The Demise of a Work Ethic

April 29th, 2007

Nobody is ever going to exploit me for money. I’m not going to work and work just to make a little more money to buy a few more things. I know, down to the core of my being, that life’s not about money.

I grew up knowing how to do without. My dad seldom worked overtime and never pressured us to make a living or achieve career success. In fact my upbringing was so family-centered, I didn’t even leave for school; I and all my siblings were homeschooled.

So it was clear in my mind when I started working at Acme, as a contract worker for a temp agency, that while I would not refuse to work over under exceptional circumstances, and would not bolt out the door the minute my shift was up, I would never become a 60-hour week worker. That’s unneccessary. That’s unhealthy. Most of the time it is even unethical.

I did work some overtime while I was a temp, and perhaps not always under “exceptional” circumstances, but I think I pretty well kept the line. Still, I had to steel my resolve when the prospect of a permanent job came up. Would it be a salaried position? I had deduced long ago that salaries were ingenious inventions, a way to give people “more” money while obliging them to do disproportinately more work. If the job I was offered were salaried, it would prepare the way for Acme to pressure me into working ten hours at work and four more at home. As I wasn’t about to allow that, potential for a showdown charged the air.

As it turned out, though, I was offered a salaried non-exempt position, which means I am guaranteed a base yearly pay but am paid at my hourly rate-and-a-half for overtime. Sweet. There is an intrinsic incentive for the employer not to ask for too much overtime, since it costs them more. And, for whatever overtime I do work, I get extra pay.

While this arrangement was a great relief to me, I realized it was still possible that my employer might demand hours of overtime despite the cost, and then I would have to spit in the face that smiled on me and gave me my first job by adamantly refusing. I didn’t look forward to it, but I know that from years of nurture I am a man of principle, and will stick to what I know is right no matter what the cost.

And it is easy to tell how much it cost me. For this current year, we take the amount I’ve earned in total (base pay + overtime) and divide it by the base pay, for a percentage of my “salary” that I have earned this yeare. (Using gross figures, but it shouldn’t matter for a ratio.) That formula tells you that, so far this year, I have earned 143% of my salary. In other words, I have come within 7% of earning my overtime rate for the year. Not last week, or the last two weeks, but the three and one-quarter months reflected in the figures used.

Hah. That showed them, those exploitative workaholic capitalists.

I can make excuses, like “I’m not doing it for the money,” which is true so far, or “I don’t have a family of my own that I am supposed to go home to,” which is true if by “family” you mean wife and children, or “That’s because things at work have been so far out of control, and now that they’ve stabilized a bit I can tone it down,” which is… high grade garden enrichment.

Ever since I got the job I have been telling my boss that I can’t keep up with all the work, and he’s offered me a variety of put-offs like “You just need to get adjusted,” “When we get a new supervisor in that department it will take a load off of you,” “We can get a high-school co-op to do some of that.” And like my rationalizations, that may prove true to an extent, with time, but it is definitely good for the flowers now.

The aforementioned new supervisor also reports to my boss, and so technically isn’t my boss, but he is “on the ground,” in the middle of the work as I experience it. That makes him the perfect boss because he can’t tell me what I have to do but he can tell me what I should do. Last week my fatigue reached the point where I almost got teary telling him how I couldn’t keep up with all my work. And he, instead of saying “I’ll do some of it,” or “I’ll make my people do it,” he said, “Then don’t.” Do your eight hours and go home, he said.

That wasn’t good enough for me. Someone needed to understand that the shipping deparment would collapse into ruin if I didn’t get reinforcements. So I went to my boss and told him all about it, again. And he said, while listening in on the conference call like I was and checking his e-mail, “I have way too many responsibilities in this job, which means I have to do a lot of things half as well as I would like.” Gosh, that sounded familiar. “I go home and wake up at 3 am and try to think of how to get it all taken care of and can’t go back to sleep, so when I come home I crash and my family life suffers.” Hm. I sleep through the night, anyway. I do notice him looking awfully sleepy during slow meetings.

To say my boss suffers from the same strains does not mean it is good or manly to be this way. I notice that many of the planners and supervisors seem to think so–that extra hours is part of the machismo of being management, and that a lack of overtime is a sign of weakness. If I were surrounded by those people, I don’t know what would become of me. Where I am, with a boss and a leading peer who both say “Do your eight hours and go home,” I might have a chance.

This last week was the end of the month, when our department works the most overtime. I worked Saturday, eight and a half. I worked more than eight hours the whole week. But I kept it within an hour of extra time, pretty good for the end of the month.

I expected things to get worse. The lesson I ought to have learned, the lesson I have been told, is that things won’t get much worse if I go home or much better if I work late; but I still expected things to get gradually worse and worse. Unfortunately on Friday I somehow caught up on the past-due work that chafed me most, so we will have to wait a little longer for the world to end.

Semantic failure

April 22nd, 2007

Those of us with English degrees are very greived that Acme is currently participating in two 100% Effort initiatives, and considering two more. These are supposed to be company-wide initiatives that preempt all other demands and get complete support. It strikes me that we cannot do more than one thing with 100% of our resources, and so we are set up to fail.

One of these initiatives has to do with our service to an extremely important customer. I have been telling everyone that we cannot meet the service goal set for us without changing some of our basic practices (which dearly need improvement), but this week my boss explained to me that since we were doing acceptably before a few nasty circumstances colluded to ruin our service, all we need to do is wait out these twin disasters and we will look pretty good with zero changes being made.

Which is pretty depressing, even though true. It means that all the things I imagined being changed to make us the supplier of choice do not have to happen, and so probably won’t, and so I will probably be stuck coping with them.

But we are still quite early in the 100% Effort campaign. I may be able to promote a few good things before we are all done by the end of July. Unless we reach the “okay” level with this initiative, and I am conscripted into another one before this one is officially over.

When I am in charge I will fire anyone who is such bald-faced liar as to propose two 100% Effort initiatives concurrently.

I can fly!

April 15th, 2007

If you sit in a swing, an ordinary playground swing, and pump it a few times, and then really lean into it, when the swing reaches its apex it will stop for a moment while gravity ponders: pull you back, or let you go? In that moment of pure potential, it seems that you could come untethered from the laws of nature and traverse the layers of heaven like a staircase of glass. But gravity is a very predicatable referee. Down you come, backwards, saved from an embarrassingly intimate reunion with Great Auntie Earth by the chains of the swing.

I’ve tested the upper limit of a swing many times, and well I know the feel of it (what other point is there to a swing?), so when I came upon it again I knew what to expect after that moment of delicious hesitation. But this time there was no tether to keep me back from the face of the earth, and I was ten times as high up as a swing had ever brought me. The moment of doubt was proportionately longer. And then we kept going.

Instead of the simple conceit of a swing playing games with me and gravity, an obfustication of steel and aluminum and jet fuel had muscled its way through the bond between man and earth. I went up in the air; I looked down and saw the print of man thickly on what had once been comfortably lonely hills, miles of what had grown up cut down, what had run free boxed in. I went higher, and saw the secret caverns of the clouds, and observed their undisturbed herds ranging over the miles, not yet guessing the plague the fleaspeck aircraft carried. I looked around the cabin, and saw that we had alreadly learned to be heedless of these wonders, to feel so bored that we read tawdry novels of mundane things, or insipid merchantile airflight magazines, or televised trivia that had the gall to represent knowledge, here, amongst the clouds.

I returned to the land in a sprawling airport. I watched the disinterested minions of the airline conglomerate, transporting this baggage which had so recently been in the rare air of heaven as if they were fedual peasants and the luggage, pig manure. Everywhere you looked there was the imprint of the conglomerate, on rain slickers and baggage tractors, airplane tugs, flight attendants, jetways, jets. The amount of monogrammed clothing, the amount of paint used in stenciling, probably cost more money than my family sees in ten years. I couldn’t guess how many men or how much time it had taken to mitre the metal casing around the countless windows, to set the concrete forms for the architectural profiling. Great skeletons of steel supported the endless concoures, and everywhere led somewhere that was still the airport. Who knows how much of the structure was invisible to the traveler? And to think the whole thing was run through with a maze of electrical conductors carefully planned to allow signaling the aircraft and the passengers. And everywhere, everywhere the airline employees with such thinly veiled contempt for the travelers and boredom with their jobs that I marveled the whole system had not collapsed into a endless wreckage of concrete and steel long before I had ever arrived.

The grace of God supports the futility of man, and it will be a terrible day when that support is removed.

Yes, it was my first flight, and yes, I can already tell that with a few more I will be as bored as anyone else on board. As is almost usual, I gather, I spent more time in flight than I did in the meeting I flew out to attend, even without taking account of the time I spent waiting in airports. Ask if it was worth it and I will say I suppose so, because the business world has grown accustomed to flight and regards it neither as a fetish nor a taboo. We were meeting to discuss a very important client from whom we have been distancing ourselves through our habitual faults, and a number of intersting things came to light during the meeting that somehow had not come up on the infinite conference calls preceding the meeting.

So much of all I saw was permeated with waste and disregard, with gratification rather than diligence, that one must appreciate the sentiment of those who hurl invective at the industrial world and all that comes with it. In some eyes the sin is a matter of scale, and then industry is indeed wholly guilty; but in principle the chastiser of coporations is like the preacher who inveighs against the casual hook-ups of this age while he entertains a mistress. I have seen as much of independent living as I have of global business, which is to say not much and not the best, but I have detected a degree of vanity in washing dishes and mending fences. Back-to-the-earth people looking for life without waste are looking for Eden; and could they ever find the forbidden garden, how long before they reach for the forbidden fruit?

People say that the native Americans wasted nothing. That may be resaid: they had nothing to waste. There is always waste; one of the phyiscal laws that lifts our planes into the skies dictates so. We say the Indians did not waste, and we look with disgust on the white men who shot through multitudes of buffalo so the trains could pass. We say the Indians lived in harmony with nature, and venerate them for this miracle, but we don’t understand how they did it or what it cost any more than they would have understood if they had heard that white men could fly.

One day the bill will come due for the American way of life. If you want to know what the airports will look like at the end of that dark hour, look up Chaco Canyon. You could even fly out there for a first-hand look.

The caged beast

April 5th, 2007

Sheets of paper roll from the twin laser printers, Pick and Pack, reams of papers at a time. If left unattended over night, the paper can overflow the output tray and scatter into the room–well, on the Pack printer. The Pick printer can hardly ever get through a load of paper without jamming. During the day this produces a plaintive beep from the printer, a sigh from an office drone, and then the clatter and snap of a printer being disembowled.

If you pick up the paper when its fresh, your fingers get dry and tingly from the hot, electrically charged paper. The electric charge is not noticeable until you try to straighten the papers. The amount of static cling between sheets makes it impossible to square off the stack. (But one can try every time.)

The papers must be inspected and paired off. Pick sheets are organized by inventory location, and specifying all the possible locations for the inventory takes up more space than simply itemizing the order on the pack sheet, so there are frequently more pick sheets than pack sheets. But sometimes only a small part of an order is being picked, while the whole order has to be itemized on the pack sheet, so sometimes there are more pack sheets than pick sheets. Orders of a certain priority, or to certain customers, need to be highlighted. Orders that will be picked from different places need to be placed in different bins.

Once you have the papers paired, they are fed to the Beast.

The electric stapler sits crouched on the table. Its shell is a tough polycarbonate, some sturdy reinforced plastic with no give to it, no admission of weakness, no acknowledgement of pressure. Tucked between a jutting brow and chin of impervious plastic is a glittering metal jaw. Like a good predator, it does not spring when its prey is first in range; it waits until there is no possibility of escape.

And then it strikes–again and again and again!

Whh-chnk, whh-chnk, whh-chnk!

Oh yes, sometimes even three staples is not enough to satisfy this raging mongrel. Once sheets of papers are between its teeth, it simply cannot restrain itself from biting down spasmodically, convulsively. Beating it about the brains leaves no impression.

What really sets off this monster is trying to remove the paper. Pulling back on the paper causes the staple to catch on the inside of the jaw, which triggers the biting reflex. It can get very ugly if you startle and try to pull the paper away too quickly.

Remember, when facing a predator, stay calm. Even if you get bit, do not scream and run away, as this only excites the hunting instinct.

Beware the Swingline.

Where have all the flowers gone?

April 1st, 2007

The old management was better than the current management.

The old management was better than the current management. Let this become so self-evident to you that you do not notice if I write it again: The old management was better than the current management.

Every partisan has a consipiracy theory about the enemy, a theory that always can be supported with some evidence no matter what evidence is on hand. It is a windsock that flys full no matter which way the wind is blowing. The old management was better than the current management.

The people I work with will talk about how completely ineffectual their old supervisor was, and generally deride this former supervisor, but the moment their current supervisor does or fails to do anything which results in dissapointment for the workers, then the supervisor is not even as good as the last one. The old management was better than the current management.

Yesterday I heard a story about how the old supervisor’s new coworkers can’t stand her. The same day I heard, “She would have done this for us. She would have done that for us.”

She, whom they scorn, she whose image they blaspheme, is their very Madonna. The old management was better than the current management.

Speaking for myself, two crimes have been comitted recently. First, the performance reviews for the department were delivered at the end of the month, when we most need a motivated and cohesive team. Performance reviews are divisive by nature, but of itself that is not a crime. The evaluations were drawn up by two front-office people with little to no daily contact with the workers being evaluated, and delivered by a third person, the current supervisor. This would be a crime except that, under the circumstances of the poorly handeled, nay, thoroughly botched transition when the last supervisor left, there really was nobody in a good position to make the evaluations. It could have been done better, but the evaluating process was not a crime.

The low evaluations were an insult to people who until recently have been doing their jobs under spotty guidance, but poor reviews can even be tolerated if suitable guidance for improvement is given and no immediate penalty is doled out. What cannot be excused is the rating one hardworking person got, lower than a known goof-off. The one could be nasty with coworkers, but would do a number of different jobs; the other was indifferent to coworkers and did only a few tasks, and those with no great diligence.

That is an injustice, and the hard worker quit. At the end of the month, when we need all the help we can get.

I am sure the old supervisor would have given them all glowing reviews, and covered for all their foibles, and generally assured them that they were being picked on by upper management. I know the current supervisor could have done more to soften the sting if he had wanted to. Beyond doubt the worker who quit deserved a better review than the goof-off who remained.

But there really is no need for individuals or cliques of martyrs, of people who work fairly hard themselves but who will not recognize the contribution of others, or try to take real grievance to the appropriate supervisors, but instead ridicule most of the people they work with. It makes my blood sour.

The other crime occurred Saturday. We had a lofty shipment goal this month, even loftier than the lofty goals we missed the last two months. This being the end of a quarter, the pressure was tripled. Everyone in the plant pleged their full support and manual labor if need be. But when the call went out, it came back unanswered. We had a few people one day, and one or two a couple more days, but nothing like the scores of people supposedly at our disposal. One crew came down only to vanish as soon as their regular supervisor was out of sight.

So basically, all these people from so many different department who were admonising us to make sure we met our shipment goal, to the point that they would give us whatever help we needed–well, they were all enjoying their Saturday at home, while we worked.

The new supervisor in the department is pretty much an eight-hour guy. He usually gets in a little after seven and leaves a little after four. I tend to freak out and work overtime. He and I report to the same person, so I am not directly repsonsible to him, so it does not directly matter to me what hours he works. But I definitely worked more hours in the five days leading up to Saturday than he did. I’m not sure how many–a fourteen, a couple of elevens I think. Enough to be tired and a little unbalanced on Saturday.

So when he dissappeared in the middle of the day Saturday and everyone got upset, I got upset with them. He left me a note saying he’d be “out for a bit” and to call if I needed him, which is exactly what other salaried people have said to our department before skipping out to enjoy their weekend. We were all pissed off. The old management was better than the current management, remember? She would have stayed longer than anyone, and brought in food for everyone.

The funny thing is that the new supervisor did come back after a couple of hours, and told me that it was his anniversary and his daughter’s birthday. Not to mention it later turned out that his children would be out of town next weekend, so that this was their Easter weekend. I felt bad for joining in the sarcastic remarks earlier in the day. Even though at the time I didn’t know any of the mitigating circumstances surrounding this crime, I know the man well enough to suspect he hadn’t simply gotten bored and gone home.

Nevertheless, although he does not and should not justify everything he does to the people who work for him, as I would try to do if I were him, in this situation he really should have let people know why he was leaving them in their hour of need.

That was a crime.

But overall he has shown good qualities. He has spent a couple of hours following someone through each of the different tasks within the department, and comes out to work on the floor when he feels that the pace is dropping off, rather than telling everyone their numbers are falling behind (which is what I would do); if they keep a good pace he does not even mention to them that they are not doing as much as they need to do to make the monthly goal. Instead he quietly goes into his office and sends e-mails or makes phone calls for help that does not come.

I have seen him state that his people are doing their job when someone else says they are not, and I have heard of the many times when he has told people not to try to push their work off on his people. He stands up for the department, including me even though I don’t work for him, and he gets his opinions of people from first-hand observations.

This man, PB, there are things that he does not like, and they pretty much all belong to the family of “doing things that are not your job on paid time.” Conversations, whether on the phone or in person; smoke breaks; walking around the factory without a job-related reason. He thinks all of this can be done during the designated break periods. Conversation is the trickiest to manage. People will have conversations during the day, including PB, and it is unreasonable and ultimately unproductive to try to eliminate them. But a lot of the phone calls are needless personal calls, and a lot of the talk on the floor is needless complaining about other people in the department.

There are other things that don’t bother PB so much. Personal eccentricities don’t get very high on his grudge list. The way people look, or talk, or the different ways in which they each think highly of themselves do not bother PB nearly so much as they bother some other people in the department. If there is a slow and steady worker who does not take extra breaks or make extra phone calls or complain bitterly about coworkers, PB seems to prefer that worker over the one who is a fast worker, and just as quick to point out flaws in coworkers.

In other words, PB is a good supervisor. But he will always have certain shortcomings when compared to the old supervisor, who was indulgent toward her employees, and achieved most accomplishments at the cost of standards.

The old management was better than the current management.