Monday, April 20, 2015

Just-in-time means ... labor is even more screwed!

A younger colleague posted this on Twitter:
My reply to him on Twitter was from this blog-post back in June 2013, in which I had quoted William Deresiewicz (whom I had planned to invite to talk on campus, but the managers did not green-light my suggestion!):
An intellectual is not an expert, and a public intellectual is not an expert who condescends to speak to a wider audience about her area of expertise. An intellectual is a generalist, an autodidact, a thinker who wanders and speculates. As Jack Miles puts it in a stellar essay on the question, “It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual.”
Whether I am an intellectual or not, undisciplined preparation has very much been the story of my life.  A lack of discipline means that I read, watch, and listen to, seemingly unconnected topics.  But, those fragments help me understand the world.

One fragment today came from Robert Reich.  Yes, the "New Democrat" Reich, who served in Bill Clinton's cabinet.  And, this post of Reich's will appeal even to the pro-business blogger, who is the consistent (and almost always the lone) commenter here.  After all, my friend Ramesh has recently blogged agreeing with the commie Labor Party leader, Ed Miliband, and even loudly criticized Walmart as "a sad commentary on the business world."

Reich writes:
Just-in-time scheduling like this is the latest new thing, designed to make retail outlets, restaurants, hotels, and other customer-driven businesses more nimble and keep costs to a minimum.
Software can now predict up-to-the-minute staffing needs on the basis of  information such as traffic patterns, weather, and sales merely hours or possibly minutes before.
This way, employers don’t need to pay anyone to be at work unless they’re really needed. Companies can avoid paying wages to workers who’d otherwise just sit around.
Employers assign workers tentative shifts, and then notify them a half-hour or ten minutes before the shift is scheduled to begin whether they’re actually needed. Some even require workers to check in by phone, email, or text shortly before the shift starts.
Welcome to the app-economy!

So, when Ramesh blogged about agreeing with Miliband, I had merely read and blogged about the possibilities but didn't know that it was already a serious real policy/political problem in the UK.  A few days after that, Slate reported on the same issue, that New York's attorney general:
 is concerned that “a number of companies in New York State utilize on-call shifts and require employees to report in some manner ... to learn whether their services are ultimately needed on-site that day.”
Back in the days of manufacturing, just-in-time manufacturing was a big deal.  From Toyota and from Japan it quickly spread everywhere.  Now, that just-in-time concept is being extended to the service industry, where the "inventory" is labor; the reserve army of labor, as Marx phrased it.

Reich notes:
employees are now becoming variable costs of doing business – depending on ups and downs in demand that may change hour by hour, possibly minute by minute.
Yet working people have to pay the rent or make mortgage payments, and have keep up with utility, food, and fuel bills. These bills don’t vary much from month to month. They’re the fixed costs of living.
American workers can’t simultaneously be variable costs for business yet live in their own fixed-cost worlds.
They’re also husbands and wives and partners, most are parents, and they often have to take care of elderly relatives. All this requires coordinating schedules in advance – who’s going to cover for whom, and when.
But such planning is impossible when you don’t know when you’ll be needed at work. 
Yep, it is the share-the-scraps economy!

Which then leads to the question that I have been wrestling with since the commie days of my youth.  Marx said "philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."  What good is my intellectual understanding (assuming it is intellectual) when I can't do a damn thing?


Ramesh said...

Yes Robert Reich puts it well. Agree with everything he says except the bit about raising the Minimum Wage !!!

I am actually quite puzzled by the phenomenon even from an employer's perspective. If you employ people like this, they will have zero incentive to work. Zero motivation. Zero belonging to the company. And this is mostly happening in the service industry where the employee is often the first line of contact with a customer. How can a company survive with pissed off employees as your customer contact point. The wages saved by these horrible practices are much smaller than the marketing budgets of these companies. The nice lady at the checkout counter, as you have remarked many a time, is a better ambassador of your store than all those TV ads. So why do these companies treat their workers like shit.

I simply do not understand.

Sriram Khé said...

If you--an uber-business guy--throw in the towel with "I simply do not understand" then what chance do I have to make sense of this!

BTW, this, too, is a small piece that contributes to wage stagnation and the growing income inequality, and the urgency to re-write the social contract.

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