Photo via Joe Loong via Flickr.
Photo via Joe Loong via Flickr.

In a recent excerpt from her book The Tumbleweed Society: Work and Caring in an Age of Insecurity featured in Salon, sociologist Allison Pugh discusses how the insecure economy has made employees feel wary of their employers but also like they must rush to their defense. Employees often bend over backward to identify with their bosses and meet their needs, but employers are much less likely to reciprocate. What do employers and employees owe each other?

The move away from the old social contract, in which employees traded loyalty and effort for job security, has resulted in real and perceived job insecurity among may adults for whom full-time work is a central piece of identity. Pugh says the result of the opposing trends of increased job insecurity and increased cultural importance of full-time employment is lots of anxiety for employees and a “one-way honor system.” Employees still feel obligated to uphold their end of the social contract by demonstrating loyalty and hard work, they don’t expect the same commitment from their employers. Even those with the lowest-skill and lowest-paying jobs empathize with the employers’ needs for good workers and expect little beyond dignity, respect, and a paycheck.

Part of the reason for the one-way honor system is the perception that intense work commitment is an integral part of being an honorable, moral person:

Survey researchers report, for example, that about the same percentage of women as men—70 percent of full-time working women (both white-collar and blue-collar workers)—say they would continue to work if they suddenly had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, known as the “lottery question” (and used by researchers as a rough proxy for a work ethic). A strong work ethic was part of good character, part of being fully human, no matter your gender, people maintained.

In other words, it’s not the job itself that’s the source of dignity, it’s the work ethic. So as jobs get more precarious, many people work longer and harder instead of slacking off, partially because they fear those who don’t work hard enough or produce enough will be the first ones to lose those coveted jobs.

San Jose State: another place to turn knowledge into action. Photo by David Sawyer, Flickr CC.
San Jose State: another place to turn knowledge into action. Photo by David Sawyer, Flickr CC.


Many are familiar with the long history of student activism at University of California at Berkeley, but fewer have heard of the difference-makers at San Jose State University. “San Jose State is in the shadow of UC Berkeley when it comes to student activism,” sociology Professor Scott Myers-Lipton told The Nation. “But we’ve got this history as a working-class university that most people don’t know about.”

Starting in 2011, students in Myers-Lipton’s Social Action sociology class started thinking about ways they could bring change to their own community. San Jose houses big-name companies like Adobe, eBay, and Cisco Systems, but it’s the sixth most expensive city in the country. Many residents barely eke out a living. Student and after-school worker Marisela Castro, whose parents worked the California farm fields, pitched the idea of working toward raising the minimum wage. (Myers-Lipton estimates that 80% of his students work over 30 hours per week on top of being students.)

Working with South Bay Labor Council leader Cindy Chavez, Myers-Lipton’s students raised $6,000 to hire a polling agency and make thousands of phone calls to see if increasing minimum wage was an issue that voters would support. When over 70% of respondents said they favored minimum wage increase, Chavez went to the board of the Labor Council. Unions pledged over $120,000 to help the cause by the end of the meeting. After collecting 20,000 signatures, the students took their proposal to the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The vast network of supporters (including Catholic Charities, United Way, churches, and non-profits) alarmed the Chamber, which raised $400,000 to defeat the measure.

The student activists were not defeated, however. They continued, keeping their message simple. Instead of getting into statistical debates, they touted the importance of economic fairness. On November 6th, San Jose became the fifth and largest city to raise its minimum wage, increasing the income for minimum wage workers by $4,000 per year. What started as a student brainstorming activity in a sociology class brought thousands in San Jose closer to economic sustainability.

Chicago's "Overpass Light Brigade." Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.
Chicago’s “Overpass Light Brigade.” Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.

San Francisco recently passed legislation which will eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in incremental, planned hikes. On the heels of the “Fight for 15” movement, this seems like good news for those living on or near the minimum wage. As explained by an article on NBC online, with help from CUNY Graduate Center’s Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements, people may not start celebrating just yet.

Many people working on the minimum wage at the moment, for example, work multiple jobs. As Milkman states, “[I]f you’re working at the current minimum wage in a lot of places, you’re still in poverty, especially if you’re supporting other people.” When the wage is going to be increased in gradual increments, those gradual changes may not make much of a dent in what it takes to support oneself or dependents, especially in areas experiencing gentrification. Consequentially, as Milkman explains, this can create a “lot of discontent in a lot of the working population.”

Indeed, as basic struggles of living on the minimum wage continue after slight increases, there can be downsides as well. Businesses which rely on a greater proportion of minimum-wage workers can be more likely to operate in low-income areas, such as fast-food restaurants. Therefore, if businesses raise prices to handle paying a higher wage, the minimum-wage-hike could be hurting the people it was meant to help. At the moment, San Francisco is leading the way on raising the minimum wage, but don’t wager that the discussions are over just yet.

first step to success
Photo by CJ via Flickr CC.

College students are tired of sleeping, according to a BBC interview with Catherine M. Coveney. She’s a British sociologist who recently explored the sleeping practices and subjective sleep experiences of two notoriously sleep-deprived groups: shift workers and college students. After conducting 25 semi-structured interviews with individuals dispossessed of rest, she concludes that our social context impacts how we understand the meaning of sleep and how we manage our sleeping schedules as a result.

The hospital-based doctors, nurses, police officers, call center employees, and other shift workers Coveney interviewed describe actively managing their sleep schedules around work patterns, finding childcare, and spending time with their partner. It is something that is constantly at the back of their mind. To illustrate why they view “broken sleep” as part and parcel of the job, Coveney explains how sleeplessness is built-in to the work structure:

There are some occupations where nothing is sanctioned…. The two nurses that I spoke to, they had to work waking nights. So even on their break, they weren’t allowed to go to sleep during the night. That’s not to say it didn’t occasionally happen, but that it was not a sanctioned practice. That was something that was seen as going against the rules of their profession.

On the surface, the sleep patterns of the college students look identical to the shift workers: “They did describe a kind of similar pattern; they did describe taking naps during the day, having a shorter sleep at night, having a two hour nap the next day.” Yet because they see sleep as an  “expendable luxury,” they don’t view their own erratic sleep as “broken.” According to Coveney, for the college students,

…it was more flexible, it was more their choice, so in a sense they were customizing their sleep patterns to fit around their social activities…. I suppose it was seen as disposable in a sense, they could cut back on sleep if they chose to, they could indulge in sleep if they chose to.

Although both groups thought of sleep in functional terms—the necessary amount determined by what was needed to get them through what they had to do the next day—Coveney reports, “None of the students I spoke to said they would prioritize a night in bed because they thought they hadn’t had enough sleep. If there was something else they wanted to do, they‘d do that. And they’d catch up later, they’d sleep longer the next day, they’d take a nap…. Some of them did go as far as to say if they could get rid of their need for sleep, it would give them much more time to do other things.” Even the value of sleep depends on supply and demand.

To learn who else is getting more sleep than you are, check out these TSP classics on the gender sleep gap and on segmented sleep.

Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.
Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.

Ubisoft has been trying to find out what makes its gamers tick. Nick Yee, a researcher fronting the company’s internal “Daedalus Project,” now has a new book, The Proteus Paradox, bringing together some of the major findings from the years of interviewing and observing gamers. Perhaps most interesting, as Bryan Alexander points out in Reason, is that, no matter how otherworldly the games might be, players tend to import their offline behavior and attitudes.

For instance, Yee explains in a chapter called “The Labor of Fun,” many gamers come to see gaming as a second job, demanding hours of boring drudgery contributing to fleeting achievements. Some even exploit other gamers to do the “grinding” work of leveling-up and repay it with racism toward those willing to do the work.

Gender figures interestingly, too:

Proteus outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female players. But Yee offers two twists to this sadly familiar story. First, women report wanting to play for the same reasons men do—achievement, social interaction, and immersion—going against essentialist expectations of gender behavior difference. And second, MMOs [massively multiplayer online games] offer a pedagogical benefit of sorts to male gamers who play under female avatars.

Males do this switching with some frequency… mostly to enjoy the eye candy of an attractive female avatar displayed in a game’s third-person perspective. That gaze is then reversed, as it were, as other players ogle the same avatar from their avatar’s perspectives. It’s a surprising opportunity to experience the kinds of sexual harassment that real-world women know to well.

Love, death, and helping others all come into play. “For all the criticisms that can be made of gamers’ behavior,” Alexander writes after reading Yee’s book, “these worlds are not bleak places entirely devoid of pleasure and fellow-feeling.” Between levels, it seems, some Putnam, Goffman, and Addams have snuck into the online realm.

For more in the Reason series on gaming, click here. For more on race in gaming, check out “The Whiteness of Warcraft,” here on TSP.

Photo by Jeremy Richardson, via
Photo by Jeremy Richardson, via

In light of recent media buzz over research on how much sex husbands may or may not be “getting” for helping with the housework, the question of an equal-gender split of chores is back on the table (or maybe just stuffed it behind some bills and takeout menus on the counter).

Academic work on this topic often wanders into big, macro-level thinking about gender roles and social structures, but a recent article in The Atlantic pushes us to think about this issue in terms of the small, everyday choices that make home better for everyone. Alexandra Bradner outlines the problem for heterosexual families:

Because no one can afford to fully replace themselves at home while they are at the office… working mothers have famously picked up the slack for both partners, subsidizing our market with their free labor… this means that mothers are important, in all of the ways in which socially conservative forces routinely note. But it could also mean that [they] are exploited… to do more than their fair share of the family’s work, all without compensation.

Bradner offers three possible explanations for this problem:

  1. Men don’t see the work that needs to be done
  2. Men see what needs to be done, but don’t think they can do it as easily or effectively as their wives can
  3. Men’s workplace structures won’t let them take the extra time to do their share of the chores

Instead of arguing for a large-scale overhaul of “women’s responsibilities” or workplace regulations, Bradner addresses all three issues with one simple suggestion: Men should ask their partners, “Do I do half the laundry? Do I change half the diapers?” Then, couples can make conscious choices about work distribution.

When husbands and colleagues come through with these “small acts of heroism,” splitting the work, Bradner, agues we get closer to a society that cares about caring for people:

It’s not, exclusively, a conversation for and among women. This is a conversation about families and about babies and their care, which makes it a conversation about kindness, responsiveness, and our nation’s collective future.

Photo by Adam Lynch via
Photo by Adam Lynch via

It seems like there’s never enough time: today’s workplaces demand efficiency and getting more done in less time. Workers cut down on breaks, vacation, and precious sleep. Luckily, Tony Schwartz brings good news in his op-ed for the New York Times:

A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

In a country where “more than 50 percent [of workers] assume they’ll work during their vacations,” “an average of 9.2 vacation days [go] unused,” and “sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity,” these midday renewals offer much needed relief. Schwartz cites study after study showing everything from a full night’s sleep improving basketball performance to naps improving memory test results and alertness and reaction time among air traffic controllers. Another study found:

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes.

Next time you find yourself joking about needing a nap, pull up that carpet square, kindergarten style. Those kids know what they’re up to.

Photo by jemsweb via

Fast food jobs are notorious for their low pay and negligible benefits. In an article for the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse explains that a group of fast food workers and union organizers have launched a campaign to unionize workers in New York City’s fast food industry called Fast Food Forward. The campaign is the largest effort to unionize fast food workers the United States has ever seen. Efforts to unionize these workers have been undertaken before, but never on this scale. The movement is not focusing of one franchise or chain, but instead includes many workers from popular chains around the city, including McDonalds, Dominos, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s.

The Fast Food Forward campaign hopes to increase wages and union recognition while reducing income inequality by unionizing these low-wage workers. Sociologist Ruth Milkman, of the City University of New York, says it’ll be no easy task, explaining that very few efforts have been in this direction in the past because of its perceived difficulty. She explains, “These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore.” Milkman is optimistic, however, New York City’s deep history of unionizing might help this movement find its footing.

A lot rests on the success or failure of this campaign. Right now, NYC has tens of thousands of fast food workers and nearly all of them are paid wages that place them below the poverty line (their median wage is $9 per hour, which means even if they work full time, which many can’t even if they’d like to, they’d earn just $18,500 a year, with sparse benefits). Because fast food pay is so low, many workers must also seek public assistance, and that means taxpayers (including the workers themselves) have to pick up the slack for multinational corporations. Unionization might be a first step in fiscal relief for thousands of households—and the government.

Photo by pj_vanf via

The Twitterverse and blogosphere exploded after NFL replacement referees blew a call on Monday Night Football, costing the Green Bay Packers a victory. Even President Obama piped up on Tuesday, encouraging a swift end to the labor dispute between the NFL and its regular referees. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times agrees that we should all be paying attention to the unfolding drama, but argues that we might be missing the point:

Most news coverage of this labor dispute focuses on the ineptitude of the fill-in referees; this week there will be a lot of hand-wringing over the flagrantly bad call that turned a Green Bay interception into a game-winning Seattle touchdown, as if by alchemy. Occasionally you’ll read that the disagreement has something to do with retirement pay. But it’s really about much more.

It’s about employers’ assault on the very concept of retirement security. It’s about employers’ willingness to resort to strong-arm tactics with workers, because they believe that in today’s environment unions can be pushed around (they’re not wrong). You ignore this labor dispute at your peril, because the same treatment is waiting for you.

One issue at the heart of the conflict is the NFL’s goal to end the referees’ pension plan and move to a 401(k)-style plan, which Hiltzik notes is not unique among U.S. employers.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has argued that defined-benefit plans are a thing of the past — even he doesn’t have one, he told an interviewer recently, as though financially he’s in the same boat as any other league employee.

This is as pure an expression as you’ll find of the race to the bottom in corporate treatment of employees. Industry’s shift from defined-benefit retirement plans to 401(k) plans has helped to destroy retirement security for millions of Americans by shifting pension risk from employer to employee, exposing the latter to financial market meltdowns like those that occurred in 2000 and 2008.

It’s true that employers coast-to-coast have tried to put a bullet in the heart of the defined-benefit plan. The union representing 45,000 Verizon workers gave up on such coverage for new employees to settle a 15-month contract dispute.

But why anyone should sympathize with the desire of the NFL, one of the most successful business enterprises in history, to do so, much less admire its efforts, isn’t so clear. If you have one of these disappearing retirement plans today, don’t be surprised to hear your employer lament, “even the NFL can’t afford them” tomorrow.

Another common trend is an increase in the use of lockouts as a means of resolving labor disputes.

Lockouts have become more widespread generally: A recent survey by Bloomberg BNA found that as a percentage of U.S. work stoppages, lockouts had increased to 8.07% last year, the highest ratio on record, from less than 3% in 1991. In other words, work stoppages of all kinds have declined by 75% in that period — but more of them are initiated by employers.

The reasons are obvious. “Lockouts put pressure on the employees because nobody can collect a paycheck,” said William B. Gould IV, a former attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and a professor emeritus at Stanford Law School. “In a lot of major disputes, particularly in sports, it’s the weapon du jour.” Think about that the next time someone tells you that unions have too much power.

While the spotlight is sure to remain on the ire of fans and players alike toward the botched calls by replacement refs, America’s Game may be showing us more about business as usual in the United States than we would like to see.

It’s been said that football simply replicates the rough and tumble of the real world, and in this case, sadly, the observation is too true.

Class Participation

University of Illinois at Chicago’s Barbara Risman recently told CNN readers that there are two types of sexual harassment.  The first is usually easy to spot.  “A really detestable (usually) man gives his (usually) female subordinate employee or student an ultimatum: Put out or lose some opportunity, be it a grade, a job or a promotion.”  As Risman explains, this type of harassment was commonplace during the era of Don Draper and Roger Sterling, but we’ve come a long way since then.

But then there is the other kind of sexual harassment, the behavior that makes the workplace uncomfortable, that creates an environment that is hostile to women in general, or just to one person because of her (or his) sex, gender, race or ethnicity. Everyone agrees that workplaces ought not to differentiate between actors simply because of their sex, gender, race or ethnicity. But beyond that, when sex and gender are involved, we often get into a “he said/she said” dialogue. For example, he believed the jokes were simply funny and created a more friendly setting; she believed they were offensive and created an us (the boys) versus them (her or her and other women) organizational climate where she was always going to be outside the loop, outside informal conversations and social networks that mattered.

If we look at sexual harassment in terms of he said/she said, though, Riseman argues that there will never be a solution.  We can’t deny that many people meet their partners in the workplace.  Yet, we also can’t deny that we live in a world where power is not equally shared and where workplaces are not integrated by sex.  In fact, integration by sex has stalled; more women are getting degrees, but they are remaining in traditionally female-dominated fields.  According to Riseman, this may be because of the workplace cultures that include sexual innuendo and sexual harassment.

I don’t have an easy answer, but I do know we’ll never solve the problem by trying to figure out what he said or she said. Instead, we have to decide what, as a society, we want to be acceptable or not in our workplaces and schools and then enforce the norms with legal penalties. Here’s a first volley: It should be illegal for men (or women) to make sexual overtures to their subordinates. End of story. Power always gets in the way of easily saying no. But more than that, if we want workplaces that do not privilege the men who have previously dominated the social space, we need to change the culture in which sexual banter objectifies women and turns them into the “other,” and take seriously the claims by women that men harass them.

Because, as Riseman eloquently notes, “The more subtle kind of sexual harassment has consequences not only for the individual woman who finally complains, but for all of us, by sustaining a culture where the powerful positions in many occupations, including politics, remain dominated by men.”