The Impossible Will Take a Little While
From Experience Life magazine
The ad in the airline magazine shows a young boy on a swing, the backdrop for an interactive pager being held by a man’s hands. “Maybe you don’t have to send an e-mail right now,” says BellSouth’s ad for their interactive paging service. “But isn’t it cool that you can?” The ad, with its headline of work@lifespeed, celebrates a world where our jobs engulf our every waking moment.
It’s not just our workplaces. Our lives in general seem faster, more complicated, more at the mercy of distant powers and principalities. We have less time for our families, and less room to ask where we want to go as a society and as a planet. The very pace of environmental crises, global economic shifts and the threats of war and terrorism make it harder to address them. If we’re to act effectively as engaged citizens, we’re going to have to slow down our lives, our culture, and a world that seems to be careening out of control.
People talk of these pressures wherever I go. “I’d like to be more involved in my community,” they say, “to take a stand on important issues. “But I just don’t have the time.” I hear this from low-wage workers holding two jobs to make ends meet, from professionals working late nights and weekends, for students beleaguered by outside jobs and debt. It’s true for all of us stretched between escalating workplace demands and a sense that we’ll never catch up on everything else we have to do, much less change a culture that keeps us scrambling, as if in Alice in Wonderland world, simply to keep from falling further behind.
The pace and length of the working week was once the central issue in the labor movement. In 1791, carpenters struck for the ten-hour day, challenging employers who paid flat daily wages during the long summer shifts and then switched to piecework during the shorter winter days. A movement to make this a universal standard grew throughout the nineteenth century, in response to the 70-hour weeks of America’s new industrial enterprises. By the 1860s, the labor movement made the eight-hour day its central focus, with marches, rallies, and related political campaigns. A hundred thousand New York City workers, mostly in the building trades, struck and won this right in 1872, followed by other workers, industry by industry, like the printers in 1906 and the steelworkers in 1923. Finally, in 1940, Roosevelt instituted the universal 40-hour week, with mandatory overtime when employers exceeded it. The workers who won these changes fought for time with their families, but also for time to educate themselves and act as citizens. And then the debate over the pace and speed of life quietly stopped.
As Harvard economist Juliet Schor has examined, Americans’ working hours have been steadily increasing for the past 30 years. Between 1969 and 1987 alone, paid employment by the average American worker jumped by over 160 hours per year, or the equivalent of an entire extra month on the job. We now work the equivalent of nearly nine weeks more a year than our European counterparts. This burden threatens to expand even more so as Congressional Republicans push to end the deterrent of overtime pay in sector after sector of the workforce. That doesn’t count employers simply breaking the law—like the Wal-Mart managers now being sued in 28 states for allegedly forcing employees to punch out after an eight-hour day, and then continue working for no pay at all.
The increase of work hours complements a more general politics of the whip Whatever our jobs, most of us now work harder than we used to, do more in less time, and worry more about being downsized. This is true whether we’re on a factory assembly line, writing code for a software company desperately struggling to survive, or teaching the kids of the poor in an underfunded school. If we’re going to have a decent future, and not become “losers” in an increasingly divided economy, we’re told that we need to become wheeling and dealing self-promoters constantly selling ourselves to survive. Meanwhile, we spend more hours driving to and from our jobs, as urban sprawl, escalating housing prices, and lack of decent public transit options raise the stress of our commutes. Once we could rely on employer-funded pensions and Social Security, confident that if we worked long enough, our old age would be provided for. Now, for most of us, saving for retirement has become an uncertain journey through treacherous shoals. The US has long been the only advanced industrial nation in the world not to offer universal healthcare, but most of us used to be covered through our jobs. Now we pay more and more to get less and less, and spend hours choosing between equally bad options, trying to cover our families as best we can.
We may have no choice but to negotiate our individual passages through these varied pressures. But as in the past, making any significant dent in them will require common action, to change the rules of the game. This is beginning to happen as union-backed Living Wage laws, like those passed in Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, and over 60 other municipalities, help assure that city workers and contractors earn enough in a 40-hour week so they don’t have work extra jobs. Recently, 87,000 Communications Workers of America members who worked for the telecommunications giant Verizon successfully struck against mandatory overtime and workplace speedups. They told of having to choose between keeping their jobs and picking up young children from day care, being disciplined for breaking to drink water or go to the bathroom, and being stressed to the point of physical illness. They stayed out until they won a slower pace and limits on work hours. A new coalition promoting Take Back Your Time Day (www.timeday.org) highlights the theft of our lives by our workplaces. In Michigan, United Auto Workers members wrote it into their contract to get Election Day off—and volunteered by the thousands in the narrow November 2,000 victory of Senator Debbie Stabinow. When we talk about the quality of our work, of our lives and of our democracy—our fellow citizens respond.
We’ll also need common action to reverse the way that immensely consequential national and global decisions are increasingly being made at a pace that leaves no time for democracy. Powerful corporate interests want unlimited speed—to be able to conduct whatever activity they choose in a open global marketplace. Most promote a profoundly short-term concept of time—the next quarterly earnings report, the next cycle of the stock market—and for the politicians who back them, the next election. But this approach leaves little or no room for citizens to ask basic questions: Is a polluting plant good for the community? What’s the impact of closing a factory and moving it to a low-wage state or nearly no-wage country? What kind of tax system will meet the needs of our society with fairness to all? How do we build an economy based on respect for ordinary people and for the earth?
No company exemplified our hyper-paced world more than Enron. With the help of cooperative politicians like George Bush (for whom they were his largest historical donor, and who let him campaign from their corporate jet), they successfully stripped barrier after barrier to energy trading--first in Texas, and then nationally. When Bush became president, they got to pick the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who accelerated the process still further. Together with conservative think tanks, Enron successfully pushed the idea that energy would be delivered most efficiently and quickly without regulatory checks. Those who argued otherwise, they claimed, were obsolete dinosaurs. In arguments I’ve heard often from apostles of corporate dominance, they insisted: It’s here. It’s the future. Get used to it.
My own local utility, the publicly owned Seattle City Light, made the mistake of buying the propaganda. Though they own dams sufficient to generate most of Seattle’s needs, they switched from stable long-term contracts to buying energy on the spot market. Then they hit a drought year, which dropped the water level behind the dams and left less available for generating electricity, so they needed to buy more outside electricity than expected. When Enron manipulated energy availability to drive the prices from $24 per kilowatt hour to $450-500 they left the utility in a $600 million hole. City Light managers trusted that the market would be reasonable. They got outmaneuvered by a company built on speed, speculation, and working every possible angle to squeeze out the maximum possible dollars. They weren’t used to energy politics being run like a Blitzkreig.
The Bush administration has greatly accelerated these kinds of destructive change. Their policies have pushed America further toward a society where we have no room to deliberate, reflect, or do anything except to place ourselves at the mercy of the market. The administration has killed ergonomics rules, a decade in the making, that sought to slow the pace of work and help prevent workplace accidents that take the lives of six thousand workers each year and injured six million. They’ve attacked Environmental Impact Statements that delay the process of development enough for us to glimpse the larger consequences of ecologically damaging projects. They’ve done their best to eliminate all mechanisms through which ordinary citizens can even reflect on whether corporate activity is it’s useful or destructive. And from the USA Patriot Act to hugely regressive tax cuts, they’ve rammed through immensely consequential legislation with just the most nominal amount of time for citizens or our elected representatives to consider it.
As powerful economic interests increasingly grease the wheels for corporations to act without public oversight, regulation, or check, it becomes harder for ordinary citizens to respond, much less to undertake the necessarily patient task of rebuilding grassroots democracy. We find ourselves constantly reacting, running to keep up, trying to slow the juggernaut of change. .
But we’re also seeing the beginnings of a citizen activism that combines new approaches, like online organizing, with traditional grassroots outreach. Emails easily overload, as our inboxes pile up with disturbing news and urgent action calls. We feel lucky just to keep up with the flow. Yet the strength of the new worldwide peace movement or the movements against corporate globalization would be inconceivable without electronic networks to pass on talking points, articles, fliers, posters, summaries of key documents, and information on ways to protest. In the process these movements have also raised critical issues about how ordinary citizens can slow the pace of critical global decisions enough to ensure that they’re wise.
The very speed of our electronic communications also makes more intimate kinds of connections more necessary. We need the visible human presence of public vigils and protests, and the step-by-step outreach that happens when we discuss major public issues in churches, temples, PTAs, city council meetings, Rotary Clubs, college and high school campuses, and with coworkers, neighbors, and friends. While electronic discussions can foster surprisingly productive dialogue, they work best as an adjunct to face-to-face conversation and community, and not a replacement for it. People still need to gather together, eat, joke, flirt, tell their stories, attach names to faces, and remind themselves why they joined their causes to begin with. “It’s almost reassuring that we still have to do all the traditional things if we want people to respond,” says a software editor who chairs her local Amnesty International chapter, “not just rely on the new technologies.”
America’s dominant culture makes speed an ultimate virtue, as if simply by moving faster we can overcome all obstacles, including our own mortality. Yet as Milan Kundera writes, “there is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.” Challenging the increased pace of work and of change may require slowing down our own lives. Even in our activism we might remind ourselves that we’re in it for the long haul, however difficult the times. We need time to play with our children, read a book, go to a movie, dance to good music, or soak in the bathtub and do nothing. If our causes call for more, and they always will, we can find other people to participate, or take on fewer projects. One way or another we need to stop before we’re so spent and bitter, that we feel no choice but to withdraw permanently from the fray. “You can’t solve all the world’s problems,” longtime labor and environmental activist Hazel Wolf reminded me on the eve of her 100th birthday. “You have to guard against taking on more than you can do and burning out with frustration. But you can take on one project at a time, and then another. You can do that your entire life.”
It’s tempting to respond to the speed of all that we face with a short-term politics of our own, reacting on issue after issue, as we try to prevent further incursions on human dignity by a culture that would place every value on a global auction block. We can keep our eyes on the prize by drawing strength from what we fight to preserve, and thinking about the world we’d like to see. We can tell the stories at the core of complex issues, so lives and communities can’t simply be dismissed as expendable barriers to progress. We can raise enough root questions so we do more than challenge particular abuses of power, but offer a broader alternative.
For most of us, our community activism will inevitably be squeezed into whatever hours we have remaining after we earn what we need to get by. For over half a century, these hours have been diminishing, as our work takes over more and more of our lives. If we can begin reversing this, we’ll have more time to heal the real wounds of our communities, of our nation, and of the world. We fight for bread and roses, in the words of old union song--not only for survival, but for the beauty and richness that makes life worthwhile. We fight as well for the right to be citizens, for the chance to create a democracy where all can participate.
Paul Loeb is the author of : Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time A version of this article will appear in Experience Life magazine and in the forthcoming book Take Back Your Time (Berrett-Koehler publishers www.timeday.org )
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