Two articles, the first about a sabotage prank at the Bank of America, the second about restructuring at the bank and in the white-collar industries in general.
The 57‑floor Bank of America building towered over us, its black granite grid menacing us like a giant waffle iron ready to snap shut. Posing as contractors, we were about to remove an interior wall from an office and take it home with us. Carrying a motorcycle helmet and a shoulder bag I explored most of the building as a lost courier. Identical offices line identical halls on identical floors—perfect for the job.
BofA suffers from the muddled management structure typical of large American corporations: distant, overpaid executives direct redundant levels of middle managers who supervise countless specialized workers. We suspected we could enter an office, cut out a wall, cover a hole with toxic danger signs and leave without anyone knowing we hadn't been hired to do it. We wanted to be as disruptive as possible without attracting the authorities. We would create chaos and pretend to be in control of it.
According to our computer‑produced IDs, we were Halyard Semmins and Laila Finecke, field investigators for Spemtech, a toxics testing company. A work order detailed the rest: Spemtech had been authorized by the State Toxics Board to conduct tests for commercial Health and Safety Certification. We were testing for ThorofilTM, a carcinogenic DuPont fiber once used to fireproof drywall. Required by law, the work was free. Could they say no?
To make our appointment we called on a Thursday just before 5 p.m., hoping the building manager had left for the day. He had. We left a message saying we'd be there Friday afternoon, and we supplied a random fax number to slow down verification. It might buy us time if anyone decided to check us out while we were in the building.
Friday at 4:15 p.m., Laila adjusted her tool‑company baseball cap, I tucked in my “Perot for America” t‑shirt, and we went in with toolboxes and bored contractor expressions. The assistant in charge was confused by our work order. He kept asking, “You want to do what?” and saying “I don't know anything about this.” I repeated our job's description, which was to remove a small section of drywall for testing.
“You're going to have to come back Monday so I can clear this with my boss,” he decided.
“Look,” I said, “we just came all the way from Hayward to do a 20‑minute job. You send us back, we're going to have to refile your paperwork with the state, which is going to delay your certification. You know what the late fine would be on a building this big?”
He ushered us up to the Office of Overseas Affairs, which we had chosen for its sinister name and proximity to freight elevators. While I removed corporate art (matches the carpets) from the wall and stacked furniture in a corner, Laila explained our presence to nearby workers.
“We're just doing some routine fiber separation tests here,” she announced. “Shouldn't take more than a few minutes.”
The workers seemed satisfied. Laila put down dropcloths and duct‑taped them to the floor while I ran an electronic stud sensor over the walls, selected for the irritating beep it produces when it senses a nail. We marked these spots with a graffiti‑grade permanent marker. I drew a square around them and marked big right angles in its corners, adding equations where appropriate. It was time to put on the suits.
The suits were the key to creating chaos. We would put on as much frightening emergency gear as possible while reassuring the workers around us that they were completely safe. The suits, made of bright white Tyvek and emblazoned with red “Spemtech,” “Biohazard” and “Extreme Danger” logos, had draw‑tight hoods and rubberized feet. Donning latex gloves, safety goggles and respirators, we were extra careful to tuck everything in. Laila handed me a three‑quarter‑inch hole drill.
“Are you sure we don't need suits?” a worker asked, laughing nervously. Others were closing their doors or peering cautiously over partitions. “Absolutely,” I said through my respirator. “You're perfectly safe.”
As I drilled holes in the wall, Laila plugged them with black rubber stoppers. After drilling each hole, we carefully shook the drill‑bit dust into a plastic sample bag. Workers watched us from behind glass doors now. I sweated in my suit. After I slashed deep into the white wall with a utility knife, we pulled out a 3x5‑foot wedge of wall. While I cut it into pieces sized to fit our yellow sample bags (marked “DANGER”), Laila spread plastic over the wound and sealed it with duct tape. Then we plastered the surrounding wall with warning stickers ‑‑ French, English and Spanish versions of “Do Not Ventilate” and “Danger of Death.”
We cleaned up and got out with our drywall trophies. Two days later a friend photographed our work. The wall had been fixed, all evidence removed.
What did this act prove? Did the assistant who let us in get in trouble? Lose his job? It's easy to get swept up in the excitement and ignore the downside — something we can't afford to do in the future. But the possibilities that this “practice run” opened up are heartening. With the right preparation and attitude, structures can be infiltrated. With added content, ideas could be introduced and minds opened.
i n n e r v o i c e # 1 0 — 2/10/93
On Friday, February 5, 1993, Bank of America announced in its particularly arrogant fashion that it was cutting all (or most) of its full‑time tellers and administrative support staff to less than 20 hours a week. Along with the cut in hours, the Bank sheds all the burdensome (to its bottom line) benefits such as sick pay, paid vacations, and medical insurance while reporting record profits! The result for bank workers is a major cut in living standards and an urgent push toward the door if they want to hold on to the income they've become accustomed to. But if they leave the Bank of America, many are no doubt thinking, where will they go?
The Monday newspaper revealed that the local monopoly utility PG&E is planning to cut back its San Francisco‑based, white collar workforce by as much as 10% over the next few months, and is bringing in management consultants to help in this “downsizing,” supposedly because of market competition! Then the Tuesday newspaper reports that Safeway, the nation's largest supermarket chain, based in Oakland, is also going to be trimming its home office staff, and is publicly targeting its 85 stores in the Canadian province of Alberta as a major cost‑cutting area. “If efforts to address our labor costs fail, we may have to abandon the Alberta market altogether,” said Peter Magowan, Safeway's CEO (the same Magowan who recently led the purchase of the SF Giants and signed outfielder Barry Bonds to a $43 million contract). Dozens of small businesses go under every week, and many self‑employed are also choking on recessionary dust.
Years after the advent of the Rust Bowl and the gradual deindustrialization of the United States, the purge of workers and rationalization of labor processes have finally begun to hit white collar workers as hard as blue collar workers were hit in the 1970s and '80s. And not surprisingly, it's being done using the same methods: BofA insiders reported that the cutbacks were the result of Taylorist time‑and‑motion studies conducted last year on branch operations. After analyzing how long it took to do typical operations such as cashing checks, opening accounts and selling traveler's checks, management came to the obvious conclusion (obvious to anyone who has ever worked in a bank) that a lot of the work time they were buying from workers wasn't being used to carry on bank activities and increase bank profits. Hence the dramatic cuts and speedup for those who hold on.
Daily reports of economic recovery and wildly improved productivity measurements underscore the reality that this wave of wage‑cuts, rationalization and layoffs is no fluke. The assault on living standards is precisely the mechanism by which “economic health” is restored. Historically, renewed business activity led to increased employment, but that was before the enormous wave of computerization and generalized automation of the past two decades. Glowing reports of improved productivity and profits will not lead to widespread hiring. In fact, Clinton's plans to link health care coverage to employment is already a major incentive for companies to rid themselves of as many employees as possible, replacing them where necessary with temporary workers supplied by other companies.
Moreover, the big picture of social change looks like more and more people are being thrown down the stairs, out of the upper tier which offered middle class living standards and some sense of security and guaranteed material well‑being, and into the much larger lower tier. In the lower tier (which in turn rests on the burgeoning underclass of homeless and permanently unemployed), people never quite get enough income or work, and find themselves anxiously awaiting a call from the employment or temp agency, hoping for another few days, weeks or months of steady work, only to find the periods between paid work growing longer as the paid work becomes increasingly part‑time and intermittent. Fear and desperation in turn increases one's willingness to endure intolerably dull, stupid and dangerous work.
So how do we respond? Do we organize ourselves to demand jobs? Do we insist that the government guarantee employment or mandate that companies make new, larger unemployment payments to offset the loss of paid work? Why not?
Or do we finally begin to look beyond the existing setup to demand a new relationship between human society, the work it does, and the way the products of human work are distributed?
Isn't it long overdue that we expand our social rights to include our RIGHT TO DO USEFUL, MEANINGFUL WORK?
Isn't it long overdue that we guarantee all members of society a decent standard of living, regardless of what contributions they actually make? After two centuries of automation and dramatic increases in productivity, there is no justification for maintaining 40‑hour work weeks, 50 weeks of work per year. It is time to restructure the work in society so no one has to spend more than a few hours a week at anything (although everyone should be free to spend as long as they like at activities they enjoy, useful or “frivolous”). It is time to make a permanent break between work and income, a break that will be resisted to the death by the owners and managers of this society. In the short term, we should begin discussing and insisting on our right to worthwhile work. In the medium and longer term we should begin imagining how much better life could be without the absurd economic structures that promote overwork and conspicuous consumption at one end, desperate homelessness and crime‑ridden insanity at the other, and precarious insecurity for all in between. The current assault on white-collar workers in the Bay Area is just the latest installment of a long process that will lead to an increasingly barbaric society unless we forcibly resist.
Those of you still inside have a lot more power than you think. You control valuable hardware, data, and other vulnerable links in the corporate empire. Use your imagination, find your allies; they are all around you! Abandon the false comfort that comes from the belief that if you are sufficiently docile and obedient, the Paternal Corporation will take care of you. Nothing could be further from the truth in this dog‑eat‑dog (or is that company‑eat‑people?) world. The two‑tiered society is being created by design, not by accident. Your place in it is not certain, but it is certainly not at the top! The longer they are allowed to pursue this process, the weaker we become. While you still have some leverage over things they care about (data integrity, hardware, software, attitudes, and so on), take advantage! And let us know what's happening, and we'll try to get the word out.
—Nasty Secretary Liberation Front