Webster's defines speedup as "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay," and it used to be a household word. Bosses would speed up the line to fill a big order, to goose profits, or to punish a restive workforce. Workers recognized it, unions (remember those?) watched for and negotiated over it—and, if necessary, walked out over it.
But now we no longer even acknowledge it—not in blue-collar work, not in white-collar or pink-collar work, not in economics texts, and certainly not in the media (except when journalists gripe about the staff-compacted-job-expanded newsroom). Now the word we use is "productivity," a term insidious in both its usage and creep. The not-so-subtle implication is always: Don't you want to be a productive member of society? Pundits across the political spectrum revel in the fact that US productivity (a.k.a. economic output per hour worked) consistently leads the world. Yes, year after year, Americans wring even more value out of each minute on the job than we did the year before. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Productivity creep is right. US workers are under pressure to do more in less time, and to thrive on it. Worker productivity is constantly touted in economic reports. Many of those who have jobs, are working longer hours with an expanded workload - without getting a raise. Merely being allowed to keep their jobs is enough of a reward. The question that is never asked is simple: who benefits?
In all the chatter about our "jobless recovery," how often does someone explain the simple feat by which this is actually accomplished? US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010: workforce down, output up, and voilá! No wonder corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. To repeat: Up. Twenty-two. Percent.
Meanwhile, what's passed off as the growing pains of a modern economy is—not to go all Marxist on you—simply about redistribution. For 90 percent of American workers, incomes have stagnated or fallen for the past three decades, while they've ballooned at the top, and exploded at the very tippy-top: By 2008, the wealthiest 0.1 percent were making 6.4 times as much as they did in 1980 (adjusted for inflation). And just to further fuel your outrage, that 22 percent increase in profits? Most of it accrued to a single industry: finance.
All of that hard work isn't benefitting the worker, who isn't even getting a raise. It's going straight to the top. But, the lucky worker is allowed to keep their job. For now.
A year ago I wrote a piece here at Main St that included this statement:
This could be a frightening new US reality – companies holding workers hostage, in exchange for jobs.
The frightening new reality seems to have arrived.
cross- posted at MainSt/workingamerica.org