Ah, summer. Here in the northeastern United States, the season is marked by a series of long-held rituals: weekend getaways to Atlantic beaches, cookouts and barbecues in public parks, and debates over office air-conditioning.
The celebrating has been more zealous than usual this year. On the Fourth of July, the New York Times embraced the summer spirit with a piece by Style section writer Penelope Green provocatively titled, “Do Americans Need Air-Conditioning?” Green summed up the arguments against AC familiar to many an inhabitant of this humid, coastal plain: it is used by Americans more than in nearly all other countries, it has a substantial carbon footprint, and it has a gender bias — while men typically enjoy the cooling of summer offices, women regularly wrap themselves in scarfs and sweaters to make it through the indoor chill.
It was this last argument that sparked the most impassioned response, when a tweet by Atlantic writer Taylor Lorenz, linking to Green’s piece, went viral: “Air-conditioning is unhealthy, bad, miserable, and sexist,” Lorenz wrote. “I can’t explain how many times I’ve gotten sick over the summer b/c of overzealous AC in offices. #BanAC.”
And so the Twitterverse lit up with all the bluster and energy of a thousand Friedrichs. From outrageous accusations of reverse gender discrimination to the impassioned defense of fellow summer sweater-wearers to the moderates calling for incremental thermostat increases, everyone had something to say about office AC.
Except the right thing. Which is that the problem with air-conditioning lays not with an intractable battle of the sexes, but with the autocracy of the boss. And if we want a comfortable work environment for all, then we all must have a democratic say over our office temperatures.
No matter whether you enjoy your workplace AC, resent it, or just don’t care, you’re unlikely to have control over it. Thermostats in many workplaces are inaccessible to employees, configured by — as Green’s piece explores — obtuse algorithms deployed by building managers, the representatives of real estate developers and corporate tenants. Even if a thermostat is accessible in an individual workplace, it’s often locked, reserved only for management’s appropriate representative to adjust.
Of course, this is if you’re lucky enough to work with air-conditioning: many workers, such as those in agriculture and construction, are stuck outside in the humid summer while others, like home and office cleaners, may be required to work for an employer who’d rather not spend the electric bill on the help. The federal government has no requirement for employers to maintain a certain workplace temperature.
The solution to all these problems is simple: workers must seize the means of cooling production for ourselves.
After all, temperature is a key part of our larger demands for a safe and comfortable workplace. And it has long been the poor who’ve borne the brunt of cooling autocracy: up until the early twentieth century, most New Yorkers had to seek out the local rivers to beat the heat, where pollution was rampant and drowning deaths would spike during heat waves.
But what of the opposite problem, the excessive air-conditioning that Green and Lorenz condemn? Workers have stopped that too.
Unionized employees of the New York Public Library, for example, negotiated for an “Extreme Temperature Procedures” provision in their contract, which allows them to accrue additional time off when the temperature goes below 68 degrees. In the Brooklyn library system, excessive AC entitles workers to reassignment or going home with full pay.
Unfortunately, the wider existence of such a provision, the New York Times reported, “does seem rare.” But it need not be.
Workers who freeze in their offices should not discount temperature as a cause around which to organize. Office temperature requirements can and should be part of contract negotiations. AC democracy — whether through an elected thermostat representative, direct voting on office temperature, or librarian-style contingencies for extreme temperatures — should be the rule, not the exception, of the American workplace.
AC democracy is a feminist demand as well. At a previous job, for example, most of my coworkers were women, but men dominated senior management (some research has shown that women prefer slightly higher temperatures than men). The summer thermostat was, accordingly, set unduly low, with winter layers the norm, and one coworker even resorting to a clandestine space heater under her desk. Lacking a union, my colleagues had no official recourse for changing the conditions.
And it’s not just about the office: our planet depends on the reasonable allocation of energy-demanding air-conditioning. Workplace democracy is a first step toward ensuring we all have a voice in balancing our individual concerns for comfort with our collective desire to maintain human civilization.
So to media Twitter, I offer this humble plea: before we go after our fellow worker as the enemy in our quest for summer comfort, let’s take the fight to where it really belongs: the boss.