IBM: From the Guts of the Monster

Below is a transcription of the conversation we held last December with a compañero [literally "companion," but often has a sense closer to "comrade" -- trans.] of ours who has worked at IBM for many years and has seen how the great multinational of informática ["informatics" refers to computers and telecommunications -- trans.] has transformed labor conditions such that its workers no longer enjoy a privileged status.

Submitted by Steven. on December 21, 2010

Is IBM hiring new people?

No. IBM's policy in recent years has been to reduce employment and increase "vendorization," that is, to sell services and contract out to other companies. Until recently, IBM would use its own workers and in-house services to do its research, manufacturing, hardware maintenance and sales, and applications software, and only contracted out for additional services such as cleaning, security, transport, etc.

With the arrival of the 90's, the world market for computer equipment was no longer exclusively IBM's. The cake is now big and well distributed. IBM's structure is that of an old monopoly (expensive equipment and elevated costs per employee). Costs are high, the company is not competitive, and we've seen a gradual but systematic reduction involving the closing of labs and factories and, obviously, the supression of employees.

So, no, there's definitely been no hiring of new people. All that remain are the contract employees and the sale of services to outside companies. Those compañeros with temporary contracts can have them renewed every six months, to a maximum of three.

Are there ever any indefinite contracts?

IBM makes no exceptions. For example, there was a very competent compañero who created an improvement and adaptation program which saved the company millions. The company rewarded him by not renewing his contract.

What IBM does is recommend them to outside companies with which it has contracts, and thereby continues to collaborate with them indirectly.

This is the reality of the last five years: IBM not only has failed to renew contracts, it has laid workers off. The goal is to reduce the current 400,000 employees worldwide to 250,000 by the end of 1994. No one knows where it's going to end. Of course, it's going to end up with workers between 30 and 50 years old, whereas before (in the '70s and '80s) it ranged between 25 and 40 years. Until 1992, the company rescinded the contracts of workers over 50, the majority of whom were second- or third-level managers.

Most of this reduction has taken place in the United States. As of 1993, the reduction has affected the rest of the world, including Spain, where IBM has reduced its labor force from 4,200 to 3,500. It is calculated that in 1994, 1,000 additional employees in Spain will be affected by cuts.

IBM benefits enormously from the temporary contracts, since it uses them as needed for the particular project at hand. For a monstrous installation for a bank or ministry, for example, it will contract new personnel by the semester until the project is finished.

Formerly, one entered IBM with a temporary contract of half a year's duration, and after that one became a permanent employee and climbed the corporate ladder. IBM was a typically paternalistic American firm (Tom Watson, its founder, hailed from a traditional conservative Irish family) with systems of protection for employees and their families and jobs. Some benefits were very curious, as was, for example, the fact that an employee, upon getting married, began to earn almost twice the wages of a single person, as long as his or her spouse was not also an employee.

This whole structure has now crumbled, and work is not secure. No one's position is secure. Even the executives and managers get diarrhea when they think about their immediate futures.

Do they also fire the bosses?

They do, they do. Those bosses, or executives, whose age or functions make them no longer of interest to IBM have been pressured to leave, though under very conditions, we must add. For example, the higher echelons in Catalunya have been dismissed with an average of 100 kilos [i.e., 100,000 pesetas] each in their pockets; what's more, they have been enlisted in outside services which collaborate with IBM fir its sub-contracted services (Skillbase, Sanired, Serviplus, etc.).

Does this mean that at this time there are few IBM employees who are able to plan for their futures?

I don't whether people in the big and important laboratories or people at high levels of responsibility have a more secure future at IBM, but for the rest things are uncertain. It used to be there were executives who defended IBM with tooth and nail, but now they don't know what to say, you find them disoriented, discouraged, confused...

Are there company committees or some type of workers' organization?

Not really. Let me explain: IBM, from its founding up to the 1980s, has fostered the idea of differentiated and individual work. Your problem was individual, not collective. Each case was studied and always answered. The company had an "open door" policy (you could always take your problem to your superior, because he always had an "open door" policy and would listen). The unions didn't have a chance. A union environment has not existed. For example, in Barcelona, there is no company committee, because the representatives resigned at the beginning of the '80s. Besides, the people are very mistrustful and disunited, due precisely to this policy of individualization.

Everybody fights for his or her own individual wage. No one is paid equally in this company, not even two companeros who entered on the same date and at the same level. IBM classifies you by category and level of work. It divides each level into another four levels which allow performance-based raises. Each boss makes the evaluation following an annual interview with the employee in which he or she is praised or scolded. Phrases such as "you are one of our best employees" are used to divide and conquer. Many people used to fall for it, but today, with the crisis and the zero increases in salaries, hardly anyone does. IBM used to have a pyramidal structure which provided, on average, one supervisor for every five employees. Everything was controlled. Obviously, the current situation has brought this whole structure down, made it decadent and old-fashioned, but IBM's personnel policy has thwarted union organization, though there is some such organizing in large centers such as Madrid (where 60% of Spain's workers live) or in the Valencia plant (the center which has suffered most from employment regulation). It's possible that, because of regulations plans, there now exists greater communication between centers; but I don't know about that.

And on the international level?

No, I don't know of any organized effort at the international level, though business trips have facilitated the exchange of information between compañeros of different countries. So we know about differences in pay, schedules, and other work conditions.

IBM has always taken advantage of the political environment in which it finds itself. It establishes its business structure and adapts itself to the dominant regime. For example, it adapted itself to the Franco regime [1939-1975] as well as to the democratic regime that followed. And when France imposes upon it certain labor compromises, it accepts them. Though it has its limits, as when India imposed certain conditions on IBM-India that IBM did not accept and which resulted in IBM's leaving the country, which left India without support coverage. Since then, IBM has returned to India under different conditions.

But information is scarce, which is ridiculous considering we have available to us some very potent and effective tools. For example, we can communicate, via computer, with any IBM employee in any country.

How is one promoted in IBM and what are the criteria?

I mentioned earlier that nobody there works under equal conditions. They try to differentiate you in order to pit each individual against the others.

A person enters IBM as a "learning student" for two or three years, and after that they promote him or her to positions of greater responsibility within the department which he or she has joined (sales, management, technical, etc.). Once a year, in addition to the evaluation I mentioned above, he is given some work objectives to be fulfilled (e.g., that the clients be happy, that he be speedy in troubleshooting, that problems don't repeat themselves, that if a conflict arises he will know how to control it rapidly and if need be surmount it in order to find an effective solution, etc., etc. These objectives are evaluated as if in a schoolchild's report card, and at the end of the year, in a new interview, he is scored by means of an averaging of all the evaluated objectives, and this result determines the increase in pay and category. There are some 15 work categories.

This evaluation must be very subjective, right?

Of course. Some persons are evaluated as very good by one boss, and when the bosses change, he or she is evaluated as bad. Much depends on the character of the director, his attitude, his knowledge, etc.

One curious thing about IBM is that you don't have to punch in and out. That's not necessary; due note is taken if you enter early or late; there is tolerance. The following values are important: punctuality, productivity, quality, realtions with one's co-workers, obedience, clean work, orderliness, a straight tie. These were the factors determining whether one was promoted or ascended.

With the advent of the crisis, new people aren't hired, nor are there promotions. The hurdles are too great; people are stuck in place. Promotions have been very few and far between in the last five years.

The reduction in personnel has been matched by a doubling of production in a few short years. It used to be you had much more time to troubleshoot and make improvements. There was a predefined structure that allowed you to assess the problem quickly, and you had available to you a very competent national and international support network which has now been cut back.

This has led to much discontent in the workplace. The workers were used to a structured, smooth-running, and protected work environment, and now they are faced with a sped-up, every-man-for-himself mentality. For example, it used to be that by the time a product was marketed, the laboratory had been testing it for ten years; and that gave time to train people, form a support network, organize the whole sales and service structure. But now you don't even have time to learn it.

What new contradictions are demanded of the workers, and how did they evolve?

The kinds of contradictions and demands depend on the sector you're in. For example, sales people have always been required to increase their volume of sales. But this situation is changing, since less is sold and sold more cheaply. Therefore, a marketing salesman who formerly was required to sell 120 million pesetas' worth, now sells the same machines for 80 million. IBM has had to reduce prices, and the market is much more saturated. There was a time in Spain, when information/computer business had been recently introduced, when it was growing. The strategy now involves changing products when better, more powerful, and more economical ones are developed, but the world tendency towards cost-reduction is slowing this evolution. In any case, the products are now usually sold through concessionaries or agents outside of IBM.

Does all this mean that the salespeople and technicians work longer hours but with less conviction?

Yes, and with less satisfaction. People are very disillusioned. IBM has eliminated any "joy," any compensation for your effort; they used to hold parties, conventions, American-style shows. It was very fond of giving rewards, according to your level. They sometimes sent invitations to what they called "Dinner for Two" (dinner with your mate in a good restaurant) or a trip to the Canary Islands for a week. All this has disappeared, there isn't that kind of abundance any more.

Is there waste? Have steps been taken to curb it?

There's lots of waste. You can't imagine the past and present waste. But steps are being taken to curb it.

Waste increases costs, and in the last three years costs have gone down between 10% and 20%, thanks to new rules. So-called "circles of quality" have arisen; these are established by the workers themselves, and their purpose is to make improvements in various processes. These have helped, to a great degree, to reduce bureaucracy and various checks. Formerly, the process of IBM chip production involved some two thousand processes, of which nearly half were checks. They have now limited quality control processes to the required minimum. It thus happens that one of IBM's chip-manufacturing plants, the one near Paris which used water frome the Seine and returned it ten times cleaner, has now reduced this process of purification and has limited itself to the legal minimum.

Many unnecessary costs have also been reduced; for example paper waste. Standards have been established which prevent blank sheets from coming out of the printers, and multiple-use envelopes for internal use have been implemented.

They are also improving control of of food and travel expenses. Previously, they organized training trips which took into account special diets, directions, hotels, expenses to be included, zone maps, instructions on where to go if you suffered any medical problems, etc., all very organized and well-prepared. They did this for every type of training group: administrative, technical, sales. Now they do only the essentials.

Do they keep promoting the idea of the company as family?

No, they've stopped that. They even had a "family day," which was normally held on Saturdays, and which included entertainment with clowns, emcees, shows, etc., so that people would get to know the company where the father, the husband, the friend, worked... Now they don't do it, to the relief of many workers, who thought it was a real pain in the ass.

As for the international get-togethers, they've either been suspended or greatly reduced. For example, they used to throw an annual employees' party in a European city at a cost between 200 and 400 thousand pesetas per employee. Now the budget has been reduced to half or less and they're smaller, because sales are down.

Do people have a chance to get even and use the company for private ends?

Before, yes. Now things are more controlled. Though making photocopies is still possible, the telephone is very controlled. Previously, you could call anyplace in the world; now it all depends on your position, your zone. In addition, your telephone records the number you dialed, and at the end of the month the supervisor gets a report of all non-IBM phones that have been called, which sometimes you have to explain. In addition, and by way of anecdote, the custodial personnel in Barcelona are deaf-mutes, and the rumor is that this to prevent possible telephone expenses.

How does the accelerated rhythm of the machines influence the rhythm of work as well as the life of the worker?

Previously, it was very relaxed, but now the rhythm's crazy. Many workers are in shops or big rooms full of screens and people, but remain completely isolated. Closed within a small world consisting of screen, telephone and keyboard, they find themselves absorbed by the demands of a telephone that rings constantly, demanding constant answers. The pace is so sped-up that often they can't even go to the bathroom when they need to. This pace continues all day. When the workday is over, they need time to relax, if they can.

Many people eventually find themselves afflicted with nervous tics or psychological problems resulting from bad habits, nightmares, lack of sleep. There are people who are listless at home, who arrive home like zombies and say nothing, incapable of the most minimal non-work activity.

Do you believe computers are useful?

In principle, yes. It's a tool, like a calculator or a typewriter, which helps you organize information, store it, classify and separate it, delete and add. In principle, this is good. The bad aspect is the ends to which it is put; the ends change the means.

What's bad is that we have yet to see the definitive cheap, easy-to-use computer. If you buy one today, you find that, in addition to the expense, you probably can't use it two or three years down the road, depending on what you're using it for. This is because it's a constantly-changing product, with faster and cheaper models constantly appearing, ones which are able to handle more powerful programs, and this incites people to buy the new models. We've reached a situation in which it's questionable whether this evolution is even necessary any more, whether it's in our interest that people keep consuming these new products when they're not that necessary.

What's intolerable is this informatics fever that has attacked some compañeros: all they think about is this or that great new program, or whether or not to plug the PC into the telephone, that if the compact disc, etc...

Computers try to include too much. I think they are useful devices when they are easy to use and efficient, but otherwise, no. You should look at the time you have to spend studying the programs you what to use and consider whether or not it's worth the trouble or whether it's better to do it manually.

It's difficult to argue with your logic.

Sure, because today there's no alternative to that logic. As we've seen, the computer's invasion of all aspects of our lives is chilling. Who knows where it will all end up, but there are many research projects going on, just around the corner.

But people said the same thing about the automobile when it first came out, and it seems cars have now reached their limit. We'll see...

From ETCETERA—Correspondencia de la guerra social #23, Barcelona, p. 35. [Correspondence from the Social War]. Translated by Primitivo Morales.