Hot Under The Collar

ibm workers united, block modeling, vdt propaganda & rebuttals

"I'm so light-headed when I walk out at night sometimes I'm afraid to drive home, confided Susan, a secretary.

"Since I've started working in front of the screen, I've become allergic to my hypoallergenic eye-makeup," bitched Jeri, a marketing secretary.

An optometrist prescribed glasses for Felix, a computer systems operator whose eyestrain (and migraine headaches) began after working in front of a Video Display Terminal (VDT).

Susan, Jeri, and Felix work for a large Silicon Valley microchip corporation with over 450 VDTS. Recently the company purchased over two dozen IBM workstations for secretaries and the publications department (where I work). The workstations include a printer, a dual floppy-disk drive, and a VDT. The workstations are called Displaywriters, a.k.a. "Dismaywriters. "

None of the inhouse training sessions or 13 volumes of manuals mentioned VDT dangers. Nor were such hazards generally known among secretaries, many of whom had negligible VDT experience.

One day a memo made its way through corporate offices nationwide. Addressed to Displaywriter users, the memo began "Do your eyes feel like embossed Los Angeles County Road Maps at the end of the day?" Attached was a VDT danger fact-sheet put out by a company selling conductive mesh, non-glare VDT screens (conductive mesh is said to screen low-level radiation as well as reduce glare.) The memo suggested a "collective pur chase" of VDT screens, gratis of the corporation.

The notion that headaches, irritability, eyestrain, allergies, back pains and the like might be linked to VDTs had a gutlevel plausibility. Nearly half responded positively to the memo. (Among those who didn't, several expressed concern over VDT dangers but said that they didn't use VDTs enough to warrant protection.) Concern over VDT dangers spread quickly workstation users passed the memo to other VDT workers who then expressed a desire for protective screens.

The manager in charge of hardware acquisitions was not reassuring. He responded to the requests for screens by announcing that there was a "purchasing freeze" and that no accounting procedure existed to accommodate a collective purchase across department lines (!).

A second memo circulated, this one informing workstation and other VDT users of this absurd, bureaucratic impasse. This time, the two-page "The Ugly Truth about VDTS" (PW #10, pp. 56-7) was attached. The memo noted that the price of the mesh screen was 1/2 of 1% of the cost of a workstation and suggested that "those of us in accounting ... find out ... how we might get around" the impasse.

Several days later, the memo's author was told to report to Accounting. There, a manager apologetically suggested
that a group purchase order could be arranged after all. Three weeks later, after consistent harassment, the manager cut a group purchase order for protective screens for everyone in the company!

It's not exactly clear how the manager was swayed in our favor, but rumor has it that a pregnant workstation operator in Accounting, her concern over VDT dangers to her fetus, and perhaps the perceived dissatisfaction of her workstation users, had something to do with it.

It remains to be seen how many VDT users will take advantage of the opportunity by participating in the group purchase. Nor will protective screens block the corporation's sales of chips to military contractors. But we learned something about the dangers of VDTS, and most importantly, won something that will make our jobs less
deadly.

- Anonymous

For eight years now, a handful of workers at the IBM plant in Endicott, New Jersey, have been agitating among the coworkers, urging them to take action, make demands, and get organized to confront management on a variety of issues. In an early issue of their newsletter "IBM Speak Up, " IBM Workers United raised the demand that workers have "a voice of their own," separate and independent from management. "We find that the management-controlled grievance procedure no longer does the job, especially in the manufacturing plants where mandatory overtime and total management control over our lives exist." Other issues raised by IBMWU:

* Aside from making demands for better wages, seniority pay and daycare, IBMWU has sought to unite IBM workers and the surrounding community around health and safety issues. Through their newsletter, they exposed many incidents of hazards to workers and residents of the area resulting from use of toxic chemicals, irresponsible disposal of toxic wastes, and IBM's attempts to cover up information about dangerous substances. Rather than rely on company doctors and government agencies that almost invariably condone company policies, IBMWU calls on workers to organize their own safety and health committees, independent of management, to force IBM to come clean.

* In a letter distributed to stockholders in 1979 entitled "Would IBM have sold computers to Hitler?" IBMWU publicized and protested the sale of IBM computers to South Africa. The IBM computers were used in a registration system known as the "Book of Life" which requires everyone to carry a pass book with personal information. This system is obviously used to enforce apartheid. The letter pointed to the hypocrisy of IBM's claims that they would not bid any business where they believed products were going to be used to abridge human rights.

* In a recent issue of their newsletter, renamed "Resistor, " the group explains what kind of union they are: " So are we a union? By today's standards, no. Far too many unions/ leaders have neglected the average worker, have forgotten the principles of the early days and have become ,another boss.' But, if you take Webster's definition, 'confederation of individuals working for a common cause,' then yes we are. We are independent but we do work with other unions in coalitions to share information that is vital to workers.

For years, IBM Workers United was an underground organization to protect members' jobs. But in 1984 members took the risk of coming out into the open in the hopes of encouraging others to work with them. A sympathetic newspaper report on the 1st International IBM Workers Conference in Japan held in Tokyo in May (which was attended by IBMWU organizer Lee Conrad and representatives from five other countries' IBM workers) helped publicize their efforts. Despite management harassment, they have met with growing interest and support for the organization.

For more info, write: IBM Workers United, PO Box 634, Johnson City, NY 13790 or call: (607) 797-6911.

Universities and private firms are researching and (mostly secretly) implementing the most sophisticated and intrusive Personal Information System (PIS) yet. This technique, called Block Modeling (BM), is based on the vacuum-cleaning school of data gathering - it sucks up and analyzes everything. A lot of the information it needs is already in company personnel data banks - the schools employees attended, their age, race, gender, their career history, their neighborhood. Much is gathered more stealthily.

Communication channels are analyzed by compiling complete records of phone calls made, phone calls not returned, cc's at the bottom of memos, car pools, bowling club teams. The proliferation of all the new small computers expand the scope of the information that can be collected (Beware your computerized appointment calendar!).

The obvious use of this technique is to "X-ray" groups of workers to search and destroy troublemaking dissidents, find and reward obedient brown-nosers. Personnel planners across the globe are envisioning conflict-free worksites. Those workers most alike culturally and attitudinally are grouped together in ways that will supposedly reduce dis ruption of production.

Interestingly enough, one of the first users of BM was a Roman Catholic monastery. The technique identified three factions who later played a part in dismembering the monastery--loyalists, "Young Turks," and outcasts. Other institutions that have at least researched block modeling are Bell Laboratories, the American Broadcasting Companies, the Wharton School, and the Institute for Social Management in Bulgaria.

Is your boss playing with blocks, too?

- Paxa Lourde

Bank of America Corporation's "Personnel Relation Update" monitors higher management, labor legislation and union organizing activity. One recent article was "Health and Safety Aspects of Video Display Terminals."

In response to the VDT protection legislation introduced to the California Assembly, the article denies that VDT's are potentially harmful - on the basis of incomplete and misrepresentative information. The article mentions a National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report as evidence that radiation levels are safe. But it neglects to mention that the same NIOSH report found that VDT operators had higher stress levels than any other group of workers, and has since been discredited by outside research.

B of A's update routinely details preventative measures as if they themselves followed these measures. On the matter of 'mu sculo skeletal discomfort' (those severe body pains you get after being at the terminal a long time), the article says they can be averted by "rest periods, variety in work tasks, and proper workplace design and furnishings. " On damage to our eyes, the article says that "proper ergonomics [solves the problem], i.e. adjustable chairs, tiltable screens, detachable keyboards, contrast controls, and glare-free lighting." The article skirts around the issue of job stress, saying that "the level of stress depends on the nature of the work, the way it's used, individual preferences as well as management practices. "

Sounds good to us, Bank of America. But PW researchers working as temporary word processors have found that B of A isn't following its own advice. In most departments, the terminal is shunted off to the harshly-lit utility room. The same small room also contains the printer (usually without a hood) and a noisy photo-copier (love those toxic fumes and blinding lights). As for ergonomics, any old, too high desk will do for the Wang terminal with its non-adjustable screen and keyboard. And glare - few departments had protective shields (glass, definitely second rate), and none provided cleaning fluid and soft towels for the layers of finger smudges and dust.

The VDT legislation, if passed (unI kely), would not be stringently enforced. It's up to us to look after our own interests. Insist on taking your breaks. Go after management to buy screens and better work tables and chairs. Check into having them shut off the flickering fluorescents and providing you with a couple of adjustable, diffuse work lamps. Be a pest - it's your health

-Paxa Lourde

'Obstructionism,' a tactic and strategy used by the FIOM (Italian Metalworkers' Union) in August 1920 in Turin:

1. Do nothing you aren't trained to do.
2. Clean or repair no equipment until it is completely off.
3. Do no job if you don't have the right tools.
4. Don't volunteer-do only what you're told to do-nothing more.

From French underground during WWII:

1. Take as long as you can to repair anything that breaks (they recomended against sabotage-keep the factories running).
2. If a worker is fired other workers should continue to come to work anyway (active support workers).
3. If the bosses lock out, occupy the premises.

-Primitivo Morales