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Is Kidnapping Your Boss the Only Way?

On the eve of my first day as web producer for The Workday that Wouldn’t Die’s web site, I was having trouble nodding off when I happened to turn on the tube. Uncannily, the comic classic "9 to 5" was running late night. The film is a send up of pointlessly cruel working conditions at a bustling company. Fed up with their horse’s ass of a boss (played by Dabney Coleman), Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton lasso Coleman to a chair and kidnap him.

They explain away Coleman’s absence by saying he is on vacation and proceed to reinvent the company with bogus directives Coleman has supposedly left behind. Within a month, they’ve created a workplace nirvana. A rigid environment is replaced with time-sharing programs, office beautification, on site day care and flextime for all.

Like any good Hollywood film, the renegades get away with their rebellion. After a 19% increase in office productivity is reported to corporate headquarters, Coleman ends up banished to a remote jungle while Tomlin and crew are legitimately put in charge of their workplace revolution. The movie ends with whispers of an equal pay for equal work program.

"9 to 5" is a funny film. Twenty years old this year, I’d say it more than holds up. Unfortunately, the socially conscious ideas at the heart of the movie haven’t taken off. To be sure, there are scores of examples of workplace innovation taking place from coast to coast. And the folks at Livelyhood found some real trailblazers in putting together The Workday that Wouldn’t Die.

But statistically we’ve gone backward rather than forward in the U.S since "9 to 5" was released in 1980. If Parton was crooning her famous title song today, she might have sung, "working nine to nine." In fact, Americans are clocking more hours than we have in half a century. Overtime has become so epidemic that unions and state legislatures are scrambling to put some limits in place.

Just this year there was an outcry in Maine after Brent Churchill, a worker from Maine Power, was electrocuted after being asked to scale a towering power line while suffering from sleep deprivation. Churchill had already worked two back-to-back shifts on Friday when he was called back to work after only two and half hours. Having worked nearly 24 hours straight, Churchill forgot to put on his safety gloves and was killed instantly when he brushed a 7400-volt power line. Common sense should have avoided that tragedy. But just in case, the Maine Legislature limited the workweek to eighty hours.

Eighty plus hour weeks are of course an extreme example of workdays that wouldn’t die, but there are plenty of folks out there who find it hard enough to balance the demands of life and family with forty- to fifty-hour weeks.

What I’ve been pondering is why there is so much ink spilled these days about the incredible prosperity in the U.S. while there is so little thought given to some kind of prosperity dividend?

I think part of the problem is that it’s fine to fantasize about kidnapping your boss, but there’s a profound social taboo when it comes to talking about real life flextime, four-day workweeks or longer vacations. Let’s face it, you’d run the risk of being labeled a misfit, lazy or both if you suggested any of the above with your boss or co-workers.

Like a lot of people in my generation, I’ve had quite a few jobs through my twenties and now in my early thirties. What's a freelance journalist/producer to do? They’ve mostly been freelance gigs without benefits or vacation. Still, I wonder how life might be different if I were living across the pond, in Europe.

With thirty days of vacation off a year, plus two weeks at Christmas and plenty of workers pulling four-day workweeks, places like Sweden are the butt of many jokes. But I don’t think many of us seriously think of Sweden, needless to say Germany, as slacker states.

I wonder: If we were more like the rest of the industrialized world, with job sharing, month long vacations and maternity-leave the norm, how many Generation X and Y-ers would be clamoring for full time jobs rather than stringing together gigs?

And what would all of us Generation X-ers, Baby Boomers and gray haired veterans alike do with all that time off?

Not to get dreamy, but you know all those epidemics we’re confronted with whenever we waltz by the crammed self-help sections at our local bookstore? There are books on depression, substance abuse, relationship angst and raw cookie dough addiction. Maybe we just need more time for ourselves rather than self-help books.

In the "How the Weekend Was Won" section of our web site, we look at a time in U.S history when millions of people were fighting back against workplace exhaustion and fighting for the eight-hour day a century ago.

Listen to Studs Terkel lambaste us when, in his familiar grizzly voice, he reminds us of the Haymarket riots: "Four guys got hanged for you twirps. Did you know that? So you can work eight-hours a day." Well, the trouble is, Studs, we have forgotten about that fight; worse, many of us don’t even know about it. Maybe that’s why we’re treading water more than a century later, still waiting for the dream in Dolly Parton's anthem to take root.

By Joe Rubin

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