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The Workman's Compensation
How can someone, hour after hour, day after day, year in and year out, tighten approximately the same nut to the same bolt and not go mad? That most working people do not, in fact, go mad is due in large measure to a phenomenon so common that it is found wherever people labor in industry: taking it easy. It would take some kind of real mental case to do all the work one could all day long. No one expects it. Taking it easy on the job while someone else covers your work, or "working on and off," as it is usually called in America, is an established part of the working life.
Working on and off, however, has its limits. The rules are infinitely varied, subtle, and flexible, and, of course, they are always changing. Management, up to a certain level at least, is aware of the practice, and in some industries employs entire cadres of people to curtail or put an end to it. Simultaneously, the workers are subtly doing their best to keep it going and to extend it wherever possible.
Every worker has a highly developed sense of how much work is expected of him. When he feels that the expectation is excessive, he tries to do something about it. This instinct has to do with the political nature of work itself, something every modern worker understands. The bosses want more from the worker than they are willing to give in return. The workers give work, and the bosses give money. The exchange is never quite equal, and the discrepancy is called profit. Since the bosses cannot do without profit, workers have an edge. A good worker in a key spot could, so long as he kept up production, take all the coffee breaks he wanted, and the bosses would very likely look the other way. He could also choose to cut down on the coffee breaks, apply himself, and increase production, and then ask for and get more money. But that would be self-defeating, and he knows it. It would also place him in competition with other workers, which would be playing into the bosses' hands. What he would rather do is create some slack for himself and enjoy his job more.
At present on the West Coast, when a gang of longshoremen working on cargo start a shift, they often divide themselves into two equal groups and toss a coin. One group goes into the far reaches of the ship's hold and sits around. The other group starts loading cargo, usually working with a vengeance, since each one of them is doing the work of two men. An hour later, the groups change places. In other words, although my fellow longshoremen and I are getting paid for eight hours, on occasion we work only four. If someone reading this feels a sense of moral outrage because we are sitting down on the job, I am sorry. I have searched my mind in vain for a polite way to tell that reader to go to hell.
If you are that reader, I would recommend that you abandon your outrage and begin thinking about doing something similar for yourself. You probably already have, even if you won't admit it. White collar office workers, too, have come under criticism recently for robbing their bosses of their full-time services. Too much times is being spent around the Mr. Coffee machine, and some people (would you believe it?) have even been having personal conversations on company time. In fact, one office-system expert recently said that he had yet to encounter a business work place that was functioning at more than about 60 percent efficiency.
Management often struggles hard to set up a situation where work is done in series: a worker receives an article of manufacture, does something to it, and passes it on to another worker, who does something else to it and then passes it on to the next guy, and so on. The assembly line is a perfect example of this. Managers like this type of manufacture because it is more efficient - that is, it achieves more production. They also like it for another reason, even if they will not admit it: it makes it very difficult for the worker to do anything other than work.
Frederick W. Taylor, the efficiency expert who early in this century conducted the time-and-motion studies that led to the assembly-line process, tried to reduce workers to robots, all in the name of greater production. His staff of experts, each armed with clipboard and stopwatch, studied individual workers with a view toward eliminating unnecessary movement. They soon found a great deal of opposition from the workers.
Most people not directly engaged in daily work express disapproval when they hear of people working on and off. A studied campaign with carefully chosen language - "a full day's work for a full day's pay," "taking a free ride" - has been pushed by certain employers to discredit the practice, and their success is such that I rarely discuss it except with other workers. My response is personal, and I feel no need to defend it: If I am getting a free ride, how come I am so tired when I go home at the end of a shift?