STRIKE! Work framed as Obedience
Nov 30, 2011 – Today’s Daily Mail states that the 2 million people on strike today will “cause chaos”. After all, we’re not working. We think of “work” in many ways, but there are two dominant frames which tend to maintain the status quo (of appalling pay & working hours, concentrated wealth for the few). These frames are: Work as Obedience and Workers as Resources.
Work as Obedience
In the work-as-obedience frame, there’s an authority (the employer) and there’s obedience to the commands of authority (ie work). This obedience is rewarded (pay). Certain consequences follow from this metaphorical framing. The worker is expected to be loyal, to make sacrifices (contrast with the work-as-exchange* frame). This may explain why, each year, workers give £29 billion in unpaid overtime to their companies (according to TUC figures).
(Consider also that the average worker spends 139 hours a year commuting – another sacrifice).
Remember that frames function “below” consciousness, according to the cognitive scientists (I’ve written about this before: here & here). Why do people tolerate a situation in which income is dependent on obedience (to people they might regard as idiots)? Perhaps it’s because our upbringing results (in most cases) in the work-as-obedience frame being a familiar part of our neurology (consider the paternal representation of school/employer).
In adulthood, this work frame infantilises us, and it’s reinforced by the paternal-strictness type of attacks on the unemployed from politicians and media. Terms such as “workshy” and “scrounger” don’t suggest people aged 45+ who have lost their jobs.
Workers as Resources
The workers-as-resources metaphor is part of ‘market’ framing:
- “Free market” means firms are free to manage their own resources.
- Resources are acquired and disposed of – in a way which minimises costs, maximises “efficiency”, etc.
- Labour is just another resource (as in “labour market”).
Excluded from the workers-as-resources metaphor is the human experience of working in a job, and the distinction between meaningful activity and dehumanising work (not to mention work which physically harms). Orthodox economics of both right and left “treat labor as a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials, and speak in the same terms of its cost and supply” (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). Workers’ rights movements have fought against exploitation of workers (with some important successes) but have tended to implicitly accept this economic framing.
Protestant Work “Ethic”
The “work as obedience” metaphor is also linked to the moral framing of work which comes from religious traditions, most notably from the Protestant (or, rather, Puritan) Work Ethic. You don’t have to consciously subscribe to these religious beliefs to be affected – moral guilt over “laziness” seems to affect practically everyone in our society (but not in all societies – the framing isn’t universal).
And thus we arrive at these strange notions:
- Work is morally virtuous regardless of the experience of the worker.
- Firms should be “free” to make this experience even worse.
And so (to cut a long historical story short) we get the news frames of guilty “slackers”, irresponsible chaos-causing strikers – in opposition to the moral good (ie market fundamentalism and a joyless, outdated work ethic). And, to many, it looks just like “common sense”. Meanwhile, metaphorical terms such “flexible labour” (or worse, “cheap labour”) hide the reality of human degradation.
* The work-as-exchange frame is something that George Lakoff has written about in his work on conceptual metaphor. In this frame, work is conceptualised as an object of value which belongs to the worker. This is exchanged for money.
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