It is an open secret that workers are immiserated in both take-home pay and in spirit. That the lives of those whose labor becomes profit should be miserable is not a result, of course, of widespread sadism. That would be barbaric. No, it’s for the sake of returns, progress, and supporting the local Subway sandwich shop. It is, in a nutshell, simply the ruthless workaday logic of capitalism. Owners and bosses wish to extract maximum efficiency from workers. To extract as much value from labor, with as little pay as possible, extra work hours must be squeezed out of people whenever possible. Workplaces must be surveilled to keep employees in line, and workers must pay for their own commute in time and money if it serves the company to have them on site.
The resulting world is one in which rampant exploitation and draconian work arrangements are very necessary indeed. And that is why owners and bosses are keen to limit or eliminate remote work. They dislike remote work for the exact same reason that they dislike the idea of democratizing the workplace.
The Lost Promise of the Remote Work Revolution
Writing in the Globe and Mail last week, Vanmala Subramaniam, the paper’s future of work correspondent, took a dive into “the remote work revolution that never took place.” Throughout the pandemic, as workers who could do so spent more time away from the office working at home, the notion of a new way of laboring became mainstream. Many workers could stay home and do their jobs — just as well, if not better than they had before — and enjoyed doing so. It offered more flexibility and eliminated awful commutes. You didn’t have to eat your lunch at your desk or in a cramped break room or in a mall food court.
Working from home wasn’t a new concept that emerged during the pandemic, but after the arrival of COVID, it had finally scaled up. As it did, work-from-home arrangements not only proved the concept that such a setup was feasible, but showed that it worked just fine, in the long term, for most of those who could do so — and the economy didn’t collapse because of it.
As the pandemic chugs along, diminished but persistent, some continue to work from home full-time or in a hybrid model, with some days at home and some days spent at the office. As Subramaniam points out, hybrid work options are becoming more common compared to full remote work arrangements.
Working from home isn’t an option for everyone, or even for most people. Service workers, manufacturing laborers, and so many others have no choice but to work from the jobsite. Their labor requires them to be on-site, wherever that site may be, stocking shelves, caring for patients, or delivering goods. They ought to be compensated for the fact that they have no option to work from home, just as they ought to also have democratic control over their working conditions.
But the fact that not everyone can work from home does not mean that no one should. Indeed, opponents of working from home may try to divide and conquer this way, sowing discord by arguing that since many can’t work from home, no one should. They are the opponents of solidarity.
These opponents include bosses and owners who have their own ends in mind, but they include other voices, too. These are the selfsame who oppose unions and resent public sector bargaining. They represent a failure to recognize the collective benefits unions generate for the many. These opinions, however, are hardly surprising in a world in which anti-labor sentiment is ubiquitous — from dark money union-busting campaigns to the editorial viewpoint of national papers.
Let Workers Decide
There’s no sense in which working from home ends exploitation within a capitalist framework — it doesn’t fundamentally shift who controls the workplace, who sets the rules, who watches whom, or who makes a profit off whose back. But it does provide workers with a bit more freedom, a bit more time to live their lives without having to commute and be sucked into an extra minute or fifteen of work here and there.
By allowing labor to decide for itself, making remote work an option recognizes the diverse preferences, styles, and needs of individuals. It signifies a shift toward a more democratic workspace and society, empowering people to have greater autonomy in shaping their lives and work.
Not all work can always be done at home, even for the many for whom working from home is a regular option. There are benefits of on-site work in certain cases. This is worth keeping in mind. Imagine a utopian counterfactual in which workplaces were democratized and not exploited by bosses and owners. Perhaps workers would choose, collectively, to keep some people on-site for building solidarity, keeping neighborhoods vibrant, in-person socializing, and so forth.
It is undeniably the case that some workers have suffered profound isolation and loneliness working from home. And downtown cores in many cities have become ghost towns as a result of remote work. But the difference in the scenario drawn here is that workers could weigh the pros and cons of collective-action problems like abandoned city centers — just as they could likewise choose for and among themselves when and how to work, and thus how to live their own lives alongside others who are choosing how to live theirs.
A Struggle Worth Having
A recent strike by federal public service workers in Canada centered on both pay and remote-work arrangements. As Graham Lowe, Karen D. Hughes, and Jim Stanford argued in a recent op-ed, these striking civil servants helped secure work from home as a job norm. They managed to get a deal with the government, outside of the collective agreement, to negotiate remote-work deals case by case.
That may turn out fine for some. But it’s a risky approach that leaves workers stuck having to negotiate ad hoc arrangements with bosses and owners instead of deciding for and among themselves. In this arrangement, worker needs and well-being will always be second to the needs of those with whom they negotiate. And negotiations will be made from a position of weakness, sundered from the collective strength of the many. Not all workers are going to be able to negotiate as well as the rest. Some will be left behind. Outcomes will be unequal. In that sense, the public service’s deal isn’t even close to ideal. In the absence of genuinely democratic workplaces, advocating solely for the freedom to work remotely amounts to a mere partial solution. That does not mean, however, that it is not a struggle worth engaging in.
The remote-work debate is essentially a power struggle to determine who has the authority to define work conditions. It revolves around the conflict between individual well-being and the right of workers to make choices, versus the objectives of bosses and owners, whose interests diverge sharply from the best interests of their employees. While remote work will not in and of itself end exploitation or fully transform power relations between management and labor, it is a front of the battle between an overbearing, surveillant, exploitative class and those who it seeks to control. And it is a front on which labor ought to give its all as it tries to secure better arrangements for all workers.