(My brain is broken so I asked people to give me things to write about. This one comes from this tweet. Sorry if it’s bad)
Methods of control over labor used to be pretty simple. You worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day (10 on Saturday if you were lucky). Assuming you actually slept a full night, this left you with almost no time to build or maintain a life outside your work. More than that, it meant you had no time or energy to go out and agitate for a better life. You took what you were given, and that was that.
Decades of struggle and sacrifice, including many literally giving their lives, chipped away at this injustice. From the late 19th century through until the 1940s, organized labor clawed back hours a day of workers’ lives. The 40 hour week was won with blood and sweat. Unfortunately, capital doesn’t take kindly to losing.
Today, workers generally have a 40 hour workweek, give or take, at least on paper. But in practice, the 40 hour workweek is dying. Many businesses and even public services run on perpetual overtime; salaried employees, “exempt” from being paid for working long hours, are often expected to arrive early and work into the night. And thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones and easily-portable laptops, many white collar workers never quite escape work even at home, on the weekends, jon vacation. The boss can always reach out through the ether and steal back their precious hours.
There’s another, even more insidious way that rest and time is stolen from many workers. More and more jobs today are at least somewhat “knowledge” jobs, which really just means they’re not manual labor. And it’s not always easy to decide what you’re thinking about. Talk to almost any software developer, and they’ll tell you they often think about work problems, whether willingly or not, even on their own time. We often can’t help it, but it means that our boss is living rent-free in our heads, extracting value at potentially almost any hour of any day.
This is the nature of networked, telecommunication-enabled capitalism. Our work is not our own, so time outside “work hours” we spend thinking about it are effectively free labor for our bosses. And our employers vacuum up more and more of our time via emails and constant connectivity because they can, because it costs the company nothing at all. And most people can’t simply opt out: ignore emails your boss expects answered and it’s unlikely to go well.
There’s lots of changes that could be made to fix this. There’ve been proposed laws in other, more advanced countries than the US proposing limits and restrictions on employers’ ability to contact workers outside their work hours. We could also kill the overtime “exemption,” and establish minimum wage laws that provide workers with enough income that they don’t have to seek out overtime just to make ends meet. But these are beaver dams trying to plug the Colorado River after the Hoover Dam has failed. The problems are inherent to the social and economic system of the modern world. The only real solution is exactly the thing overwork makes harder, consuming our time and energy as it does: overthrowing the current order and building something better.