Giant corporations are abusers who say they love you
Two decades ago, Joel Bakan called big business psychopathic. He's back with a new project tracing how the psychopaths learned fraudulent kindness
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Today, a twofer excerpt — of a book and a movie investigating how big business learned to abuse you by declaring its love.
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A clip from “The New Corporation”
When I went on tour for “Winners Take All,” a strange and moving thing happened more than once. A woman, usually middle-aged, would come up in the signing line and lean close seeking a modicum of privacy and say some version of the following: What you are describing in your book — these moves by corporations to hurt society while making a show of doing good — this is what abusive men do. They hurt you while telling you they love you. I know this, because I survived one.
I carried these stories with me, and began to read about this parallel they were suggesting. There was something powerful and awful in the idea. And I thought of these women again when I came upon an important new project by Joel Bakan.
Joel is a Canadian writer and law professor. Nearly two decades ago, he made a big splash with “The Corporation,” a book-and-documentary one-two punch that famously declared giant companies psychopaths harmful to the common good: “The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.” He was right. The idea stuck.
Now, all these years later, Joel is back, with a new book and a new accompanying documentary, co-directed by Jennifer Abbott, updating the story. He calls these sequels “unfortunately necessary.” And what brings him back is the next twist in big business’ journey: the way in which psychopathic corporations, having been called out for their predatory greed, reinvented themselves as kind.
Joel has, in other words, developed the research behind the insight that those women offered in the signing lines. He has reported a sweeping story of how corporations began to recognize their reputation as abusers and began to hug their communities tighter while hurting them more and more. The hugs enabled the hurt. The promises that things would be different helped keep things the same.
Today I am happy to share the first excerpt of Joel’s book, “The New Corporation,” along with a first glimpse of the new documentary, at the top of this post. This extract below is a passage about a particular form that corporate abuse now takes: shafting workers through surveillance and other means.
From “The New Corporation”
By Joel Bakan
Laws designed to protect workers’ well-being and humanity have been in place for more than a century in the United States, first prompted by the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 workers, mainly immigrant teenage girls, died. Exit doors had been locked to prevent employees from stealing and taking breaks, and fire escapes were inaccessible. Widespread outrage in the wake of the tragedy fueled labor activism and compelled lawmakers to ban dangerous sweatshop conditions and protect workers’ safety. It was the beginning of a twentieth-century trend—notably consolidated by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act and National Labor Relations Act—to redefine the employment relationship in ways that protected workers. The basic infrastructure—minimum wages; maximum hours and days per week; child labor bans; health and safety protections; the right to form unions, strike, and bargain collectively—remains in place today, though it has been substantially weakened.
Corporations opposed worker protection laws from the start, routinely breaking them and lobbying to roll them back. Over the last century, they successfully tamped down these laws, not least by securing anti-union “right to work” legislation in many states. Today, they harass and threaten pro-union employees, sometimes fire them, and spend billions each year to avoid unions.
Google, for example, recently hired IRI Consultants, a firm that offers “union vulnerability assessments” and coaches corporations on tactics to avoid unions. Worker unrest had been growing at the company, first becoming apparent when, in the fall of 2018, employees organized a worldwide walkout to protest the way sexual harassment complaints against company executives were being handled. Since then, employees have complained about meetings being monitored, complaints stifled, and workers fired for taking a stand. Though no major union drive has happened, conditions are ripe for one. And Google is taking no chances. In hiring IRI Consultants, it followed a course advised by a recent Amazon training video—“recognize the early warning signs of potential organizing and escalate concerns promptly.” Amazon recently followed its own advice, summarily firing employees who led protests and walkouts in response to the company’s disregard for workers’ health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
Anti-union tactics are pervasive across all industries, not just tech, which helps explain why union density rates in the private sector reached an all-time low of 6.3 percent in 2018, a decline from 16.8 percent in 1983 and 31 percent in 1967. “Every time a worker stands up to try to organize a union in any part of the country, he or she is met with threats, abuse, videos that threaten them, threaten their job,” as the political commentator Jonathan Tasini described it to me. “There’s lots of reasons why unions have declined, but the fundamental reason, the number one reason, is there’s a multibillion-dollar industry whose one goal is to destroy unions in America.”
But now, in addition to all of that, corporations are finding powerful new ways to control workers directly through data, a kind of technology-enabled deregulation of the workplace. The basic idea is to deploy devices to monitor employees’ actions in real time and create feedback loops that control their behavior. It’s eerily similar to a device called a Cowlar, a smart collar designed to fit around the neck of a cow and used by dairy farmers to monitor cows’ milk output, temperature, activity, and location so as to maximize production.
Amazon warehouse workers don’t wear smart collars, but the scanners they carry serve similar ends, tracking every movement and action, starting a countdown timer that moves them from task to task, rating productivity and sending admonishments for moving too slowly. The results are Kafkaesque as employees run to keep up with productivity targets, are disciplined for not meeting those targets, and are then disciplined again for running, which is against the rules. During twelve-hour shifts, workers might cover fifteen to twenty miles on their feet, routinely popping painkillers to persevere (dispensed in single-dose packages from workplace vending machines), as their scanners feed managers real-time performance metrics. They have no “expectation of being treated like human beings,” says Emily Guendelsberger, a journalist who embedded as an Amazon employee and wrote a book about her experience—a point underlined by recent allegations that Amazon workers are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the frantic work pace, lack of restrooms (making proper handwashing impossible), and poor sanitation at warehouses. “Amazon has always treated its workers as though they weren’t really human,” observes Stacy Mitchell. “And now in the context of this pandemic, it is squeezing people even further, as the pace of work increases and even minimal kinds of safety measures are absent.”
Yet Amazon and other companies continue work on developing technologies “to increase the workload and pace of work, with new methods of monitoring workers,” as a report coauthored by the economist Beth Gutelius describes it. The report cites, as just one example, a video game that pits workers against each other to assemble customer orders faster. Mission Racer, projected on screens installed next to workstations, converts actual physical labor into video game racing cars, with the cars moving faster around a track as workers more quickly pick warehouse items and deposit them into boxes. Problems are further exacerbated, says Gutelius, by the increasing automation of Amazon (and other) workplaces through artificial intelligence and robotic software—Amazon uses more than two hundred thousand robotic vehicles, called “drivers,” in its U.S. delivery fulfillment centers, a figure that is double the number from 2018 and more than ten times the number from 2014—which, according to Gutelius, adds more work, increases pressure on workers to speed up their tasks, and contributes to worker burnout.
The trend is clear. Technologies that monitor and control workers’ behavior will soon be a part of all workplaces. One recent invention is an employee ID badge that hangs around an employee’s neck on a lanyard and transmits data from embedded microphones, motion detectors, and other sensors. There’s a biomeasuring wristwatch designed to monitor traders’ emotions and indicate “in real time who is freaking out,” according to the MIT professor who developed it. Banks are considering emotional monitoring of employees, and a Chinese company collects data about emotional states, stress, and fatigue from brain-wave-scanning sensors in employees’ headgear. The possibilities for employee surveillance and reward and punishment feedback loops are limitless and fast unfolding. “We are only scratching the surface right now,” says Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze, the company that produces the smart ID badges.
Silicon Valley celebrates innovation and disruption as key to creating a better world. But the main targets for disruption by workplace innovations are employees’ rights to be protected from harmful and dehumanizing treatment. Those rights, a product of a century-long struggle by workers and their unions, are now being bypassed by technologies that enable employers to monitor and control employees’ every move. It’s like a high-tech mash-up of Orwell, Dickens, and The Grapes of Wrath, a world where twenty-first-century technology re-creates nineteenth-century workplace conditions.
Pushing in the same direction is another disrupting trend—the tech-driven eradication of the workplace.
On September 26, 2018, Fausto Luna, an Uber driver, died when he jumped in front of an A train at the 175th Street station in Washington Heights. He’s one of eight New York City professional drivers who died by suicide in 2018, and while each driver’s story is different, the common thread is overwhelming financial hardship. With the rise of Uber, professional driving changed from being a difficult way to make a living to a nearly impossible one, as the ride-hailing app skirted regulations designed to limit available cars and thus protect drivers’ earnings. Prior to Uber, taxi drivers in big cities made $12 to $17 per hour. Now they average $9 to $11 per hour. For Uber drivers like Luna—many of whom are professional drivers doing extra time to supplement depressed incomes—there are stories of sleeping in cars to help make ends meet, using food stamps, and being stuck with crippling debt for vehicles they bought believing Uber’s wildly inflated claims about likely income. In the meantime, since 2015 Uber has unilaterally raised its share of driver revenue from 20 percent to 25 percent, translating into an extra $3 billion for the company.
The overarching effect of Uber has been to transform a job protected by regulations and employment law—professional driving—into one that is precarious and unprotected. Through its app and algorithms, the company connects drivers to customers, claiming to be nothing more than a matchmaker, not an employer. Its “driver partners” are independent contractors, it claims, in business-to-business relationships with the company and therefore beyond the scope of employment protection. Though some municipal governments are starting to catch up with Uber—New York City, for example, imposed a minimum hourly wage for drivers—it’s questionable whether this will become a trend. Moreover, with Uber heavily subsidized by investors who are now demanding profitability, the company will likely resist wage increases even more vociferously than it has—or swap them for rate hikes that diminish service for poorer customers and in poorer districts.
Having disrupted, and effectively decimated, urban taxi systems—which were regulated precisely to ensure a balance among the needs of owners, drivers, customers, and city transportation—the public is left with an unregulated alternative, largely free to do what it wants to become profitable.
Uber is not the only company developing apps that evade the employment relationship. Similar platforms are emerging across sectors (a few examples: Upwork, TaskRabbit, UpCounsel, Postmates, and CrowdMed) and within corporations too. Amazon Flex is an example of the latter. It promises “Great Earnings. Flexible Hours. Be Your Own Boss” for its nonemployee delivery drivers, who use an app to claim delivery shifts, drive their own vehicles to an Amazon warehouse, pick up packages, and then deliver them. The system is rife with abuse, overwork, and underpayment, all untouched by law because the workers are not technically employees.
We’re quickly moving toward a future where work is no longer organized as employment but instead is broken down into segmented steps that workers are hired to do on a piecemeal basis, brokered by fee-collecting Internet platforms. “The digital economy will sharply erode the traditional employer-employee relationship,” states a recent International Monetary Fund report, as we move toward “crowd-based capitalism in which most of the work-force shifts from a full-time job as a talent or labor provider to running a business of one, in effect a microentrepreneur.” The proliferation of digital labor platforms across increasing numbers of sectors, both low skilled and professional, means that “nonemployment work arrangements will expand . . . possibly taking full-time jobs out of companies and converting them into sets of projects and tasks.” As jobs are broken down into discrete gigs, effectively undoing employment relationships and the efficacy of unions, the report concludes, it will become much easier for companies to dispense with human workers altogether and automate their operations—which, of course, is precisely what Uber plans to do.
Technologies that control employees (like Amazon’s scanners) or that negate employment altogether (like Uber’s app) are powerful new weapons in corporations’ persistent fight to roll back the legal protection of workers. They highlight the fact that despite dramatic technological change, some things remain the same—like how businesses try to squeeze as much labor for as little cost as they can from the people who do work for them. The intrinsically exploitative potential of that dynamic, tragically illustrated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, is what prompted governments to promulgate protective laws a century ago. The need for protective laws is as pressing now as it was then. And that’s especially true as corporations deploy technologies to undermine legal protections originally put in place to defend personal liberty and human dignity in the face of wanton profit seeking.
From the book The New Corporation by Joel Bakan, copyright © 2020 by Joel Bakan. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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