Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Looking Neat on the Street. Aesthetic Labor in Public Parking Patrol

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Looking Neat on the Street. Aesthetic Labor in Public Parking Patrol

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 1992, a new type of public employee entered street life in Denmark. Originally titled "parking service assistant" (parkeringsserviceassistent), but in everyday language referred to as parking attendants (parkeringsvagter)1, these uniformed representatives of the municipality patrol the streets and enforce parking law. They punish car drivers who park illegally or with no license by issuing fines, which they place on the windshield. Representing a public service that is not particularly popular, those who perform the job of parking attendant face a high risk of being subjected to verbal and physical assaults in encounters with people on the street. At the beginning of the 2000s, one municipal center responsible for parking patrol was experiencing the highest assault rate ever. In 2002, about 100 parking attendants reported a total of 65 assaults. In 2003, however, the number dropped to 28 and it has been around or well below 30 since. Managers and employees attribute this very steep decline in assaults to new management initiatives at this time. They particularly attribute the decline in assaults to a change of uniforms from green uniforms signaling environmental friendliness to dark uniforms resembling police uniforms in 2002. With regard to the long-term situation, organization members explain the consistently lower assault rate with two managerial initiatives: managerial attention to improving the attendants' self-esteem and therewith their attitude in street encounters and the introduction of diversity management so that the parking attendants representing the municipality mirror people on the street. These three elements of a change management strategy-uniforms, self-esteem, and diversity-all manage the attitude and appearance of the parking attendants, that is, their aesthetic labor (Witz, Warhurst, & Nickson, 2003). This strategy appears to have been successful with regard to lowering the assault rate and the rate of absence due to illness. However, the use of aesthetics in organization and management has been criticized on the basis of recent studies of service work. This makes it relevant to ask at what costs this aesthetic professionalization of the job as public parking service assistant has been carried out.

Previous studies show that the downsides to aesthetic labor lie in potential discrimination of workers on the grounds of their appearance (Nickson & Warhurst, 2007; Spiess & Waring, 2005; Williams & Connell, 2010). This has given rise to discussions about the discriminatory aspects of "lookism" and whether these should and can be legally regulated (Warhurst, Broek, Hall, & Nickson, 2009; Waring, 2011). However, studies of aesthetic labor have been confined to the private sector. This is perhaps due to the understanding that aesthetic labor is applied by managers for commercial benefit (Warhurst & Nickson, 2007a), to manage the customer-server relation. But considering the focus on the citizen as consumer associated with New Public Management (Clarke, Newman, Smith, Vidler, & Westmarland, 2007), it appears likely that the concept of aesthetic labor has explanatory power with regard to the working conditions in this sector. By applying the concept of aesthetic labor to the field of public sector research, this paper contributes to a new understanding of service work in public organizations and to the theory of aesthetic labor by applying it in an organization that is in many respects quite different from those industries.

Through an ethnographic case study of one Danish municipal department responsible for parking law enforcement, this paper investigates the content, purposes, and consequences of aesthetic labor as a component of the "matrix of skills" (Warhurst & Nickson, 2007a) demanded of frontline public sector workers. The first section accounts for and discusses the theory of aesthetic labor and the critical perspectives it generates. The second section accounts for the study's methodology and how it can provide a fruitful analysis of aesthetic labor in the public sector. …

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