Issue 4: Spring 1982 from http://www.processedworld.com
Processed World #4
Table of Contents
No Paid Officials
Letters from Zona Monetaria
Basic Principles of Resistance (by Solidarity)
SF Supes Bolster Sagging City Worker Unions
Confidence Crisis For Middle Management
The Typist Addreses her IBM Selectric
That Damn Office!
This is the fourth issue of Processed World, and the beginning of our second year. We are delighted and amazed at the depth and breadth of response to the magazine, particularly since the new year. Our letters section has grown again—keep 'em coming!
This issue's lead article "No Paid Officials" brings to light a little known piece of recent San Francisco labor history. The story of the Social Service Employees Union offers us a look at a group of office workers who broke with traditional trade union organization and discovered new tactics and strategies. Interestingly, the same SEIU Local 400 that the SSEU broke away from in 1966, has recently become the prime beneficiary of San Francisco's new "agency shop" law. A brief analysis is presented in the DOWNTIME! section.
Continuing our "Tales of Toil" series is J. Gulesian, Temporary At Large. Her "Letters From Zone Monetaria" scrutinize the norms of office life in a series of sardonic reports on the hierarchy and cultural conformism around her. Her prediction of a new industry to deal with executive alienation is made believable by a speech we received from friends at Arthur Andersen & Co. In the speech, excerpted in DOWNTIME!, a top company exec pleads with middle managers to believe their jobs are not meaningless.'
Office life is further explored in Maxine Holz's review of That Office!, a play by and for clerical workers, currently showing around the Bay Area's community theaters. The play's portrayal of "the secretary" focuses on the complex emotions brought out by coping with a subordinate position in the office hierarchy. Particularly good the way in which the play captures the combination of imagination an humor as the human response office work. The short story "Traces" flashes us back to Hungary 1956, and forward again to Corporate Office Land 1982 in a juxtaposition of past revolt and current possibilities.
Throughout our magazine's short existence we have tried to describe a different world, a world whose creation we hope to contribute to. What kind of world are we talking about? We have repeatedly said "a world free from authoritarian domination and exploitation" or "a world free from the arbitrary constraints of having to make a living in the money economy. " Indeed, these sentences do describe in vague terms the world we seek. But what does it mean in this world to talk about such sweeping change?
Of course, we do not have nor do we want to have a blueprint for a new society, but we do think it vital to begin imagining how things could be different. The first step in this direction is to thoroughly criticize all existing societies. We don't want our goal mistakenly identified with any variant of "free market" Western capitalism or of the "communist" state capitalism of the USSR, China, Cuba and the rest.
We are interested in a classless, state-less society, where decisions about daily life are made by those most directly affected by the consequences of the decisions. Sometimes this might mean a highly decentralized, locally-based decision-making process. Other times, it might mean a need for decision-making coordination on a continental or even a global basis (for instance, over major ecological questions or to deal with natural disasters, shortages, etc.). Either way, this means a society of free individuals, capable of coping with social problems in a direct and conscious way, beyond present-day "needs" like the maintenance of profits and power structures.
Again, these are fairly general principles of a new social arrangement. We consider PW an outlet for more concrete explorations of utopian ideas and hopes.
We want to begin examining the problems of getting from here to there, as well as what we would like "there" to look like. We hope PW readers will contribute their thoughts and experiences to this quest. Keep sending us your letters, articles, stories, graphics, drawings, etc.
Hey! We just got a great idea! If you can't beat them, join them!
We should start up our own temporary agency and call it RED ROVERS: (of course, the slogan could be "Red Rover, Red Rover, send someone right over") the kick is that they are quiet fomenters of revolution, distributing pamphlets, and generally spreading the Word.
If not a reality, it would make a great story...
E. — San Francisco
Dear Processed World,
I have come across a small example of your journal within my CoEvolution, Winter 81. Enclosed is my check for $10 for my sub.
I am impressed with what I read and I'm looking forward to reading an entire edition.
My situation? I'm not even sure I know what it is. At present I am a Systems Software Clerk for a large oil company. I've been with them a bit longer than two years. I "enjoy" my job, it is diversified and keeps me busy. I do a lot of data entry, arranging and running reports, and miscellaneous. My co-workers have educated me in several systems. But...
"They" tell me business is the only decent major (I attend a community college part-time and will have my AA by '83 — at last, my major being education secondary). "They" tell me I should learn Cobol and Fortran to get somewhere from where I'm at. I'm not motivated to. I don't want to be a Programmer. But if I say that, I appear ungrateful. Dumb broad in their eyes. "They" laugh when I confess my major is education. (But telling some my major is Philosophy keeps them quiet and at a distance!)
Big Business is not where I want to be — with dept. vs. dept., manager vs. manager, politics and high finance. No — that's not for me. But then I do seem to need the money. I've been divorced for nearly six years and I support two children, 11 and 10, one of whom is crippled and blind. Can I afford to drag them off on my dreams and move to Maryland or Colorado — or can I afford not to?
I'd like to be involved with teaching and communication. The back to basics approach. I want to be involved in building a society my kids and I can survive in, have friends I can trust, and be with people who can love and allow others to love them. Those people seem rare to me. So many seem frightened by kindness, by love. Fear is understandable. There are a lot of confused and violent people to contend with. But running, hiding, is not the answer. What is the answer? Perhaps that is why I am writing. It seems strange to put this on paper. Strange to send it off to people I don't know. But maybe your ideas can help me. My dream is to have that BA degree before 1988 — (part-time takes forever!) Still, that seems like a long time to just get by. Hopefully, I can get some educating experience by teaching at my church once a week. Do I have better choices? I hope so.
In any case, I'll be looking forward to your journal and your ideas. Thank you for this opportunity to write. Perhaps I will be able to contribute to Processed World at some future date.
L.S. — Parma, Ohio
Dear L. S.,
All of us at Processed World were very touched and pleased with your letter. I think the frustrations and desires you expressed are widespread — which is partly what inspired us to publish in the first place. Our project, in the most immediate sense, is to help validate and encourage dissatisfaction with what this world offers us. The source of so much difficulty in "coping" stems more from the society we live in than from individual failure. If people stop blaming themselves, and stop trying to fit into the established models, maybe we can begin acting to change the whole set-up.
It would be facile and pretentious to claim that we have "answers" to the situations of individuals trapped in the office world. For one thing, as long as this society remains based on profits and the power of corporations and governments, and as long as the important decisions that affect us remain in the hands of entrenched authorities and bureaucracies, the problems of survival and the difficulties in creating bonds of trust and friendship can only be partly and temporarily resolved. The pressure of earning a living already limits our choices considerably.
Aside from being an outlet for our own creative impulses and desires to change the world, working together on P.W. and related activities has led to close friendships and to a sense of community that is so lacking in most of our lives. Of course we have plenty of problems and personal conflicts, and we don't always live up to our ideals of free social relationships.
In addition to publishing and distributing P.W., we try to speak to people we work with, making friends and alliances that help alleviate the time spent at work. Wherever possible, we provide support for those who are trying to challenge the order we live under. We encourage people to make use of our resources, contacts and experience.
Apart from more or less regular editorial meetings we have begun to hold a sort of open house at a bar in the Financial District to meet, talk and make plans after work... I hope you enjoy the magazine. Please keep in touch.
HELEN WRITES HOME
Why did I do it? Become part of PW magazine that is. Well, I was working at BofA, and it was ultra-beige in spirit and surroundings. At this time I entertained a mild flirtation with local Working Women aficionados, but their respectability and "Proper channels" emphasis was tres ennui and a big yawn besides. So when a kindly temp worker told me he had heard reports that crazy people in the financial district were wearing VDT heads and shouting in the streets about office work, and when I ran into these same people during my lunch break, I felt, shall we say... sympathetically inclined.
At first I was misled by the "professional" appearance of the magazine and was surprised to discover that it was put out by a small group of friends, all of them office peons like yours truly. My remaining two months at BofA were made a little easier by knowing other people who shared my rage about selling 40 hours a week to a place where too often your most intimate and scintillating companion is a typewriter. I met people who questioned office work very deeply — both in the abstract and at the eminently practical level of how to survive in the oh-so-cheery office of today, while at the same time striking against it.
You keep waiting, but if my rebelliousness is just a phase I'm certainly taking a long time to grow out of it. I show no signs of reaching for a steady, prestigious job. I work for Mr. Big as little as possible. And when I'm "Mr. Big's Girl" I try to get the best deal for myself and steal back my time, creativity, and self-respect in whatever ways are possible. PW helps invent more possibilities.
Well, that's enough for now Dad. In my next letter I'll tell you if crime pays, how much, who's hiring and how you have to dress for the job. Send my love to Snoodles, Chopper and Betsy.
I read the first two issues of your journal while visiting Vancouver. I could identify with personal contradictions of being an intellectual doing unskilled labor since I have always done menial manual labor myself. My current position is as a laborer on the garbage trucks for the City of Toronto.
I don't mean to denigrate your more theoretical insights by discussing the personal contradictions involved in unskilled labor. Indeed I found your overall analysis of work and not-work to concur very much with my own ideas. But over the 8 months that I worked as a garbage laborer, I have become much more aware of the elitism of the left and their misunderstanding of people who choose non-careerist survival options.
My own position is summed up by paraphrasing the old dictum; "employment if necessary, but not necessarily employment." I know that I have other options, so to speak, i.e. retraining in computers or electronics for instance, but I feel so alienated from this system that I find it difficult to direct my energy to increasing the social value of my skills when the only benefits that I will receive out of it is security and the remote possibility that my work will be more interesting. Otherwise any benefits certainly go to the abstract extraction of surplus value.
Compared to most people that I know in Toronto, I prefer my alienation straight. When one does manual, unskilled labor, there is no way that one can mystify oneself into thinking that one is working for some social or political good. One works for survival and for some extra income to fund personal/political projects. But the careerists lose that clarity. Their politics and their careers begin to dovetail into each other. They become more concerned with their resumé than with their lives.
It was interesting to tell people what I did. People's responses on hearing that I was a garbage laborer were readily divisible into two distinct categories. One was quite pragmatic. They were interested in how much money (good), working conditions, i.e. outside work, physical work, time for which we were paid that we didn't have to work, etc. The second category of responses was generally a non-response, usually a polite silence at best. After a while, I almost enjoyed maliciously telling people quite bluntly that I worked on garbage to shock them a bit.
I had only recently moved to Toronto and it was quite a different left to what I had ever been around before. In the other cities that I had lived in, lefties (using the word very generally) were usually marginals or workers or some unbalanced combination. But in Toronto there is no large culture of marginalization as there was in Kitchener or Vancouver. I just had never had much contact with people who actually thought in career terms. It seems so unfortunate that people direct their energies towards an end that is not at all in opposition to the Machine. At best, they work 35 hours a week for the system and ten hours a week against it.
J.C. — Toronto
Dear P.W. People;
I was given your excellent publication by a guy in a very fetching detergent outfit (TIED) on the corner of Carl and Cole on the 24th of December. As I didn't have a dollar on me at the time I promised to mail it in. So, for once, the check IS in the mail!
Keep up the fight
L.A. — San Francisco
p.s. — I typed this on company paper, on company overtime and put it through the official postage meter. Pay ME shit, will they-
Dear Processed World:
In her dialogue with the person who participated in the United Stanford Workers organizing drive, Maxine Holz counterposes "direct action" to "unions". As a person who has also participated in white collar union organizing — and who sympathizes with Processed World's viewpoint, this immediately provokes certain questions in my mind: How can direct action in opposition to the employers be a collective activity of a workforce without mass organization? And isn't any mass organization which tries to bring together all the workers who are prepared to fight the boss an expression of some kind of unionism?
Even your "informal groups" can be an affirmation of unionism. Imagine that a group of office workers, who have gotten to know each other from working together for months in the same office, decide to ask the boss for a raise as a group. Such an incident of workers acting in union is an embryonic form of unionism.
Direct action will only lead people "to think and act in ways that will lead to the kinds of changes in society that have been discussed in the pages of Processed World" (as Maxine says), if it is collective. For sure, it can feel great to sabotage the company's computer or rip off supplies from the employer (at least, I've gotten a sense of satisfaction from doing it), but isolated acts of individuals won't bring workers to an awareness that we have the potential power to transform the world in the direction of freedom from domination and exploitation.
Most people seem pretty skeptical about proposals for sweeping change. It's this feeling that we're just powerless individuals that will incline people to reject ideas of fundamental social change as "unrealistic". If "the feeble strength of one" describes your perception of your situation, you'll tend to strive for what you can get as an individual within the system. Collective action can alter the sense of power that people have because it changes the real situation from atomized individuals, cut off from each other, to the power of worker solidarity. Especially when the action and solidarity among working people spreads beyond the "normal" channels and unites — and brings into active participation ever-larger sections of the workforce — as in the recent movement in Poland. Movements on that scale begin to create the sense that it's "up for grabs" how society is organized. And if it's up for grabs, then efforts to change society in a freer and more humane direction seem more realistic to people.
It's also during these periods of heightened struggle and mass participation that workers move to take over more direct control of their struggles with the employing class and in the process, create more independent ways of organizing their activity, free of top-down control. For example, during the "hot autumn" of 1969 in Italy workers at the Fiat and Alfa-Romeo auto plants created mass assemblies, organizations of face-to-face rank-and-file democracy outside the framework of the hierarchical unions.
This happens because the top-down structures of such unions make them unsuited to carrying the struggle beyond the "normal" channels. The officials who run them, with their bureaucratic concern for avoiding risks to their organizations (and their status), will work to contain struggles within the framework of their longstanding relationship with the bosses.
Thus, "union" can refer to top-down structures whose separation from the rank-and-file invariably means that they will act to contain worker protest within bounds acceptable to the powers-that-be. Or "union" can refer to a form of association that is just the rank-and-file "in union," a mere means to get together and come to agreement on common goals and common action in dealing with the employers. I think tendencies in both directions have always been present in labor history.
Effective direct action means workers have to get together. "Informal groups" can be helpful in developing unity, but I think mass organization on a larger scale is called for if working people are to develop the power to make the sort of social changes you have been talking about. Besides, "informality" does not guarantee that an organization will be self-directed by the rank-and-file. Informal hierarchies can develop.
And the kind of "union" that is run directly through mass meetings of all the workers is important, not just because it would be a much more effective tool in fighting for what we want right now, but also because mass organizations of this kind contain the premises of the kind of society we want to create "in embryo" — a society without bosses, free of the exploitation of some people by others, a society of genuinely free and equal humans.
For a world without bosses,
R.L. — SF
(RE: HENRY ADAMS' THE VIRGIN AND THE DYNAMO$ AND THE SENSE OF BEING A LITTLE BALL BEARING IN THE GENERATOR THAT POWERS THE ELECTRIC CHAIR IN A VAST PROVINCE DEDICATED TO EXECUTION IN THE OUIETEST MANNER POSSIBLE)
Dear PROCESSED WORLD:
The other day as I walked into Standard Oil's 575 Market Street building, I was suddenly saddened and felt hopeless. The change was so abrupt that I had to analyze it. Now, the metaphor is commonplace but what it signifies is still significant and worth considering in some depth — that is, the metaphor of being a small part of a machine.
We talk about the corporate machinery. We recognize that efficiency is the main aim of a machine. Heat loss from friction, wear and eventual breakdown, production of inferior products, consumption of fuel — these are the kinds of losses which technicians seek to minimize when they work on a machine. Each part of a machine should perform the same way each time it is called upon. There should be no random behavior of the parts. The machine should do what you want it to.
Only a certain kind of person makes a good machine part. Our most valuable people are those who do not make good machine parts. They produce unexpected and inexplicable things like art, theory, humor, stories — things which derive their value from their singularity.
The idea of having a machine made of humans is not a good idea. Humans do not perform with regularity, except for those few like Sergeant Ed Bowers, a redcoat guard in 575 Market who would do well behind a desk in a novel by Franz Kafka, who, in fact, may have screwed up his courage and walked right out of a novel by Franz Kafka into the lobby of 575 Market. My problems with Mr. Bowers are the problems of a human being trying to relate to a cotter pin in a mill wheel.
Faulkner worked on a dynamo when he was writing As I Lay Dying. The hum of the dynamo was a pleasant sound. He could think out there, and he only had to get up. every now and then to stoke the fire. I'm speaking generally, and I'm really opening my position wide to criticism by doing so, but let's just say that the dynamo and all it stood for still left humans with a private dignity. Nobody's saying that back-breaking work is terrific, and I hope I'm avoiding any tendency to eulogize physical labor, much as we might eulogize the lives of peasants because they are tied to the ground, or the poverty of blacks because they have soul. I am saying that physical labor does not threaten to insidiously change the worker's mental processes to the point that the worker suffers confusion and is psychologically malleable. Say a worker has to move a hundred boxes a day. His body gets used to moving boxes. He begins to look like somebody who moves a hundred boxes a day.
Say a worker has to move a hundred pieces of information a day. His mind gets used to moving information. Say the boxes contain radioactive materials. The worker suffers not from the work but from the content of the stuff he works on. Say the information contains the elements of fascist state control, the ideas of subordination of the individual, submission to rules, threats. The worker suffers not from the work, but from the content of the work. A philosophy gets transmitted like a virus.
What we do not see hurts us. The transmission of disease long remained a mystery. It is transmitted by things we do not see.
The long range danger of having corporations organized like feudal estates is that you infect a democratic people with feudal germs. It is information that shapes people. The mover of boxes may go home and read Schopenhauer. The mover of information is fatigued with the movement of knowledge, and goes home to exercise.
Even a mill worker, who works in a machine (a factory is a large machine) can at least readily identify that aspect of his life that is machine-like, and has the mechanical model before him to rationalize the routine to which he is subjected. The machine has to work this way to make flour, or cloth. But the office worker is asked to accept routine as a way in itself. The worker in the modern bureaucracy is taught to accept routine as a way of operating. The rules of the machine thus take on the character of arbitrary control rather than justifiable control. We learn to submit to authority as a general rule, and not as a necessary exception to the rule of individual freedom.
I work as a temporary at Standard Oil and I don't have time to work on this letter any more. I realize the arguments are not fully developed but this is a first and last draft. And that's that.
C.D. — San Francisco
EEEeeeeeee Processed World #3;
high, y'all, really do hope these words find you in the very best of health and determined spirits.
I really enjoyed that, and I've sent it into the mid-west to a few friends, one of whommmm works as a secretary at the Denver mint, so maybe y'all better get ready for some strange lookin' change, hmm...
... Being in prison and now in the hole (for my attitude) I of course am deprived of access to resource material — and am kind of 'out of it' so far as what's happening and like that. I've been good for several weeks in a row, so how do you feel about communicating more often you know, like maybe some of the flyers laying around or back issues of the World?
Anyway, I really do like your style — god! When the young ones begin to communicate in kind, these pyramids will... be reconstructed and mean something more than a procession into degrees of bondage. Nevertheless, take care,
one of the Rainbow Dragonfly
No Paid Officials
Without the historical experience of unions, union meant "the act of uniting and the harmony, agreement, or concord that results from such a joining." Significantly, then, the definition of the word unionize is "to cause to join a union; to make to conform to rules, etc. of a union." The beauty of the words "harmony, concord, agreement" are lost in the oppressive implication of the words "to cause to join' and "to conform to rules, etc." SSEU then, by my experience is a union that does not try to unionize.
[i]I am in union with SSEU as a group of individuals. I am not a member of a union...I feel that there are many people like myself who don't like listening to the rhetoric, jargon and propaganda of union meetings and union leaders; who don't like organizations or individuals which make unilateral decisions that affect the lives of many people.—Cree Maxon, May 28, 1974
The Rag Times, Vol. 1, No. 16[/quote]
The Social Service Employees Union of San Francisco appeared in 1966, just as a widespread revolt was sweeping the country. While most people look back at the '60s as a time of urban riots, the anti-Vietnam war movement, hippies, drugs and rock 'n roll, the SSEU represented a now-forgotten convergence of cultural and worker rebellion.
The SSEU aspired to be completely democratic. Its activities were carried on by the workers themselves, on their own time and sometimes on work time. Decisions about union activities were made collectively by both union and non-union members. During its entire existence (between approximately 1966 and 1976) it had no paid officials and signed no contracts with the Welfare Department management.
The 200+ workers involved in SSEU at its peak evolved a unique strategy for improving their own conditions as workers and for challenging the basic authoritarian relations that prevailed (and still prevail) around them. This strategy depended on the diverse and wide-open media they created, consisting of uncensored newpapers and leaflets. It was also based on a dialogue/confrontation process between the workers and their managers, welfare administrators, and government officials.
The Trade Union as an Obstacle
In early 1966, some welfare workers banded together to defend co- workers from summary dismissals. They also began formulating and pressing a number of grievances. As soon as workers acted for themselves, however, their union (Building Service Employees International Union—BSEIU—Local 400, which later changed into SEIU) became as much an obstacle to their efforts as their employers.
For example, one of the first grievances raised was over space. People worked at desks jammed together in cramped quarters. When the welfare workers discovered a space code in the state regulations requiring more space-per-worker they wrote letters of complaint to the Social Services Commissioner and the State Dept. of Social Welfare. They gave them to their union to send, but found out later that the union hadn't sent either.
Shortly, thereafter, the Executive Secretary of the union chastised the welfare workers for sending irate letters to administrators who were his friends, and with whom he had political understandings. In response, the workers demanded to have the question of union representation put on the agenda of the next meeting.
The next meeting, obviously stacked by friends of the union's leader who owed him favors, had the largest attendance of any in the local's history. Then-Executive Secretary John Jeffrey pushed measures through which dissolved the union's welfare section, abolished the workers' uncensored "Dialog" newspaper, barred Dept. of Social Services (DSS) workers' leaflets, and prevented welfare worker meembers of the union from holding meetings at Local 400's office or electing any union officers to represent their section. About fifty of the affected workers then decided to start an independent union, which was named the Social Service Employees Union (SSEU).
The Cultural Context
As U.S. prosperity seemed to be peaking, and the welfare/warfare state assumed its present enormous size and importance in daily life, millions of people organized themselves in active opposition. Rising expectations and desires quickly exceeded what daily reality had to offer. While many focused their oppositional energies on specific issues, all kinds of people rejected traditional roles and attitudes and attempted to find new ways to live, work, and have fun.
In San Francisco, long a city with a bohemian underground and strong oppositional currents, the "flower children'' or hippie subculture bloomed and was made famous by the media-hyped "Summer of Love'' in the Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. For many people "dropping out'' of the "establishment'' meant a rejection of regular work. Still faced with the inflexible demands of a money economy, however, these "dropouts'' often turned to the welfare system for survival. As counterculturists came into regular contact with the social workers of the welfare bureaucracy, the two groups began sharing ideas and perspectives.
Very soon, most welfare workers stopped seeing themselves as representatives of the state and the welfare system. Instead, they counseled welfare recipients on how to best take advantage of "the system.'' But more importantly, they spoke out for themselves, as workers trying to be creative in their work, and helpful to people in need. They went along with the widely held notion within the SSEU that it was part of a broader movement for fundamental social change.
Curiously, though, this notion does not seem to have prompted the SSEU to a critique of the welfare system as such. There is little or no mention in its publications of the role of the welfare system in controlling the poor, nor much reference to the welfare workers' own role in maintaining this control. SSEU members challenged specific injustices both in their own condition as workers and in the allocation of benefits to recipients. But they seldom explicitly condemned the social relationships that make welfare necessary. Perhaps the feelings of self-acceptance and satisfaction gained from helping people get benefits largely blinded most SSEUers to the longer-term implications of the work.
Basing its activities and tactics on the needs and desires of individual workers, the SSEU developed a strategy of non-violent, incessant pressure on the welfare hierarchy. The union eschewed individual acts of insubordination since these usually resulted in firings. Instead they evolved a dialogue/confrontation process, whereby workers would pursue grievances over nearly anything that concerned them via direct spoken or written communication with the pertinent administrators.
The pressure from below created by the dialogue strategy often led to administrative hearings with managers, commissions, city boards of supervisors, etc. The SSEU demanded and won rights for employees to appear before such hearings to defend their own interests. They also won the right to introduce any evidence or call any witnesses that they felt would support their case.
Although they pursued numerous legal avenues of protest, the SSEU never relied on paid officials to represent the workers involved. Their efforts in the area of commission hearings and dissimilar settings were devoted to allowing people to speak for themselves. And while they would do their best to get as much as possible from the authorities in any given situation, they never signed away any rights (such as the right to strike or to take any other actions to help themselves), nor did they ever agree to stop trying to gain further concessions from management.
The following is excerpted from "The Labor Contract: Nugget or Noose?'', a leaflet put out by Burt Alpert of the SSEU during the 1968 fight over contract bargaining:
There are two basic methods of collective bargaining. Both result in written guarantees: the one a directive by management, the other a contract (or "agreement'') between management and workers.
The Collective Bargaining Directive: this is the direct result of grievance action. Workers with a specific grievance, or group of grievances—whether in a unit, building or entire department, organize a protest. The protest may take the form of submitting petitions, balking at doing certain work, forcing management into conferences, work stoppages, slowdowns, or going on strike.
As a result of the protests, administration negotiates with the employees, or with a committee chosen by them, and issues a directive or bulletin establishing improvements.
On their part, the workers agree to nothing: Administration has published the bulletin, not they. For the moment they may accept what is granted in the bulletin—but they are free to renew their protests, in the same or other forms, and to renegotiate at any time. Out of this there grows a continuous strengthening of employees' bargaining position and an expansion of their control of the job. [These bulletins have the force of law].
The Collective Bargaining Contract: In this type of collective bargaining, employees present a list of demands to administration. If the demands are not met, a strike vote is held. As a result of the strike vote, or if a strike occurs, a negotiating committee meets with adminsitration and comes to a tentative agreement. If this meets with the strikers' approval, a contract is signed for a stipulated time (one/four years). The workers return to work. The process is renewed at the end of the contract.
A contract being an agreement, each side gives something. The first thing that the workers give is the guarantee that they will not take any strike—or other action during the life of the contract.
If there is a violation of the contract, the matter, as almost universally agreed to in contracts, is handed over to a compulsory or binding arbitrator. In most instances, the "arbitrator'' rules in favor of the admininistration—that there has not been a violation (or the violation is "beyond the control of'' the administration, and that is the end of the matter.
The only way in which this can be overturned is through grievance action on the part of the workers. They are forced to do what they could have done previously without the contract, but in doing it now they must oppose not only administration, but also The Contract, and—the union.
The collective bargaining contract may appear attractive, particularly to workers who are not inclined to be active, because in One Big Strike it promises to settle everything (not given away to management) for good—that is, for a year. The dismal failure of one public employees' strike after another that has had a labor contract as its aim, indicates that this is an impossibility.
Fundamental to the success of the SSEU's strategy was the publicity they created to keep each other, and any interested outsiders, informed about the situation. The monthly newspaper Dialog served as an open forum for the exchange of ideas and information. During most of its existence (1966-74?) its policy was to print everything any welfare worker sent in, completely unedited. Later (around 1971) The Rag Times, a weekly 8-page mimeographed news-and- opinion sheet, was created by workers in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) section. Dialog continued to appear concurrently until they both gradually died out around 1974.
For almost five years, a mimeographed leaflet appeared nearly every morning on every desk through five or more welfare office buildings. These leaflets were created by over a hundred different workers, both members and non-members of SSEU, and addressed a wide range of subjects. Individuals would make their grievances known to co-workers and the administration in leaflet form, demand action from management, and then follow up by publicizing the results, or lack of them, in a new leaflet.
This technique puts management in a difficult position. Any heavy-handed reactions will only further the anger and independence of the workers. On the other hand, if they just give in to the demands of the aggrieved worker, other workers will be encouraged to present their grievances and expect immediate results. Exposed like this, authority loses either way.
Equally vital to the SSEU's success was their willingness to take immediate collective action to confront problems. One time, fifty welfare workers left work in mid-morning and went to a Civil Service Commission hearing. All were reprimanded for leaving work, but they were given the right to send five representatives to future Commission hearings.
In another instance of direct action in late summer 1968, 25 workers went to the Dept. of Social Services administrative offices to discuss impending layoffs. Although they received five to ten day suspensions for sitting in the administrative offices for four hours, the layoffs were rescinded.
Some months later, sixty workers participated in a symbolic "case-dumping'' in the office of the division's Assistant Director after a big increase in their workload. Their willingness to do things like this in relatively large groups gave them leverage against intimidated administrators reluctant to challenge them through speedups and other forms of harassment.
Union and Party Attempts to Take Over
The SSEU didn't find the welfare administration to be its only enemy. In early 1968, the same Local 400 of the SEIU which had earlier expelled the welfare section dispatched a paid organizer to recruit members. At that time, the SSEU was growing rapidly, making the administration uneasy. Although the Local 400 organizer didn't have much success with the workers in the Dept. of Social Services, he did manage to recruit some members in other areas of the welfare bureaucracy.
Also in early 1968, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a maoist "vanguard party,'' dispatched a small group to the welfare department to recruit followers. By being very active and taking responsibility for the newspaper, the PLPers managed to get editorial control over the workers' Dialog, and in short order began printing a barrage of pro-"collective bargaining'' articles and opnions (i.e. in favor of affiliating with AFL-CIO, signing a contract with the administration, censoring the newspaper, etc.). And, as is always the case with Leninists, the PLP prevented the publication of any ideas that didn't fit their mold of "political correctness.''
During the summer of 1968, a bitter fight erupted between most of the SSEU-affiliated workers and an odd coalition of SEIU trade unionists, various Marxist-Leninist parties (PLP, Socialist Workers, Communists, etc.), and Democratic/Republican party hacks. The "coalition'' was in favor of joining the AFL-CIO, engaging in collective bargaining as an exclusive bargaining agent, signing a contract with the administration, and eliminating the free flow of ideas by "editing'' the newspaper. After several months, which took their toll on the strength and active membership of SSEU, a September 1968 vote of the general membership repudiated the goals of the coalition by better than a 2-to-1 margin. Soon thereafter the PLP and its coalition partners left the department and went to look for other places to "organize.''
In the early '70s, the Service Employees International Union created a "national local'' (535) for federally employed welfare workers. After some initial success at unionization in the Los Angeles area for Local 535, SF's Local 400 gladly turned over its welfare workers jurisdiction. Local 535 recruited some welfare workers in San Francisco, and soon began a strategy to "build the union'': a yearly ritual strike, used by Local 535 as a way to gain members and to establish exclusive bargaining rights for itself.
SSEU members, now a dwindling minority in the welfare bureaucracy, found themselves in the awkward position of being against these strikes. This extended passage by welfare worker Judy Erickson from the March 4-10, 1974 edition of The Rag Times, is a telling expression of the practical and emotional effects of this bind:
The yearly morality problem is upon us again. In making a decision not to strike one hopes not to lose friends who feel strongly that to strike is the best tactic to improve conditions. Again I plan not to strike yet I believe in fighting the same injustices as those who plan to strike.
I feel the yearly SEIU strike is programmed by union leaders who currently are battling each other for membership in order to establish more power when collective bargainnig units are created. Strike in the past ten years has replaced real organizing and become a method to recruit members. The pattern is: Condense and exert all energy a month or two before salary raises. City Hall anticipates the strike action and so makes their bid impossibly low. Union leaders then respond angrily and have a platform for the media and can speak with outraged moral conviction. They who risk nothing set up and control the proceedings from beginning to end. Finally the strike—which may produce an additional one or two percent. Little precaution, if any, is taken for people involved because it is "scheduled'' to last only a few days. The possibility that it could go on indefinitely is hardly considered...
Traditional unions work for conformism, for a mass undifferentiated way of acting, for precisely what we are ordered to do every day for the city and county of San Francisco. It substitutes for real organizing year after year.
I feel strongly there are no shortcuts to freedom or a just salary. The amount of organizing done by every person evey day and the trust created by working things out together is the process to win a real increase in salary. With enough worker activity, strikes would be an obsolete tactic. The mayor and supervisors are comfortable dealing with union representatives. They fear meeting with workers themselves. They can deal with fellow bureaucrats. They are afraid of the spontaneity of individual workers when they are organized. Rather than remain outside as in a strike, I feel it would be more effective to control the machinery inside, not abandon it to the administrators.
Finally, I feel by striking I would reinforce a process which means I could retire in 20 years after 20 strikes and be assured 20 miniscule raises. But by working for change without controllers, I have hope the adminstrators will one day meet such oppositon as transcends even my liveliest imagination.
Dissolution and Retrospection
The SSEU slowly dissolved in the 1970s, like other small independant unions that grew out of the rebellious '60s. The last official SSEU meeting was in 1976. By some accounts the dissolution process began as early as 1970, although different workers still pay dues to this day, and publication of their newsletter continued until 1975.
The SSEU aspired to be part of a general social movement for emancipation; emancipation not just from the real and rhetorical shackles of capitalism, but also from the countless ways we have internalized our oppression and learned to accept our role in a world based on hierarchy and domination.
During its existence, the SSEU brought about a remarkable unfolding of different workers' creative energies. What's more, as Burt Alpert remembers it, the experience of actively challenging the limitations imposed by the daily grind "brought people out into the world,'' asserting their uniqueness and desires. Rather than seeking a "unity'' of thought and purpose, the SSEU encouraged the widest possible diversity, and in fact such a diversity flowered at the time.
The dialogue/confrontation tactic went a long way toward unmasking authority as illegitimate and unreasonable. More importantly, it strengthened people's confidence in their own ideas and in their ability to do things for themselves. Using a simple typewriter and mimeograph, the SSEU participants offered themselves and their co-workers the possibility of putting ideas out into the public realm, further empowering the individuals involved.
Moreover, the fact that workers were in constant, open contact with each other about a wide variety of subjects, including working conditions and problems they faced collectively, put an enormous amount of pressure on management. After all, if workers were figuring out their problems for themselves, what did they need administrators for?
But this stratgegy also put pressure on the workers themselves: to keep the channels of communication open; to keep the heat on management and figure out new ways to subvert management control... the energy to keep all this going came from around 200 individuals.
Their energy, in turn, came largely from the perception that something bigger was going on, a social movement of which they were a part. By challenging the oppressive conditions of everyday life, SSEU participants felt that their actions, in concert with others, would lead to a more generalized transformation of society. Keeping up the energy became increasingly difficult. Today, many ex-SSEUers are (understandably) burnt out.
Actually, this remains one of the key dilemmas faced by those of us who aspire to participate in a rebellion for a free society: How can we challenge the immediate conditions we face, and at the same time contribute to a more generalized oppositional movement? What are the connections between workplace organizing and resistance, and the larger problems of world capitalism and authoritarian domination? Also, how can groups of people organize themselves in their own interest, hang together and last, without turning into new institutions of power and control?
The SSEU pioneered a unique approach to organizing in the office. It was based, however, on the special conditions of welfare work. Most important among these was the workers' perception of their jobs as having some socially useful quality—however ambiguous this quality may seem in retrospect.
This is in marked distinction to office work in CorporateOfficeLand where the work has no relation whatsoever to the direct satisfaction of human needs and few pretend that it does. The vast majority of office work done in San Francisco or any other financial center has to do with circulating money or wealth-related information around. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would want to have more direct control over essentially useless work, except perhaps to put an end to it.
Nevertheless, contemporary office workers can learn a lot from the SSEU experience in terms of strategy, possibilities for creative resistance, and obstacles that will be encountered in any organizing effort. The importance of the individual and his/her desires and needs can be seen in the SSEU story as the central concern of organizing. A new movement for social liberation will not be created by existing (or new) bureacracies or organizational imperatives. It will have to be based on the creativity, humor and resourcefulness of freely cooperating individuals. But first we must contact each other. Isolation is our greatest problem now.
Letters from Zona Monetaria
Thanks for PW 3, which came wrapped in plastic, mangled by the Postal Service machinery. It was good to hold something made by unalienated labor.
The management trainees here decorate their cubicles with all kinds of anti-management paper. Nothing strange about that except that the manager has noticed and commented in a memo. ""Directories, "to-do' lists and cartoons are wallpapered on every vertical staff surface. I find it painful to sign the monthly rent check for this building when I see what our working quarters look like. Since we all spend so many of our waking hours in this building, wouldn't it make sense to take a few minutes to make the overall appearance a little more attractive?'' It's now two months later and the look of the vertical staff surfaces hasn't changed. One example in my line of vision: a xeroxed cartoon with 2-inch lettering reading ""They can't fire me! Slaves have to be sold!'' Actually, slaves can be discarded. The welfare lines are full of them. This morning these vertical staff surface paperers were showing off the afterwork clothes they'd wear to a punk rock concert. The most conservative had the most outre costume, which he claimed was absolutely unique--a pair of chef's pants.
Fashion fascism is the rule here. There's certainly no punk style from 8:30-5. The women in management are dressing for success; secretaries wear pants and success knock-offs; plantation workers labor in polyester. My fantasy today is that there are giant petri dishes on the 39th floor cloning thousands more of these workers. Will the new ones take better care of their vertical staff surfaces?
Call me Mister Kurtz.
Although this job is full of the usual disadvantages, it does offer the chance to expropriate from the expropriators in a modest way. Whether or not I can actually become involved in pushing the advantages of carcinogens in drinking water is a real challenge.
Interesting conversation now about conditions at the PG&E building--workers complaining about airborne particles and ""dust'' on office windows, dry eyes making wearing contact lenses uncomfortable, etc., etc. Management maintains the vents have been ""turned off.'' Messenger expresses reluctance to return to PG&E, even though he's been told his ""nervous condition'' is responsible for his fears. What's going on here?
This place sells soft drinks to the Third World (it's a source of sterile water, I hear) and lots of other stuff like candy bars and carcinogens. I think you can understand my struggle with ethics. Is this an alternative to being a vent person (def.: derelict who finds a place on the sidewalk near or on an exhaust vent, esp. in winter)? Because that's how it looks to me. If I'm too squeamish or exquisite to swallow the corporate dose of cynicism, then what's left for me--the sheltering arms of the streets? But I digress, and there are miles of multiple copies before I sleep.
* * *
Peasants of the global village unite! You have everything to lose if you lose your senses. Break the hypnotic trance induced by hours of office drudgery. Look, listen, touch, taste, and smell. Thinking naturally follows. Start with something simple.
For instance, buttons and buttonholes. Ever noticed that the more buttons on someone's clothes, the more power and influence, and the less socially useful the wearer? The six-button vest, three button suit coat, six- or eight-button coat cuffs, button-down shirt collar equal a real heavyweight in the zona monetaria. Less obvious and much less frequent are the button fly of the $1200+ custom-made suit and the two-button shorts (underwear).
In the fashion fascism game the scoring goes something like this: no points for zippered polyester jump suits (or abberations like snap fasteners posing as buttons--a real button means a button hole, preferably hand sewn); good points to old-style international diplomats, mostly for double-breasted coats and European handtailoring; good points, too, to high-ranking Mafia members; winning score for vestments, especially the Pope's (note number of buttons on chasuble, everything hand sewn in gold or silk thread--the tops).
Question: If (against all odds) computer work stations do increase managerial productivity, will costume reflect this change in efficiency? The five-button vest is becoming more commonplace, probably due to cost-cutting by clothing manufacturers. However, the longstanding tradition of leaving the bottom buttonhole open is disappearing. Brooks Brothers still sells only six-button vests. Any other questions?
* * *
Dressing for success is impossible unless you're a hooker with an esoteric specialty. Vuitton and Jordache, like sex, are the great equalizers. Designer-initialized clothes do attract attention, but probably from muggers. How often is a secretary rewarded with envious looks of her inferiors or the approving ones of her superiors just because she wears Calvin Klein? And how important is a $90,000 sable coat if you can't have one in every color?
* * *
And then there are the plastic buttons that you punch, push, or press.
At a conference of the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association last fall, Xerox President David Keans expressed impatience that after five years, ""some of you are still wrestling with the question of whether a word processor is a typewriter or a computer.'' He dismisses this titanic struggle with the following: ""I don't think it's an important question. It gets in the way of what really is important, which is that these machines increase productivity dramatically.'' No wonder there's concern with declining productivity if five years is spent on such questions. Of course, Mr. Kearns isn't disinterested. Besides throwing kisses at the icon of productivity he's also a shill for the Xerox 8010, a ""personal information'' system aimed at the business professional. Managers, professionals, and executives in this instance are interchangeable terms. However, vendors using their own definitions divide the market into four parts: ""clericals, who work with numbers; secretaries, who work with words; professionals, who work with ideas; and executives.'' Now we know what executives do.
To help them do it better, vendors are using the print medium in full-color and a catchy slogan, something about ""just pushing a button.'' A similar slogan was aimed at women during the 1950s. Then the vendors were manufacturers of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners and other plug-in servants. Curiously, the most resistance to pushing buttons came from white southern women who maintained that if any finger pushed a button it would be a black finger. Executives do push buttons to summon secretaries and subordinates and to practice other forms of harassment. Nation's Business believes executive fingers pushing the buttons of the future will mean a redistribution of workloads.
In a particularly crass aside NB notes that ""clericals who face change have little choice but to comply; managers can resist change -- and often do.'' No examples of resistance were given, but I have no doubt there will be resistance. I am certain, too, that an entire subindustry is poised to spring forth. Led by a media blitz which has already rolled out, this industry will devote itself to the adjustment of managers to the new technology. There will be books and TV shows focused on executive alienation, seminars on technology-related managerial stress, discovery of unknown allergies, digital fatigue, and assorted ""needs.'' The personal computer, once an office companion, will be transformed into a tribble.
In the meantime, I am able to remain a member of la bohème--the temporary work force. Until the necessary point of view develops that will force managers to push buttons I am the known value in the servility quotient, to bring in the multiple copies one at a time. I tremble at the thought of future chores as a result of redistributed workloads, and I know whose time will be saved and whose will be wasted. When the leaders talk of peace, Brecht wrote, you may be certain your draft notice is already in the mail.
--J. Gulesian, Temporary-at-Large