Work Allegiance

Work allegiance is a concept that refers to the engagement of employees and employers in the activities they carry out while on the job so that they can go on with these activities. That is aside from the motivation to do the job that is created by its remuneration, which is the reason most people go to their jobs whether they like them or not. Work allegiance has to do with the features of the job that are satisfactory or pleasing and so lead people to be able to get through the day, however much they also count the minutes until they can line up in front of the time clock and punch out for the day. Even slaves need some measure of work allegiance so that they can work through the day and go home to their families rather than just sit down in the fields and die. Work allegiance is the concept that looks at work in the exact opposite way than does the concept of work alienation, which was so much in favor among a previous generation of sociologists,who were concerned with how workers were disengaged from their work, just measuring out the time they had to operate as if they were machines while enduring their task of servicing machines. That was the kind of work that dominated the industrial age.

Organizational psychologists can point out the numerous things that make a workplace “livable”. There is the workplace: an office or a cubby where one’s desk is festooned with family pictures and some mementos and dodads that crowd a set of in and out boxes, at one time, or, nowadays, a computer that contains the visual representation of all those boxes and the files that were in them. This little space you control is akin to the shop of which you are a proprietor, or the machine on the factory floor to which you return day after day, or the ward on which you serve as a nurse. It has the familiarity of a place where drama takes place (or not) and will be your worksite for decades or until you retire and so as familiar to you as your apartment or your church. Secondly, there are your colleagues, those coworkers who you “don’t mind” seeing every work day for years at a time and the coming or going of these coming to mark stages of your work life. You may or may not socialize with them after work because they are, after all, “just” fellow workers, even if you josh with them or confide in them about family matters. Their children get older, and that marks that your own life is moving on, year after year passing while you are on the job. There is, thirdly, the platform your workplace provides you to perform to your own satisfaction and the satisfaction of others when you sling a fish across spaces in the Seattle Market or offer up a lecture or operate on a patient or fix a broken pipe. Each of these are accomplishments even if you have been so long at it that doing it one more time is no big deal, which is a good thing, because no one wants a doctor to be nervous before an operation. And there may even be something a bit out of the routine, some drama that enlivens the workplace, like a strike, or a student saying something particularly intelligent, or a tricky dental procedure to perform on a patient.

These social psychological observations, however, can be put in the social structural context of how work in an organizational setting, whether that is mine or factory or tech campus, is different from other things. A conflict emerges between a work organization where motivation is provided by salaries and fringe benefits and by the work environment, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by the more traditional kind of communities, whether religious or ethnic or familial, that also motivate and provide life satisfactions for their membership. Organizational culture is achieved rather than ascribed; universal in its application of principle rather than particularistic; rational rather than affective. This is so even though it was Christianity that introduced these ideas that salvation was an accomplishment rather than the ascription of a group property. Churches also nurtured the sense of what a work force should feel towards its work organization. The Protestant Ethic does this job for entrepreneurs and for management while what we now call “the work ethic”, instilled by Methodism and other working class religions, provided church members with a reason to remain devoted to their work tasks: it would lead to the respectability of family life rather than to the immorality and chaos of underclass and peasant life.

But religious organizations were quick to note the autonomy that work took on and so fell to criticizing them as the spheres of Mammon. The gospel of social responsibility is a way an elite class can define its religious concerns as distinct from its other concerns but that is at the cost of making religion a supplemental critic of work life rather than its guide or source of motivation because the social gospel which is the current basis for so much of religion-- following the Golden Rule the central tenet of religions-- means that religious goals are accomplished over the long run through secular means. More narrowly, the religious life makes comments on the work life rather than the work life serving as a way to carry out religious life, work in this latter case just a way for a person to hold body and soul together while trying to develop the soul.

Organizational life also threatens religious life because it becomes the source of those differentiating and supplemental institutions for everyday family life that add flavor and edge to everyday life, which is the only social structural claim that religious organizations, once they become voluntary, can make upon a secularized life. Each organization has its own history and its own voluntary organizations, the corporate life supplying the equivalent of church picnics and church baseball games, the debates over who will run these voluntary events, which would otherwise be provided by religious organizations. Each corporation or profession or form of work becomes, in effect, an occupational denomination, which means that its members are respected as pursuing the same goals in a somewhat similar way. You can still go off with other church members on some activity or other, but that is kind of a hobby, while your work connections are there as long as you remain with the employer or the company.

Corporate membership, in short, allows the creation of significant social identities within your social class, the significance of these varying from class to class, so that doctors and lawyers and executives can banter about which of them is more married to the job though all of them are more married to the job than the men of the working class who live down the road who argue about how much overtime they should put in to do justice to their families, calculating a trade off of family time and income. The family, in general, is ever more dependant on work for its sustenance and so looks there for its satisfactions by becoming the beneficiaries, the consumers, of the income produced by the work life, rather than any longer being the producers of economic well being, which was the case at the time of cottage industries and when peasants lived off their gardens and fields.

Here are four ways in which allegiance to work organizations is established. First, there is organizational allegiance. That refers to the satisfaction derived from being part of the organization, being part of the process that produces the organization’s product or service. Whether the work is boring or not, it creates something worthwhile, whether an automobile or the service of all those Mcdonald's customers. Drudgery is acceptable if it is part of a greater undertaking, such as bringing in a harvest, and so even minimal delegated authority, such as being the manager of a number of people who reap the crop or man the assembly line, becomes prestigeful. This is the form of allegiance that seduced the Alec Guinness character, Col. Nicholson, in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”.

Second, there is what we might call “career allegiance”, which is how diligent work may be engaged in so as to earn career advancement, however insignificant may be the tasks which will show one capable of doing hard things, people advanced for what they have already done rather than for what they will do. So junior executives become higher executives by what they showed they could do with the sales numbers in Peoria. Academics do minor papers so that they can prepare for and take on larger intellectual projects. You are a specialist in Blake before you present a theory of literature, which is what happened with Northrop Frye. Moreover, careers may be independent of one or another organization; you don’t just work yourself up from the mailroom at a network to becoming a top executive. You can switch organizations or careers, as lawyers do when they become investment bankers because that is where the money is and, anyway, they have been holding the hands of those who make the big bucks while themselves pulling down only part of that.

A third major kind of work allegiance is provided by a sense of people that they can do the job whether that means they have mastered it or have successfully fooled people into thinking they can. Tailors auditioned to be garment cutters in the old garment district because they thought they could pick it up quickly enough if they got through the first test of their cutting skills, which meant fitting patterns to cloth in a way that minimized waste and then using a cutting machine to cut through many layers of cloth. Competence at work proves a sense of usefulness to others and pride in personal accomplishment. Why bother to apply oneself if the work is either too easy or too hard?

There seems to be a work equivalent to the one step hypothesis which claims that people by and large move up one social class at a time rather than go from rags to riches. It is also true that people want the kind of work organization that is one step above what they are used to or what their parents had. Farm labor wants to become hired at auto plants because the regularity of the work beats having to fix your tractor along with everything else you do as a farmer. Workers want to achieve the freedom they believe belongs to the small businessman, not focussing on the fact that his hours are endless rather than regulated. Working class people and shopkeepers also want their children to become teachers because then they can keep their hands clean and wear jackets to work and aren’t dependant on the customers, not aware that students are a demanding clientele. The children of teachers and nurses want to become doctors and lawyers because of the greater drama of those professions.

There is a social policy aspect to these observations at both ends of the scale. Much has been made recently of how unsettling the job market is for recent graduates because they have to take up positions in startups or create their own or start as internes, the career ladder not as clean as it once was when you went from high school to the auto plant and spent your career their or went from college into a junior position at a company and spent your career there or went from college to graduate or professional school, fully knowing what your career arc would be like. But what your career will be like may be unknown, or what company you will wind up with, but the sense of the social environment is like is clear, however uncertain the paycheck until you make your mark. Not every company has a campus like Microsoft or Google, but even start ups can provide a ping pong table not far from the computer where you do whatever it is you do.

Ever has it been thus. The early factory system had to break down the operations of machines so that labor unskilled in the use of machines, those who had previously worked on farms or in cottage industries, could do some useful task on these machines. Similarly, startups make the social  life at work much like a continuation of the life on a college campus because that is what the work force is used to whether or not the employment is secure or whether or not the people will be up to the job, failed programmers recruited into the business end of the business and business majors recruited directly to handle non-technical parts of the business. It takes all kinds, not just geeks. The same is true of small law firms which hire some lawyers who will work up the cases in the library while other lawyers are hired who can talk it up with prospective clients, these too identifiable from the way they carried themselves at law school and still do when they come to get hired. So there may not be anything particularly unsettling nowadays about how people make their livings even if people are working more than one job because they are underpaid, but that is the result of the weaknesses of unions and the unwillingness of government to take up the cause of those farther down on the economic ladder rather than because the organization of work in society has become unhinged.

At the other end of the spectrum, people who are unschooled in the ways of work need to be educated to its pleasures or else they fall into a state of desolation which makes them primed for a life of crime and drugs and violence. I have heard estimates that ninety percent of those who live on one form or other of the dole are capable of learning the skills they need to enter the workforce, to take on the disciplines that they will come to find satisfying rather than offputting. Those include showing up on time, taking orders, being diligent in performing their activities, and satisfied to receive a paycheck-- just the things that McDonald’s advertises itself to be giving to its “first job” employees, however misleading that is because more and more of McDonald’s employees are adults who don’t need training jobs but a living wage. The point is that the world of work is a form of liberation and as many people as possible should get that advantage. The family, which is in the model in the modern world the social unit that engages in consumption, is not the only way to get satisfaction. So too is the work organization, the production end of the equation, even if some people have to be coaxed to see its benefits.