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Harry Braverman, “Service occupations and retail trade”

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Service occupations and retail trade”

Harry Braverman

Chapter 16, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Review Press, 1974. [PDF]

The giant mass of workers who are relatively homogeneous as to lack of developed skill, low pay, and interchangeability of person and function (although heterogeneous in such particulars as the site and nature of the work they perform) is not limited to offices and factories. Another huge concentration is to be found in the so-called service occupations and in retail trade. We have already discussed, particularly in Chapter 13, “The Universal Market,” the reasons for the rapid growth of service occupations in both the corporate and governmental sectors of the economy: the completion by capital of the conquest of goods-producing activities; the displacement of labor from those industries, corresponding to the accumulation of capital in them, and the juncture of these reserves of labor and capital on the ground of new industries; and the inexorable growth of service needs as the new shape of society destroys the older forms of social, community, and family cooperation and self-aid. Now we must examine the labor processes of the service occupations themselves more closely.

“A service,” Marx pointed out, “is nothing more than the useful effect of a use-value, be it of a commodity, or be it of labour.”1 The worker who is employed in producing goods renders a service to the capitalist, and it is as a result of this service that a tangible, vendible object takes shape as a commodity. But what if the useful effects of labor are such that they cannot take shape in an object? Such labor must be offered directly to the consumer, since production and consumption are simultaneous. The useful effects of labor, in such cases, do not serve to make up a vendible object which then carries its useful effects with it as part of its existence as a commodity. Instead, the useful effects of labor themselves become the commodity. When the worker does not offer this labor directly to the user of its effects, but instead sells it to a capitalist, who re-sells it on the commodity market, then we have the capitalist form of production in the field of services.  Such a strict or scientific definition of services is far more limited than the usual use of the term by statistical agencies, such as the bureaus of the census and of labor statistics in the United States. For example, restaurant labor, which cooks, prepares, assembles, serves, cleans dishes and utensils, etc., carries on tangible production just as much as labor employed in many another manufacturing process; the fact that the consumer is sitting nearby at a counter or table is the chief distinction, in principle, between this industry and those food-processing industries which are classified under “manufacturing.” Laundry workers, workers in cleaning and pressing establishments, workers in automobile repair shops and in machine servicing or repair work of other sorts perform the same sort of work as many workers in manufacturing industries, and they are classified, occupationally, in the same way, but the Bureau of the Census classifies them in service industries.*

* Stigler has pointed out that in this respect the census practice has changed, and that early in the century all such workers in power laundries, automobile repair shops, and other repair and servicing industries were included in manufacturing, whereas today they are included in service industries. As he notes, this change in statistical practice, when applied to such rapidly growing industries as these, has in itself accounted for a significant part of the shift from “manufacturing” to “services” in the statistics used for long-run comparisons.2 Today, hand and machine finish pressers, when employed by makers of clothing, are counted as manufacturing workers, but when employed by dry-cleaning plants they are workers in service industries, although the difference in the form of labor is slight; the chief difference is in rates of pay, which is substantially lower in the service industries.3 The same holds true for a great variety of craftsmen whose work in fabrication is distinguished from repair and servicing; and in fact even when they do the very same work of repair and servicing they are counted as manufacturing workers only when this is done as plant maintenance work.

Workers in transportation are often regarded as workers in a “service” industry, but if the location of a commodity is taken as an important physical characteristic, transportation is a part of the process of production. And if we do not take this view we fall into insuperable difficulties, because we are forced to extend the distinction between “making” and “moving” back into the factory, where many workers do not playa role in fashioning the object with their own hands but merely move it through the plant, or through the process. The distinction so applied becomes meaningless and even ridiculous. Chambermaids are classed as service workers, but their labors are not always different, in principle, from those of many manufacturing workers in that they take shape in a tangible result. When the chambermaids in hotels and motels, or the aides in hospitals and other institutions, make beds they do an assembly operation which is not different from many factory assembly occupations—-a fact recognized by management when it conducts motion and time studies of both on the same principles-and the result is a tangible and vendible commodity. Does the fact that porters, charwomen, janitors, or dishwashers perform their cleaning operations not on new goods that are being readied at the factory or construction sites for their first use, but on constantly reused buildings and utensils render their labor different in principle, and any less tangible in form, from that of manufacturing workers who do the factories’ final cleaning, polishing, packaging, and so forth?

These are only some of the many difficulties that arise from the attempts to draw strict classifications of the labor in capitalist society on the basis of its determinate form-the particular operations it pursues. They merely illustrate the principle that for capitalism, what is important is not the determinate form of labor but its social form, its capacity to produce, as wage labor, a profit for the capitalist. The capitalist is indifferent to the particular form of labor; he does not care, in the last analysis, whether he hires workers to produce automobiles, wash them, repair them, repaint them, fill them with gasoline and
rent them by the day, drive them for hire, park them, or convert them into scrap metal. His concern is the difference between the price he pays for an aggregate of labor and other commodities, and the price he receives for the commodities–whether goods or “services”–produced or rendered.

From this point of view, the distinction between commodities in the form of goods and commodities in the form of services is important only to the economist or statistician, not to the capitalist. What counts for him is not the determinate form of the labor, but whether it has been drawn into the network of capitalist social relations, whether the worker who carries it on has been transformed into a wage-worker, and whether the labor of the worker has been transformed into productive labor-that is, labor which produces a profit for capital. Beds were made, floors were scrubbed, food prepared and served, children minded, the sick tended long before people were hired to do any of these things. And even after the hiring of servants to do them had begun, these activities were of no interest to the capitalist except in terms of his comfort and household expenses. They became of interest to him as a capitalist when he began to hire people to do services as a profitable activity, a part of his business, a form of the capitalist mode of production. And this began on a large scale only with the era of monopoly capitalism which created the universal marketplace and transformed into a commodity every form of the activity of humankind including what had heretofore been the many things that people did for themselves or for each other. With this began the changed attitude of the capitalist toward service labor, a change which can be seen both in his own massive ventures into the field and, on the ideological side, in the change in the view of service labor taken by economists.

Thus, service occupations have formed a large share in the social division of labor throughout the capitalist era-not to speak of earlier times–but they have not formed a “productive” or profitable part until recently. The multitude of personal servants was, in the early period of capitalism, both a heritage of feudal and semi-feudal relations in the form of a vast employment furnished by the landowning aristocracy, and a reflection of the riches created by the Industrial Revolution in the form of similar employment furnished by capitalists and the upper middle class. In the United States in 1820, according to the first occupational census, employment in domestic and personal services was three-fourths as great as the combined employment of the manufacturing, mining, fishing, and lumbering industries; even in 1870 such employment was not much less than half as great as these nonagricultural employments.4 (A statistician who calculated the amount of domestic and personal service employment as a percent of the popUlation between 1820 and 1920 found it remarkably stable, in the range between 4.5 and 6 percent.i In England, according to the census of 1861, more than 1.2 million people were employed as servants, and this does not include male or female servants on farms. This, as Marx pointed out, was greater than the total employment in the textile and metal-working industries. *

*This is cited by Marx, significantly, in the section of Capital called “The Theory of Compensation as Regards the Workpeople Displaced by Machinery…6 In his Theories of Surplus Value, this thought is rendered more fully: “According to the latest report or 1862), on the factories, the total number of persons (managers included) employed in the factories properly so called of the United Kingdom was only 775,534, while the number of female servants in England alone amounted to 1 million. What a convenient arrangement it is that makes a factory girl to sweat twelve hours in a factory, so that the factory proprietor, with a part of her unpaid labour, can take into his personal service her sister as maid, her brother as groom and her cousin as soldier or policeman! 7

But from the capitalist point of view, such employment was not an addition to national wealth or income, but a deduction from it. This view, as set forth by classical political economy and especially in Adam Smith, had nothing to do with the nature of the duties performed by these workers (although this point was sometimes confused) but arose rather from the fact that these duties were not performed under the auspices of capital qua capital. It was not when he was accumulating capital that the capitalist employed service labor, but when he was spending his profits. “Thus,” said Adam Smith, “the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance and of his master’s profit. The labour of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing…. A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers: he grows poor, by maintaining a multitude of menial servants.” And so zealous was Adam Smith in his pursuit of this point that he turned it against all “service” labor in general and found the fault to be not in the fact that the master was so foolish as to employ servants instead of investing in more workers, but rather in the fact that “service” labor did not congeal into a tangible commodity. The clarification of this error on Smith’s part occupies many pages of Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value. Smith’s modern editor, Edwin Cannan, more familiar with the profitable uses to which service labor can be put, corrected him by pointing out that “this is only true when the manufacturers are employed to produce commodities for sale and when the menial servants are employed merely for the comfort of the employer. A man may and often does grow poor by employing people to make ‘particular subjects or vendible commodities’ for his own consumption, and an innkeeper may and often does grow rich by employing menial servants.”8

In modern bourgeois economics, service labor which does not in Adam Smith’s words “fix or realize itself in any particular subject or vendible commodity” is no longer held in disfavor, but is rather, since it has been developed as a prime source of profit, celebrated. Colin Clark found “the most important concomitant of economic progress” to be ”the movement of the working population from agriculture to manufacture and from manufacture to commerce and services.,,9 Few economists would today call service labor “unproductive”–except when performed by the worker on his or her own account, as the housewife does at home. Instead, they tend to extol service as the characteristic form of production of our time, superior to manufacturing and with a greater future before it. In this we see a continuation of the succession of economic theories which assigned the most productive role to the particular form of labor that was most important or growing most rapidly at the time: the mercantilists to labor which brought precious metals into the country; the physiocrats to agricultural labor; the classical economists to manufacturing labor.

In the history of capitalism, while one or another form of productive labor may play a greater role in particular eras, the tendency is toward the eradication of distinctions among its various forms. Particularly in the era of monopoly capitalism, it makes little sense to ground any theory of the economy upon any specially favored variety of labor process. As these varied forms come under the auspices of capital and become part of the domain of profitable investment, they enter for the capitalist into the realm of general or abstract labor, labor which enlarges capital In the modern corporation, all forms of labor are employed without distinction, and in the modern “conglomerate” corporation some divisions carry on manufacturing, others carry on trade, others banking, others mining, and still others “service” processes. All live peacefully together, and in the final result as recorded in balance sheets the forms of labor disappear entirely in the forms of value.

The service occupations (excluding private household employment, which has not grown in the form of servants directly hired, and is being replaced by commercial companies which contract to perform household cleaning) now include a mass of labor some nine times larger than the million workers they accounted for at the turn of the century. This represents a much more rapid growth than that of employment as a whole, which in the same period (1900-1970), less than tripled. *

*Because the term “service labor” is used by statistical agencies of the United States in two different connotations, one industrial and the other occupational, the following distinction must be kept in mind: The Commerce Department groups enterprises according to a Standard Industrial Classification, and the broad groups within this classification, such as Agriculture, Manufacturing, Mining, Trade, etc. include a group called Service Industries. Occupational figures for this group of industries are available, and employment in the group is sometimes referred to as “service employment.” But this employment includes workers in a great many occupations: in 1970 it included more than 3 million clerical workers, over a million craftsmen, another million operatives, and almost 7.5 million professional and technical employees; at the same time, it did not include all the service occupations, but only about three-quarters of them, the rest being scattered through all the other industrial classifications. To confuse labor in so-called “service industries” with the service occupations would mean, therefore, to duplicate much of the employment that has been and will be herein discussed in other connections. Our present discussion therefore deals only with those workers who are grouped in the occupational statistics as service workers, and not those so grouped in the industrial statistics.

The nature of these occupations and the labor processes which they carry on will be readily understood from the listing as given in the 1970 census. 10

To this 9 million should be added, as workers of the same general classification and wage level, that portion of sales workers employed in retail trade, or some 3 million out of the total of5.5 million sales workers of all kinds (the rest being employed in wholesale trade, as manufacturers’ representatives, and as salesmen of advertising, insurance, real estate, stocks and bonds, etc., and thus representing a different order of work). These service and retail sales workers, taken together, account for a massive total of more than 12 million workers.

The occupations classified in these two categories require little description and analysis because they are conducted, for the most part, in the public eye, and the labor tasks assigned to most of them are readily visualized. In the case of almost every occupation in the service and retail groups the mass of labor is drawn into these growing fields of employment from a vast pool of common labor which is made available by the relative falling off of employment in other fields. The average pay scales confirm this: the median of the usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers in the service occupations is lower than that of any occupational group except farmworkers. In May 1971 it was $91 a week (if one includes the half-million private household workers; excluding these it was $96), as against $115 for clerical workers, $117 for laborers (nonfarm), and $120 for operatives. In the same month, the median for full-time retail sales workers was $95, which in terms of pay located that grouping closer to the service occupation than to any other major occupational category. 11

Except for the special cases of police and firemen, the incidence of developed skill, knowledge, and authority in the labor processes of society is naturally very small in these categories, and can be found only in that small layer of housekeepers and stewards who have the function of superintending institutional labor, and among the tiny number of cooks who practice the art on the chef level. Those who supervise labor in institutions correspond to the foremen who supervise factory labor, or to lower-level managers having the same function in every labor process. Chefs and cooks of superior grades, the highest skill of the service category, offer an instructive instance of the manner in which an ancient and valuable craft is being destroyed even in its last stronghold, luxury and gourmet cooking. The technological means employed in this case is that of food freezing, including its more recent forms, flash freezing and drying at sub-zero temperatures, and cryogenic freezing at temperatures at least 300 degrees below zero. In such processes, cell walls are destroyed and texture and flavor damaged. Moreover, pre-cooked frozen foods tend in the long run to be more expensive than fresh foods because of the expensive equipment required for freezing, transporting these foods in a frozen state, and thawing them in microwave or convection pressure ovens. That moneyed clienteles now pay “luxury prices for slot machine food” — so that a rack of lamb ordered rare in a famous Connecticut inn is brought to the table cold and the client told that rare lamb must be cold — is not what concerns us here. More to the point is the manner in which a precious craft is destroyed and how this destructive tendency feeds on itself. As in so many other fields of work, the simplification and rationalization of skills in the end destroy these skills, and, with the skills becoming ever more scarce, the new processes become ever more inevitable-because of the shortage of skilled labor! The food editor of the New York Times wrote, in describing this process:

Many restaurant owners say the shortage and high price of skilled help are major reasons they turn to frozen food. But kitchen wages are among the  lowest in all industries, and the shortage of help may be a result, rather than a cause, of conditions in the trade.
A reader says his wife applied for a job with the Stouffer’s chain and was told that they didn’t need any cooks, only “thawer-outers.” An executive acknowledged that the chain was “not a chef system but a food management system.” 13

So far as retail trade is concerned, it is worth noting that although the “skills” of store operations have long since been disassembled and in all decisive respects vested in management, * a revolution is now being prepared which will make of retail workers, by and large, something closer to factory operatives than anyone had ever imagined possible.

*In 1892, F. W. Woolworth wrote in a letter to his store managers: “We must have cheap help or we cannot sell cheap goods.” 14 Chain stores in the notion and novelty, as well as in the food trades, and nationwide mail order houses, pioneered the fractionalization of retail labor.

In retail food trading, for example, the demand for the all-around grocery clerk, fruiterer and vegetable dealer, dairyman, butcher, and so forth has long ago been replaced by a labor configuration in the supermarkets which calls for truck unloaders, shelf stockers, checkout clerks, meat wrappers, and meatcutters; of these, only the last retain any semblance of skill, and none require any general knowledge of retail trade. The use of mechanical equipment for the shelving, display, and sale of commodities has thus far remained in a primitive state, in part because of the ready availability of low-cost labor and in part because of the nature of the process itself. With the perfecting of a number of computerized semi-automatic checkout systems, however, an increasing number of national chains in retail trade-in other fields as well as in food marketing—have committed themselves to their present cash-register systems with new systems that, they estimate, will almost double the number of customers handled by each checkout clerk in a time. The system will require affixing to each item a tag or label which carries the proper stock number (a universal ten-digit code has been adopted by the food industry) and perhaps a price, printed in characters which may be recognized by an optical scanner. Thus the clerk will  pass the item over the scanner (or hold a scanner lens to the tag), and the register will transmit the operation to a computer which can either supply the price or check it against the current price list. The effects of this system on inventory control, quick and general price changes, and sales reporting to a central point require no comment. But the checkout counter then adopts as its own the assembly line or factory pace in its most complete form. The “production” of each register can be controlled from a single central station and laggards noted for future action; and, since no knowledge of prices is required, the production speed of a checkout clerk can be pegged at the highest level within a few hours after that clerk has begun the job, instead of the few weeks of learning time that are now allowed. Of course, the slowest operation will then become that of bagging, and various mechanical systems which will eliminate the separate “bagger” and enable the checkout clerk to sweep the item over the optical scanner and into the bag with a single motion are being devised and tested.15

The trend to automatic filling stations, where the customer, in return for a small saving, fills his or her own tank while the transaction is monitored on a screen in the station is also worth mentioning, if only for the manner in which it combines a displacement of labor with a shift from male to female labor; the new gasoline station attendants are generally “girls,” who, as everyone knows, offer a further saving to the thrifty employer.

As a quick glance at the list of service occupations will make apparent, the bulk of the work is concentrated in two areas: cleaning and building care, and kitchen work and food service. Female workers outnumber male, as in retail sales work. Training prerequisites for most of these occupations are minimal, a job ladder leading upward is virtually nonexistent, and unemployment rates are higher than average. In this occupational category are found the housekeeping jobs of a society of concentrated life and labor that masses workers and residents in multiple-dwelling units, giant office blocks, and immense factory units, and which thus develops extraordinary requirements for cleaning, caretaking, and catering. We see here the obverse face of the heralded “service economy,” which is supposed to free workers from the tyranny of industry, call into existence a “higher order” of educated labor, and transform the condition of the average man. When this picture is drawn by enthusiastic publicists and press agents of capitalism (with or without advanced degrees in sociology and economics), it is given a semblance of reality by reference to professional occupations. When numbers are required to lend mass to the conception, the categories of clerical, sales, and service workers are called upon. But these workers are not asked to show their diplomas, their pay stubs, or their labor processes. *

* We may note here that according to sociological surveys–take them for what they are worth-job dissatisfaction, “negative attitudes toward work and life,” while high among workers in manufacturing and in machine trades, are much higher among workers in service, clerical, and sales jobs.”16

1. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I (Moscow, n.d.), p. 187.

2. George J. Stigler, Trends in Output and Employment (New York, 1947), p. 23.

3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics 1969 (Washington, 1969), pp. 242-43, 257.

4. P. K. Whelpton, “Occupational Groups in the United States, 1820-1920,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, vol. XXI (September 1926), p.339.

5. Ibid., p. 341.

6. Marx, Capital, vol. I, pp. 420-21.

7. Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, Part I (Moscow, 1963), p. 201.

8. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York, 1937), p. 314.

9. Colin Clark, The Conditions of Economic Progress (London, 1940), p. 176.

10. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Population: 1970, Final Report PC(2)7 A, Occupational Characteristics (Washington, D.c., 1973), pp. 10-11.

11. Paul O. Flaim and Nicholas I. Peters, “Usual Weekly Earnings of American Workers,” Monthly Labor Review (March 1972), p. 33.

12. John L. Hess, “Restaurant Food: Frozen, Cooked, Then Refrozen and Recooked,” New York Times, August 16, 1973.

13. Ibid.

14. Edward C. Kirkland, Industry Comes ofAge: Business, Labor, and Public Policy, 1860-1897 (New York, 1962), p. 271.

15. John D. Morris, “Revolution Near at Check-Out Counter,” New York Times, May 21, 1973/; Alan Eck, “The Great American Cornucopia,” Occupational Outlook Quarterly (Fall 1973).

16. Harold L. Sheppard and Neal Q. Herrick, Where Have All the Robots Gone?: Worker Dissatisfaction in the ’70s (New York and London, 1972), p. 5; see also Appendix A, p. 193.

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