Ever since the union movement began, workers have been in an arms race with bureaucracy. That system of management has continued to create effective ways to divide and conquer our collective power. Don’t mistake the in-house bickering of your workplace as a fault in the system – it’s a feature.
To escape this Orwellian endgame, it helps to have an armchair understanding of some studies into human psychology that took place at the start of the 20th century. From the Milgram experiments that revealed how individuals submit their moral choices to authority figures, to the Stanford Prison experiment that showed how willingly we become those authority figures if given a little power over our peers, the findings of these experiments – though far from conclusive – all seem to paint a dark picture of human behaviour. You do not need a dictator to control a group of individuals. With the right kind of system, individuals will control themselves.
Corporate strategy wants to make us believe that we alone have the power to change our situation.
The set-up of this game begins with the economic demands of employment that force workers into a trade-off between pleasure and pain. In a public school, like any modern workplace, the calculation looks something like this: work hours × accountability × conflict ÷ remuneration = stress. Plug in whatever numbers you like to see how this looks for you, but a simple subjective scale of 1–10 for each variable will make the problem clear.
You might not have the highest level of pay, but if your accountability and conflict levels are low, then your level of stress is probably manageable. Or you might want to start backwards and define your current level of stress, then solve for one of the other variables to see where the problem lies in your current work equation. But it’s when we try to change the numbers that the gears of bureaucracy wind up to full speed and reveal all the ways in which the odds are stacked against us.
The current corporate strategy wants to make us believe that we alone have the power to change our situation: with enough mindfulness routines, we can ignore the lack of time and money. Even if you’ve seen through this, it’s still all too easy to fall for the old trick of making you blame your stress on someone else.
On any typical day in any typical school, you will find teachers grumbling about leaders who seem to have forgotten what a full teaching load is like, while those same leaders grumble about teachers not appreciating the accountability pressures they’re under. Meanwhile, education support staff are grumbling about how much less they make than teachers. And the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that the students are the real problem. For that, we blame the parents.
Add to this standard mess a special measure of external stress, brought on by a global pandemic, and you can start to see why the past 12 months have been getting so many of us down.
This is the most important lesson bureaucracy took from all those unethical experiments. If you want to win the workplace game, set things up so that workers are too busy pointing fingers to see – let alone change – that it’s the system creating the problem. Add to this standard mess a special measure of external stress, brought on by a global pandemic, and you can start to see why the past 12 months have been getting so many of us down.
There is another test, however – a thought experiment known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma – which can offer some hope. Not only is it more ethical to conduct, but its findings are more verified, as it’s been repeated many times. First devised by a mathematician studying game theory (the process of modelling the strategic interaction between two or more competing players), the Prisoner’s Dilemma was meant to prove the assumption that, if given the option to either work together for equal reward or betray their companion for individual gain, a purely rational agent would always make the selfish choice. The results instead showed that humans have a natural instinct for cooperation, which confounded the mathematicians then and continues to strike fear into the hearts of the corporations that seek to control us.
As we continue to fight for better workplaces, we must treat each other with dignity and reject any offer that might further divide us. The government oversees our pay, hours and accountability. It is only through our union that we have the chance to change them. This is one equation we have to solve together.