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Labour History Moments – Taylorism Rebounds

May 7, 2015

A Podcast Series with the Steel Workers

TaylorIf you work at a Safeway, a Starbucks, a courier service, or even as a freelance worker at a home computer your every move may be tracked to make sure your employer is maximizing his profits and minimizing your take-home pay.

It’s all done with something called a workplace management system. A computer tracks you, measuring when you take a toilet break, how long it takes you to perform a task, or how many times you wash your hands. Basically it’s a workplace spying system.

Understandably, such systems are the cause of much stress and complaint in health care, fast food, retail sales, parcel delivery, and other industries where a computerized surveillance set-up can now tell your boss how to reduce your wages` to improve his bottom line.

A recent article in Harper’s called “The Spy Who Fired Me” documented some of the newest developments, and its scary stuff. “Every aspect of an office worker’s life can now be measured,” says the article. And the measuring can lead to hirings and firings.

If you use a computer at work, you’re probably being watched. That means workers are being pushed to the limit and that their employers have much more control over their working and “non-working” lives.

But this is nothing new. In fact, it all started over a century ago when Frederick W. Taylor invented a system to help industrialists maximize output from their workers by measuring performance and limiting the tasks of each worker.

Taylorism, as it became known – Taylor called it “scientific management” – used time and motion studies to break down the steps a worker takes on the production line. As a result, people got treated like machines and their work became more and more monotonous.

Henry Ford created the assembly line as the first practical application of Taylorism in what became known as Fordism. It was a key development in curbing the control skilled craft workers had on the shop floor.

While Taylorism was introduced in heavy industrial workplaces, there were also opportunities to employ Taylor’s techniques in extractive industries in the Pacific Northwest such as fish canning, mining and milling.

By deskilling the work, Taylor and Ford undermined workers in the name of efficiency and decreased costs. The new system reduced job satisfaction, eliminated teamwork, and stymied motivation.

So, what we’re seeing today, with all the employer checks on workers, is really a return to the same inhuman approach that was born out of Taylorism. And this neo-Taylorism is proving to have the same destructive impact on workers as its parent system had a hundred years ago.

Steel podcast posterDepending on your outlook, Taylorism could undermine or promote union solidarity. The United Auto Workers, for example, rebelled against it because their members found the system unbearably boring. Then again, it could help stimulate an organizing drive for the same reason.

One thing’s for sure: Big Employer is or will soon be watching you.

For Moments in Labor History, I’m Ron Verzuh.

Moments in Labour History is part of a regular podcast produced by United Steel Workers Local 9346 in Sparwood, B.C.

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