Desk Slaves

In the early 1990s, as allegedly time-saving electronic gizmos began their relentless march through offices everywhere, I watched a veteran, 25-year, award-winning reporter arguing with an editor who was angry that the reporter was refusing to wear a beeper. "I'm in this business a long time," said the reporter. "I always let the desk know where I am, I call in regularly, and I'm never far from a phone. I don't need this thing," he said, looking at the small square package of black plastic with a mixture of fear and loathing.

The unspoken reason for resistance, recognized by both manager and worker, was that the device would allow much more control over the employee's everyday life, giving bosses the ability to find him at home, at play, at dinner. Having done so, they could saddle him with that many more assignments. A few might lead to headline-making stories, but most would inevitably be trivial tasks doled out by one eager assistant editor and then dumped as useless by the next one up the chain.

The reporter lost the argument. Beepers, along with cell phones and laptop computers, quickly became standard regalia in that newsroom as they did all across corporate America.

In White Collar Sweatshop, Jill Andresky Fraser calls such encroachments "job spill": "Imagine job tasks seeping from the office to the home in much the same way as oil can invade a body of water or a beach. The seepage is just as difficult to block. And it's the dirty secret behind many a corporation's bottom line," she writes.

If Fraser's book is short on accounts of resistance, even miniconfrontations like that of my reporter pal, it is presumably because such revolts were so minor that they're lost to history. What we do know, and what Fraser ably details here, is that in the final years of the 20th century, white-collar workers for the most part happily accepted the new technological accoutrements of the workplace. Those tools, in turn, quickly became key instruments through which a new, oppressive "culture of overwork" was imposed by the most successful firms of the decade.

No longer is the 5:29 p.m. commuter train to Scarsdale filled with tabloid-reading, bar-car hopping commuters, Fraser reports. Instead, most riders, even on later trains, are busy on their cell phones, at work on laptops, or scribbling on old-fashioned yellow-lined legal notebooks. For Gemma, a six-figure-earning marketing executive aboard the commuter train, one of many pseudonymous white-collar professionals who agreed to speak at length with Fraser, the work day has "gotten worse and worse."

White-collar workers, particularly those in the upper earnings echelon, have never been high on the list of anyone's grievous causes. They hold no protest rallies and rarely form or join unions. The only workplace cause in which they have enlisted appears to be their own. But, as Fraser's book illustrates, most bring the highest aspirations to their work: They want their companies to succeed and to do their jobs as well as they can.

The measurement of both goals, however, remains money. Addressing a Seattle Kingdome crowd of 9000 Microsoft employees, perhaps the decade's premier example of overwork and accompanying achievement, one of Bill Gates's surrogates is described by Fraser bellowing to screaming cheers: "Why are we at Microsoft? For the money! Show me the money!"

Yet, as Fraser points out, the money was often far less than promised. Even at the height of golden, NASDAQ-soaring prosperity in 1997, Fraser reports, white-collar men were earning an average hourly wage of $19.24; adjusted for inflation, this was all of six cents higher than they earned in 1973. And despite the much-publicized tales of magnificent, six-figure bonuses doled out at law firms and investments houses, fewer execs than ever are receiving them, Fraser finds. In fact, as a result of repeated mergers and the '90s corporate phenomenon of reengineering, executives have been forced into a steady retreat on benefits. While health insurance was nearly universal in the world of big business in the late 1970s, by 1995, only one in four full-time employees of the biggest firms had medical coverage, Fraser reports.

Those rollbacks are only precursors, however, of the future workplace envisioned by corporate strategists. One such employment visionary at AT&T, where some 40,000 layoffs were implemented in the '90s, sought to convince the workers that they didn't so much have jobs as much as "projects" or "fields of work" carried out by "self-employed vendors." A vice president for human resources wrote, "In AT&T, we have to promote the whole concept of the work force being contingent, though most of the contingent workers are inside of our walls."

This is one version of the future detailed in Fraser's fast-paced, yet detailed and well-researched critique of the underside of corporate achievement. The other is located in Internet chat groups and on Web sites (such as the now defunct Disgruntled.com). There, Fraser found the beginnings of an initial, if thus far limited, resistance. Among the Internet rebels were the "permatemps," the full-time workers dubbed temporary employees in order to deny them benefits and company stock option plans. Permatemps at Microsoft last year won an $87 million settlement of their class action lawsuit. Similarly, IBM workers successfully used the Internet to organize and spread the word of their fight to force Big Blue to retract some of the most regressive changes in its pension plans. Word of the IBM fight has prompted employees at Duke Power, SmithKline Beecham, and Verizon to adopt similar tactics, Fraser reports. Who knows? Among those Netizens may spring the next Internet Workers of the World, or, more modestly, at least an effort to reclaim some part of the everyday lives lost to corporate profit making.

 
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