why office workers didn't unionize

This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

The reading and research process for a “big idea” book like the one Charlie and I are writing on working from home is always combination of recommendations, serendipity, and footnotes mining. I start with about 40 books — some history and theory, others more “primary documents” e.g. a book on how to do email from 1990 — and then kinda let it spiral forth from there. Sometimes I’ll get a book and read the intro and a gloss the chapters, and realize it just doesn’t really relate to what I’m trying to think about; sometimes I’ll very unexpectedly find myself underlining every other sentence.

That’s what happened with White Collar, a book about the “New Middle Class,” aka the office worker, written by Columbia sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1951. The book is brilliant, but it’s also a testament to all the ways in which the character of the American class divides and character have remained steady over the last eighty years, even with all the ostensible disruption of massive technological and political change. It also provides the best explanation I’ve ever read for why people with office jobs have been so resistant to unions for so damn long.

There had been office workers, at that point, since before World War I, but they were still outnumbered by what we still fetishize as the foundational American worker: the farmer, the rancher, the factory worker. But with the shift from the fields to the cities (alongside increased mechanization), the number of office workers gradually began to rise and eventually overtake the number of “manual” workers.

Office workers are different than the small business owner or the craftsman. They work for a company — but that company might be a small, local company or a larger, national one. Mills includes secretaries, clerks, and managers in this grouping; today we might think of assistants, paralegals, communications specialists, permalancers, creatives, researchers, interns, fellows, the still-nebulous but tremendous number of managers, and pretty much any other job description that, in this current moment, allows you to work remotely in some capacity.

Eager to leave the drudgery of the factory, this new Middle Class found themselves deep in another form of drudgery — equally alienating, just with a modicum of financial stability that made it difficult to complain or want for another way of life. They are un-unified, without political cause or might; their fate is not under their control even if it seems as if it might be. I’ll put a smattering of Mills quotes below, all of which made me underline and write WHEW!!!! on the side of the page. (Please ignore the use of “he” here; patriarchy is a bitch)

“Whatever common interests they have do not lead to unity; whatever future they have will not be of their own making”

“The twentieth century white-collar man has never been independent as the farm used to be, nor as hopeful of the main chance as the businessman. He is always somebody’s man, the corporation’s, the government’s, the army’s; he is seen as at the man who does not rise”

“He is more often pitiful than tragic, as he is seen collectively, fighting impersonal inflation, living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb”

“Perhaps because he does not know where he is going, he is in a frantic hurry; perhaps because he does not know what frightens him, he is paralyzed with fear. This is especially a feature of his political life, where the paralysis results in the most profound apathy of modern times” 


“The certainties of the 18th and 19th centuries have disintegrated or been destroyed and, at the same time, no new sanctions or justifications for the new routines we live, and must live, have taken hold. So there is no acceptance and there is no rejection, no sweeping home and no sweeping rebellion. There is no plan of life. Among white-collar people, the malaise is deep-rooted; for the absence of any order of belief has left them morally defenseless as individuals and politically impotent as a group”

In short: the relative stability of the middle class office life has led, somewhat expectedly, to a profound loneliness. There is no community in the office, or if there is, it is a hollow community, the community of “family” that does not actually love or value each other. “For security’s sake,” Mills writes, “he must strain to attach himself somewhere but no communities or organizations seem to be thoroughly his.”

If all of this seems a little overwrought to you, I get it; this might not be how you would describe your own office job and perspective, or your parents’, or your grandparents’. That’s a very, well, Middle Class tendency: to object to a characterization because of just how unique, how different, we believe ourselves.

But you might also see where I’m headed here. All of the things that made office work soul-deadening eighty years ago — they haven’t changed. If anything, at least office work was somewhat more stable back then: companies prided themselves on the company man or woman who worked for the organization their entire life (and then retired with a pension to prove it); IBM loved to flaunt the number of people in its Two (and Three!) Generation IBMer Club.

But security, and monotony, was part of the problem. Lack of independence, no outlet for creativity, no control over the contours of your day, hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake, no pride in one’s work or cognizance of its importance in the world — these were all privileged problems, but keenly felt psychologically problems nonetheless. Some problems money and a house in the suburbs just made worse.

Over the course of the 1950s, a smattering of books and movies attempted to get at the larger ennui and blankness of the office experience: The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Revolutionary Road, The Lonely Crowd. You could view the early boomer counter-culture of 1960s as a direct rebuttal to prescribed office ennui / white collar life (or think of the entire “plastics” speech in The Graduate). The feeling re-emerges every few years: most vividly for me, Lloyd Dobler’s speech about not wanting to buy or sell anything in Say Anything, but also the whole of Office Space, and the deep commitment to anti-office life that is The Office.

The fascinating thing about all of the examples I cited above = they’re all very male reactions to the constrictions and humiliations of office culture; women’s office films generally pivot on, you know, sexual harassment and discrimination, and people of color are seldom protagonists in these texts, just beneficiaries of off-hand racism, often framed as a joke. The primary brokenness is that of the white collar white man, and as Mills points out, “if these troubles seem particularly bitter to the new middle strata, perhaps that is because for a brief time people felt themselves immune to troubles.”

Office culture was broken and dispiriting then, it got even more broken and dispiriting over the course of the massive layoffs and downsizings and restructurings of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s broken and dispiriting now. Back in the early 20th century, factory workers responded to shifts in the way their work was organized — and the increased monotony in which they performed a single task all day, instead of a number of tasks that culminated in a cathartic, completed thing — by forming labor movements so massive they could not be ignored.

Those labor movements were possible because of micro and macro forms of solidarity: these workers identified with other workers doing very similar jobs in their own factories, but also with workers in different fields, doing different tasks, but still workers. They knew that they only way they could have as much power as the people who controlled their daily lives was to band together. As Mills puts it, “unions are devices by which collections of people get done what the employer is in the position to do himself.”

So why don’t people in office jobs unionize, advocating for shifts in their job description that would not only make their work even incrementally less soul-flattening? Why don’t they come up with ways to protect against unpredictable, aggressive, and discriminatory management behaviors? They wouldn’t be advocating for exactly the same protections as, say, the auto workers union, but each union figures out its own priorities.

Mills argues that there were a number of things going on: first, white collar workers wanted to differentiate themselves from the brute, crass “strike” oriented culture of unions. Even if the people in those unions were their parents, or their siblings, not needing that sort of brute strength to find stability was perceived as a sort of distinguishing factor, a sign of class.

Second, the companies themselves were brilliant at preventing solidarity amongst workers. The “science” of human relations, aka HR, was developed as a way to both make workers more psychologically efficient (after all, if workers are unsatisfied and depressed and angry, they’re not very productive workers). A good manager makes a worker feel valued and essential — and also keeps them hopeful about their chances of advancement, even if only through tiny shifts in job title and salary.

The prospect of promotion (and eventual mastery or control of others) is so tantalizing that it absorbs all attempts at solidarity: we may all have similar jobs now, the reasoning goes, but I’m on the path to junior vice-president of distribution. Micro-promotions, the proliferation of job titles, and the sheer possibility of someday rising through the ranks — all are effective anti-solidarity tactics.

Another tactic, traced by communications scholar JoAnne Yates, is the development of internal comms: all-company memos, circulars, magazines, newsletters, and, more recently, emails, company town halls, Slack rooms, all-hands, the list goes on. These comms opportunities are designed to highlight and celebrate achievements by people within the company — which, you know, nothing wrong with that — yet also serving a didactic form, modeling the way employees should behave, underlining the proper posture towards work, or introducing a new skill.

Internal comms are also used as a means of creating a feeling of family, and attendant loyalty, amongst workers — and you don’t form a union with your fellow siblings when you get angry with your parents. That’s just disrespectful.

In Cubed, Nikil Saval describes the doomed attempts to organize office workers in the 1950s: they were so enamored with the American Dream, with the promise of upward mobility, with their own potential within a larger system of meritocracy….why did they need anyone else? “Unions promised one thing above all — dignity — which white-collar workers claimed they already had,” Saval writes.

In short: Unions were for people stuck on a certain rung of the American Dream. Unions were for a certain type of person who couldn’t advocate for themselves. For those who’d made it to the office, unions were, in short, unnecessary.

This understanding has lingered over the last eighty years, no matter how many times — how many mass layoffs, how much discrimination and mistreatment, how much stagnant and ham-fisted management, how much favoritism and nepotism and illogical promotion practices — suggested otherwise. (Edit to clarify here: Some office workers, whether in government jobs or in the clerical ranks, did successfully unionize; but private corporations in particular were largely resistant to unionization efforts). But back in 1951, Mills predicted a potential future for the white collar profession: a large percentage would become proletarianized, which is to say, their wages, overall income, prestige, power, and stability would come to resemble that of the wage worker.

“It could be possible,” Mills writes, “for a segment of white-collar people to become virtually identical with wage-workers in income, property, and skill, but to resist being like them in prestige claims and to anchor their whole consciousness upon illusory prestige factors.” We’ve seen a lot of this over the course of the last, oh, thirty years: people whose education and job title might place them within a certain echelon of prestige, but who are subject to greater exploitation, have less security, and, in some cases, earning less wages than those working in fields (see: the trades especially) deemed less prestigious by society at large.

Who needs a union! I work at [insert prestigious job that pays $32,000 a year to live in New York here]! Who needs a union, I work in tech, even though I’m a subcontractor who makes significantly less than the person performing the same job at the same company who’s actually employed by that company! Who needs a union, I have free lunch and might get a company card someday!

But I think that, too, has begun to change. Grad students have had unions for decades, in part because there was no illusion about rising through the ranks while a graduate student. But adjuncts are increasingly unionizing, in part because they, too, have come to understand that the system is now made to allow just a ray of hope for advancement to a tenure-track position. Over the past five years, digital media has unionized en masse, joining the many papers that have long had guilds and unions. Museum workers, gig workers, Amazon warehouse workers, corners of the tech worker world, substitute teachers, cannabis workers, all unionizing. Workers at “cool” places like breweries and coffee shops: unionizing.

To me, this emphasizes the ways in which people in all of these fields have come to understand themselves, particularly in this moment, as part of a larger precariat, to use the theorist Guy Standing’s word, at sea amidst the larger forces of our current capitalist system, the social safety life raft slowly deflating (if it hasn’t already done so entirely) beneath them.

We recognize that the true life raft, absent larger governmental systems, is each other — because just as the company is not, in fact, your fucking family, the big huge yacht in the distance is not going to heed your cries for help and come over and save you, give you new clothes, and welcome you into their life of luxury.

To be clear: I think the surge in unionization efforts is a great response to massive societal failures. I think office workers understanding themselves as workers, and seeing the ways in which office jobs have discouraged them from seeing themselves as such, is incredible. I hope it continues to spread, and continues to disintegrate already flimsy hierarchies of prestige and power. But I also think, as Delia Cai spoke about the other day in an event for my book, that white collar labor proponents have to be careful about how we think about our place in this movement: unions are not cool or important because we just decided that we wanted to be part of them because our jobs became unstable.

Unions are important, and have been vital for decades, even when office workers worked so mightily to distinguish themselves from them, because they protect workers. Not because the work these workers do is cool, not because they do or do not have a certain degree, but because they are humans, not replaceable robots, and deserve to be treated as such. There is so much that workers new to the union movement can learn about its history, and the solidarity that flows from it, including the fact that some unions — police unions in particular! — can be deeply shitty when they use solidarity to protect abuses of power.

I also want to be clear that unions aren’t available to everyone — in Right to Work states, aka Right to Work For Less States, it’s incredibly difficult to get one off the ground, and even harder to exert power. Even in quasi-union-friendly states, ostensibly progressive companies like my former employer will and have been battling unionization efforts for years. Solidarity means supporting people in unions and not crossing picket lines, but it also means supporting people who can’t unionize, and working to elect leaders who will make it easier for them to do so.

Would we need unions if we had a functioning government? Yes. Unions, combined with smart, dynamic regulatory policy, make capitalism work for workers. The alternative is what you see all around you. It is your life, and your exhaustion, and the exhaustion of everyone else around you. But that doesn’t have to be our future. Office workers can continue to tell themselves a hollow bedtime story about potential advancement, better management, company happy hours, a culture that cares — but as the pandemic has shown, all of that is gilded bullshit if the company isn’t forced to actually care about you.

How would your office culture shift if you actually thought of yourself in solidarity with your coworkers — and together, advocating for greater resources — instead of competition with them for the few resources allocated to you? How would your conception of yourself shift if you felt empowered not by your hopes for eventual advancement, but by identification with others? How can a union liberate you to allocate less of your mental energy to constantly worrying about the small particulars and indignities of your job? How can solidarity rescue you from a narrow, craven understanding of who deserves protection and care in the world?

I’m working through these questions, but if you have ideas about how unionization efforts shifted your own attitude towards work — or the overarching feeling of work at your company — I’d love to hear them.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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