Rented Humans


The Internship, 20th Century Fox, 2013

From The New Republic:

If employees proceed to select or elect their own representatives, what compels Google management to recognize them? And if Google employees continue to speak up or attempt to self-organize, what guarantees that they will not be marginalized or fired?

Meanwhile, the electric car maker Tesla has been in upheaval. CEO Elon Musk late last week reversed his tweeted plan to take Tesla private, a move that came after Musk revealed to The New York Times that he has endured an “excruciating” year and predicted that, “from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.” Musk’s own sense of foreboding may stem from short sellers and the SEC’s investigation of his aborted privatization plan. But there are additional dramas underway at Tesla that are not as well reported that bring us closer to the broader topic of employee clout in the modern corporation.

In addition to managing external threats, Musk is contending with an internal union drive by the United Auto Workers (UAW) at his Fremont, California, factory. Predictably, the Tesla brain trust opposes unionization. Musk and his supporters are doing their best to promote a “post-modern/post-union” view of Tesla as an entirely different sort of workplace where workers will be disposed to set aside the traditional Norma Rae vision of fighting the bosses, in favor of their lucky chance to play a part in bringing about a post-carbon vehicular universe. Some of the additional tools Tesla is using to achieve its new-age employment vision are familiar: a sprinkling of stock options, team-oriented production structures, a campus-like work environment. Other offerings that are planned include, in the jaunty words of a February 2017 memo from Musk to all employees, “free frozen yogurt stands and a Tesla electric pod car roller coaster … that will allow fast and fun travel through our Fremont campus.”

Taken together, these developments at Google and Tesla signal a new reckoning by employees—white collar and blue collar—with the limitations of the modern utopian workplace. They describe pent-up forces, now apparently loosened, that will not be tamed by vague managerial assurances, or yogurt stands. Facebook, Amazon, and Apple may not be far behind.

The problems highlighted are structural and longstanding. They point to a fundamental flaw with a particular and peculiar institution, the employment relationship, which is so ubiquitous that it appears natural. A fundamental fact haunts that relationship across all kinds of workplaces, modern and traditional. Employees without substantial ownership and governance rights, employees who are not members of democratic corporations, have no standing. They are merely rented humans. They are visitors on someone else’s planet.

Union representation can mitigate these problems. It can circumscribe the terms of that rental arrangement, but it cannot cure it. It is not likely that stability or real progress will be found at these workplaces without something more comprehensive—without a genuine workplace democracy that turns employees into part-owners of the companies where they work.

“Silicon Valley and the Quest for a Utopian Workplace”, Christopher Mackin, The New Republic (Via 3 Quarks Daily)