(Belated) May Day Feature: A Memo from the Office
From Running Wild
A MEMO FROM THE OFFICE
(Contributed by another comrade in So-Called Australia)
Jobs Destroy Our Dreams
When I’m not at work I study the world. I read news articles and books, I listen to podcasts and I write my own articles and reflections. I practice music and I share music. I exercise and I go outside. I volunteer and try to help build a different world with other people. I dream of new possibilities for everybody and for myself.
When I go to work, I stop dreaming. I think about what I’m wearing and whether it’s appropriate, I worry about my hair and the paint stains on my shoes, I hide who I am and make small-talk. I become somebody else and find energy in this adopted personality so I can comfortably call strangers and convince them to buy expensive tickets. I spend hours doing something that doesn’t interest me and that I don’t care about.
I do this because I need to pay for rent, food and transport and other bills like electricity, internet and phone credit. I also do it so I can save money to travel and so I can have drinks with friends now and then. It’s not like I’m in financial hardship, I am far from it. But I do need to work for my “daily bread”.
Jobs Define Us
We live in a society where the question asked when meeting new people is often “What do you do?” For some reason, the answer “I work part-time as a telemarketer” is the fitting answer while “I’m a musician and an anarchist” never comes to my mind, even though these are the things I devote most of my time, energy and spirit to. We are first of all summarised by the thing we do that pays our bills, the thing we do that stops us dreaming.
This pressure feeds into a desire to build a career we are proud of, to fight for the best jobs, to compete with our neighbours and friends. Our means of survival becomes our personality and our definition. Eventually we build a pride around selling our time and skills to build somebody else’s dreams and somebody else’s profits.
Jobs Disempower Us
Office workplaces like mine are usually very hierarchical spaces, with a series of big bosses and little bosses and little branches of workers bundled in between them. In my workplace, my co-workers and I are at the bottom rung of the ladder. When a change is made that affects the way we do our jobs or the way we interact with and in our workplace, it’s because suggestions and decisions for improvement of the company overall have filtered down this chain, finally splashing us in the face with a new rule or system to follow. Often these decisions do not actually offer the best solutions, but the workers who understand their jobs best of all are rarely included in discussions about these roles and changes.
The Modern Office
When I first started getting involved in anarchist groups there was a lot of talk about workplace organising, especially when May Day came around. The classic union movements of workers striking, walking off the job united, holding meetings and giving a voice to all seemed so impossibly far from reach in the modern office I work in. My workplace is so intricately divided up into departments and sub-departments, we rarely talk to others outside the team of telemarketers and they barely even look at us. How could the people occupying this office on weekdays ever walk off the job together? How could they ever be united when they are, by design, so divided and so competitive?
The unification of the workplace is one thing, the other is the absence of very tangible or urgent issues within the workplace. We aren’t having our workmates killed when forced to fix a roof without safety gear, we aren’t being paid less than a living wage or being denied sick leave (well… we telemarketers, as casual labour, are!)
What is suffered in office jobs seems to be a much more subtle, slow-working pain. Whether it is boredom from doing tasks that are disconnected from our passions or that are controlled and managed in a way that doesn’t suit our individual pace or processes; or stress from unmanageable workloads, the requirements to dress and behave a certain way at work or the simple reality of working under bosses with limited job security.
In various ways these jobs eat away at our minds and souls while we feel it’s impossible to complain when our conditions are so seemingly good, with modern offices, well-mannered colleagues and occasional perks like social clubs and company drinks.
After noticing lots of 9-5 staffers staying back til 7 or 8pm, I decided to commemorate May Day in the office (just some simple paper notes reading “PEOPLE DIED FOR OUR 8 HOUR WORKDAY – REMEMBER MAY DAY 1886” placed on computer screens after hours when I was leaving for the night).
I was called into a disciplinary meeting as this deed had “breached the anti-discrimination policies of the workplace” (forcing my political views onto others). The two colleagues I had told about this action both said they would support me if I got into any serious trouble over it. They aren’t very political people, but I had explained why I thought it was important for people to remember May Day in a world of hours and hours of unpaid overtime in office environments, and they were supportive.
This was the seed that got me thinking that you don’t have to have radical politics (or any considered politics) to take an interest in your own work environment and be inspired to criticise and look for improvements, despite the hierarchy dictating that it is not your place to have such thoughts.
We telemarketers enjoy the unique context of being relatively unsupervised in our after-hours shifts, meaning people open up a lot more about the workplace than may be comfortably possible in other environments. Some of us started taking dinner breaks together (we were allowed to have up to 10 mins break during the shift, and were not required to log this break) and over time this has turned into a full team dinner at 6pm every night, for at least 20 mins, where we chat about our lives and about our work. Sometimes one of us would do a crossword while working and ask others for help when stuck, and this has turned into another tradition of playing a game of “Target Master” together at 7pm sharp. This break and game are now initiated by most members of the team equally, if some of us forget the time, someone else will say “Hey, break time!” or “Hey, game time!” The beauty of it is that we not only don’t have any permission at all to be taking time out of our paid hours to socialise like this, but we all agree that we work much more effectively and efficiently because of the stronger working relationships and the improved moods we have at work. Considering we have consistently met our targets and our social breaks have not been noticed by management when reviewing our productivity, it seems this feeling is backed up with evidence!
Through developing stronger bonds as colleagues and friends, we also started discussing more about work and some minor issues we had regarding recent changes and dynamics within our working roles and environment. I put these concerns in writing and asked the team over email and individually face-to-face if they agreed that the concerns were shared by the team as a whole. After receiving almost full support for raising these concerns with management, I asked my boss to meet with me. I explained I was there on behalf of everybody, that we had discussed these concerns collectively, and outlined what these concerns were. They were all acted on within a week.
It meant small things like having an email template changed, but also bigger things like having our workload more fairly divided and expectations more informed by our own understanding and capacities in our jobs. Above all, it opened a dialogue with our boss in which we held the floor.
It has taken almost two years for all of us to learn to have fun at work together, to build up a collegiality and openly criticise management when appropriate. It’s a casualised force, so there’s a good chance when a few of us leave or the supervisor changes, this could all be lost. But at least for me it has made my time working in this job more empowering and more engaging, and allowed everyone here to see the possibilities open up once you reject the idea that we have no right to an opinion in the workplace. When we begin to believe and see that we have a right to control our own spaces in the workplace, that the bosses above us do not know our jobs better than we, the workers, do, it turns around the idea of authority in our minds. It allows us to start dreaming again.