Dead Labor on a Dead Planet: The Inconvenient Truth of Workers’ Bladders


“Once labor has been embodied in instruments of production and enters the further process of labor to play its role there, it may be called, following Marx, dead labor [. . .].  The ideal toward which capitalism strives is the domination of dead labor over living labor.” — Harry Braverman1

“[T]here are no jobs on a dead planet.” — Bill McKibben2

In a recent essay in New Labor Forum, authors Jeremy Brecher, Ron Blackwell, and Joe Uehlein urge the labor movement to take a more active role in the fight against climate change.3  Many unions, they lament, have been reluctant to engage the issue, and indeed others have actively taken positions at odds with the climate movement’s most basic tenets.  Where unions have been asked to choose between job security and the environment, many have understandably chosen the former.  In this fraught context, the authors argue that unions must not only work to reveal the “jobs versus environment” choice as a false one, but that they must do so by developing a climate protection strategy of their own.  Drawing on the example of World War II and the economic mobilization that surrounded it, they suggest that labor adopt a strategy involving large-scale government investments in sustainable transit, clean energy, and green infrastructure.  Not only would such a strategy put millions of people to work, but it would put them to work on precisely the jobs that matter for mitigating climate change.  In many ways, there is little in this strategy with which to disagree.  For labor, ignoring climate change can no longer be an option.  To quote Bill McKibben: “[T]here are no jobs on a dead planet.”4  At the same time — and especially given the analogy Brecher, Blackwell, and Uehlein attempt to draw between World War II and the climate fight — one cannot help but raise yet an additional question.  That question, which will be the focus of this essay, is on the labor process itself.  Drawing on the ongoing experience of transit workers in California’s East Bay, this essay asks the rather simple question: what might a climate protection strategy modeled on World War II mean for transit workers?

Perhaps it is best to start with the following scene.  On June 26, 2013, in the City of Oakland, a transit operator from AC Transit named Titus Warren stood up and addressed himself to AC Transit’s Board of Directors.  What followed is perhaps best described as avant-garde performance art.  In a practiced robotic monotone, Warren stated the following:

I am the C220-ATU192
I don’t need to use the restroom
I don’t have marital problems
I am not under stress
I do not get angry
I am the ATU 192 automaton!
I represent the next generation of your children
And grandchildren that will provide the technology that will drive all
The medium systems of the world
I do not need vacation time
I do not need restroom time
I do not need to argue
Immediate policies and contracts are NOT necessary
Because I do not negotiate!
Automatic fare evasion and termination to all people who do not pay fares
Will be dealt with
Thank you very much,
But for now I represent 1.2 billion dollars per unit
The ATU, I offer to you the finest men and women that will
Give you perfect opulence in everyday transportation5

As with all satire, Warren’s performance was equal parts humor and critique.  The critique, if not readily apparent to all, was of working conditions at AC Transit — conditions that seemed designed to dehumanize transit operators or at least require robot-like endurance.  For some in the audience, Warren’s performance may have seemed rather strange.  Rarely does the AC Transit boardroom double as a venue for performance art.  In the context of that particular meeting, however, Warren’s remarks made perfect sense.  Warren’s performance came as transit workers at AC Transit were entering the final days of their contract.  Negotiations with management had hit a snag and the prospects of a resolution seemed increasingly dim.  Moreover, in the same week, transit workers for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, the second largest transit agency in the region, voted almost unanimously to authorize a strike.6  For the first time in recorded history, there was the real possibility that service on two of the Bay Area’s largest transit operators would come to a halt at the same time.  At AC Transit, the sticking points were familiar.  Workers were demanding a 10% wage hike over three years while management was demanding greater worker contributions to healthcare premiums.  To these perennial concerns, however, there was one additional sticking point.  In a widely publicized editorial, the president of the drivers’ union, Yvonne Williams, accused AC Transit management of engaging in what she referred to as an industrial “speedup.”  Members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 192, she argued, were not only suffering “from a speedup” but they were also suffering from the effects of that speedup.  Drivers were reporting a greater number of injuries and were consistently missing out on rest breaks.7

For many outside of the transit industry, the idea of a “speedup” in this industry may seem rather odd — especially for transit commuters accustomed to delays and slow commute times.  What, they might ask, does a speedup look like in transit?  Three years ago I talked with a driver at AC Transit named Anthony Rodgers who offered to clarify.  For Anthony, a transit “speedup” hinged upon an all-too-important distinction.  That distinction was between what transit workers at AC Transit call “spot time” and “recovery time.”  At AC Transit, as is perhaps common elsewhere, drivers are contractually entitled to a 50-minute lunch break for every 8 hours of work.  That 50 minutes, however, often comes in the form of what drivers call spot time.  Per the language of the contract, spot time is the time that a driver has at the end of each run to stretch, go to the bathroom, and get a bite to eat.  The amount of spot time depends on the length of the run.  So for runs between 30 and 60 minutes, drivers are contractually guaranteed a minimum 6 minutes of spot time.  For runs shorter than 30 minutes, drivers are given a minimum of 5 minutes, and for runs over an hour, drivers are guaranteed a minimum of 12 minutes.  Spot time is seen as important for safeguarding the well-being of operators.  Recovery time, on the other hand, is the time that is built into the schedule to make sure the drivers can start their next run on time.  That is to say, it is built in as a buffer against traffic or other unforeseen delays on the road — whether those delays arise from having to pick up a disabled passenger, directing tourists, or breaking up a fistfight.  For Rogers, the problem at AC Transit, and the problem at the heart of the speedup issue, was that increasingly management had taken to blurring the distinction between “spot time” and “recovery time.”  With less money and thus tighter schedules, management was increasingly allowing recovery time to devour spot time.  For drivers, the consequences were obvious.  Drivers had less time to stretch, to eat, or to go to the bathroom — in short, a speedup.  This anecdote from Anthony Rodgers captures what was, he argued, becoming a common occurrence:

In this last signup I was doing an 18 line.  It gave me — leaving from 14th and Broadway to 40th and Martin Luther King — I had six minutes.  Six minutes from 14th and Broadway to the MacArthur BART Station at 40th and MLK.  A NASCAR driver couldn’t do that!  Let me take that back, you can do it in six minutes — if the traffic is clear, if you don’t catch any lights, and if you don’t waste your time picking up passengers.

Now let’s say you’re ten minutes late when you get to the end of the line and you have fifteen minutes of spot time.  That means you only have five minutes when you get there and the only restroom you know of at Marin and San Pablo is at the Albany City Hall, which is a block away.  So you have five minutes to get off the bus.  Run over to the restroom.  Do what it is you have to do and run back [. . .]8

For Rodgers, the speedup issue was not unrelated to yet another concern: bathroom access.  While the issues of bathroom access arose in the 2013 contract negotiations, it gained even more attention in the following year.  In the summer of 2014, Elena Kessler and Michelle Gonzalez, two interns working under the auspice of the Occupation Health Internship Program, published a report entitled “Bus Operators and the Right to Use the Bathroom.”9  The report offered a stunning portrait of working conditions at AC Transit.  In a survey of 98 drivers, Gonzalez and Kessler reported that 20% of those surveyed had accidentally relieved themselves on the job.  Of those surveyed only 7% reported access to safe and sanitary restrooms.  After noting that a large portion of those surveyed routinely responded to the lack of bathroom access by “holding it,” the report highlighted the possible health consequence for drivers from urinary tract infections to renal damage.10  The report ends with a number of recommendations.  These include: extending route times, adding buses during peak hours, investing in operator bathrooms at key points along routes, offering operators access to existing bathrooms at BART stations, improving the reporting process for unsanitary bathrooms, educating supervisors on bathroom accessibility issues, increasing restroom inspections, and improving OSHA regulations for mobile workers who do not enjoy the same protections as non-mobile workers with respect to bathrooms.  Needless to say, for many drivers, and for Gonzalez and Kessler, any solution that failed to address the scheduling issue was certain to fail.  While bathroom inspections, designated bathrooms, and more sanitary facilities would be helpful, such improvements would only make sense if drivers were given the time at the end of their run to use such facilities.  More important than new infrastructure was an adjustment to the labor process itself.  In fact, the solution was simple: slow down the work and increase the amount of spot and recovery time at the end of each run.

It is this struggle over the labor process that Titus Warren’s “performance piece” mentioned above addressed.  Warren’s point was a simple one: AC Transit was increasingly treating its workers like machines.  That transit operators indeed had bladders, marriages, and sleep cycles seemed an increasingly inconvenient truth.  In October 2014, I contacted Warren via Facebook with the hope of clarifying the meaning of his performance.  This is what he wrote:

The name of the performance which was not mentioned is, “The dehumanization of human Labor”.  For the sake of private corporations to control production, the less I value you and give you consideration of being human you will subside humanism and take on the mannerisms of a machine.  The less I value you work, the more you become unhuman in your ability to produce in an unhuman environment crafted by corporate greed and human labor control.11

Warren’s performance about the dehumanization of labor emerged at precisely the right moment, offering an important way to frame the issue of bathroom access, industrial speedups, and rest breaks.12  For AC Transit workers, these issues were of increasing concern.  Warren’s performance was, of course, about more than rest breaks or bathroom access.  In a performance memorable for its robotic delivery, it also took aim at the most extreme form of dehumanization: automation.  Behind its absurdist humor, one finds a broad concern with capitalism’s tendency to replace people with machines and to supplant living labor with what Marx and Braverman provocatively termed dead labor.  Faced with the unbearable humanness of the workforce and the inconvenient truth of workers’ bladders, capitalism has never hesitated to substitute machinery for people where feasible.  Warren’s performance thus raised the rather uncomfortable question: how long ’til automation?

Where does this leave us?  In their recent article in New Labor Forum, Jeremy Brecher, Ron Blackwell, and Joe Uehlein urge the labor movement to draft a climate protection plan of their own.  In that same essay they suggest that labor model its plan on the mobilization around World War II.  While the precise contours of that plan may shift, investments in transit are sure to figure prominently.  Environmentalists have long sought to move people out of private automobiles and into buses and trains, so systems like AC Transit stand to benefit from any climate protection plan that expands those efforts.  And yet the story we have just told about AC Transit offers something of a caveat.  For workers in transit, new investments will matter largely to the degree that they impact the labor process itself.  Will such investments come with more spot time or recovery time?  Will they come with bathroom breaks?  Will they necessitate a speedup or a slowdown?  Might such investments relieve the need for human labor altogether?  These are not idle questions.  In fact, such questions are especially important if we take seriously the analogy that Brecher, Blackwell, and Uehlein attempt to draw between the climate fight and World War II.  Ironically, the very problem that now seems most distressing to AC Transit workers — the problem of a speedup — was a defining feature of the war mobilization.  In fact, the generalized industrial speedup of World War II caused such a notable spike in workplace injuries that it compelled not only leftists but even centrists to bemoan the causalities and human “consequences of rearmament.”13

Perhaps it is best to conclude with a set of competing truisms.  When Bill McKibben says that “there are no jobs on a dead planet,” he is, no doubt, stating the obvious.  Labor, on the other hand, retorts: What good is a living planet dominated by dead labor?  In many ways, this essay simply suggests that any labor plan to tackle climate change must find a way to address this tension.  For authors like Brecher, Blackwell, and Uehlein the labor movement’s reluctance to join the climate fight is a problem.  And with this I am in total agreement.  I am also in agreement with their belief that labor, once at the table, can and should make sure “that climate policies are worker-friendly.”14  At the same time, however, the plan they offer, modeled as it is on the mobilization for World War II, seems to overlook the very issues that most worry workers like those at AC Transit — these are concerns with a speedup and automation and with the precise nature of new investment.  Where AC Transit drivers are already treated like machines, where they are prevented from relieving themselves except to pee in a cup, and where it may be far easier to imagine losing one’s job to a machine than to a dead planet — there is a desperate need for any climate plan to take seriously the labor process itself and what that process looks like under capitalism.  For that, Titus Warren’s performance piece is a model par excellence.

1  Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the 20th Century, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998 (1974): p.157.

2  Bill McKibben. “A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action Climate Change,” Rolling Stone, May 21, 2014.

3  Jeremy Brecher, Joe Uehlein, and Ron Blackwell, “If Not Now, When?  A Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change,” New Labor Forum 23.3 (Fall 2014): 40-48.

4  McKibben, op. cit.

5  Titus Warren, “The Dehumanization of Human Labor,” AC Transit Board meeting, June 26, 2013.  Audio available at: <>.

6  Mike Rosenberg, “BART Workers OK Strike Authorization, Raising Fears of Bay Area Commuter Chaos,” Alameda Times-Star, June 26, 2013.

7  Yvonne Williams, “AC Transit Board Must Show Respect for Employees,” Op-ed, The Argus, June 25, 2013.

8  Interview with Anthony Rodgers, November 19, 2010.

9  Elena Kessler and Michellle Gonzales, “Bus Operators and the Right to Access Restrooms,”Occupation Health Internship Program, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192, Summer 2014.

10  Ibid, p. 11.

11  Correspondence via Facebook, September 25, 2014.

12  There is a long history of worker demands around rest breaks and bathroom access.  See Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard, Void Where Prohibited: The Right to Urinate on Company Time, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

13  See Susan Green, “Speed Up in War Production Kicks Safety Out of Window,” Labor Action 5.26 (June 30, 1941).  See “Accidents Increase” in the May 19, 1941 issue of the New York Times:”Latest statistics show, for example, a continuation of the upswing in fatal accidents in industry that began last year, with a 10% increase for 1940 as compared with 1939. . . .  These increases in accidents and deaths are believed to result directly from the increased tempo of business as a consequence of rearmament.”

14  Brecher, Uehlein, and Blackwell, op. cit., p. 46.

Kafui Attoh is Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education.