found itself in the middle of a bonafide labor dispute, as the show has been using non-local and non-union camera operators and crew. According to multiple sources, a Teamsters protest in July designed to highlight this fact erupted in a scene of members of a Teamster local cursing and hurling racial and sexual slurs at the Top Chef cast, including Padma Lakshmi.

If the allegations are true, these Teamsters should have been fined or worse for their behavior. But their rage—hate filled though it was—is it understandable? Teamsters, who in Boston represent drivers as well as camera operators, and are now trying to organize 1,600 low paid parking attendants, represent some of the last unionized workers in a country that offers less and less to those on the bottom.

Doesn’t it make sense for workers to fight back against a profitable show that has the resources to pay top dollar and to practice what it preaches? The show’s main celebrity Tom Colicchio is a food justice activist as well as a celebrity chef and a restaurateur. He helped to make the film Hungry in America, and he has been publically critical of the refusal of Congress to extend food stamp benefits during these difficult times. On the other hand, Colicchio has been sued for wage and tip violations in his restaurants (in 2008). Colicchio, of all people should know that fair wages are the best way to combat hunger, and he should be making sure that all who work for him on Top Chef, as well as in his restaurants, are paid fairly and decently for their work.

Ultimately, why are cooking shows like Top Chef so popular? Top Chef bills itself as one very unlikely path to the American Dream, a chance for a single humble kitchen worker to become a superstar. But perhaps by accident the show also reminds us of the real labor, harsh conditions, hard luck backgrounds, and low wages of the vast majority of real life cooks and kitchen workers across the country.

As we sit down to feast this Thanksgiving let us remember that those who cook our meals when we’re dining out are among the poorest and the hungriest in America. We should work to feed the hungry, of course, but we should work even harder to ensure that food workers earn a living minimum wage. That way the bottom chefs of America won’t need to compete to win their own spread in Food and Wine magazine or a $100,000 prize in order to have what everyone deserves: the dignity of a decent life.

Kathy M. Newman

Grime You Can Never Wash Off: Internet Content Moderation and New Frontiers in Labor Exploitation

Scrolling through e-mails and my Facebook news feed one morning last week, I came across two related articles. The first, from Alternet, was about the disproportionate harassment and abuse that women face online. Citing a recent Atlantic exposé on the issue, as well as death threats made to feminist video game critic and “GamerGate” target Anita Sarkeesian, the article underscored the negligence of Facebook, YouTube, and other companies whose content moderators—those employed to flag and delete offensive materials coming across their sites—appeared indifferent to or, perhaps, poorly trained to address the increasing problem of Internet-based violence against women. These moderators, the article mentions, are often “swamped with cases.” But in a tech industry dominated by men at all levels of employment, whether or not a woman is subjected to terrifying forms of online abuse—including, in one case, a Facebook post featuring a woman’s head photoshopped onto a picture of a beaten and chained woman— comes down to “human decision-making” on the part of the people tasked with sifting through the digital garbage.

The second article, from Wired, offered a more detailed look at what Internet content moderation involves. I honestly hadn’t given any thought at all to content moderation as an especially filthy job that, even without the smelly trucks and beeping, is a form of garbage collection. In this case, though, the grime sticks to workers in a way that makes emptying trashcans and dumpsters sound like a dream job by comparison.

Internet content moderation is typical of other outsourced, global forms of labor in that the U.S. relies on poorly paid contract workers from the Philippines to do the vast majority of the work. However, since recognizing what would be offensive requires cross-cultural fluency, most companies have also implemented what Wired reporter Adrian Chen calls a “two-tiered moderation system, [where] more complex screening… is done domestically.” Far better paid than overseas workers—“a moderator for a U.S. tech company can make more in an hour than a veteran Filipino moderator makes in a day”—most U.S. based moderators are culled from the ranks of precariously employed college graduates, many of whom are enticed to take these jobs with suggestions that a more permanent position at Google or Twitter might be on the horizon. In general, however, not only do these better jobs never solidify, but content moderation’s status as labor of the living nightmare variety quickly becomes apparent to employees.

In The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild begins her discussion of emotional labor, such as the work of flight attendants, care workers, and others in feminized service occupations, by asking whether there may be a fundamental “human cost of becoming an ‘instrument of labor’ at all” (3). This question illuminates the psychological costs faced by those whose jobs require “[inducing] or [suppressing] feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance” that makes consumers of such labor feel properly “cared for.” This “coordination of mind and feeling” can cause the worker to become alienated from an “aspect of self—either the body or the margins of the soul—that is used to do the work” (7).

But what if the work demands subjecting oneself to psychological trauma resulting from the continual repetition of horrifying images and sounds? What happens to the “margins of the soul” when a job requires workers to be used in this way?

Chen interviewed a number of former and current Internet content moderators who describe what they experienced on the job, and what they still carry with them. One U.S.-based moderator quit his job at Google when a co-worker exhibited a nonchalant response to a video of a beheading: “I didn’t want to look back and say I became so blasé to watching people have these really horrible things happen to them that I’m ironic or jokey about it.” Others, subjected to hours of pornography, report feeling desensitized to the point where they “no longer want to be with their spouses” or, on the other hand, leave work with “a supercharged sex drive.” Many companies ostensibly employ counselors to deal with the psychic fallout from this work, which puts laborers at risk of PTSD much like soldiers and members of specialized police forces, though one former worker claimed to not know anyone who had seen a counselor. “But,” Chen emphasizes, “even with the best counseling, staring into the heart of human darkness exacts a toll.” After being made to watch a nearly half-hour video of a woman being raped, “blindfolded, handcuffed, screaming and crying,” one Filipino woman content moderator “began to tremble with sadness and rage” (in Chen’s words). Says the woman, who is still doing content moderation work, “I watched that a long time ago, but it’s like I just watched it yesterday.”

As its own devastating aspect of the “heart of human darkness” run rampant on the Internet, online victimization of women is an urgent problem. Yet after reading Chen’s report, I can’t help but feel that the “human decision-making” involved in content moderation is compromised by the utterly dehumanizing nature of the work. The “aspect of self” that many content moderators become estranged from is their own humanity, unable to plug into and feel things they must figure out a way not to feel in order to simply bear the work.

This is not to say that in the male-dominated tech industry, sexism and misogyny aren’t also at play when moderators make that quick decision to either delete or push through abusive content aimed at women. But read in this context, Hochschild’s work provokes us to think about the ways that gender and psychic health intersect in an occupation that requires exposing oneself to trauma as a primary duty of the job. Counseling isn’t widely advertised or used, and a masculine “deal with it” ethos further contributes to the occupational normalization of violence in an industry that, as Chen puts it, “[relies] on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us.”

This last observation begs a version of Hochschild’s initial question: if the job of content moderator requires workers to absorb our collective human trauma in order to “protect the rest of us” from the ravages of the Internet, should a job like this exist at all? Should “must expose oneself to violence repeatedly, for days and weeks on end” be an accepted part of any job description? Chen estimates that content moderators “comprise as much as half of the total workforce for social media sites.” Indeed, moderation work is especially insidious in that, unlike labor more typically associated with trauma—sex work comes to mind—it is hidden within an industry stereotyped as the benign realm of particle-board cubicles and sleepy systems administrators.

When we walk down the street, we see waste management workers laboring to present us with a convincing façade of civilized cleanliness. The more thoughtful among us recognize this as the dangerous lie that it is: this waste is never really “disposed” of, only moved out of sight of the privileged. The existence of content moderation work demands that we consider the human costs of maintaining the web’s garbage-free front. If the Internet requires turning human workers into psychic dumpsters for brutalities the rest of us would rather not have cluttering our Facebook and Instagram feeds, then what kind of virtual world are we living in, grime and all?

Sara Appel

Sara Appel is a Dietrich School Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh.


Labor Day Reading: New Stories of Work

Labor Day was created in the 1880s as a celebration of work and workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the idea came from either Peter J. Maguire or Matthew Maguire – one a leader in the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the other a machinist. Either way, the holiday has its roots in industrial labor and unions, both of which were expanding at the time and have shrunk in recent decades. But changes in work aren’t just about the quantity of jobs. It’s about their quality.

Comments on the shift to a service economy often focus on economic and structural problems. Today’s working-class jobs generally pay less than the industrial, unionized labor of previous generations, and, as a recent series in the New York Times highlighted, uneven schedules and multiple part-time jobs wreak havoc on workers’ lives. But contemporary narratives of work remind us that there is more at stake: today’s jobs offer fewer sources of pride or solidarity.

We can trace the change in contemporary working-class literature. Some pieces emphasize the tedium of factory jobs, as in Tom Wayman’s “Factory Time,” or the way such jobs can leave a worker feeling like a cog in the machine, as Jim Daniels describes in “Digger’s Melted Ice”: “you push two buttons and the press/comes down. Always the same,/so simple you can disappear.” But many classic working-class texts suggest that even when the work is boring and hard, workers feel pride in what they produce and the skills involved. As Mike Rose argues in The Mind at Work, working-class jobs are not just manual; they require expertise and judgment. As we learn in novels like Out of This Furnace or Christ in Concrete, knowing how to recognize when molten steel has the right mix of elements or how to construct a brick arch involves knowledge, not just strength. Industrial work can be alienating, but it also leaves workers with a strong sense of having contributed to a large and significant enterprise. In “Last Car,” from her collection Autopsy of an Engine, Lolita Hernandez describes how workers follow the last Cadillac as it moves down the line, crowding in near the end to sign the last engine, proud of their work even as they worry about what lies ahead after the plant closes.

But the satisfaction of work is also social, and workers’ social networks give them at least some power, as Hernandez shows in “Thanks to Abbie Wilson.” After Abbie’s section of the plant closes and she has been reassigned to a janitorial job, she returns to the empty floor where she once worked and re-enacts the process of attaching gaskets to oil pans. In describing Abbie’s performance, Hernandez makes clear that the work can’t be separated from workers’ relationships and the sense of agency those connections provide. Abbie’s former co-workers come to watch her:

And those who observed Abbie long enough were able to see themselves. They were amazed and happy because they all looked so young, energetic, and hopping in ways they hadn’t for years. Abbie waved at them because she knew they were happy to see themselves at their best when struggles with the bosses and each other were at their hottest, when Peanut Man hawked hot roasteds all through the shift, when Sweet Sadie sold her blouses and jewelry, when Red took liquor orders for lunch, when Thanksgiving was one long banquet of tamales and greens, and Dancing John, dressed up as Santa Claus, drove his jitney on the last day of work before Christmas break singing ho, ho, ho we’ll soon be out the doh. (110)

Remembering their younger selves, the workers recall the pleasure not only of being young and strong but also of standing up for themselves against the bosses, an experience of being “at their best” on the job.

Work looks different in a 2010 anthology from Bottom Dog Press, On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work. These stories explore the soul-killing nature of office work, conflicted relationships among workers, and the indignities of low-wage jobs that don’t let a worker sit down for even a moment on her eight-hour shift. Matt Bell’s story, “Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken” considers the limited opportunities for satisfaction in fast food work. While the narrator listens to the assistant manager’s running narrative of her troubled life, and while he eventually helps her through a personal crisis, their relationship remains tense, in part because the job carries different meanings for them. For the assistant manager, it’s a long-term reality, while the narrator is there just for the summer. On the other hand, they share a disdain for the job and for unpleasant customers: “we often try to make people happy, but we also try not to work too hard doing it.”

In other stories, workers do whatever they must to get by. In M. Kaat Toy’s story, tellingly titled “Any Failure to Obey Orders Will Be Considered an Act of Aggression,” a laid-off social worker now does the jobs “of people she might previously have helped,” busing tables at a restaurant and cleaning hotel rooms. She and her co-workers accept mistreatment from their bosses because, as one indicates, “I’m only in it for the money.” No one at the restaurant or hotel where she works seems to expect satisfaction from the job.

Nor do such jobs offer many opportunities for solidarity, as Dean Bakopoulos suggests in Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon. In the novel, a retail worker who’s taking a labor history class tries to organize a sit-down strike at the mall on Black Friday, modeled on the Flint strike of the 1930s. The story suggests some key differences between retail workers and their grandfathers, who, Bakopoulos tells us, worked at Dodge Main and Ford Rouge. The clerks work for many different large corporations, most of which are based somewhere else, so even though they share common problems at work – petty store managers, uneven schedules, low pay — they don’t have a common employer. They also don’t see these jobs as permanent, even though they have no other options or plans at the time. Shared conditions of labor and inspiring stories can’t overcome their fear of job loss, so only a few show up for the strike. For them, solidarity means getting together for a drink and a wet t-shirt contest at a bar next to the mall, not organizing or standing together to fight for better working conditions.

These days, Americans are more likely to celebrate Labor Day as the last hurrah of summer than as an opportunity to honor workers, and these stories suggest that the change in the holiday’s meaning reflects changes in work and working-class culture. As we head into September, it might be too late for a summer reading list, but it’s not too late to pay attention to the losses for workers captured in contemporary literature about work.

Sherry Linkon








Serfs for Hire: Learning about Labor from Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones

At first glance HBO’s new series, Silicon Valley, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Game of Thrones. Silicon Valley is a comedy in which men (only) vie for immortality behind computer screens, while Game of Thrones is a brutal drama in which men and women vie for immorality on the battlefield, while despots remove the heads of those who usually deserve better. Yet both follow the troop movements of those who seek freedom from tyranny, and, in the process, they reveal something about the capricious nature of justice and even offer some lessons about power in the workplace.

It could be argued that we will not learn much about the serfs of the 21st century by analyzing Silicon Valley. A 2013 survey found that the average salary in the tech industry is $87,811. But even though tech workers earn much more than the average American worker, Silicon Valley critiques the instability of tech labor in the neoliberal era, and it also lobs brickbats at the totalitarian nature of corporate power.

The long suffering hero of Silicon Valley is the honorable Richard the anxious-hearted (comedian Thomas Middleditch), a bug-eyed, curly haired awkward boy/man/genius who has invented a way for audio and video files to be compressed at high speeds with no loss of quality. Richard is awkward with girls and pukes when he is stressed out. This happens frequently, as the two most eccentric and capricious head honchos in Silicon Valley, Gavin Belson, head of the fictional company Hooli, and Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist, vie for Richard’s algorithmic treasure. After much agonizing, Richard turns down Gavin’s $10 million offer to buy his code and instead accepts Peter’s much smaller offer of $200,000 in seed money in order to to retain control of his company, Pied Piper, and his algorithm.

But from episode to episode, Richard and his merry men are not sure if they will be able to keep their funding, their jobs, or the house they live in. They are serfs of the realm ruled by eccentric, narcissistic titans. For all of their privilege, they act out the drama of contingent labor. For all of the hoopla surrounding their intelligence, and for all of the money invested in their potential, they can lose their funding at the whim of their overlords.  And without this funding they could lose their jobs, their health care, and their homes as well as their intellectual property.

Even when they have jobs, they don’t always have control over their labor. When Richard’s friend best friend Big Head is hired away by Hooli, Gavin learns that Big Head doesn’t have the knowledge to help them reverse engineer Richard’s complicated code. So Big Head is kept “on contract,” but taken “off project.” He finds others of his kind on the roof of the Hooli building—barbecuing stuff, tossing footballs, and trying to think of ways to kill time.

The tech workers on Silicon Valley do not control their destiny. Episode six makes this point in a bizarre story line involving a self-driving car that is programmed to drive to billionaire investor Peter’s private island. Instead, it takes the business manager of Pied Piper onto a container ship, leaving him trapped at sea, surrounded only by automated forklifts.

The serfs of Silicon Valley are dependent on the whims of bizarre and wicked rulers like Gavin Belsen and Peter Gregory. Do such characters really exist? Absolutely. Silicon Valley is seen in the tech industry as a roman à clef—a thinly veiled satire of some of the very real and very creepy people who run the tech world. And a recent legal settlement reveals what we have long suspected: that many of today’s tech overlords have conspired to keep their employees’ salaries as low as possible. As a US district judge ruled last month, Apple, Google, and Intel, to name a few, are guilty of wage fixing and driving down salaries by illegally colluding not to poach each other’s employees.

Silicon Valley’s anti-poaching conspiracy violates the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which states that any conspiracy that restrains trade or commerce is illegal and can be punished by fine, imprisonment, or both. But the practice is old, and, possibly, even medieval. A 1364 British ordinance referring to shoe cobblers read: Masters are forbidden to poach workers from other members of the craft.” In this most recent lawsuit, tech industry plaintiffs, who filed this suit in 2001, were seeking 3 billion in damages, but have settled for $324 million, which averages out to about $4,000 per plaintiff—a moral victory but a financial defeat.

Should we feel sorry for the tech serfs of Silicon Valley? Maybe not. But should we see in their labor situation something of the precariousness of the rest of us in the 99%? Should we see in their experiences some similarities to the working conditions of contingent academic faculty; of low-wage fast food, Walmart, and healthcare workers; of blamed and battered public schools teachers; of undocumented workers; and of indentured college graduates?

We should. And that’s why we should also heed the lessons of Game of Thrones. We should build an army of the 99%, employ the cunning of the imp, the tech savvy of the geeks, and the moral ferocity of Brienne of Tarth. It would be cool if we could get some wolves and some dragons, too. United, and armed with the knowledge of our true worth, are we not more powerful than the 1% that sits upon the Iron Throne?

Kathy M. Newman