Thinking About Work

Anne Helen Peterson had a piece in her Substack recently about work patterns among people in supposedly higher end jobs. It’s all about how they put in the extra hours, never take all their vacation time, and so forth.

People in less prestigious jobs do not work extra, but of course they don’t get paid well and these days are often stuck with jobs with erratic hours and no benefits.

The solution to both these problems is unionization, as Peterson points out. Of course, people in white collar jobs think they’re too good for that and people in a lot of service jobs are risking their rent and food money when they organize.

It occurs to me that when I went to work as a legal editor and reporter for the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (known as BNA) — a major publisher of notification services for lawyers and other professionals that was at the time I went to work for the only legal publisher in the U.S. that was not owned by a foreign company — I ended up in a white collar salaried job where I worked the stated hours every week and went home and left the job behind.

After some years of practicing law, especially in a nonprofit firm that specialized in low income housing and never had enough resources, it was a relief to go home and forget about work.

Here’s the thing about BNA: it was owned by its employees and we had a union.

Now it wasn’t a co-op. In electing the board, you only had as many votes as you had shares of stock in the company, and upper management had way more stock. It was run as a typical publishing company, with a lot of managing editors of different publications and staff reporters and editors who reported to them.

But no one expected you to work overtime without pay or to answer calls or emails on the weekend or anything like that. That’s because we also were members of The Newspaper Guild (which I think is just The Guild these days because it includes many different kinds of media) and had a very good contract.

I don’t know how things go there now. Michael Bloomberg bought BNA a couple of years before I retired, so it’s no longer employee-owned. (We got a nice return on our stock, though.) But they still do have a union.

As day jobs go, it was ideal. I was writing fiction and training in Aikido, both of which were more important to me than my job. But it was an interesting job and it paid well, especially after years of doing poverty law, and it didn’t suck all the time out of my life.

(Also, I found it immensely helpful as a writer to write on completely different subjects in my day job with good editors. It taught me so much about the use of language and saying things clearly. But I digress.)

So I think everyone should have a union, not just factory workers and service staff, but also computer programmers and lawyers and doctors. And journalists, of course.

Despite that, one thing I deeply wanted in life and never quite achieved, was to make my living doing work that mattered to me and having that kind of decent work/life balance.

I mean, I always wanted a job I could love.

Ideally, I wanted to work in a worker-owned (or worker-controlled) business that was doing something that mattered to me and that didn’t demand I put work at the center of my life 24/7.

The trouble with the nonprofits I worked for is that they never had enough money and we were always scrabbling to get by, so there was always more work than staff to do it.

Plus every legal job I ever had assumed you’d put in extra time because that’s what “professionals” do.

I do notice several activist nonprofits, including ones that hire lawyers, here in Oakland do, in fact, limit working hours and even give their employees sabbaticals. And the job is rewarding (if often frustrating) because they are working for something the employees believe in.

I also know there are some good worker co-ops around here, of which Arizmendi — which makes the best pizza in town — is one of the best known.

I want to see more jobs like that where the workers are doing the kind of work they love, control their workplace, and still are not expected to live for their jobs.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable at all.

I do think the only way we get those jobs is for people who want them to start them. And that is one hell of a lot of work.

Anyway, if you’re working for someone else, the starting point is organizing a union. That’s also one hell of a lot of work, but it’s the only way you’ll get an edge.

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