I’ll always remember the first day of my first real job.1 It started on April 28, 1974 with a morning alarm playing the flapamba intro to Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” I got up, got dressed, met my brother, ate, then boarded a special “worker” bus which took us to the smelter where we were to work.
Before entering the smelter we had to attend a week of safety training. It was nothing I’d experienced in any of my formal schooling. It was different in two ways. First, the training itself was an odd collection of rule and regulation citations, labour ministry readings and periodic safety films. It can be hard to learn anything from citations or readings but the films left powerful impressions. Some were horrific, displaying workers with mangled arms or the ravages of severe hot-metal burns. They scared the hell out of me and I knew exactly what I was going to be doing on my first day of work … I was going die!
Traumatic training like this rarely works.2 Despite the anxiety it creates, we often acclimate to our workplaces and often things – even dangerous things – go unnoticed. In fact within two weeks of starting a foreman pointed out how I had just walked under a slag chute while a crane was pouring molten metal into a furnace … an extremely dangerous thing to do. 3
The training differed in a second, more subtle way. It introduced me to a new word, employee. 4 It was an odd introduction starting with our instructor, a chap named Herb, referencing how the oxygen smoke discharged from the smelter’s stack could be seen for miles. Another attendee, spotting the statement’s problem, challenged Herb saying, “oxygen doesn’t burn.” Herb glared at the attendee in showdown fashion.
“Around here, oxygen burns. Got that?”
The message was clear. Truth did’t matter; authority did. Herb then went on to say how, “Our employees are taught to follow the rules, and violations come with consequences – from discipline to expulsion.”
Now I must admit, all this threat and warning didn’t really phase me. What did was his use of the word employee. Herb actually preceded it with a possessive pronoun – our – giving it a feeling of property. Turns out this kind of feeling had roots.
The word employee dates back to 1834 5 from the French word employé, meaning a person employed. I hadn’t thought about it much at the time but after some studies began to see how it came to replace the word worker6 to reflect the exchange of labour power for a wage. Adam Smith and Karl Marx described this exchange in their works, and it went something like this.
Each of us possess labour power, tempered by our skills, knowledge and abilities, which can be exerted for the purposes of doing work. This labour power has potential and can be traded like a commodity, usually for a wage. Once traded, the buyer can then assign the work needed to be done in accordance with the exchange.
At this point I’m not really interested in discussing the fairness of the exchange, only that it marked my first departure from the word worker. Workers, like my grandfather, never seemed to talk about their wages or the exchange power of money, choosing instead to point out the meaning and importance of producing nourishing things for broader family and community purposes. For me, Grandad’s philosophy had a noble ‘pitch-in and help’ feel to it.
It was different for employees, with the downbeat on collecting a wage and making sure the parties got their money’s worth. The emphasis seemed less on communal effort and more on organizational compliance, on making sure the company got the best out of their labour-power purchase. I felt like a commodity and a bit disheartened.
There was more. I was also a union member, giving me my first taste of the politics associated with being an employee. Turns out this was set against the organization’s “open system” background. The open system referred to a process where resources were fed into an organization, then transformed into outputs, commodities or services. Unfortunately for the organizations things ran interference with the process, like pesky government regulations, disagreeing public perceptions and the radicalism of some union members. Organizations responded to this interference in mediaeval fashion by creating two defence departments (The Archers, as I liked to call them) – public relations (PR) and human relations (HR).7
It seemed to me the public relations (PR) department8 was tasked with making the organization look good through branding and image grooming. I noticed how, when paired with marketing, it helped put positive spins on the things we want (consumption), and often at the expense of things we need (communities, health, safety and an environment).
If I had to come up with a bottom line here I’d say the labour power exchange put workers in an awkward position. They would continue to work for their wages, and by extension for their families and communities, but would also need to swear certain affiliations with their hiring organization, either by parading their abstract mission statements and logo bling, or by remaining completely silent.11 This was no problem in the more positive, nourishing organizations. It would prove problematic in others as evidenced in the many labour and legal battles witnessed over everything from health and safety to dress codes. It got pretty bad at times and I can recall employer representatives referring to their employees in only the most derisive of terms.
Something would need to change, for the positive. And it did. By the 1980s it was common to see organizations underscore the importance of their employees by calling them their best asset.
- Notwithstanding part-time jobs as a garbage man, lab assistant, furniture mover, Legion bartender and Brewers’ Retail sales clerk. ↩
- I’ve worked with colleagues who employed the same basic methodologies, using mock accident inquests to scare the hell out of potential supervisors. Not only were they exposed to the harshnesses of physical injury or death, they were doused in the emotional anguish of affected family members and the harsh anxieties of a predatory legal system looking to attached responsibility. The course was seen as a success when a participants left saying, “Sheesh, I never want this to happen to me.” Point taken, but every now and then I’m approached by a veteran who tells me the course injected enough anxiety in their lives to keep them from getting a good night’s sleep. For me this type of training smacked of cruelty and frequently missed the rationality, reason and commitment needed to ensure safe working practices. ↩
- There is a loose connection between training and commitment. I learned little from the terror in my course and a lot more from this unnerving experience. I’ve also experienced safety trainers themselves taking extreme risks with their health and the health of others for some of the most mundane of reasons. ↩
- Of course I’d heard the word before. It hadn’t resonated with me until I actually became an employee. Before that I was generally referred to as a student. ↩
- Source: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=employee ↩
- I studied working class history in university. ↩
- I remember sitting on night-shift picket line listening to a wise worker explain the open system of organizations and how they fall out of sync from time to time, especially when it comes to paying wages and ensuring the safety of its workers. ↩
- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_public_relations ↩
- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_relations_movement ↩
- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employee_monitoring ↩
- I remember how the post-secondary institution I worked for encouraged faculty to post personal webpages on their site in an attempt to attract attention to their work and accomplishments. A few years later, perhaps because of a few violators, they took all personal web sites down, aligning only with corporate sanctioned, largely sanitized depictions of college life. It was hard to see the faculty in the organization. There were plenty of managers wading in pools of contented students, but few if any faculty to be seen. ↩