Big Brother, Inc.

Why are businesses spying on their own employees more and more? Because they can.

Back in the days of the first motorcars, Henry Ford took a long, hard look around the production floor of his massive Highland Park, Michigan, plant and was displeased by what he saw. The employees weren't moving fast enough or working deliberately enough. He assessed his options and installed a series of conveyor belts. The assembly line was born, giving management a previously unimagined control over the rate at which cars were produced.

The line didn't go over well with the people who worked on it. The pace was rigorous, the work exhausting and dangerous. People began showing up late, or not at all. Many quit to go to work in other plants. So Ford added a carrot to the stick: He offered to pay $5 a day, exceptional wages in a market where $2 was the norm. The workers were mollified, but with the added wages came a heightened paternalism. Ford not only expected twice the productivity; he expected workers to abide by a lifestyle he deemed fit.

"Ford wanted to control people," says Macalester College history professor Peter Rachleff. "He thought it was perfectly all right to intervene in workers' homes to get them to lead an appropriate American lifestyle. He made sure that they didn't spend their wages on alcohol, that they bought newspapers--though he didn't want them subscribing to radical newspapers--and that they were married and raising their children. At the time, [the team that visited employee households] was called the sociology department, but in a way it was the first personnel department. In those days it wasn't unusual for private charities to have middle class social workers coming to workers' homes and giving advice on how their lives should be organized. But it was unusual for an employer to do it."

"Of course," shrugs Rachleff, "Henry Ford was a fascist. In the 1930s, Hitler gave him a medal."

"Fordism," as it's known among historians of labor and industry, set the model for labor/management relations in the decades to come. Extra pay meant added control; even when unions became a major force in later years, they were usually willing to concede matters of shop control and workplace rights in exchange for higher wages. Still, strong unions meant employers were less likely to push policies that violated common sense or workers' privacy. "Unions made a big difference," says Rachleff. "If you look at this historically, employers were very intrusive into the 1930s. Then the basic unionization of mass industry pushed employers back."

For the past generation or so, as organized labor has declined, management has gone on the march again. As Rachleff puts it, "I think employers nowadays are feeling that when a worker is on the job, they own him or her. Someone once said that the number-one principle of American management theory is that the worker is a goldbrick--management is always afraid of what the worker will do if left alone. When they see a chance to get into the worker's space and be in more control, they'll grab it. And they're in a better position to do that now than anytime in the last half century."

One of the ways it's played out in recent years is in increasingly routine incursions into employees' workspaces and their lives outside the plant or the office: urine-testing; e-mail interception; phone-tapping; psychological "integrity" tests; personal tracking devices; remote monitoring of computer workstations; covert videotaping. From a legal standpoint, even civil liberties advocates concede that managers are free to do just about anything they like.

During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the contract between employer and employee was relatively simple: a day's work for a day's pay. Wages were on the rise, reaching an all-time high in real dollars in 1973. Most families could live on one 40-hour-a-week income. As everyone knows by now, the picture has changed. Thanks mainly to automation and capital flight, there are fewer decent-paying jobs; real wages have fallen an estimated 16 percent since 1973. And according to the conservative estimate of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 7.6 million Americans now hold down more than one job. On top of the longer hours for lower pay, it's estimated that corporations are eliminating more than 1 million American jobs every year. New jobs are created, but as Jeremy Rifkin points out in The End of Work, two-thirds of them lie at or near the bottom of the wage pyramid.

Employers, of course, argue that they face tremendous pressures of their own. They point to rising insurance costs and the threat of losing a "negligent hiring" lawsuit or of losing control over trade secrets. There is more competition with offshore production--not entirely "foreign" competition, since so many of the foreign plants are owned by American transnationals, but a depressive force on domestic wages all the same. "Employers are under unprecedented pressure to be productive," says Lewis Maltby, director of the ACLU's Workplace Rights Office. "Instead of responding by empowering their workers to be more creative, they've cracked down with sweatshop techniques. It's just like the 1920s, except by electronic means."

"The whole idea that workers are a source of value has gone out the window [in industry]," adds economist Doug Henwood, publisher of the newsletter Left Business Observer. "They are seen primarily as a cost. We're essentially going back to the relationship before World War II--to a little totalitarian state as far as the employer goes. If you're an employer, it's a beautiful situation. Workers are desperate and willing to do anything." On the other hand, he adds, "They know they're screwing their workers and they know their workers would like to screw them. So they try to monitor and control them as much as possible."

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