Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I'm Workin', But I Ain't Workin' For You

  I bought the 7" for "Slack Motherfucker" after I heard it blasting in a record store way back in '89. I was spotty on the lyrics (I never have put in much work for pop song lyrics), but to me, it sounded like an ass-kicking "FUCK YOU" to bosses everywhere. Turns out I was wrong: "Slack Motherfucker" is actually a song bagging on a lazy coworker for not pulling his weight on the shift (I don't feel too bad; Watt made the same mistake).

  Back in the day, that was the retail/restaurant/service industry code: you're not working for your boss, you're working for your comrades. So: Jimmy does a good job closing the grill, Sue does a good job closing the dining room. Everything is clean and in the right place, all the trash is out, the place is buttoned up tight. Dotty and Clem come in to open in the morning and everything is good, and they are able to quickly and efficiently get the joint opened up & breeze through breakfast, not to mention get a proper start on lunch prep. Janey and Joe come in to do the lunch rush, and since Dotty and Clem got a start on the prep, lunch is a piece of cake. Janey and Joe power through the afternoon, and since things have been going smoothly, they get the dinner prep done no problem. Jimmy and Sue have no problem running dinner, and since things went well, they manage to do another solid close, leaving a tight ship for the crew next morning. The idea was simple: everyone does their job the best they can, and everybody has an easier time of it.

  But it really doesn't work that way, does it? Mortimer the manager is riding the wave with his crew for a while, and Rex the owner is cool because things are going well - his restaurant is well run and successful, and his crew is happy - but at some point, he thinks "hey, we can always do better, right?", and he starts thinking about things like productivity. Why? Well, maybe he read it in a book, maybe he fancies himself a super businessman whose ego swells with his bottom line, maybe he's just greedy. For whatever reason, he decides he needs his workers to be more productive, so he teams with Mortimer to make some changes, some "upgrades". Now, Morty may or may not be down with the project - he may have been perfectly happy with the way things are, or he may have his ego as much into the bottom line as Rex - but if he wants to keep his job, he gets on board.

  So, Morty and/or Rex examine the situation, and they notice that right before they open the doors at 6 am, Dotty and Clem take a break for coffee and a smoke before the day starts. The super management team obviously pegs that as a waste of time (AND TIME IS MONEY AS EVERYONE ALWAYS SAYS AD INFINITUM). They further notice Janey and Joe spending a little time lollygagging after lunch, and that Jimmy and Sue don't really have too much to do when they first get in. There is all kinds of space to tighten up, to increase productivity: instead of bringing both Dotty and Clem in at 5 am and paying two hours of labor to open, maybe they only bring one in, or bring them both in at 5:30, so there is only one hour of labor for opening the store. Of course Dotty and Clem will have to give up their coffee and cigarette break, but if they do that and pick up the pace a little bit, they will double their productivity. They can always get those breaks in when Janey and Joe get in. Along the same lines, maybe they bring Jimmy and Sue in an hour later, since they usually have no problems on their shift. And maybe they send Janey and Joe home an hour earlier. Making those changes, Morty and Rex have managed to extract practically the same amount of work for 5 hours less, saving about 12.5% in labor costs. And most days, this works out fine.

  Most days, that is. Morty and Rex's new productivity changes start to fall apart when things don't go exactly to plan: maybe breakfast rush is a little bigger than normal, or maybe a fryer goes on the fritz, generating more labor for the same product. Before, the store was running with enough capacity in the system to absorb the occasional unplanned inefficiency: for instance, if Dotty and Clem have a breakfast rush that puts them behind on lunch prep, even though Janey and Joe have to scramble a bit through lunch, they are a little bit less behind by the time Jimmy and Sue get in. Jimmy and Sue in turn put a little more effort to get dinner together, and by the time they are almost ready to close the doors, they are exhausted, but pretty much where they normally are, and they manage to close the store just like any other night. But, under the new "efficient", "higher production" model, the excess capacity is taken away, so if things go wrong, they stay wrong, until extraordinary measures are taken to correct the problem. Of course, from Rex's point of view, excess capacity is wasted money, so he is more than willing to sacrifice it even if it means he will occasionally have to take extraordinary measures to deal with unusual circumstances.

  For the workers, though, the equation is simple: increased productivity = more work for the same amount of money. And, under American business management practice, efficient systems are squeezed until they become inefficient. Which means that if you are working hard to make the job a little easier for all your coworkers, eventually the slack that you generate for your coworkers will be absorbed by your boss instead. So really, no matter how much you think you are working hard for your coworkers, you are actually working hard for your boss*. Your hard work, your increased productivity, just puts money in your boss's pocket. Management's job is to always be increasing productivity, which means that management's job is to always make your job harder. Eventually, your company ends up being modeled after Amazon's efficiency system, wherein things like the time it takes you to walk from point A to point B, or how long it takes you to use the bathroom, are things that are monitored, critiqued, and regulated.

  I don't have a problem when a worker occasionally loses their shit with another worker for doing a lousy job. It is, after all, completely natural to get pissed whenever your workload is increased. I would kindly ask, however, that whatever your reaction to what you believe to be the immediate cause, that you do not forget who is really making your life more difficult: your boss.

  I heard one of the Superchunk dudes in an interview talking about how "Slack Motherfucker" was really about a coworker, and not a boss: I lost interest in the song after that. It's sort of like how a friend of mine talked about how much he loved "Kill Yr Idols" until he found out it was a diatribe against rock critics. I wanted it to be an anti-boss rant, but it wasn't, so I lost interest. I ended up trading it to a friend, and not too many years later, it ended up becoming a collectible. I hope that he managed to turn it for a tidy profit on ebay: that would be the best blow "Slack Motherfucker" would strike for the working class.
*  "Boss" is not always interchangeable with "management" anymore: one of the tricks of the service/retail/food industry is to turn as many workers into "managers" as possible, even if the vast majority of these "managers" do not get significantly higher material rewards, and are essential workers who are co-opted to management's side by nothing other than a job classification. When we use "bosses" here, we are talking about owners, those who would truly stand to profit from the business.

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