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Apartheid in the Workplace

Twenty-five years of municipal employment (as a traffic technician with the City of Belleville, Ontario) is plenty of time to observe the consequences of segregating workplaces into manager/managed populations.

This practice has been eroding productivity on both sides of the relationship. It undermines efforts to rationalize workplaces and sustain the infrastructure that makes prosperity possible.

During the 19th and 20th century, workers in industry, commerce and the public sector experienced far more tangible forms of abuse.

They responded by organizing labour unions, electing representatives and arming them with strike mandates.

For decades, this meant employers and employees were more or less equal players at bargaining tables.  Working conditions, wages and benefits improved, even in not unionized workplaces.

The power enjoyed by wealthy owners appeared to be offset by collective bargaining. Since strikes harmed everyone, there was a corresponding expectation that 'good faith bargaining' was in everyone's self-interest.

Unionists still celebrate these accomplishments.  What they did not realize was that employers, retailers and politicians soon realized that reasonable working conditions and wages were commercially and politically valuable. How else could demand for goods and services keep pace with production capabilities? How else could the wild-eyed distribution schemes known as communism and socialism be deflected?

In the 1920's, Henry Ford paid his factory workers unheard of wages so they could purchase the vehicles they were producing.

What workers failed to recognize was that if they had not organized labour unions, unions would have been invented by governments and corporations mindful of the need to balance supply/demand relationships.

In other words, whether spontaneously conceived or contrived by so-called adversaries, unionism transformed employer-employee relationships into morality plays. There were battle lines, villains and good guys, heroic negotiations, grievances, conferences and, occasionally, strikes.

Unionism offered employers other advantages.  With unions `on the job', workforces could be dealt with en masse.   The hurly-burley of negotiations kept employees from thinking about economic and political issues and other ways to invest their lives.  Pension schemes sanctioned 'spend every dollar' consumerism.  Even non-unionized workplaces dutifully organized into teams: administrators, managers, bosses ... on one side, and employees on the other.

Trade unionism was a Godsend for employers, commercial agendas and governments.  Employees saw the world as a primitive contest with employers, as an us vs. them, good vs. bad soap opera.  Because of trade unions, stability and prosperity abounded, although not much of this came to employees.  Any monies that came their way only stayed with them until they could get to a shopping centre.


More secular harms can be traced the the manager/managed stratagem.  During my twenty-five year stint, I experienced several 'regime changes' as new Chief Administrative Officers, City Engineers, Department Heads ... celebrated by reorganizing responsibilities under their purview.

Little of value ever came from these `improvements'.  Much of what goes on in workplaces is dictated by the requirements of tasks and available technologies and human resources. These elements determine scheduling, reporting, consulting and implementation practices.

Top-down changes overruling the resulting 'best practices' waste time and money and cause great anxiety.  Such innovations almost always occur to put a new imprimatur on what is going on.

After the dust settles, the need to get jobs done almost always resurrects some version of  previous functional arrangements, but a new crop of administrators is positioned to take credit for the resumption of efficiency they interrupted.

On the other side of the workplace divide, workers have a demoralizing understanding of their place in the scheme of things.

Few have any sense that they can aspire to administrative positions. Although such ascensions occur, their exceptional nature proves the rule. Unionists rarely become administrators - and administrators never descend to union positions.

Organized in such ways, public sector workplaces are houses divided. Each faction mistrusts and obstructs the other. The stereotypes and caricatures they have of one another all contain kernels of truth. Unionists have been known to endure considerable discomfort until they have punched in and can afford to go to the bathroom.

What are not recognized are the dysfunctional management practices that can be traced to partitioned workplaces.

The majority of managers are hard-working and competent. They can be found supervising workers in offices, factories and construction sites. Arrogance and hubris begin in earnest with middle and upper management. Enter Conrad Black, Philip Roth, Michael Cowpland, Bernie Ebbers ... and the horde of small-pond tycoons employees face every day.

Such considerations suggest that the manager/managed model is harmful at every turn. Subordinates work-to-rule, resist authority and indulge in mild sabotage. At every opportunity, they seek to repair their sense of worth and well-being.

These rejoinders have been cataloged. They are the reason civil servants, especially unionized civil servants, are held in contempt. Within the manager/managed environment, they appear to call for yet more surveillance to control mischief and malingering. The game of cat and mouse, good and evil, us vs. them ... is afoot. Skirmishes are won and lost, but the battle is never decided. The results include:

  • The costs of 'strategic rejoinders'.
  • The evolution of a layer of middle and upper managers overseeing subordinates perceived as recalcitrant, lazy and untrustworthy. Insofar as such characteristics exist, they are often the result of sorting people into herd animals on the one hand, and de facto aristocracies on the other.
  • Management/union partitions prevent either population from making good use of the other. Managers do not believe subordinates have anything useful to offer. Workers internalize a bleak view of their own competence - driven by what supervisors understand of them and the bounds within which they work.
  • Senior managers rarely talk directly to those doing work or delivering services. On the few occasions when hands-on experience or information is deemed useful, the practice is to hire consultants to interview workers and 'report back'.
  • A kind of micro-apartheid emerges. Each sector evolves its own language, clichés, dress codes and contempt for the other.


These harms are worth noticing for another reason. The tide that has been lifting 1st nation boats during the 20th century is receding. New economic and political factors are undermining global well-being:  automation, free trade agreements, fiscal cutbacks, a move to the political right. Administrators' and politicians' ill-advised interest in outsourcing, wage claw-backs, salary caps, workforce rationalization, people-displacing technologies ,,, coincides with their jaundiced view of the people they have been managing.

These consequences undermine everyone's wellbeing. As deficit concerns eliminate public sector jobs, administrators' prospects vanish or shrink along with them. (There are no safe places on sinking ships, and fewer and fewer on shrinking, ships.) The erosion of services and infrastructure: the 'putting out fires' maintenance of roadways, traffic light systems, water and electricity ... are occasionally lamented by those who remember how things were twenty years ago. They are voices crying in the wilderness.

There is a small possibility.  The public sector is well positioned to consider an alternative to the manager/managed workplace model.  Since everyone works for the taxpayer, why not dismantle arbitrary distinctions? Why not structure a continuum of supervisors and supervised from top to bottom?

This would eliminate an important source of workplace apartheid. Each employee's knowledge, experience and sense of purpose ... would become available to every other.

This might not yield cheaply-won notions of superiority or oppression, but productivity, camaraderie, a sense of community ... would be wonderful compensations.