The origin story of WeWork, the co-working company, might be as big a part of its image as the office space it rents out. Its co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann was raised on a kibbutz, an Israeli cooperative built in the mold of the early twentieth-century socialist Zionists who sought a “conquest of labor” (kibbush avodah) in establishing a homeland for Jews in Palestine. Speaking at a tech conference in New York in 2015, Neumann reflected fondly on his childhood, going to school, eating dinner, and doing homework with the same kids each day. But there was a flaw.
“In a kibbutz everyone makes the same amount of money,” Neumann lamented. “I always remember thinking that it’s not fair that someone’s effort is not being rewarded based on what he puts in.” In starting WeWork, Neumann—a tall thirty-six-year-old, usually sporting a blazer thrown over a WeWork T-shirt—set out to correct the imbalance. He calls his company “a capitalistic kibbutz: On the one hand, community. On the other hand, you eat what you kill.”
Since opening up shop in 2010, Neumann has certainly been eating well. In the wake of the housing crisis, he and his co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, have built WeWork into a company worth tens of billions by following a simple business model: buy large chunks of space in huge metropolitan office buildings, deck them out with desks, walls, and kegs, and then sublet to freelancers, mid-sized companies, and start-up founders at a premium on month-to-month contracts. Don’t sell space, though; sell community, in the form of single-origin coffee and craft beer, a company-wide social networking app, and an office environment that plays as hard as it works. WeWork doesn’t have tenants. It has “members,” of WeWork and of the WeGeneration.
The average WeWork member—a millennial, to be sure—is an almost Platonic ideal of what the journalist Paul Mason describes in his book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future as “the T-shirted techno-bourgeoisie . . . their information stored in the Cloud and their ultra-liberal attitudes to sexuality, ecology and philanthropy.” They represent a “new normal” of office life and life in general: where work and play are increasingly indistinguishable, and both hinge on access to vast networks and limitless streams of information.
WeWork’s network-first approach to work is reflected in its cosmopolitan, creative-class aesthetic. Locations around the world are virtually identical, from San Francisco to the Negev: they all feature the same oak floors, clean lines, and hand-worn metal and wood furniture. Walls throughout the building are plastered with multi-colored, productivity-themed aphorisms like “Hustle” and “Thank God It’s Monday.”
Reverence for hard work is not simply a decorative gimmick, but core to the WeWork philosophy. The imperative to hustle reflects the way the founders see (and wish to shape) the future of work. Meanwhile, WeWork’s popularity is driven—in part—by the increasing atomization of labor, across income brackets. By offering workers an alternative to days spent alone behind a computer, Neumann and McKelvey discovered they could turn a profit by exploiting one of the defining features of work’s so-called future: isolation.
Sharing looks a lot like paying rent
Despite the fact that WeWork has been around for six years and is currently valued at $16 billion, the company is still commonly referred to as a “start-up,” a misidentification the founders are keen to perpetuate. To hear Neumann tell it, WeWork is disrupting work itself, revolutionizing the economy by applying a sharing economy ethos to drab office life. “We are a community of creators,” he told Bloomberg when asked about the company in May 2015. “We create an environment for entrepreneurs and freelancers and we leverage technology to connect people. . . . It’s a new way of working. Just like Uber is the sharing economy for cars . . . we’re the sharing economy for space.”
But sharing, in WeWork’s vision, looks a lot like paying rent. Joining the WeGeneration doesn’t come cheap. A $45 “We Membership” buys access to WeWork’s online community and the ability to work at a location anywhere in the world for two days a month. Dedicated desks in Manhattan range anywhere from $450 to $800, with single occupancy private offices stretching up to $2,100 per month. By square footage, space tends to be more expensive than that in the surrounding neighborhood. Aside from the beer and office services (one year of Amazon Web Services credits, discounted payment processing, lunch delivery, and so on), the price point is said to derive from all the immaterial benefits of being surrounded by young, driven professionals who “do what they love”—a slogan stamped on the coffee cups that line each floor. In April 2016 WeWork opened its flagship WeLive location on Wall Street, offering fully furnished, dorm-like accommodations complete with extracurriculars like yoga, “family dinners,” and building-wide karaoke. Another WeLive, in the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia, opened shortly thereafter. Members—at work, home, and play—can now lead their whole lives within the WeWork bubble, so long as they can cough up a few grand a month.
Company founders have repeatedly denied that their brainchild is in the real-estate business—in large part through clever branding. Senior staff hold titles like “Head of Community,” and Neumann seldom makes it through an interview or press event without rattling off stories about his childhood in Israel, first years in New York, failed early business ventures, or relationship with his muse-turned-wife. Such tales, too, are why investors and consumers both treat WeWork more like a unicorn than a multinational corporation.
If there is sharing happening, it’s between WeWork and major developers. According to WeWork Real Estate Head Mark Lapidus, the company has built close relationships over the years with real-estate giants like Rudin Management and Boston Properties to negotiate favorable leasing terms. Lapidus calls their landlords “partners,” and notes that “60 percent of our deals probably come through either landlords with existing relationships, where we have other locations, or landlord referrals, or just landlords reaching out to us and saying, ‘Hey, before I put this on the market. . . .’”
Do what you love—or else
What happens inside the walls of WeWork is as old-fashioned as the process through which the company acquires its space. Referring to employees as family members has a long tradition in the corporate world as a means to rebuff organizing drives and calls for higher wages. In the case of WeWork, talking points about community and family have come in handy when deflecting the many labor complaints it has fielded over the last several years.
Building trade unions placed an inflatable Scabby the Rat outside of WeWork’s Wall Street location last year, to protest the company’s decision to work with notoriously anti-union builder Gilbane on their new development on the Brooklyn waterfront. In 2015, after contracted WeWork cleaning staff in New York tried to unionize with SEIU 32BJ, WeWork president and COO Arthur Minson sent members and other employees a company-wide email:
To be clear, employees always have a right to unionize. However, we don’t think having a union at WeWork makes sense. Similar to the way many of you run your businesses, we take great pride in the fact that every WeWork employee is part of the WeWork family. Having an independent voice representing a portion of our employees goes against our fundamental belief that all of the WeWork employees should be treated the same, and all jobs at WeWork are equally valued.
The cleaners, paid just $10 an hour, were employed by Commercial Building Maintenance Corporation (CBM). After the unionization drive WeWork cancelled its contract with the company. With the union’s help, workers led a campaign called “We Work Here Too,” demanding that fired cleaners be brought back as WeWork staff at higher wages. In replacing the workers, WeWork “invited” janitorial staff to apply for their old jobs, though many of the now-unionized staff didn’t receive calls back. The company eventually settled after months of protests, agreeing to hire some workers as staff at wages between $15 to $18 an hour, and to give priority to fired CBM employees. WeWork now uses a mix of in-house and contracted cleaners. Contracted cleaning staff in New York and Boston are now members of SEIU 32BJ, according to a spokesperson for the union, and talks are ongoing to establish collective bargaining agreements at locations in other cities.
Ironically, as of 2015, cleaners were the only WeWork employees mandated to wear shirts that said “Do What You Love.” For Community Managers—the company’s frontline staff, responsible for changing kegs and keeping WeWork locations running—the shirts are optional. As are—some employees allege—breaks for meals, overtime pay, and (until recently) their legally guaranteed right to unionize.
WeWork’s page on Glassdoor, a Yelp-like ratings site for employees to anonymously rate their employers, offers a window into what it’s like to work there. Community Managers are typically college grads making upwards of $40,000 a year. Reading their reviews, a few trends surface: a near-total collapse of work-life balance, marathon working days, unclear job descriptions, a cult-like enforcement of the company’s mission, and a senior management that’s as demanding and raucous as it is disorganized. Of his time at WeWork, one reviewer wrote that he “would rather rub salt on [an] open wound than work here again.”
According to former Associate Community Manager Tara Zoumer, negative reviews aren’t just angry exceptions. She worked at the company from March until November 2015 for a $42,000 per annum salary. Zoumer reported that she and other employees regularly worked fifty- and sixty-hour weeks without overtime, with some weeks pushing a hundred hours on end. “You’re not getting a single dollar extra for any of that time but you’re made to be responsible, and punished if you aren’t keeping pace,” she told me. “You’re given a goofy title and fed three shots, but you can’t pay your rent with that.”
In her training, she recalled that one of the first mantras she and her colleagues were fed was, “Work hard, hustle harder, everyone does everything.” Staff were required to give out their personal cell phone numbers to members, without receiving either company phones or reimbursement.
“They blurred the work-life balance to such a point where WeWork really does become your life,” Zoumer said. Rebekah Paltrow Neumann—WeWork founding partner, Chief Brand Officer, and Adam Neumann’s wife—went a step farther in an interview with Fast Company: “We don’t have a line at all between work and life. It’s not even a blurred line. There is no line.”
When Zoumer started voicing her concerns to management and fellow coworkers, she was called into a meeting with her supervisor and one of WeWork’s West Coast managers. They told her to back off, and she was asked if she wanted to resign. In another meeting, Zoumer alleges, one manager chalked the company’s flexible relationship to labor standards up to its status as a start-up.
Compliance was still a long way off, but WeWork made moves shortly thereafter to protect itself from employee complaints. Several weeks after Zoumer’s meeting, all the employees at her location were called into a conference room, one by one, and asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement and enroll in an Employee Dispute Resolution Program (EDRP)—or, as Zoumer calls it, “a really cute name for a program that completely strips you of your rights.” EDRPs are contracts that prevent workers and consumers from joining class-action lawsuits and taking other forms of legal action against their employers, directing them instead toward out-of-court arbitration processes paid for by the company.
As a New York Times investigation into arbitration found, the tool—traditionally wielded by major corporations—is increasingly being used by tech companies and start-ups. Drivers in ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber, for instance (each of which have offices in WeWork locations), have long existed in a legal grey area between contractors and full-time employees, allowing companies to pick and choose the protections they extend to their employees; an arbitration agreement prevents workers from banding together to take Uber to court.
With one suit already filed against WeWork, Zoumer told her manager she would need a few days to look over the EDRP paperwork, which was dozens of pages long. She sent an email to 150 of her coworkers with links to the Times investigation, and informed them of their right to a trial by jury. The next Monday, Zoumer found her email account suddenly disabled. Minutes later she was called into another meeting with her supervisor, told she was being fired for refusing to sign the documents, and escorted out of the building.
Zoumer currently has two ongoing claims against WeWork. One is over what she alleges was a misclassification of her employment status, which will enter into arbitration this spring thanks to a stipulation in the contract she signed when she was hired. The second is a complaint filed by the NLRB in response to Zoumer’s claims, in which it alleges that WeWork unlawfully restricted the concerted activities of its employees, and that it specifically retaliated against Zoumer for her efforts to organize with her colleagues. That case could end up in front of the Supreme Court, setting a precedent not just for how WeWork treats employees but for how workers should be treated in the sharing economy as a whole.
From scrip to start-ups
Meanwhile, the WeWork founders like to encourage a lax attitude to the distinctions between life and livelihood for their members as well as their workers. On top of its dealings in real estate, WeWork is a full-fledged lifestyle brand. Neumann hopes the company will one day swell to include a “WeStreet” and “WeNeighborhood”—reminiscent of Uber’s ambition to “evolve the way the world moves,” on every front from mass transit to logistics. At WeWork’s core is a utopian vision, based on having life itself revolve around a passion for what pays the bills.
A high rise in New York City’s Financial District is the home of the first WeLive, a “co-living” complex that opened in early 2016. Inside, it looks and feels like a college dorm—albeit an expensive one. The company’s two ventures are stylistically seamless, bringing the shabby-chic minimalism of WeWork to the shared kitchens and lounges, or “neighborhoods” (sets of residential floors), of WeLive. Many WeLive residents commute to other WeWork offices around New York, rather than descend several floors to the one at 110 Wall Street. But it isn’t only twenty-something WeWorkers yearning for dorm life that move into WeLive. The oldest tenants are a couple in their mid-sixties, my tour guide at WeLive (a Community Manager and WeLive resident herself, who preferred to remain anonymous) told me. The couple, she said, had wanted to downsize from their apartment on the Upper East Side and house in Westchester. There are also young families and divorcees punctuating the building’s majority-millennial population. “It’s a great place for people who are in a period of transition in their life,” my tour guide explained.
Long before WeLive, co-living helped provide the start-up capital for America’s own transition into industrial capitalism. Most infamous in this vein were the Lowell Mill Girls, teenagers shipped off from the countryside to make textiles in Northern Massachusetts during the early nineteenth century. Loosely inspired by Robert Owen’s utopian socialist experiment in New Lanark, Scotland, company towns like Lowell were intended, on one hand, to shelter the poor from the “Satanic Mills” of early industrial capitalism, providing decent food, shelter, and a paid day’s work. On another, less altruistic hand, company towns were a means for cost cutting and control. Having workers centralized, living yards away from their bosses, was an obvious boon to productivity. That they had their basic needs already met was a justification for lower wages, since employees wouldn’t have to shop for homes and meat on the open market.
Just as important for employers was constructing a world for their workers that was dependent at every level on the company’s success. If profits were down, after all, there might be less food in the company store. In places like Appalachia, coal camps—maybe the most brutal example of the company-town model—were the only industry for miles around. Company stores, by extension, were the only stores for buying necessities like grains and cloth. Whole families could be raised on the company scrip and goods doled out by coal bosses. And as waged work became the norm in America, both the productive and reproductive labor necessary to eke out profit could be housed in the same compound. If proximity to work eased the transition from feudalism, several of the early company towns in the United States began to resemble fiefdoms. Considering that the company-town model predominated in capital-intensive extractive industries (coal and lumber, especially), it quite literally fueled the United States’ rise as an industrial superpower.
By design, the bosses’ interests fused with those of their workers, who didn’t have an ideological motivation for a fatter bottom line so much as a material one to put food on the table and wood in the stove. Community, in a company town, meant everyone: from foreman to chimney sweep, with some benevolent industrialist sitting atop a familial hierarchy. As unions entered the coal camps, in battles like Matewan and the one for Blair Mountain, it wasn’t only the coal barons beating them back. In addition to private agencies like the Pinkertons, companies regularly used locals to suppress organizing efforts. In Butte, Montana, for instance, the sheriff’s office deputized mine guards—employees of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company—to break a 1920 strike, sparking the bloody conflict that became known as the Anaconda Road Massacre.
As the company-town model started to fade, though, automation brought with it Fordism and a wage theoretically big enough to pay for both a car and a middle-class life—backed at least partially by a moderately functional social safety net.
WeWork invites us to imagine another kind of transition. Neumann may not be creating a new regime of labor for the twenty-first century so much as capitalizing on one already in the works. Programmers at companies like Google and Facebook are well accustomed to having employers meet their every need, such as meals from five-star chefs and fully equipped gyms in exchange for ten- and twelve-hour workdays. One of the labor movement’s hallmark victories—an eight-hour workday—is now being eroded on each end of the economic spectrum: by start-up wunderkinder toiling late into the night as well as by low-wage service workers juggling multiple jobs just to make rent, one of which might happen to be as an Uber driver. Where one might walk away with millions in venture-capital funding, another could be making less than $7 an hour, as Uber drivers did during the Republican National Convention. Though it’s not happening on a large scale yet, it’s not inconceivable to imagine an expanded version of the WeLive accommodations used to house the company’s cleaners and Community Managers as well as the employees of members who run their own start-ups and small businesses, crafting a totalizing “WeLife” for members and employees alike.
WeWork, WeLive, We Fight
WeWork’s embrace of the idea of boundless workdays ignores the psychic toll they can take, though it grasps their appeal. Life under capitalism is getting increasingly lonely, anxious, and depressing—especially for the millennials who form the core of WeWork’s customer base. (A study from 2014 found that eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds were four times as likely to be lonely as people over seventy.) We humans are social creatures, too, and our endless, solitary workdays might—literally—be killing us, raising the risk of early death by 26 percent. A physiological study of social animals—dogs, monkeys, and other species—found that our non-human brethren are more likely to choose physical pain than isolation. As George Monbiot has pointed out, too, the poor are far more likely to suffer from loneliness. Living with the stigma of poverty and eviction can be just as deadly. Following the housing crisis, suicide rates in austerity-pummeled Spain shot up by 20 percent. In the first two years of Greece implementing its austerity programs, that country’s suicide rate climbed by a full 35 percent.
Unlike livable wages, the isolation of neoliberalism in the twenty-first century cuts across class—though its burden is shared unequally. So while WeWork’s business runs, in part, off old-fashioned labor exploitation, it also serves a need that’s become more pressing in an economy defined by both inequality and alienation: community, but only for those who can afford a few thousand dollars a month.
In the left’s quest to beat back inequality, bread-and-butter demands—for things like a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave—sometimes neglect the emotional pain of suffering under capitalism. Reaching beyond more individualized concepts of “self-care,” what would it look like for movements to foreground a vision of a better society free not just from fossil fuels and poverty wages, but also from loneliness?
Though derided and underfunded in the United States, public housing in other countries forms the backbone of vibrant communities, offering swimming pools and sports leagues alongside child care and rent control. In Spain, both Podemos and the country’s municipal coalitions—together controlling several city governments and seats in parliament—have some of their strongest hubs in “social centers,” where attendees can pick up radical literature, a Zumba class, and a glass of wine under the same roof. They serve, too, as permanent meeting spaces for social movements, community organizing outfits, and (today) political parties. Where conversations on care tend to center around children and the elderly, less discussed is the need for institutions that enable care for communities writ large—as a means both to redress the misery of most work and to build collective power.
Spain’s social centers also host its housing movement, La Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (“the PAH,” in English). Formed in the wake of the recession, the PAH combines direct action, legal advocacy, and corporate campaigning to fight evictions and for affordable public housing. Ada Colau, one of the movement’s founders, explains that everyone who attends a PAH “Welcome Assembly” is promised two things: “Once you enter the PAH, you’ll never be alone. And one way or another, you won’t be left in the street. We’ll either force the bank to negotiate or force public services to re-house you.”
At one point, the group enjoyed a 90 percent approval rating in Spain. Colau is now the mayor of Barcelona, part of a wider electoral coalition in the city known as Barcelona en Comú.
Admittedly, Spanish politics doesn’t offer a perfect parallel to the United States. But with Donald Trump’s regime settling into the White House, municipal politics—“rebel cities,” in the European mold—could prove a critical terrain to start wrestling the right’s power away, from the grassroots up to Congress come 2018. With even the most basic of labor protections likely to come under attack as privatization ramps up, Spain’s example illustrates a crucial and relatively simple point: community amidst the isolating future of work and life needn’t be a commodity for the few, or premised on exploitation, as in the WeWork model. Community can and should be about collective power and redistribution, taking back not just hours in the day but whole cities. Hell, there might even be free beer.
Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times and co-host of Dissent’s Hot & Bothered podcast on the politics of climate change.