“Don’t stop for lunch: be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead.”
The Mechanical Salesman, Modern Times dir. by Charlie Chaplin, 1936
It’s no coincidence that the dictatorial head of Electro Steel Corp. in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times strikes an uncanny resemblance to Henry Ford. The classic silent comedy from 1936 not only tells us about the state of Depression-era labor standards and the pitfalls of unfettered capitalism. It also reveals the unforgiving realities of working on the moving assembly line, one of the most transformative innovations in modern history. The film was inspired by Chaplin’s real-life rendezvous with the legendary factory boss in October 1923 at the Ford Motor Company in Highland Park, Michigan. During his visit, Chaplin learned that young men were plucked from neighboring farms and hired to work on Ford’s factory floor. As depicted in the film, many of these men succumbed to nervous breakdowns, a typical symptom of the breakneck tempo of both the assembly line and the industrial age.
Amazon, the country’s second largest employer, is well known for its similarly dehumanizing working conditions in which employees resort to peeing in bottles to make delivery quotas. In April, workers at the JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island voted to unionize, a historic feat propelled by workers who were facing strict productivity goals and pernicious high-tech surveillance practices by management.
According to a survey put out by the American Management Association, approximately 66 percent of U.S. companies monitor their employees’ internet usage, with at least 45 percent of companies logging keystrokes and 43 percent of companies tracking workers’ emails. Employees’ locations can even be tracked through the GPS feature of cell phones provided to workers by their employers. In a 2016 investigation by the Daily Mail in Glasgow, Amazon workers were described as “Amazombies” because of the extent to which they were surveilled. Workers faced disciplinary action if they ran behind schedule or took too long of a bathroom break.
Justine Medina, an organizer at JFK8, described the surveillance conditions at Amazon:
“If you’re away from your station for more than five minutes, the clock starts tracking you. And if you’re away from your station for more than 30 minutes, then you can get written up. So that’s cumulatively through your whole workday, which can be 10-12 hours. If you’re away from your station for more than five minutes, you start clocking toward that. But it can take you five minutes just to walk to the bathroom—especially, like I said, if you’re elderly or have some sort of disability or are just tired from being on your feet all day and moving really heavy things. You could get written up just for going to the bathroom.”
UPS’s surveillance program from 2009 is another example of modern tyrannical workplace surveillance. The company tailored their delivery trucks to have 200 sensors tracking the backup speeds and stop times of drivers, allowing UPS to figure out which workers were taking unapproved breaks and how many deliveries were being made in a day. With this system in place, from 2009-2013, the company was able to deliver 1.4 million more packages with 1,000 fewer drivers. These unrealistic standards, combined with lax safety and health standards, have resulted in chronic injuries for workers. One worker said the company had created a “culture of fear” by retaliating against those who reported their injuries.
Surveillance developments of the 21st century have replaced the traditional gaze of the supervisor on the industrial factory floor with an automated, digital one that continuously collects real-time data on living, breathing people. Even unionized workers do not have an explicit legal right to bargain over surveillance technologies; when it comes to the right to privacy, unions have an uphill battle to fight. We now live in a world where employees are stuck in a web of participatory surveillance because they consent to be monitored as a condition of employment. Today’s workplace surveillance practices, as in the case of Amazon, have become invasive and almost limitless. Technology has allowed employers an unprecedented ability to surveil workers. Management can minutely track and persistently push workers toward greater productivity at the risk of exacerbating harms to workers’ physical health, as the high rates of injury in Amazon warehouses show. And the growing business of selling workplace surveillance software has allowed for massive amounts of data to be collected on working people: when and who they talk to, how quickly they complete tasks, what they search for on their computers, how often they use the toilet, and even the state of their current health and moods.
There’s an old business adage by management guru Peter Drucker that explains the key to control: what gets measured, gets managed. In this case, workers are increasingly being micromanaged as every part of their labor is measured through surveillance for the purposes of productivity. And the overall cost of these practices is tremendous. Human dignity is sacrificed when workers are turned into faceless numbers in the equation to maximize profits. Some may interpret the skepticism of all-encompassing workplace surveillance as anti-tech, but in reality, it is simply an endeavor to restrain the zealotry of profit-makers and to restore the privacy, dignity, health, and well-being of workers.
The Origins of Modern Workplace Surveillance
Surveillance has long been essential to discipline and control workers. The practice is rooted in the transformation of the American workforce between the mid-19th to early 21st centuries when laborers moved from rural areas to industrializing cities to earn wages. According to historian Frank Morn, some businessmen in the mid-1850s saw a need for increased control over their workers. The rise of big business and more complex firms required greater managerial authority. The solution? A private detective agency. Private law enforcement magnate Allan Pinkerton determined this was the perfect market to capitalize on. In February 1855, Pinkerton and his attorney Edward Rucker formed the North-Western Policy Agency, which later became the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The agency arguably created a more aggressive form of worker surveillance, one that did not simply seek to observe the union activities of workers and report back to their employers. They also got involved in the intimate lives of workers at the behest of their employers. The agency was influential in establishing the blueprint for modern workplace surveillance and union-busting tactics.1
The Pinkertons performed “missionary work,” which entailed sending undercover spy operatives to incite dissent by any means necessary within union halls and carry out sabotage and intimidation tactics, all to disrupt labor activities. As organizer Kim Kelly wrote in 2020: “Throughout the Civil War era and in the decades after, Pinkerton operatives left their bloody mark on strikes, protests, and massacres, and gained a ruthless reputation for protecting the interests of capital by any means necessary.” One such lauded triumph they claim against the working class involved the infiltration of the union activities of the Molly Maguires, the first worker-only labor movement in the United States made up of Irish immigrant coal miners (Sean Connery starred in a 1970 film about them). The Maguires killed mining officials, foremen, owners, and policemen in the name of protecting exploited Irish workers and for their labor cause. Thanks in part to the Pinkertons’ infiltration efforts, numerous Molly Maguires were executed in 1877.
The Pinkertons took part in many high-profile, wholesale slaughters of workers. In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Pinkerton agents violently shut down a 70-day strike by railway workers that killed at least 100 people; they also helped the Colorado National Guard set a mining encampment ablaze during the Ludlow Massacre in 1914, killing at least 66 people. These massacres were only a couple examples of the violent acts perpetrated against unions and workers. The Pinkertons’ power grew to such an extent that the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893 was passed to curtail the government’s own ability to contract their services. Needless to say, this did not apply to private employers who were still hiring Pinkerton detectives with virtually no checks or balances.
The path to modern workplace surveillance continued with Frederick W. Taylor’s 1911 Principles of Scientific Management, which extolled the virtues of scientifically managing workers for the utmost productivity and profits, of which surveillance was a key feature. Taylor (1856-1915), the father of modern management theory, argued for more regimented supervision at work. In his influential book, Taylor argued that workers, by nature, would always put the least effort into their work without the benevolent, paternal supervision of management. He sought to eliminate “soldiering,” which involved individuals deliberately “working slowly so as to avoid doing a full day’s work.” This, to the indignant boss, constituted “the greatest evil with which working people … are now afflicted.”
As America joined the First World War in 1917, the government and other institutions fervently adopted Taylor’s techniques, which were proclaimed to be the “quintessential achievement in workplace efficiency,” according to Professor of Legal Studies in Business Robert Sprague. As John and Michael C. Wood’s book on Taylor describes, Taylor developed techniques that purposefully “sought to eliminate work practices that enabled workers to talk among themselves.” His notion of pre-planning “all the details of work was based on the notion that this would prevent workers from forming ‘little debating societies to decide upon their methods’” of work. Taylor argued that providing workers with clear, daily tasks would prevent workers from “discussing their grievances and … trying to devise remedies for them.”
Biographer Robert Kanigel, in an article on how Taylor refashioned modern life in his image, characterized Taylorism as an “unholy obsession with time, order, productivity, and efficiency that marks our age.” Through this new system of management, workers would be under constant surveillance by a manager with a stopwatch who would not only measure time, but judge, pry, and intrude on every aspect of their timetable. Such practices, argues historian Caitlin C. Rosenthal, harken back to the management practices of slave plantations in the United States and the West Indies. Rosenthal notes that Taylor’s scientific management system tried to reproduce “slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself.” Taylor was aware of this connection. He lamented the “unfortunate connection” between a worker’s given “task” (what is to be done, how it should be done, and the exact time allowed for the task to be done) and “slave-driving.”
Many workers agreed with Taylor’s assessment and saw their labor as a form of exploitation. In 1911, the same year The Principles of Scientific Management was published, union machinists subjected to harsh Taylorian conditions at Watertown Arsenal went on strike. For workers, the stopwatch was the epitome of Taylorism and his time studies. As Kanigel explains, it represented “a hideous invasion of privacy, an oppressive all-seeing eye that peered into their work lives, ripping at their dignity.” The workers also pushed for Congress to hold hearings on Taylorism—and Congress did just that.
The testimony from the hearings was full of references to workers being pushed to the brink as though they were machines. When a chairman of the committee asked a Taylorist “efficiency engineer” whether he would place a man in the same category as a typical machine, the engineer replied he would consider the man as a “little portable power plant … a mighty and delicate complicated machine.” The hearings revealed that Taylorism led to inhumane practices, casting doubt on the “science” behind the scientific management of work. Taylorism simply kept workers in a continuous state of distress and anxiety.
Taylorism also arguably set the stage for the advent of Fordism and empowered Henry Ford to develop the assembly line, leading to the revolutionary and infamous Five-Dollar Day wage experiment that required the close monitoring of workers’ hygiene and health, among other aspects of their lives, to conform to Ford’s American worker ideal. Sociologist Robert Linhart describes Ford’s methods of controlling and surveilling workers as “an application of the Taylor system to mass production.” One Ford machine worker in the 1920s even told a journalist at the time: “The machine I’m on goes at such a terrific speed that I can’t help stepping on it in order to keep up with the machine. It’s my boss.”
In the popular American imagination, Henry Ford holds an almost mythical status. Ford represented the rags-to-riches archetype of the poor farm boy who became a billionaire-industrialist-magnate through sheer discipline and spirit, the embodiment of the American Dream. He was the same man who invented the horseless carriage, after all. Although some christened him as “the industrial high priest” and “the high priest of efficiency,” Ford workers saw him as the man who created the foremost disease of the industrial age: “Forditis,” as it was called, signified “a nervous stomach and all parts of your body breaking down.” Ford’s development of the assembly line represented the dawn of the auto-industrialist age and allowed for mass production beyond anything that had ever been seen before. “If they can kill cows and pigs that way, we can build cars that way,” Ford supposedly said after witnessing the “disassembly” lines of Chicago meatpackers. By 1914, Ford’s cars were everywhere, but building more of them required a colossal workforce of approximately 14,000 workers.
The company had an extremely high turnover rate. In the prior year, it hired 52,000 people even though it already had 15,000 on its payroll. The monotonous and perilous factory work did not pay well at the time, and Ford’s factory was always in a “state of mass exodus,” a problem of factory work that still plagues companies such as Amazon today. To battle these turnover rates, Ford decided to double the minimum wage from $2.34 a day to $5 a day. The raise shook the automotive industry. Ford workers could now afford to “buy the cars they made.”
To qualify for the pay raise, workers had to demonstrate that they were model Americans. The Ford employee had to be “thrifty and continent,” “keep his home neat and his children healthy,” and had to be married if older than 22 years of age. Women were only eligible if they were single and had children to support, and married men were eligible only if they had wives who did not work outside the home. To this end, Ford created the Sociological Department within the company and staffed it with private inspectors who would keep workers in line by scrutinizing virtually every aspect of their lives. The investigators acted like detectives. They would show up unannounced to workers’ homes and interrogate them about their alcohol consumption, finances, the details of their marital relationships, and the general state of their homes.2
Many workers begrudgingly allowed these practices because their jobs depended on it. Ford’s morality enforcers from the Sociology Department made sure workers followed his stipulations to the letter, and this was ensured through close surveillance practices. If a worker couldn’t live up to Fordian standards, their pay was cut back to $2.34 and they were eventually fired if still unable to comply with standards after a six-month period. As noted by Tech Insider, in 1986, the New York Times wrote the following about Ford’s morality standards: “the irony was that in trying to make over his workers in terms of ‘Americanization’ and ‘Fordliness,’ Ford created a form of Big Brotherism that was closer to the totalitarian model.”
The worker surveillance practices of the Fordian era were, however, limited in scope and hindered by the technology of the time. Eventually, Ford had to end his monitoring of workers because it was both economically untenable and paternalistic.
For Ford’s workers, following a rigorously moral and hygienic way of living was worth it for a while to maintain eligibility for the Five-Dollar workday wage. For employees of the modern age, employability itself is at stake. As employers gather data on workers’ productivity, methods of communication, and movements both in and out of the workplace, technology in the 21st century has replaced the Panopticon, an instrument of discipline and punishment allowing the employer to surveil the employee just as the watchmen in Jeremy Bentham’s prison surveilled the prisoner from their circular tower.
Now, this Panoptic surveillance need only occur at the touch of a button.
The Employer Software Surveillance Boom
The COVID pandemic has allowed for an unprecedented turn to remote work. This has prompted companies around the world to invest in intrusive surveillance software to track and monitor the movements of their workers. The demand for surveillance software has jumped at least 58 percent since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago. The software certainly isn’t subtle when it comes to its purpose, as their names indicate: StaffCop, an employee monitoring company, allows for the monitoring of worker activity on company workstations and claims it protects against corporate data loss. Another monitoring software, Kickidler, calls itself the “new-generation employee monitoring software for analyzing employee performance at PCs,” and notes its software is used in 60 countries to “supervise employees and increase their productivity.”
Employers are also acquiring unregulated health and wellness metadata, social media activity, browsing histories, and large outputs of “predictive ‘big data’ analytics,” which means using statistics and modeling techniques to predict future performance. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Pulse (a science podcast), and Vox have reported, employers use software to read instant messages and emails, record app usage, view calendars, notes, and reminders, control desktops remotely, keylog what employees type and track with their mouses, monitor internet activity, and even record employees’ screens.
In 2015, a woman claimed in a lawsuit against her former employer that she was fired for deleting a tracking app on her phone installed by her employers that recorded all her movements, even those she made outside of work. According to court documents:
“She had no problem with the app’s GPS function during work hours, but she objected to the monitoring of her location during nonwork hours and complained to Stubits [Regional Vice President of Sales at the company] that this was an invasion of her privacy. She likened the app to a prisoner’s ankle bracelet and informed Stubits that his actions were illegal. Stubits replied that she should tolerate the illegal intrusion.”
While employees see invasive monitoring as intrusive, employers see it as the opposite. “Data creates a lot of clarity around decision-making,” said Sean Boyle of Amazon Web Services’ finance division, to the New York Times. “Data is incredibly liberating.”
Big Data is the New Oil
Big data refers to extraordinarily large data sets that are often analyzed computationally, revealing patterns, trends, and links, particularly as it relates to human behavior and interactions. Although the concept is fairly new, the first attempts to quantify the world’s growing volume of data go back to the ‘60s and ‘70s. The first data centers and relational databases, largely related to military and census data collecting, were just beginning to develop at the time, and the expansion of open-source frameworks was a watershed moment that made it easier and cheaper to store data. The striking value of data to industry combined with its impact on the environment (data storage uses significant amounts of energy) prompted British mathematician Clive Humby to declare data “the new oil.”
Businesses sit on a treasure trove of employee data. Big data analytics and the pursuit of data-driven insights about a company’s workforce involve creating and maintaining digital records of employees’ personal information and their most intimate movements, which is translated into actionable information for employers. It has also changed the nature and terms of work. Employers in various industries have turned to data-mining technology to analyze aspects of worker behavior in the workplace, and sometimes even outside of it. They leverage this data to help determine wages, schedules, promotions, and even terminations.
Employees are put at an incredible disadvantage by these technologies. The most obvious concern is worker privacy. But it gets worse than privacy infringement. When employers accumulate heaps of data about workers, this creates an “informational asymmetry” which serves as a “power-multiplier for management, with no counter-balance for workers.” Companies simply have “too much power” over workers’ information. In today’s world, algorithms can preemptively pick out employees who are most likely to engage in union organizing, talk to journalists, protest stagnation in pay, or even quit their jobs. Sometimes, companies know more about their employees than their own families do, from browsing history to purchasing preferences, hidden hobbies, and other interests. And while some workers may appreciate insights provided by data to improve their work performance and address safety issues, this asymmetry of knowledge demonstrably obstructs worker mobilization and ultimately limits working class power.
Lisa Kresge, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center, notes that unions have an extensive history of negotiating how management can wield technology in the workplace. She has cited the 1950s and ‘60s, times in which unions bargained over job displacement and layoffs caused by the automation of assembly lines and negotiated for proactive communication about new technologies in the workplace. With the acceleration of computer and internet technologies in the ’80s and ’90s, unions also began to argue against data derived from electronic monitoring to discipline workers. The Package Division of the Teamsters, which represents UPS workers, has, for example, bargained over not allowing surveillance data to be the sole means by which an employee is terminated (UPS has found ways around this, however).
Despite the history of unions resisting workplace monitoring, labor market policy analyst Kathryn Zickuhr argues bluntly that the pervasive implementation of workplace surveillance is “the new normal for U.S. workers.” In the United States, federal protections against this type of surveillance are limited and inadequate, and employees are often left to guess how their data will be collected and used. Some states have tried to push for more data transparency on employees. The California State Assembly’s “Workplace Technology Accountability Act” is a proposed piece of legislation that would “establish much needed, yet reasonable, limitations on how employers use data-driven technology at work.” In New York, effective May 2022, employers are required to provide notice to private-sector employees of electronic monitoring practices.
As Kresge observes, unions in the U.S. are currently in the throes of negotiating for limitations on how data can be used by employers and against the unnecessary uses of countless surveillance technologies in the workplace, from accumulating employee biometric information to GPS tracking during non-work hours. Amazon’s first union was largely galvanized due to unfair labor practices associated with employee surveillance, and the company has, predictably, responded by firing pro-union workers. How companies use technology to monitor workers is quickly becoming an important talking point in unionizing efforts.
Although some recent data indicate some employees may accept the all-encompassing, Big Brother-like surveillance techniques of the modern workplace, leading surveillance studies scholar Ivan Manokha argues there are legitimate reasons why workers may not openly oppose this surveillance. The fear of losing their job, of how they would be perceived by managers, or the fear of compromising their career trajectories are all reasons that can explain why some employees have accepted workplace monitoring as the inevitable norm.
Modern working conditions are bad for our health. American workers are already overworked and underpaid compared to those in peer nations. Too many workers lack paid vacation, and the country has no mandatory paid parental leave or universal child care provisions, effectively making any semblance of work-life balance impossible, particularly for the working class. Punitive technology in the workplace creates a public health crisis. Research shows that stressful jobs can negatively impact health and even cause chronic headaches, nausea, and insomnia. One 2021 study found a strong link between the level of workplace exploitation and the deterioration of mental health. Workplace surveillance has also been cited in a report by Human Impact Partners, an advocacy and research group that bridges public health with social justice, as “a key culprit in pushing workers into mental and physical health distress,” particularly for workers at Amazon, Lyft, and Uber. As Courtenay Brown, a worker at Amazon Fresh warehouse in Avenel, New Jersey, put it, the company can “see everything you do, and it’s all to their benefit. … They don’t value you as a human being. It’s demeaning.”
In the context of Amazon’s “data-driven management” of employees, numerous current and former Amazon employees who had white-collar jobs described their experience as Darwinian, as employees with health issues were put on “performance improvement plan[s]” or “judged harshly instead of being given time to recover.” Bo Olson, who was in a book marketing role at Amazon for less than two years, told the New York Times that the most memorable image of his time at the company was of coworkers weeping. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face. Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
In a 2015 report on the human costs of workplace monitoring for Harper’s, Esther Kaplan writes that a UPS spokesperson told her that the monitoring of employees had improved workplace safety due to near-perfect seatbelt use. But the UPS drivers she spoke to recounted a different story. Workers said they buckled their seat belts behind them so that the running monitoring program would pick them up as wearing seatbelts when they really weren’t. Some workers misdelivered packages and even drove with the backdoor of their trucks open, rushing to make quotas at the expense of their safety and the safety of those around them. “People get intimidated and they work faster,” a worker told Kaplan. “It’s like when they whip animals. But this is a mental whip.”
Resisting the Devil’s Bargain
As Sam Adler-Bell and Michelle Miller put it:
“For consumers, the digital age presents a devil’s bargain: in exchange for basically unfettered access to our personal data, massive corporations like Amazon, Google, and Facebook give us unprecedented connectivity, convenience, personalization, and innovation. Scholars have exposed the dangers and illusions of this bargain: the corrosion of personal liberty, the accumulation of monopoly power, the threat of digital redlining [when Internet companies underinvest in the provision of services to lower-income communities], [and] predatory ad-targeting.”
This same devil’s bargain is happening in our workplaces, and workers deserve more protections. While some workers are using anti-surveillance techniques of their own to trick monitoring software, like using mouse-moving apps that periodically move your mouse to make it look like you’re constantly online, individual hacks are not going to cut it.
Employers ought to be barred from using most, if not all, intrusive workplace surveillance techniques that micromanage workers (Amazon logging keyboard and mouse strokes or companies using eye-tracking systems, for example). The bare minimum might be for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to deem these surveillance tactics as unfair and as an infringement on the organizing rights of workers. We also need legislation requiring employers divulge the extent to which a place of work is surveilled and the particular activities the surveillance is meant to deter. But even this is not enough. Merely notifying employees of these practices simply gives surveillance a friendly face: it would be like someone asking for permission to come into your home without waiting for an answer. Whenever privacy and human dignity is at stake—as it is in the workplace, where most of us spend significant portions of our lives—we ought to err on the side of more protections, not fewer. It should go without saying that there should also be no debate over whether employers should be allowed to monitor employees outside of work.
We must support local unionization efforts when we can, as union participation is one of the few ways workers can fight back against dystopian working conditions. (Amazon has warehouses all over the U.S., and workers for Amazon or other companies may be organizing near you.) The Teamsters, for instance, are considering a strike if UPS is unwilling to meet their demands for improved working conditions in their 2023 contract. As extreme heat impacted the U.S. this past summer, UPS workers, many driving trucks and working in warehouses without air conditioning, have been sickened with heatstroke. One worker died in his truck, according to In These Times. “Workers say their trucks need air conditioning to do their jobs safely, but UPS is focused instead on installing truck surveillance cameras.”
Workplace surveillance is here to stay for the unforeseen future, but this regime cannot be left unchecked. Countering big data wielded by American businesses must be understood as an all-out struggle for our humanity and our right to a dignified work experience.
Martin Jay Levitt, in his 1993 book, Confessions of a Union Buster, wrote: “To stop a union proponent—a pusher, in the anti-union lexicon—the [union] buster will go anywhere, not just to the lunchroom, but into the bedroom if necessary. The buster not only is a terrorist; he is also a spy. My team and I routinely pried into workers’ police records, personnel files, credit histories, medical records, and family lives in search of a weakness that we could use to discredit union activists.” ↩
In Richard Snow’s I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford, a worker defiantly tells one of Ford’s hired private investigators, John Lee, that he would like to buy a car. Lee asks the worker if he has enough money, if he has a family, if his furniture is fully paid for or if he’s still paying off his loans, and whether the worker has insurance. The worker answers all his questions in the affirmative, making him eligible to buy a Ford car. Mr. Lee tells the worker to go ahead and buy the car. The worker tells Mr. Lee: “Thanks, Lee. Oh, by the way, Mr. Lee, my wife is going to have another baby. I’m going to buy a Buick.” ↩