This story originally appeared in The Column on Substack on December 28, 2022. It is shared here with permission.

Recent viral images of Southwest agents getting yelled at and crying have resurfaced a valuable lesson about the nature of our economic system that’s worth examining this holiday season: the deliberate, built-in ways corporate “customer service” is set up to not only shield those on the top of the ladder—executives, vice presidents, large shareholders—but pit low-wage workers against each other in an inherently antagonistic relationship marked by powerlessness and frustration. It’s a dynamic we discussed in “Episode 118: The Snitch Economy—How Rating Apps and Tipping Pit Working People Against Each Other,” of the Citations Needed podcast I co-host, but I feel ought to be expanded on in light of recent events. Watching video after video, reading tweet after tweet, describing frustrated stranded holiday travelers yelling at Southwest Airlines workers, and hearing, in turn, accounts of airline workers and airport staff breaking down crying, is a good opportunity to talk about how none of this is natural or inevitable. It is a choice, both in corporate policy and government regulation. 

There are three main ways capital pits workers against each other in the relationship we call “customer service”:

1. Snitch economy. As discussed in Citations Needed Ep. 118, we are provided with more and more apps, websites, and customer surveys to effectively do the job of managing for management—free of charge, of course. Under the auspices of “empowering” the consumer, we are told to spy on our low-wage servants and gauge the quality of their servitude with stars, tips, and reviews. Uber, DoorDash, Fiver, Grubhub—a new “gig economy” has emerged that not only misclassifies workers as freelancers to pay them less, but hands over the reins of management to the consumer directly. This necessarily increases the antagonism between working-class consumers and the workers they are snitching on. 

2. Automation. Increasingly, even getting to the bottom rung employee to yell at is difficult. Under the thin pretense of Covid, increased labor power has exploded the use of automated technology that creates a frustrating maze to get a simple problem solved or task accomplished. Don’t go to the register, instead download the app and order. Scan the QR code, don’t wait on hold, go to our website and engage a series of automated prompts and maybe you can solve your problem. More and more consumers are being pushed away from humans onto automated systems we are told will “save us time,” but instead exist solely to save the corporation labor costs. So, by the time the average consumer does finally work their way to seeing a human, they are annoyed, frustrated, and angry at this faceless entity and more willing to take it out on someone making $13 an hour. 

One recent visit to Houston’s George H.W. Bush airport portended our obnoxious “automated” future. To cut down on unionized airport labor, all the restaurants use QR codes and require you to order food and drinks for yourself. Per usual, it’s sold as an exciting new technology that’s somehow good for consumers, but really the basic technology is 30 years old. It’s just a screen—the same ones restaurants have had for decades. The only thing that’s changed is the social conditioning of having you do all your own ordering and menu navigation. The waiter hasn’t been replaced by an iPad, they’ve been replaced by you. Invariably, it’s clunky and annoying and reduces the union jobs that airport construction is said to provide to justify soliciting public dollars. The only winner is a faceless corporation with a Delaware LLC and its shareholders living in a few counties in Connecticut and Texas.

Automation not only annoys and adds labor burdens to the customer, there is also evidence that it is a significant contributor to income inequality. A November 2022 study published in the journal Econometrica looked at the significantly widening income gap between lesser and more educated workers over the past 40 years. It found that ​​“automation accounts for more than half of that increase,” as summarized by MIT News. “This single one variable … explains 50 to 70 percent of the changes or variation between group inequality from 1980 to about 2016,” said MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, co-author of the study. Whether or not, under a different economic system, automation could be a force for good is a debate for another day. But what is clear is that, while both consumers and workers are harmed by this trend, there is a significant want of solidarity between them. 

3. Deliberate understaffing. This is a major culprit in this week’s Southwest Airlines meltdownIn parallel with the increased use of forced automation, cost-cutting corporations, facing increased labor power, are gutting staffing to its bare bones and hoping their corporate competitors doing the same will lead to a shift in consumer’s willingness to put up with substandard service and conditions, and overall bullshit. “We apologize for the wait,” the automated phone prompt tells us. Of course a machine cannot be contrite, so the effect is both surreal and grating: You’re not fucking sorry, you don’t exist. You’re a recording. But now, who am I yelling at? 

We’re not just increasingly alienated from our labor and social networks—but from our enemies. We can’t get mad at the corporation that’s delayed our flight, or “over-billed” (stolen) $400 from us, or removed a life-saving medicine from our insurance, or erroneously reported us to a collection agency, ruining our credit—because we can’t actually talk to anyone to get mad at. They’ve built up walls such that the only way to actually contact them is to retain an attorney and sue them. And even then you’re really only contacting an attorney. But most of their fleecing and robbery falls well below the threshold that would make this make economic sense. And they know this. 

All of this is a toxic brew of mutual antagonism. “Customer satisfaction” is at a 17-year low, and the only human face people can take their frustration out on is a low-wage worker. Obviously there’s never an excuse to yell at anyone in customer service. The point is not a moral one—it’s that it’s by design. Indeed, corporate executives very much want you to vent your frustration on their low-wage workers. This way you get the vague feeling of agency and control in a system designed to remove any and all forms of it. Southwest Airlines ticketing agents, cashiers at Nando’s Chicken, low-wage call center workers for Verizon overseas, become corporate sin eaters, absorbing all the frustration and anger brought about by our greasy, cost-cutting executives. Add to this the severe mental and physical harms—and death—laid at the feet of low wage workers during the pandemic, and our built-in system of mutual antagonism compounds dozens of other stressors. 

We are conditioned to get mad at the human face we see before us, the “representative” of the company who personally profits nothing from our purchase. We are conditioned to get mad at the waiter when our food is late (and penalize this “bad service” with a bad tip) when the vast majority of the time it’s due to understaffing by a cheapskate boss. We are conditioned to get upset with the enforcer of arbitrary rules at a hotel checkout, despite it not being their rule at all. We are conditioned to be hostile to the very people we should have the most solidarity with.

Those who actually make the decisions remain protected like mob bosses, gently nestled between layers of middle management, lawyers, and marketing reps, impossible to reach by design. They have addresses and homes and phone numbers, you just don’t have access to them. And if you did, this would be stalking, and you’d likely get a visit from a police officer. Meanwhile they have all your information, and can hound you with credit agencies and just randomly steal your money. To the extent they face consequences, it’s a pointless fine that’s factored into their cost-benefit calculations at the beginning of the year. Recently, Wells Fargo was, again, found to have stolen or scammed billions from its working-class customers. Hertz Rent-A-Car settled for $168 million for getting dozens of its customers wrongfully imprisoned, leading one to miscarry her baby while in county jail. The punishment for both? A pointless fine. No one was even fired. Business churns on per usual.  Meanwhile, those who steal from these very same corporations receive much more intimate punishments: arrest by police, long prison sentences. Their pictures, names and addresses published online for all to see forever. 

The still ongoing covid pandemic has made this dynamic much worse—though largely as pretext. Every prompt now putting you on hold for three hours insists it’s because of “increased call volume” “brought about by the pandemic.” But this makes no sense. This past year saw record profits, but an increase in automation and wait times. There’s an informal, though possibly formal, agreement among corporate America to reduce expectations and keep you waiting as long as legally allowed. Because fuck you, what are you going to do about it? 

Federal regulators and attorneys general will intervene now and then. Sue here and there, basically just ask corporations to pay people back. There are never any real consequences, no jail time, no real punishment. Just token fines and increased oversight agreements where they promise to be on their best behavior. Many of the “regulators” end up working for these same corporations, and there’s a gentlemen’s agreement that, unless a corporation steals from the rich, they can pretty much fuck over poor people as much as they want. And when they do cross the line into the explicitly illegal, so long as they pay back roughly the exact amount they stole, it’s a whoopsie and everyone moves on. 

Meanwhile, by design, the only humans we interface with are those who, by definition, are the lowest on the ladder, the least paid, and least protected: The cashier, the ticket agent, the flight attendant, the poor call center punching bag. So people yell at them, because there is no one else. They hate you back, and worker solidarity further erodes. We all grow more atomized, angry, powerless, and bitter. And the system works as intended.

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson hosts the Citations Needed podcast and writes at The Column on Substack. Follow him @adamjohnsonNYC.