Issue 2: July 1981 from http://www.processedworld.com
Processed World #2
Table of Contents
From our readers
The Rise of the Six Month Worker
Essay about temporary office work by Lucius Cabins
Career Opportunities: Gidget Goes Binary
Photo-novella featuring puking Gidget Didget.
Raises, Rights, Respect ... Alienation
SEIU, graphs, and heaps of analysis by Lucius Cabins
Computer Workers Strike in England;
Stanford Office Workers Reject Union;
Post-Mortem on the Blue Shield Strike;
Labor Theory of Value?
Office Workers' Olympics
Erasure from the olden days when megabyte still meant "a lot."
Processing Future Processors
You go to school???!!! Essay by Mel Testa
Psalm of the Anger
Don't you want your childrens' bodies to grow thick black fur?
Band-Aids & Escape Valves
Essay on corporate management by Helen Highwater
If blacktop were bullshit. . . Fiction by Chris Winks
In the introduction to Processed World #1, we expressed our intention to establish a network for discussion, information, and communication that would be relevant to the lives of people employed in offices. The favorable responses to our first issue confirmed our belief that many office workers feel the same dissatisfaction we experience in our own lives. While distributing our magazine on the sidewalks of downtown SF, we met new friends who are actively collaborating with us. Several people have also written to us with comments and criticism, which are reprinted in the Letters section below. Thanks to donations and sales of the magazine, we were able to cover a significant part of the cost of producing issue #2.
Here and there, tentatively and often almost invisibly, clerical workers in the US are questioning the situation they share, and are beginning some collective efforts to improve it. As with other kinds of workers, these efforts inevitably bring them into conflict with management. One of the ongoing purposes of Processed World is to report on such conflicts as well as on the conditions that produce them. While we are often severely critical of the groups, such as unions, that are currently trying to "organize" office workers, it's not because we oppose banding together to fight for better conditions within the current set-up. On the contrary, we believe it is vitally necessary for office workers to oppose speed-ups, counter divisive hierarchies of pay and responsibility, and win improved benefits such as childcare, as well as better pay and working conditions. But we think reliance on the traditional methods and forms of organization can only lead to more crushing defeats like the one experienced at Blue Shield, and in the long run, inhibits workers from finding effective ways to organize and act themselves.
One of the goals of PW is to bring together people seeking to develop new, imaginative strategy and tactics and to create a basis of support for future actions. Experience in self-organization and solidarity between office workers would increase our power to challenge the social relations that underlie not only our dissatisfaction on the job, but the prevailing misery and injustice throughout the world. The people at PW believe that the only permanent solution to our condition as office workers lies in a complete transformation of society. In this and forthcoming issues of PW, we hope to articulate a vision of a society where people would no longer be compelled to waste their times and talents in exchange for a means of survival; where profits and hierarchy would no longer dominate our lives; where social decisions would be made by those affected by them; where people would not depend on money to get the things they need and enjoy—instead products would be made and distributed according to need and desire, and the willingness of people to produce them. The millions of economic transactions which comprise the bulk of office work would be unnecessary, and the dreary tasks now required of office workers would be eliminated.
As an organized group, clerical workers possess immense power to bring about these changes. Because they control the flow of information and money that is crucial to the circulation of goods in this society, they also have the power to subvert the whole money economy. In this issue, we continue to explore various aspects of office work: "The Rise of the Six-Month Worker" offers an analysis of the changing workforce, with its new values and employment patterns. "Career Opportunities: Gadget Goes Binary " is a fotonovela in which Gidget, seeking Big Bucks as a computer programmer, loses her breakfast onto irreplaceable hard disks and consequently loses the job. "Prelude " is a short story about the conflicts and choices faced by a woman climbing the career ladder. "Raises, Rights, Respect... Alienation" and "BandAids & Escape Values" analyze the limitations of two approaches to workplace reform: unionization and Quality of Work Life programs. "Processing Future Processors" likens the university to a white-collar factory, using UC Berkeley as a case in point. We are also inaugurating a regular feature in this issue, "Down Time", which includes accounts of recent events involving office workers. Hope you like it—Send comments, articles, money.... SUBSCRIBE!
From our Readers
DEAR REAL PEOPLE:
JUMPIN' JEHOSEPHAT!! THERE'S INTELLIGENT LIFE OUT THERE!! WE ARE AT YOUR SERVICE...
Hi! Nice to know that somebody out there breathes!! The disembodied voice of Mr. Brown's secretary can say more than the trite phrases we've all been taught to mouth to each other over the phone as we arrange other people's affairs and try to keep our annoyance at being disturbed from showing...
Aside from inflated rhetoric (only $5.95 a dozen at Peninsula Office Supply), we would like to offer our services to The Noble Cause. We have limited copying capability with a high-resolution Minolta copier, if that will help. As far as our company's resources go, this office exists solely to promote and sell tax and business information to the Fat Cats to keep us in line. So, if you need detailed information on how far either side can legally go, feel free to come up and use our library. Please call us first, as although this office has an unconventional atmosphere, occasionally someone with marginal power over our existence wanders in. Also, you'd probably prefer not to be hassled by any of our salesmen...
As for the intangibles, Anne is an artist and I am a graphicist of a sort, and we love playing with words (members of the Verbal Vice Squad), so if you-all need any help with content, ideas, embellishment, etc., we are chomping at the bit. The extent of our subversive activities so far has been to plan a parody of one of our periodical publications, with a possible audience of our Main Office (back East, of course) depending on how radical it gets, but we're itching to dig in to the elbows...
This has been so inspiring! I don't know if I can muster the necessary saccharin to answer the phone...
We are the Insurrection and the Light:
Anne K. and Elizabeth B.
Dear Folks, I enjoyed your first issue. Please sign me up for the entire program!
Things are fairly grim here in the Big Apple. A lot of people want to get ahead. Fortunately for me, my forty hours is put in doing something real and concrete—I box and ship bicycle parts to cyclists. I work for a non-profit organization—no one gets rich off my labors anyway. The "Board" (very ominous—never met any of them) seems to believe that people can pay rent and eat off of their good will. Nevertheless, on a day-today basis things function well. One of my co-workers brings her 3-month-old to work. No one objects to the breast feeding and we all spend time with the baby—probably healthy all around. Little Mary Claire is weighed every Monday morning on the postage wale.
I very much enjoyed "San Francisco 1987". Were it only true. It's difficult to even imagine that here. Most people don't dream beyond Fortune smiling and getting a seat in the subway.
Your film review is much like any other film review in a left-wing paper. I don't see the point in reviewing a regular Hollywood movie for ideological shortcomings. Deal with the movie that's being reviewed. When "9 to 5" came out, I read the reviews and decided to wait until it came to the $2.00 movie house. I kind of enjoyed it, although it was a Friday night. No way could I have dealt with Bergman by then.
As to Dolly Parton, I thought she was a great actress. She's probably not stupid, certainly not so stupid as to think the way she dresses is common. Nor is she oblivious to her endowments. Maybe she likes it. If some people go around in three piece suits all day and others are drag queens all day, why can't she look like what she wants?
Here is the old fightsong of a unit in the San Francisco Dept. of Social Services (Food Stamps). We had a merry little party a few years back when the chief cook and paper pusher went out of town. It's written in our working language. If you don't understand you've got to find an old E.W.
To the Long Vacation,
Debbie K.—Brooklyn, N.Y.
P.S. The postage, ink and paper is brought to you courtesy of my employer.
The Eligibility Workers' Fight Song (to the tune of "On Winsocki")
On one-fifties, on 150's
Fight, Fight, Fight, Fight, Fight
Run the L-M through computer
G-Line, sure tonight
(Fight, Fight, Fight)
Keep on filing, keep on smiling
Keep that white-out clean
Ev'ry client's glad to have us on the scene.
UIB cards, EDD cards, ATP cards too
Rush to cut-off, Down to intake
(Fight, Fight, Fight)
We won't smash you,
We won't catch you
It's been just a year since we were
Sure, Dolly can dress any way she wants. (By the way, what makes you think her wardrobe in 9-5 was her choice?) The point we were trying to make was that the way her appearance was used to captivate the audience contradicted the ostensible critique of sexual harassment made in the movie.
Sure, ideological manipulation is to be expected from Hollywood movies. Does this mean we should ignore it? Besides, the progressive, feminist pretensions of this movie set it apart somewhat from the traditional Hollywood fare. We felt it was not accidental that the movie came out at the some time as a unionization drive is being launched to organize clericals.
In spite of the fact that many people have told us they liked the movie, we stand by our criticisms and encourage people to take a deeper took at "entertainment."
Anyway, thanks for writing—we love the Eligibility Workers' Fightsong. Say 'hi' to Mary Claire for us.
To the Editor(s):
All I ran say upon reading your article of the SF takeover in 1987 is "Bravo"! It so happens that I work as a word processor (Wang) at B of A and liken myself unto that fellow in "One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest" at the end of the movie when the big Indian has choked the remains of Jack Nicholson, smashed the window and escaped. Remember how for almost one minute he yells triumphantly and whoops and hollers—and then just as suddenly—he shuts up lest the authorities bear him.
You aim for Utopia. I see that you're trying to raise the consciousness of thousands of business people and tycoons who refuse to have their consciousnes raised. It will take many many lifetimes: for this to happen. I would not be surprised if your little magazine folded after the third issue, but applaud you nonetheless. They occupied UC once; perhaps it's not impossible to occupy BA—think big thoughts!
My situation here is—I've been in this section for four months. Before that I was never exposed to the Wang. I'm being paid $1208 for a supervisory position that should pay at least $1300. 1 was put on Friday probation last month by my immediate supervisor, who I thought I got along with but who apparently doesn't think I can cut the job when I know damn good and well I can. Things are better at this point, but I feel that he might even be under pressure to put me under pressure. He documents everything, undermines my work for me and talks down to me like a 4th grader. So I'm out looking once again.
I marvel at the power this bastard has over me. That is, all he has to do is go to his immediate supervisor, who is the Vice President of the Department, and tell him he doesn't think I'm doing the job—and the VP will go along with his decision! I have no protection whatsoever—no union, no secretaries or word processors association, NOTHING! Nothing but the Employee Assistance Division with their "Let's Talk" in 6 steps, the final step being my case would be reviewed by the higher-ups (top management) who would undoubtedly decide in favor of the Vice President in charge.
So—do you need a word processor? Or a writer? I'm good at words. Maybe (I've thought of this) I could write my experiences here as an article for you. Feel free to call (or write) me at work and if I'm not at my desk leave name and phone # with receptionist. And if she should ask you what it's in regard to, just say go fuck yourself.
Raises, Rights, Respect... Alienation
by Lucius Cabins
"On March 3, 1981 the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Working Women (WW) announced a joint national campaign to organize office workers into unions. WW's executive director Karen Nussbaum proclaimed a "new chapter in labor history'' and predicted that "the 80s will be for clerical workers what the 30s were for industrial workers.''
Working Women was created in 1977 by the national affiliation of five local working women's groups (including San Francisco's Women Organized for Employment [WOE) to advise then-President Carter on the reorganization of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Since that time they've grown to include 13 groups in different cities, with over 10,000 members. In several previous campaigns to organize clericals, WW has emphasized the three Rs--Raises, Rights, and Respect. " Raises Not Roses" and " Scrooge of the Year" were themes used in publicity campaigns to dramatize the low pay of office workers. The "Pettiest Office Procedure" campaign was conceived to draw attention to management's frequent use of office workers to perform demeaning personal favors such as fetching coffee, doing errands, etc.
At this year's National Secretaries Day in Embarcadero Plaza in SF, WOE held an " Office Workers' Olympics." One of the four events was a typing contest where secretaries competed with local officials and celebrities in order to " let the world know that typing is a highly skilled trade!'' This event--and the more general demand for respect'' -- is a response to office workers' resentment against the impersonal way they are treated at work. People demand respect from others in order to respect themselves. They need to feel that their work is appreciated as a meaningful contribution to society. What these demands ignore is the basically wasteful and meaningless nature of office work.
Most of us would enjoy freely contributing a share of our creative abilities to the well-being of others. But since our survival depends on selling these powers for a wage, many of us are forced to derive self-esteem from doing our job competently. No matter how appreciated or well-paid, most office work is useful only to preserve the power of the corporations and governments of the world. To seek positive reinforcement for one's wage-labor only validates a system whose very premise is the degradation of creative human activity--the exchange of skills, affection and loyalty for money.
Beyond this unique demand for respect, WW has declared goals similar to those of labor unions--higher pay, better working conditions, seniority rights and affirmative action. Until the recent agreement with SEIU, Working Women has kept unions at a distance, fearing clerical workers would not accept them. Even now, WW is calling the new national local "autonomous''and establishing separate offices in an attempt to distinguish the new organization from the image of unionism.
The coalition of WW and SEIU is a marriage of mutual convenience. Working Women hopes the unions' money, legal aid and organizing experience will help them overcome the strategic limitations they've encountered. The December 1980 issue of Downtown Women's News in San Francisco exemplifies their limited leverage:
"The single most powerful threat that we as WOE activists hold is our ability to publicly expose and ridicule unfair employment practices.''
At most corporations will respond with mere cosmetic changes to the two minute TV spots WW gets to decry this or that company's prejudicial practices.
SEIU, for its part, has a substantial advantage over other unions trying to gain a foothold in the office labor market. With nearly half the US workforce now employed in "information handling'' and shrinking membership rolls and dues revenues, the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers, the Teamsters and others are rushing to exploit the lucrative opportunities among a discontented white-collar working class.
The prospect of a wave of unionization and strikes among office workers is a matter of grave concern to many corporate and government leaders. In the January 1980 Infosystems magazine, attorney Robert P. Bigelow warns:
"Management must recognize that information is a resource...without an organization-wide information system [read human and/or electronic spies], warning signs may go unnoticed... As offices become more and more dependent on word processing equipment and upon computerized information systems, a strike by data entry and text editing personnel becomes even more serious. An organization that depends on the currency of the information in its data banks will be hamstrung if those who make the entries go out on strike. . .''
While most capitalists tend to resist unionization, some may be shrewd enough to take advantage of the role unions could play in disciplining and controlling the workforce. For example, the infamous productivity problem in offices has been linked to office workers' ability to resist tight control of their workloads. According to the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 25, 1980) "Methods Time Measurement Association, a research group, estimates that white-collar workers operate at only [email protected] of efficiency. A survey of 400 firms shows losses of four hours per worker each week to "time theft,' or excessive tardiness, absence or breaktaking.'' Office workers have developed their own informal methods of resisting the efficiency standards established by management's productivity experts which, if enforced, would turn clericals into automatons.
When a union gets voted in to represent workers in an office, it becomes responsible to management for enforcing work rules established at the negotiating table. By its contractual obligation to ensure a full day's work for a full day's pay, unions will be compelled to help combat time theft and to control absenteeism. In the context of explicit rules and regulations agreed to by management and the union, workers' ability to take their own initiatives in resisting productivity demands on the job would run up against the additional opposition of their union. Once in place, workers may find that the union is just another bureaucracy that demands money and obedience.
One of the great limitations of union strategy is the separation of workers into "bargaining units" or specific workplaces. Most office workers, especially lower level clerical workers, don't see their work at any particular job or company as permanent. Attempts to unionize and negotiate contracts for individual workplaces are bound to suffer under a constantly changing workforce.
A case in point is the Office and Professional Employees Union (OPEIU) Local3 organizing drive at Golden Gate University. In March 1980, OPEIU won the National Labor Relations Board representation election, but Golden Gate University refused to bargain. Now the University is planning to call for a new election which is expected to decertify the union--most of the original activists have left the school to do other things.
Although these drawbacks to organizing attempts are discouraging, remaining unorganized is certainly not a better alternative. Individuals facing the myriad of authorities and hierarchies on their own are easily picked off one by one.
Successful attempts of clerical workers to organize themselves will depend, in the first place, on spontaneous and ongoing communication between large numbers of people in many different workplaces. Coordinated actions must be conceived and achieved; self-reliance and mutual aid developed; goals, strategies and tactics will have to be vigorously discussed--rather than left up to the decisions of union or governmental leaders. New forms of allocating responsibility must be established, forms that do not depend upon representation, leaders and bureaucratic maneuvers. This massive, qualitative change will not be an overnight process (although it could happen sooner than one might think). It is towards this change that we should direct our efforts.
The Rise of the Six-Month Worker
Chris Carlsson analyses the worldwide growth of temporary agency work in this article for Processed World magazine in 1981.
In my experience as a temporary worker in downtown San Francisco, I have met many young people working in offices who have no pretensions about the importance of what they do. They seldom have any attachment to their work, though most are usually careful to do it right, and they don't expect to keep the job longer than from a few months to a couple of years.
Most office workers are temporary, regardless of their official status, and feel they have something better to do with the time they are selling for a living. This something better to do is often, but certainly not always, some kind of creative expression--music, photography, dance, theater, etc. But there are not many commercial opportunities for the aspiring photographer, actress or writer who insists on pursuing his or her own desires and inclinations.
There are many women and men who would like to quit working and spend time raising their children. But in this era of rampant inflation and falling real wages, one income is not enough to support a "middle-class" standard of living.
There are also countless students and liberal arts graduates (frustrated philosophers, language majors, etc.) who are forced into office work while they go to school or until they make a connection for a job as an editor, writer, academic, or until they develop a marketable blue-collar skill. For most, though, this temporary interlude becomes a semi-permanent condition, especially when the "good position" in the university or government turns out to be little more than glorified office work. There might be different companies or agencies, the bureaucratic procedures might vary with different jobs, but there always remains the endless stream of disconnected numbers, reports, memos and invoices to be generated, stored, processed or revised.
Meanwhile, a growing proportion of clerical workers seem to reject the notion of a career in the office and express this attitude by choosing the temporary road. This impression is borne out by statistics both locally and nationally.
The S.F. Chronicle, in an Oct. 19, 1980 special section on "Career Opportunities" ,characterized the thousands of temporary workers in the San Francisco area as mostly in their 20's and 30's, about 2/3 female and having an educational background ranging from high school dropout to Ph.D. This includes only people who actually obtain work through agencies, but it can be assumed that there are thousands more who come and go from company to company without the "help" of an agency.
Short-term employment (2 years or less) is the norm in office work, especially in the lower level jobs. Fifty percent annual turnover among clerical workers is common. At the recently struck Blue Shield offices in SF, for example, there was a near 100% turnover in one department during the year preceding the strike.
According to Business Week (10/6/ 80) 90% of all US companies are now regularly using temporary workers. For the parasitic body shops known as 'temporary employment agencies' sales "have tripled to 62.6 billion since 1975 and could triple again in the next five years." About 60% of this temporary market consists of clerical jobs.
STRUCTURAL CHANGE AND INTEGRATION
For many office workers temporary agencies are offering benefits that are more in tune with what they want than what unions offer. Above and beyond the economic benefits, which vary widely from agency to agency, and union contract to union contract, temporary agencies offer the possibility of employment when it's necessary and freely chosen unemployment when there's adequate cash-on-hand without the stigma or penalties that come with not being willing to hold a job.
Temporary employment also offers a certain freedom from the expectations for sacrifice and dedication that permanent workers face. As Manpower, Inc.'s "Secretary of the Year" Edi Mohr said in the S.F. Chronicle (4/22/81) "...because I'm a temporary, I'm not stuck there like everyone else. So I have nothing to lose by having myself a good time."
Capitalism has survived so long because it has a unique flexibility, a capacity to channel rebellious energies and harness them to its own needs. Wave after wave of mass struggles for better pay, better working conditions, more say in the running of society, have driven the system forward as the market forces beloved of the Reaganites could never have done alone.
A classic case from the recent past is the history of the big industrial unions, like the UAW, the Steel Workers and the Rubber Workers. Formed in the huge and often violent strike movements of the 30's, these unions were rapidly transformed into appendages of the giant corporations their members worked for. In exchange for the closed shop which guaranteed their existence as institutions, they set themselves to maintaining discipline and productivity, beginning with the no-strike pledges they signed at the onset of World War II. The young workers who entered the factories after the war were increasingly indifferent to their jobs, preferring to concentrate on making their home lives as comfortable as possible. Consequently, the unions were able to trade away the control over production and working conditions, won during the struggles of the thirties, for better pay. This steady increase in real wages for hundreds of thousands of workers in turn fueled the booming consumer economy of the fifties and sixties. Temporary agencies play a similar role in relation to the young office worker of today. They allow individuals who hate submitting to the unquestioned authority of bosses and managers, who despise selling their skills and time, to stay out of the work-world as much as possible.
For business, on the other hand, temporary agencies offer the ability to get rid of an unsatisfactory or rebellious worker immediately--and without repercussions. Also, com-panies do not have to pay fringe benefits, payroll taxes, costs for personnel record keeping, advertising, recruiting, screening or training of employees.
By using temporary agencies companies can compensate for the problems of widespread absenteeism. Bringing in temp workers also helps to cement and augment the hierarchy in the office. Lowest-level permanent workers are permitted to enjoy the responsibility and authority, as petty as this may be, of supervising the temps. In return the company may demand greater loyalty and commitment from permanents who are relieved from the most tedious and boring tasks: "One highly placed executive in a mammoth insurance company commented that 'tender minded' academics were 'downright naive' in their concern about worker turnover... It was his 'informed judgment' that clerical personnel are easily trained for their jobs, that if they stayed in larger numbers they would become wage problems--we'd have to keep raising them or end up fighting with them, they would form unions and who knows what the hell else." (Ivar Berg, Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery, New York, Praeger, 1970,p.152)
"PROGRESSIVE" TEMPORARY AGENCIES
Competing for workers, Temps Inc., a small temporary agency doing about 4.5% of the business that industry giant Manpower, Inc. does provide vacations, bonuses, a major medical plan, and relatively high wages ($6.69/hr. for typists to 610.76 /hr. for word processors). "We developed a comprehensive fringe benefit program to give ourselves an identity as an employer and not just a body shop" explained Barry Wright, founder and president of Temps Inc. in Business Week (10/6/80).
Not coincidentally, Temps Inc. and similar agencies make a big deal about how vital you are, the need for "professional" performance on the job and the "special" relationship between the agency and the temporary workers. They "respect" you a lot--the syrupy insincerity of their "friendship and concern" pervades every conversation.
The ability of Temps Inc., Pat Franklin Associates and other "progressive" agencies to offer comfortable wages and conditions is entirely dependent on the current prosperity enjoyed by SF's financial district. In the 60's France, experiencing very low unemployment rates and an expanding economy, had a similar boom of temporary agencies. (There are now approximately 80,000 temporary clerical workers in France, mostly in Paris.) Temporary work grew rapidly to compensate for increasing absenteeism and to do jobs that permanents wouldn't. Initially French temporary workers received pay that was equal to or better than many permanent workers. Since the world-wide economic crisis of 1974-76 however, real wages have fallen for all French workers, and many temporaries now get minimum wage. As economic activity has stagnated and fewer permanent jobs have become available, more French workers have turned to temporary work. Once employed as temporaries, workers are finding themselves increasingly trapped: jobs are of shorter duration with more time between jobs, wages are low and the chances of breaking out of the low-income/ "underemployment" cycle are very poor.
French capitalists, through the development of temporary agencies, have gained a low-wage workforce easily hired and fired as needed. They also have undercut the unionization of banks, insurance companies and government offices.
TEMPORARY EMPLOYMENT: PERMANENT RESTRUCTURING?
The pattern of development of the 'temporary industry' in France is strikingly similar to that of the US temp market. In the US the prosperity of banks and insurance companies might sustain "reasonable" wage and employment conditions for a while longer. But there is every reason to doubt that this will last. Notwithstanding the ridiculous ex-pectations of "supply-side" economists, the long post-W.W.II economic boom is clearly over. The re-emergence of a highly competitive world market ensures that the current stagnation will lead to recession and probably to global depression.
In the meantime, though, capitalists around the world are scrambling to restructure their national economies for the battles ahead. "Reaganomics," with its huge cuts in taxes and social services combined with equally huge increases in military spending, is designed to transfer income away from workers and the "unproductive" poor and make it available as fresh investment funds for the most highly-mechanized, "capital-intensive'' sectors of US industry. These sectors-steel, auto, electrical, aerospace--are already being hurt badly by foreign competition, especially from Japan and West Germany. As a result, they are now leading US business in a drive to cut costs and increase efficiency through automation, robotization and "job redesign."
The effects of this drive on the industrial workforce can already be seen--massive layoffs, speedups, the negotiation of wage cuts by the unions. But clerical workers will soon be feeling the pinch as well.
In the office automation is advancing rapidly. There are more than 7 million data terminals operating in the US and this figure is expected at least to quadruple in the next 5-10 years. Ever "smarter" machines and the advent of the "executive work station" (putting the managers themselves on terminals that will produce finished memos and documents) will erode the need for the bulk of clerical/secretarial work.
The increasing use of temporary office workers gives companies greater flexibility in "letting people go" when productivity gains through automation are realized. Companies don't have to worry about the severance pay and unemployment benefits they are obliged to provide for discharged permanent workers. While the new systems are first being implemented and there are still bugs to be worked out, the office temp market is booming and "decent" wages are. available for some skills (e.g. word processing). But these conditions, alas, are as temporary as the jobs that currently provide them.
WAGE LABOR: A TEMPORARY CONDITION?
The push to unionize office workers will not avert the falling real wages or the imposition of work restructuring, though it may slow them down a bit. But unions are based on contractual bargains over a relatively long period of employment. During periods of expansion, they offer higher wages, more job security, seniority rights, contractually established production standards, etc. But for thousands of temps these things are meaningless since we are not planning to stay at any job very long, especially where there's a heavy workload with little time for breaks and conversation.
Temporary workers, and office workers in general need to develop means of communication and association outside of any particular workplace. This is essential since so few people stay at specific jobs or locations for more than a couple of years at most (usually less). Above and beyond specific work experiences, we have in common our general relationship to Corporate Office Land, and it is based around this collective predicament that we should begin associating.
It's time to take the typical "temp" attitude to work one step further. The problem is not only that office work is boring and useless to individuals who do it and wasteful for the society as a whole. Wage labor itself wastes the hours and lives of hundreds of millions around the world. At the same time it robs us of the power to decide what work should really be done to meet our needs and desires. The society based on wage labor is what must be challenged. In it place we can create a society where work is done directly for social and individual needs and where everyone can participate directly in determining and planning for these needs. Such a society would have no built-in ten-dencies, as the present one does, to constrict our intelligence and imagination into the strait-jacket of "job" and "career." On the contrary, it would depend on the all-round development of the brains and talents of every individual and their voluntary matching to the tasks at hand. The desire for variety and new experience, which is the positive motivation for so many modern workers to move restlessly from job to job, would become a basic principle of life. People could spend their time planting or harvesting one month, building houses the next, programming computers the one after, playing music every night --all without ever being farmers, construction workers, programmers or musicians. But the need for developing our brains and talents does not begin with the birth of this still-imaginary world. We can use the (relatively) free time that "temping" still affords us to create a subversive arsenal, to shatter the system's grip on our minds and those of our fellow humans.
Autonomous groups of workers, unbound by constitutions or laws, provide a starting point. If and when actions are taken and groups begin to link up with one another, goals, strategies, and tactics can be explored. The pages of Processed World are open to further discussions and explorations of these questions.
Computer Workers Strike in England
5,000 computer workers throughout England have been on strike since mid-March. They are striking on behalf of the entire 530,000 civil servants in England, all of whom are represented by the Council of Civil Servant Unions. The 525,000 nonstriking civil servants are each paying about $2.10 a week so that the 5,000 strikers can be paid 85% of their usual salary without resorting to the unions' strike funds.
The striking computer workers have made a shambles of England's revenue collections, interfered with defense operations, and brought routine purchasing and some cash disbursements to a halt. The strike is blocking between 25% and 45% of the total tax revenues the British government gets from Value-Added tax and income tax. This is forcing the government to increase borrowing, 2.5 times more this April than last (which in turn is damaging prime minister Thatcher's monetarist policies, in order to continue most of its operations.
To combat the strike the British government has asked big taxpayers to send their checks through commercial banks. Computer workers at the banks, however, have refused to handle those checks. Other computer owners, worried about the strength and solidarity of British computer workers, are contemplating processing their information via satellite in countries where computer workers aren't unionized.
Another strategy of computer owners is to undercut potential collective action by computer workers through increasing the use of decentralized minicomputers. An industry trade association leader in England, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, said "Big companies are already turning down mainframe computers on industrial-relations grounds. I advise getting into small computers. An Apple® a day, I say, keeps the union away."
The strike has been largely ignored by the U.S. press, so information is spotty and incomplete. The relationship between the strikers, the unions, and management (the British government) is unknown to us—perhaps a British reader of Processed World will write something about it for us? from Business Week 3/23/81, and Wall Street Journal 5/19/81.
Stanford Office Workers Reject Union
Article by Processed World analysing the vote of Stanford University office workers against joining the SEIU union.
On May 7, 1981, office workers at Stanford voted nearly 2-to-1 against joining the United Stanford Employees (USE), an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The unionization drive was launched in August, 1979, when the University refused to recognize the independent Office Staff Organizing Committee as a bargaining agent for Stanford office workers. As a result of this rebuff by the Stanford Administration, the organizers felt they had no other recourse but to turn to an established union.
During the months of intensive campaigning that preceded the election, the Stanford administration issued a series of Election Bulletins warning office workers (often in a patronizing and condescending manner) about the authoritarianism of the union. They claimed that the good relations between office staff and management would be disrupted by the union's adversary role. Using endless misleading statistics they argued that clerical workers at Stanford enjoy relatively high wages, and that the University's own grievance procedure adequately responded to the needs of employees. In fact, as one worker who had attempted to use this recourse described in a letter to the Stanford Daily, a student newspaper, the University administration can (and does) easily dismiss grievances at any point in the process without legal repercussions.
For its part, SEW, which currently represents 1,400 technicians and maintenance workers at Stanford, made exaggerated claims about the prospects of improving wages and working conditions through collective bargaining. Surveys published in the Stanford Daily indicated that, although a large percentage of workers were dissatisfied with their jobs (belying the image of harmonious worker/management relations publicized by the University) many were also skeptical about the extent to which a union would improve their overall job satisfaction.
The apparent reluctance of most office workers at Stanford to stand up to management as an organized group with collective demands and common interest is a serious obstacle to any attempts to improve their conditions. On the other hand, the office workers were probably right in believing that the union wouldn't have been able to deliver on promises made during the campaign.
Legal recognition for collective bargaining units is no guarantee that workers will get what they want. The recent settlement of unionized office workers at Blue Shield is a painful reminder of the constraints of the traditional collective bargaining process.
While affiliation with a union offers some advantages to organizers (protection from management retaliation, monetary and legal assistance) it also imposes strict limitations on the form and nature of organized resistance. Union-approved strikes are the only legal means available to workers to assert their power, and this only during actual contract negotiations, since most unions, including the SEW, pledge not to strike for the duration of the contract. The only recourse for workers who want to protest management practices on the job is the grievance procedure, which is notorious for delays and overall ineffectiveness.
(Sometimes even union approval doesn't guarantee legal sanction, e.g. SEW local 715 was found in contempt of court on May 22, '81 for allowing the Santa Clara County special education teaching aides to continue their strike in spite of an injunction against it. The local president has been sentenced to 30 days in jail and the union has been fined $3,000. The sentence has been suspended for 90 days so workers can show "good faith" by going back to work.)
If they are to make any lasting and significant changes, working people will have to find different ways of organizing which rely less on the traditional legal institutions and union bureaucrats and more on their own willingness and determination to act for themselves. The energy and time spent on seeking official recognition could be directed instead toward developing communications between workers. For example, during the months of the union campaign, the workers at Stanford aired their views and attitudes toward their jobs, and discussed problems and dissatisfactions with others in similar situations. Instead of directing this communication and informal networking toward establishing a union (or now, making a second try to win a union election campaign using essentially the same arguments and methods) the dialogue begun in such cases could be extended to address questions beyond the traditional wages and working conditions issues. The nature of the University in modem capitalism, and questions of qualitative changes in society could be raised. New tactics could be discussed and crystallized into direct, on-the-job actions. Links to dissatisfied students could be established and the separations between workers, students, administration and society-at-large could be confronted. The immediate risk of retaliation by management may be greater, but so are the chances of success. Maybe it's time to raise the stakes.
Post-mortem on the Blue Shield strike
Processed World analyses the situation at the end of the Blue Shield insurance workers' strike in 1981.
In Processed World #1 we published an article about the OPEIU-led strike at SF's Blue Shield offices. In that article we criticized the union's tactics as ineffective and pre-emptive of the Blue Shield workers' power over data banks and telecommunications hardware. We also challenged the union's analysis of the situation at Blue Shield and in the US today. The strike has since ended in a devastating defeat for the workers at Blue Shield:
* Lost wages and benefits for the duration of the 19-week strike.
* 448 Medicare claims processing jobs are being permanently relocated to other non-union Blue Shield offices.
* Elimination of cost-of-living wage increases, replaced by the infamous "Blue Cross settlement" (agreed to in the midst of the strike by "sister" local 29 in the East Bay) which raises wages a mere 27% during the three-year contract.
* No provisions for additional break-time for VDT operators, though the company agreed in a separate "letter of understanding," to install glare screens.
* Of the original 1,100 strikers (since the strike's end the union is saying only 950 people were on strike) 350 returned to work before the strike's end. Combining the large defection with the relocation of 448 jobs, this will leave loyal union members in possession of only about 150-200 jobs. Less than 300 strikers actually voted on the new contract (275 for, 22 against).
Judging from the speech given on National Secretaries' Day, organizers at OPEIU are oblivious to these consequences for Blue Shield workers. In a brief conversation with OPEIU representative Tonie Jones after her NSD speech, she claimed that, although they didn't get what they demanded, the Blue Shield workers did gain experience in organizing and working together. Certainly it is true that successful collective actions by clerical workers will call for a good deal of organization and preparation. During the first weeks the strike probably did encourage people to air their dissatisfactions and helped create a sense of community and support among otherwise isolated workers. But for an experience to be worthwhile, problems have to be analyzed and errors understood so that they can be avoided or at least foreseen in the next round.
The basic orientation and legal function of the union must be analyzed in detail. The OPEIU militants who refuse to recognize that they were soundly beaten and need to reconsider their approach are either plain dumb, or think the rest of us are.
--Lucius Cabins & Maxine Holz