The Capitalist War On Telework: Why Managers Suppress Pro-Worker Innovation

AS A LABOR UNION STAFFER before the COVID-19 pandemic, I spoke with hundreds of workers about their working conditions, and one of the most memorable stories was from a graying plan reviewer who commuted from West Virginia to the DC suburbs and back 5 days a week. He recounted a daily routine of waking up at 4:30am to drive to the commuter rail station to take the 90+ minute train ride into work for his 8:30am start time. He was also the father of an autistic child who struggled to attend school meetings to discuss their Individual Education Program (IEP). He noted that he couldn’t find similar paying jobs close to home. With tears welling in his eyes, he stressed how much one or two days of telework would help him care for his family but his public sector employer slow-walked approval in the government’s bureaucratic telework application process that had been nominally in place for over a decade.

Capitalists and mainstream media coverage extol the virtues of new technologies and innovation, telling workers that minimum wage hikes will lead to the accelerated automation of fast food and that improved working conditions and benefits for rideshare drivers and delivery workers will only ensure their replacement with self-driving cars and trucks. In the capitalist vision, layoffs from technology are simple facts of nature and those who whinge about workers losing their livelihood are opponents of progress. Who are we to complain? After all, capitalism made the smartphone or computer you are reading this on. Any policy change to protect jobs from market forces is simply delaying the inevitable. 

Yet, the economic and labor disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the myth of inevitable capitalist progress at its core. Public and private organizations that had previously resisted any teleworking options pivoted to 100% remote work. According to one study, during the early months of the pandemic, telework shot up from 5% of paid hours worked to 50% of paid hours worked. Governments, usually slow to respond to economic shifts for workers, marshaled resources for businesses that needed aid in the transition. 

Suddenly, many workers had shorter commutes and more autonomy on the job. Under the exigent circumstances of COVID-19, the commute for an all-staff meeting could be replaced with a Zoom call or better yet, an email. The local government plan reviewer had dozens more hours a week to spend with his family. 

Family emergencies, childcare and eldercare can force workers to choose between missing work, wasting paid and unpaid leave if they have any, or the incredible stress of being unable to support loved ones. Flying to Florida to help a parent who is ill no longer forces workers to lose well-earned leave or go unpaid when they are more than capable of working remotely. Telework that empowers workers is unambiguously good and working people should say so without apology.

We have already started to see nationwide retrenchment against pro-worker policies that fully utilize technologies like telework. President Biden, the self-proclaimed “most pro-worker and pro-union President in American History,” has continually promised to bring Federal employees back to work in the office. County and local governments are even more sensitive to the demands of local chambers of commerce and development interests. 

As Samuel Stein asks provocatively in his work Capital City, “If the city is an investment strategy, then are [local government planners] just wealth managers?” Employers across the nation realized their office buildings were full of empty chairs for workers and began to reduce the footprint of their office space. Central Business District restaurants and enterprises, battered by the pandemic, sustained prolonged declines in customers and applied pressure to local governments for additional economic concessions. 

Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser offered development interests tens of millions of dollars in incentives to “revitalize” the District’s downtown area. In addition to cutting affordable housing construction requirements, the Mayor also proposed a waiver to the important Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), a tool for renters to preserve affordable housing, for new developments. The Capitalist class that tells working people to get ready for their own career obsolescence is the same class that is leaning on governments to pass massive tax breaks for the commercial real estate sector. 

Transit systems designed to aid employers in shuffling mostly 9-5 workers through rush-hour commuter traffic into and out of urban cores, rather than connecting neighbors across a metropolitan area, are also suffering as a consequence. The expanded telework paradigm challenges a key pull factor to the fastest-growing job markets. 

I’ve spoken with comrades from Missouri and West Virginia in the DC Metro area who felt their only hope of returning to their childhood homes depends upon well-paying fully remote jobs because of decades of disinvestment. By separating job opportunities from direct proximity to a few employment centers, telework opens space for workers to redesign geographies for their own interests. In the fight for a democratic socialist future, tools like telework software can be a source of optimism that helps workers imagine greater freedom and agency over their own lives.

In the short term (and thanks to a tight labor market) telework is unlikely to disappear entirely. But like health insurance, commuter benefits and retirement plans, telework is likely to become a privilege tiered by class in our racial capitalist system. Those workers with the highest credentials and who tend to make the most money will have access to the most robust telework options.

Smaller employers might tout expansive telework to draw in employees, but without a union contract those benefits can always be rescinded by future management. Workers down the income strata will have partial telework dangled over them, and managers will try to pit workers against one another over who can have the privilege to telework. Cynical managers will argue to workers that it is inequitable for them to get more telework hours while some workers don’t get to telework at all.

As I will note later, the “equity between” argument falls flat when you examine the overarching inequity between employers and employees, rather than the inequity between different types of workers. A simple solution would be to increase the compensation of in-person / on-site work, as we saw with hazard pay schemes during the pandemic. The best judges of equity between workers are rarely found in human resources, but instead the union hall. 

If one cares about consistency and intellectual honesty, you might point out the hypocrisy of business interests pushing against technological innovation when it gives agency to workers instead of authority to managers. Capital could take the blow, just as workers were told to accept the losses of automation, off-shoring, and economic looting by private equity firms. But it is not enough to be aware of the hypocrisy of the capitalist class towards technological progress unless workers organize for a real alternative. Telework is an important terrain of struggle for working people alongside fights for shorter and compensated commutes, robust public transit, permanently affordable and social housing near good paying union jobs, quality education and healthcare for all, paid leave, defined benefit retirement like traditional pensions and a shorter working week.

Urbanists rightfully point out the detrimental costs of car culture and automobile centric design of neighborhoods. Working people have the fewest options to choose where to live and how to travel to the core services, amenities and jobs in their environment. Those with “Not In My BackYard” (NIMBY) affiliations in many cases understandably point out that their neighborhoods are already overburdened by traffic and take a conservative position of reflexively opposing new housing and transit under the assumption that more neighbors would only exacerbate their transportation issues. Telework alone will not fix poor transportation planning and community design, and may only push people further out into sprawl when they have fewer trips to make.

Land use concerns stem from the obscured reality that commuting is uncompensated labor borne by workers, communities and their families. Longer commutes are associated with increased stress, poor health outcomes and increased medical costs. Hours spent in traffic decrease time for rest, socializing, volunteerism and family support. Children get less time with caregivers, less attention to their educational success and overall well-being.

The socialist movement is not anti-development nor should it oppose technological progress. Rather it should lead on promoting universal access to technologies that empower workers, improve their quality of life and conditions of work. Giving workers the freedom to perform their labor in the place of their choosing will give workers more time for all the other things they desire.

Employers need to have a financial stake in ensuring shorter commutes and building permanently affordable housing options near their places of work regardless if their employees are remote or not. Neighborhoods should be redesigned around a new normal of decentralized employment and high-quality nodes of community organized around transit so that working people have more freedom to choose when, where and how they would like to live and work. Commutes should be safe and rare, and those workers who do have to go to a job site should be fairly compensated. 

The labor movement should work across sectors to protect telework protections in law and collective bargaining agreements. Telework should be a right for workers to choose and not a mandate for workers who might prefer in-person work environments. Conversely a right to telework does not just need to mean working from home when it saves employers money, but that workers should demand compensation for employment costs like commuting and remote office rentals in their communities for those workers who need suitable workspaces.

This vision of technology as a tool for worker empowerment, rather than displacement, radically challenges the pervasive myth that capitalism is the fastest route to innovation and progress for working people. The labor movement and their socialist allies waged a 50-year struggle for the 8-hour work day, but the dislocation of the COVID-19 pandemic has already shown workers that a better future of work is possible. Now our challenge is to organize across sectors and unite around an agenda that gives time, money, and power back to the entire working class. 

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