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June 20, 2011 2:11 PM   Subscribe

The Speedup. Webster's defines speedup as "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay," and it used to be a household word.
posted by bitmage (43 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seems like the counterpoint to the union "slowdown", which the New York City MTA (among others) use in lieu of a strike.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:16 PM on June 20, 2011


Lucy in the candy factory
posted by briank at 2:19 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nowadays we just call it increased productivity.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:25 PM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Crunch time, all the time.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:38 PM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


See also the never-ending series of "sprints" in the Agile management fad.
posted by enn at 2:41 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Excellent article -- should be shared everywhere. I just quit a job that demanded all teachers work extra hours for no pay (these were part-time, hourly workers with no benefits). They were shocked that I questioned it; no one saw a problem.
posted by Surfurrus at 2:41 PM on June 20, 2011


Seems like the counterpoint to the union "slowdown"...

No. A union slowdown is a temporary action used to influence negotiations or to make a particular political point.

Speedup isn't temporary. Nor is it intended to make any actual point. It's the working environment as a whole.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:41 PM on June 20, 2011 [18 favorites]


Yes. Marx called this the intensification of labour to increase the extraction of surplus value. Everything old is new again.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:44 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Man, these new bosses are so silly. Don't they know that you only have to paint it red to make it go faster? Everyone knows that the red ones go faster.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:49 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the article: If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.

Economic gains!
posted by filthy light thief at 2:52 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ad for clickthrough: If you died today, who would take care of your family?
posted by lulz at 2:53 PM on June 20, 2011


Peter! What's happening? I'm going to need you to go ahead and come in on Saturday. We, ah, lost some people this week and we sorta need to play... catch-up. Mmmkay? Thanks a bunch, Peter.
posted by maqsarian at 3:00 PM on June 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


And yet, unions are being attacked more than ever. And, at work, even as there are so many complaints about long hours and crappy pay, most political talk is about how bad Obama is and how communist the Democrats are. I fear for our country.
posted by UseyurBrain at 3:27 PM on June 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


And yet, unions are being attacked more than ever. And, at work, even as there are so many complaints about long hours and crappy pay, most political talk is about how bad Obama is and how communist the Democrats are.

The victory of 20+ years of talk radio.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:44 PM on June 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


I read about this 'phenomenon' of increased productivity in 2009, but I really didn't expect the rate to continue. "US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010" - that surprised me. I mean, there IS an upper limit to this, right?

One of the reasons people get up in arms about unions - and others who criticize unrealistic overtime - is that this sort of workforce exploitation has become fairly common and even expected as part of the job description.
- "If I have to deal with it so should they!"
- "If they don't want to work late, they should quit!"
- "There's tons unemployed people out there who'd love to have this job! How dare they complain!"

Some companies are really good at leveraging fear of layoffs into support of the status quo, because criticism of it means you are the likely next one to be laid off. Some people don't want to admit how much they are being exploited so they take the easier path of cognitive dissonance. (It's not just conservative talk radio at fault - I've run into plenty of politically-apathetic liberals with this point of view about their own jobs).

(I feel like I've lived every Office Space joke. I once got a Facebook message asking when I'll be in on Saturday, appended with a smiley face. I quit that job in favor of one that actually has an HR department.)
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 4:19 PM on June 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


From the article: If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.

BUT THEN HOW COULD RICH PEOPLE BE RICH?
posted by incessant at 4:30 PM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


I once got a Facebook message asking when I'll be in on Saturday, appended with a smiley face. I quit that job in favor of one that actually has an HR department.

This one made me laugh an extra hearty chortle.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 4:47 PM on June 20, 2011


I mean, there IS an upper limit to this [productivity], right?

Not necessarily. A worker with a backhoe digs ditches faster than one using a spade. A backhoe with a GPS has a better chance of digging according to the plans than one without. Plans drawn by a computer are more accurate than ones drawn by hand. Soil drainage simulations allow for less digging to get what you need. There is no limit.
posted by Triplanetary at 5:03 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


> To balk at working hard—really, really hard—brands you as profoundly un-American.

I can live with that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:48 PM on June 20, 2011


Not necessarily. A worker with a backhoe digs ditches faster than one using a spade. A backhoe with a GPS has a better chance of digging according to the plans than one without. Plans drawn by a computer are more accurate than ones drawn by hand. Soil drainage simulations allow for less digging to get what you need. There is no limit.

Correction: A worker with a backhoe digs ditches faster than a team of workers with spades. That's the story of productivity in our country, and it's the uncomfortable truth roiling beneath the shiny world of Knowledge Workers and Information Technology. Incremental productivity gains come when you make people work faster. big productivity gains come when you replace lots of people with automation and an overseer.

Sometimes this means that previously unsustainable activities become sustainable, and new tasks open up, new markets are created. More frequently companies become profitable while their workers are squeezed harder, forced to justify their existence in the face of tireless competition.

A friend of mine wrote schedule optimization software for an airline, allowing it to cut maintenance staff to the bone while maintaining the same coverage. That allowed the airline to be more profitable (or, more accurately, less unprofitable, but that's another matter). People talk about efficiency gains like they're rescuing burning money from a fire, but "inefficiency" comes from humans doing work. Eliminating it means eliminating humans until the only people who are employed are the automaton-makers.
posted by verb at 5:49 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


... "inefficiency" comes from humans doing work. Eliminating it means eliminating humans until the only people who are employed are the automaton-makers.

I'm not so sure that efficiency is always gained in automation/heavy equipment. While I was in Turkey last year I marveled at the non-automated road/sidewalk repair system. It seemed that even laying pipes happened faster and more efficiently than what I'd seen in the states. The roads and sidewalks were made of fitted pieces (much like a concrete cobblestone) so the workers could lift up just the area they needed to work on, stack the pieces, do their work and replace the pieces. I don't remember seeing any detours for roadwork.

Perhaps we in the US have gone too far from working with our hands. If I were working on the road I'd much rather do it at a human pace with the company of other human conversations than working alone - breathing the fumes of both the asphalt and noisy machines.
posted by Surfurrus at 6:04 PM on June 20, 2011


Back in the early nineties, my Turkish friend asked me "Why don't you have a union?" I thought this a preposterous question, so I told her "I'm a professional" (as I'm an electrical engineer.) Turns out "I'm a professional" translates to "I don't account for my true hours on the job, there's no overtime, and I get squeezed for higher output just like an assembly line worker (oh, and constantly live under the threat of my job being offshored.)" My friend who's a doctor has a very similar take - she's always being incentivized to charge more, and bean-counters encourage her to pop more and more patients through the system as fast as can be, with little regard for actual medical outcomes. So, it turns out it wasn't a very dumb question after all.

I really think, if blue-collar workers can't, so-called 'professionals' (I'm looking at you, AMA, and you, IEEE) ought to step up to the plate.
posted by newdaddy at 6:05 PM on June 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


I'm a software engineer. And I'm a fucking excellent one, too, for my level of experience. I write considerably more functionality, in the same amount of time, that works better, than the vast majority of the other programmers I know.

Unions are fabulous when the workload and the outcomes can be standardized. When one person's adequate work is just as good as another person's excellent work--when all that matters is that the tolerances are within spec. But, in many of the "knowledge work" fields, this is simply not true. And the pisscutter of it is, it's quite difficult to quantify how much better the best worker works than the average worker, because the same project is rarely done twice.

And so, while I'd like to have a programmer's union to stop the perpetual crunch times that are common in the industry, I'm not actually in favor of organizing one. Because I've never seen a union that tolerates one guy with 5 years' experience being paid 50% more than another person with 5 years' experience in the "same job".
posted by Netzapper at 7:16 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


To Netzapper:

What about the Screen Actor's Guild, Reagan's union?
posted by curuinor at 9:36 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


And so, while I'd like to have a programmer's union to stop the perpetual crunch times that are common in the industry, I'm not actually in favor of organizing one. Because I've never seen a union that tolerates one guy with 5 years' experience being paid 50% more than another person with 5 years' experience in the "same job".
You wont get me I'm part of the union alright jack.
posted by fullerine at 10:10 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't get me wrong here, strike pay fed my parents for several winters when they were growing up, but every interaction I've personally had with unions has been a disaster. 3 days and 4 guys for about 2 actual man-hours of work to hang some shelves or move some equipment? Crazy.

How about those Scandanavian employee owned collective things? Do they do a reasonable job protecting employees without trending toward unconscionable excess?
posted by Chekhovian at 10:15 PM on June 20, 2011


Chekhovian: "3 days and 4 guys for about 2 actual man-hours of work to hang some shelves or move some equipment? Crazy.

Man, I've heard a lot about these strawunions but I've never actually encountered one myself. Where do you find them? They sound awful!
posted by barnacles at 11:30 PM on June 20, 2011 [12 favorites]


I think the macro issue is that which is not directly addresses is that work is increasingly global. This is addressed wrt China in The China Question, but it's bigger than just China. So many more people are competing against other people not in their own country but on the other side of the globe and who make a fraction of what those in the first world do.
posted by gen at 12:51 AM on June 21, 2011


addresses -> addressed
posted by gen at 12:51 AM on June 21, 2011


Sweet, I am so pumped to move back to the US and pay rent in New York with a French husband used to 30 days of paid vacation. Thanks, Mother Jones.
posted by Mooseli at 2:55 AM on June 21, 2011


Because I've never seen a union that tolerates...

How many unions have you actually ever seen at work? As opposed to unions you've only heard stereotypical third-hand horror strawman stories about?
posted by Thorzdad at 4:23 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not so sure that efficiency is always gained in automation/heavy equipment. While I was in Turkey last year I marveled at the non-automated road/sidewalk repair system. It seemed that even laying pipes happened faster and more efficiently than what I'd seen in the states. The roads and sidewalks were made of fitted pieces (much like a concrete cobblestone) so the workers could lift up just the area they needed to work on, stack the pieces, do their work and replace the pieces. I don't remember seeing any detours for roadwork.


Automation and heavy equipment are only a component of what I'm talking about. The example you cite -- a road design that allows workers to quickly repair sections of road -- means that fewer worker-hours are needed to do the same work. And that means fewer workers.

None of the improvements, none of the inventions, none of the new technologies are bad, per se. But in our culture, when efficiency gains double the amount of work someone can do in a given period of time, they don't get to go home at noon and enjoy an afternoon of liesure. They have to double their output, or the staff gets cut in half. Plain and simple. Either way, "jobs" are lost: either because new people are out on the street looking for work, or because production increases are facilitated by new processes rather than additional workers.

Some people insist that this is evil -- that we should in fact embrace inefficiency and target full employment of all people, or the funding of a liesure society. Others insist that 'productivity gains' are an unambiguously good thing, that the gains will ultimately end up benefitting society. I tend to distrust either view's absolutist claims, but I find it interesting that even the Old Testament mandated a degree of inefficiency in crop harvesting and other economic activities to ensure that more members of society would have baseline survival resources.
posted by verb at 6:06 AM on June 21, 2011


How many unions have you actually ever seen at work? As opposed to unions you've only heard stereotypical third-hand horror strawman stories about?

I'm skeptical of the horror stories as well, but having set up trade show booths at assorted locations on the west coast and in the midwest, I can testify that there are some odd union-related limits on what you can and can't do at some convention centers until two guys with union cards show up. Plugging in your own power cord to power a projector, for example. Two companies we were next to decided it wasn't worth it, and brought posters rather than demo videos. I don't think it was quite that onerous, but it was definitely odd to sit, holding a cord, staring at an outlet, wondering when they guy allowed to plug it in would show up.
posted by verb at 6:11 AM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


How many unions have you actually ever seen at work? As opposed to unions you've only heard stereotypical third-hand horror strawman stories about?

Look, I'm not talking about the "horror strawman stories" (although I've witnessed several such stupidities first hand). I'm talking about the fundamental point of organized labor. If the union negotiates a contract with a company, then that contract stands for all union members at that company.

Given that most people in a programmer's union would be average, and nobody wants to think themselves anything but above average, it's highly unlikely to be a clause that allows me to negotiate the substantially higher salary that I deserve based on the unquantifiable, but undeniable, fact that I produce vastly more than most people.

You can't make rules about the unquantifiable. So, those of us who are better by dint of self education (and not by endless silly certification) would be paid exactly as somebody who was barely capable of fulfilling the job requirements. And, indeed, if the barely-capable has more seniority, I would expect him to be paid better.

What about the Screen Actor's Guild, Reagan's union?

I thought about this after you mentioned it... I don't think it's really the same.

First, the stars of a film are doing a different job than the speaking parts and extras. Next, films are project-work, and actors are essentially contractors.

This is different from a company with an ongoing development process, and I'd imagine the union contract with software firms to be closer to the contract signed with a machine shop.
posted by Netzapper at 7:31 AM on June 21, 2011


Automation and heavy equipment are only a component of what I'm talking about. The example you cite -- a road design that allows workers to quickly repair sections of road -- means that fewer worker-hours are needed to do the same work. And that means fewer workers.

OR it means more roads.

Every productivity gain has the potential to increase the supply of the good produced. And everyone benefits from more roads, including the road builders.
posted by Catfry at 8:39 AM on June 21, 2011


I want a union so bad.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:19 AM on June 21, 2011


OR it means more roads.

....Without hiring more people. No matter how you cut it, we're eliminating real work currently being done by people, or we're eliminating potential future jobs. That's what productivity means.

Every productivity gain has the potential to increase the supply of the good produced. And everyone benefits from more roads, including the road builders.

I think we're talking past each other. No one's saying that more roads are bad, just that 'productivity gains let us do more!' is a formulation that ignores the basic cost in human work. If we accepted the presence of a large unemployed pool of people on the dole in our society, it would be less problematic. But we demonize unemployment and worship productivity. Those two things are in a constant tug-of war in the real world.
posted by verb at 9:29 AM on June 21, 2011


or we're eliminating potential future jobs.

How much work remains to be done in building roads? For hundreds of years this work has been going on and yet in the USA there still remains gravel roads and dirt paths that could become safer if just the resources were available.
Theoretically at some point all work is finished and we shouldn't be in a rush to get there, it sounds like you are saying?
posted by Catfry at 9:56 AM on June 21, 2011


How much work remains to be done in building roads? For hundreds of years this work has been going on and yet in the USA there still remains gravel roads and dirt paths that could become safer if just the resources were available.
Theoretically at some point all work is finished and we shouldn't be in a rush to get there, it sounds like you are saying?



Yeah, that's silly and not at all what I was trying to get at.

In this thread you've given lots of examples of productivity improvements in basic physical labor processes that allow one person to do the work of many people, or a group of people to do the work of a larger group of people, or a person do do their own work faster. This results in less demand for labor.

When I said that improvements in productivity can eliminate 'potential future jobs,' I didn't mean that we would somehow 'use up all the work,' just that future projects would require fewer workers, so even "we can build more stuff now" results in less work than it otherwise would have.

You mention that there are still lots of gravel roads that could be safer if only the resources to repair them were available. That is true, and I don't want to discount the positive 'More stuff is available' or 'Most stuff gets fixed' side of the equation. But if we fix roads ten times faster simply because we have machines to make us 10x more efficient, the problem of unemployment still remains. Work that WOULD have been done by people is being done by machines being guided by people.
posted by verb at 10:38 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


...And that trend carries through in places like grocery stocking and checkout work, software testing, manufacturing, lots of manual labor, etc.

In a lot of ways it's good: people are safer for not doing lots of dangerous manual tasks, for example. But the human benefits of productivity gains don't come automatically. By default, they just result in increased profits, increased production, and increased pressure -- because eventually the assumption of steadily increasing productivity becomes baked into the profit expectations of employers.

The macro effect of productivity increases is what I'm talking about, not the micro-effect of a particular worker being able to dig X feet per hour more.
posted by verb at 10:48 AM on June 21, 2011


I appreciate you taking the time to explain, thank you. Especially your last point was something I had not realized, and I guess the default of increased productivity is that someone earns more, not that more gets done.
posted by Catfry at 10:52 AM on June 21, 2011


barnacles, as you are so wonderfully interested in my comment, I'll fill in the details below:

During my college days I spent a summer working in a lab, as many people do. Like many old labs this lab was full of old, mostly broken equipment. One device was conspicuously large, old, and broken, but still full of valuable copper. It was decided to send this device to the scrap yard and recoup a few thousand dollars. Of course the university union of service workers or something had to be used to take care of this process.

It went something like this:
- we contacted the people that would have to move this piece of equipment
- 2 weeks go by, they finally respond
- The next day a supervisor comes by and looks at it, "yes, in fact it is a large piece of stuff on wheels", people will come the next day to move it
- The next day people come at 10 AM, unbolt a few things, then apparently it is coffee time
- 11 AM they return and it is determined that they need some plywood sheets to protect the floor. We offered to let them use the perfectly suitable plywood sheets in the lab...no they have to use their own, which they have to go collect.
-2PM they return with the wood and work for about 2 hours.
-4PM coffee time, they don't return...until the next day

The bill for this wonderful service was more than we received from the salvage.

Later we had to contact the union to mount some shelves in the lab, because more than 2 holes had to be drilled in the wall. The process was similar.
posted by Chekhovian at 12:16 PM on June 21, 2011


Look, I'm not talking about the "horror strawman stories" (although I've witnessed several such stupidities first hand). I'm talking about the fundamental point of organized labor. If the union negotiates a contract with a company, then that contract stands for all union members at that company.

Given that most people in a programmer's union would be average, and nobody wants to think themselves anything but above average, it's highly unlikely to be a clause that allows me to negotiate the substantially higher salary that I deserve based on the unquantifiable, but undeniable, fact that I produce vastly more than most people.


A union doesn't have to negotiate salaries, actually. But I agree with you that software engineers would never unionize because I've never met a software engineer who wasn't convinced he was producing "vastly more than most people." I've met plenty of software engineers who were not only not producing anything of worth, but were actively getting in the way of their colleagues getting things done. But we'd never, ever join in solidarity to make demands of our employers that would benefit all of us, because all those cretins we work with would benefit too!

Unions have brought all kinds of non-salary-related good to their members. I wouldn't mind a software engineer's union that mandated, say, extra pay for carrying a pager, or extra pay for required overtime even for salaried employees, or more insurance coverage for repetitive strain injuries. At one point in a previous job, I had mandated work on Saturdays every six weeks to deploy new code to our datacenter, and only found out through the grapevine after I left that according to written company policy I was entitled to take a weekday off work for every single one of those days. A union would have made sure I knew that, and it would have made sure I actually took it, and it would have made sure I wasn't penalized for taking it. Heck, how many software engineers write patents that make millions for their employers and don't take home any kind of percentage, beyond a one-time patent bonus and maybe a nice promotion? You can bet a Programmers' Guild would make sure we got a cut of our most successful work, as unionized actors, directors, and writers do when their creative work turns out a blockbuster or goes into syndication.

Don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no interest in organizing a union of any kind. Organizing programmers sounds like my personal hell. But an inability to imagine how organizing with your coworkers could improve your working life just tells me you don't have a very good imagination.
posted by troublesome at 12:06 AM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


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