The notion of “emotional labor” has mostly been the terrain of academics since sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term in the 1980s. Also known as “affective labor,” this is the work of selling smiles along with, say, coffee.
A series of recent articles have brought emotional labor into the spotlight as a fundamental component of today’s service economy, one rigorously enforced by employers and taxing on already strained service workers.
Not only do more and more employers explicitly demand that workers project their “personalities” on the job, but the scope of their requirements has broadened. Exemplifying this drive is the London-based sandwich chain Pret a Manger, recently scrutinized in the London Review of Books by Paul Myerscough. Responding to a case where a Czech student was fired from the chain, most likely for helping coordinate a new, independent Pret A Manger Staff Union (Pamsu), Myerscough writes:
Pret will have been disappointed to discover that any of its staff were unhappy enough in their work to have want of a union. Pret workers aren’t supposed to be unhappy. They are recruited precisely for their ‘personality’, in the sense that a talent show host might use the word. Job candidates must show that they have a natural flair for the ‘Pret Behaviours’ (these are listed on the website too)….The ‘Pret Perfect’ worker, a fully evolved species, ‘never gives up’, ‘goes out of their way to be helpful’ and ‘has presence’. After a day’s trial, your fellow workers vote on how well you fit the profile; if your performance lacks sparkle, you’re sent home with a few quid.
If working at Pret a Manger sounds distressingly similar to being in a reality TV show, at least the chain’s political imperative is subtle. Not so at Starbucks, where baristas were enlisted into an unconventional pro-austerity campaign during December’s fiscal cliff talks, as Josh Eidelson reports in the Nation:
The day after Christmas, [Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz announced an unconventional effort to “use our company’s scale for good by sending a respectful and optimistic message to our elected officials.” The occasion: “the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt.” The medium: for a couple of days, DC-area Starbucks “partners” (meaning workers) would write “Come Together” on customers’ cups. “Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing a simple message, one cup at a time,” Schultz wrote on the Starbucks blog. He also plugged the Fix the Debt website and, for good measure, name-checked the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary.
Schultz’s use of hourly employees was both shrewd and deceptive. Logistics aside, a Come Together message inscribed by a billionaire CEO and printed on coffee cups could never pack the same punch as one that was handwritten by workers making $8-something an hour. Schultz’s blog post was quickly followed by a mass email from Fix the Debt, bragging that “Baristas at Starbucks are showing their support for bipartisan solutions this week.” CEOs hawking “shared sacrifice” are a dime a dozen. A working-class seal of approval is much more valuable, even if—like so much in the American workplace—it’s coerced.
In a year when companies “told their employees whom to vote for (Koch Industries), tracked workers’ political donations (Murray Energy) or warned of layoffs if President Obama was re-elected (Westgate Resorts),” the Starbucks stunt comes across as a rather gentle act of coercion. It is nevertheless indicative of the political salience of forced enthusiasm in the workplace.
As the New Republic‘s Tim Noah and MSNBC’s Ned Resnikoff joined the discussion about emotional labor, Sarah Jaffe intervened with a reminder about the deeply gendered nature of such work. The service sector’s affective demands, she writes, “are based on behavior that is expected of women beyond the workplace.”
Much of this work has been women’s work for decades, in some cases for hundreds of years….The caring professions—such as teaching, nursing, and domestic work—were considered to be women’s work as well, and correspondingly paid less than their more prestigious cousins. A domestic worker who cooks for the family might well make less than minimum wage while a famous chef commands much more; elementary school teachers start at $30,000 or $40,000 a year while college professors (if they can get a position) are much better compensated, and I don’t really need to tell you how much more doctors make than nurses, right?
Furthermore, she adds, “Women’s personalities aren’t all they’re expected to sell in the service workplace. As Grace Bello wrote at Jezebel, there are plenty of jobs that aren’t sex work but still rely on the emotional labor and physical appearance of women workers.”
On his blog, Peter Frase rounds up this discussion of what he calls “the third wave form of the work ethic” with a defense of “Soviet” waiters—service workers, that is, who treat customers with “indifference bordering on contempt.” Until wage labor is eliminated, he says, “the choice between company-enforced cheerfulness or authentic resentment is unavoidable,” and little short of smashing capitalism will bring us genuinely happy waiters. Still, increasing their wages would be a good start.
For more on emotional, domestic, and gendered labor, see Mother Jones‘s timeline of domestic work and organizing in the United States and Megan Erickson’s review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s latest book, The Outsourced Self, in the current issue Dissent.
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