Notes on an ongoing workplace struggle - Sphinx

An article by Sphinx addressing workplace activity and the potential for organising disparate individuals in a Japanese workplace. The article is distinguished by its acceptance of, and engagement with, real world conditions, and yet is able to maintain a light and transcendent tone. It is also articulates the necessity for workers to establish their own goals.

Submitted by fort-da game on February 12, 2007

1. Modern information economy workplaces can be effectively divided between two models. One, the American and European model in which engineers, writers and other employees have separated cubicles, and come together for meetings or collaborative projects. This model maximizes the creativity of the individual worker and the potential for creative intellectual inventorship based on experimentation. This model is also a historical form etched out by post-fordist workers, who often refuse traditional organizations of work, crossing the borders of overtime and worktime and rearranging the spatial organization of the office, disaggregating the assembly line into individualized laboratories. In many workplaces, workers confer and communicate mainly via e-mail, with face-to-face consultation becoming an exception.

In Japan, the scene is a bit different in that, generally, the post-fordist technology economy does not confront an antagonistic technological proletariat, one not only productive of new technologies but also constantly undermining (and therefore advancing) the parameters of their control and re-thinking the traditional organization of the workplace. Instead, Japanese engineers, technical writers and office workers are grouped into large offices with few partitions. The Japanese office resembles a hall arranged in desk islands, which are always horizontally organized and of low height, providing the supervisor(s) an infinite purview of the workers, their activities and tasks. Any computer screen is potentially subject to review at any moment. E-mail has mostly replaced face-to-face interaction, simultaneously bringing with it the potential for 'silent antagonism', unseen affinities between wage workers that develop over certain circuits with the potential for a larger resonance and even an explosion of dissent.

Despite the development of e-mail as a weapon for workers, the situation does not escape the description of 'soft totalitarian control'.

2. The traditional Japanese unions (Sohyo/Rengo) in the post-war period operated with few exceptions as part of the social democratic project and were widely embraced as an intermediary for negotiating the value of the worker's labor as variable capital for capitalists. This is not exceptional in the history of unions. Unions are always interior to the development of capital, actively involved in restraining uncontrolled strike activity which poses a threat to the union's position as mediator between capitalist and worker. The Rengo union's dominance in the late 1960s amidst the collapse of the new left set the stage for Toyota-style management's society-wide reorganization of the workplace from the 1960s on up. Management/worker cooperation and acccord became a fundamental element of the work experience (Rengo worked/works with what is essentially a no-strike policy).

‘Social cooperation’ was (is) an environment characterized by corporative unions (and therefore a splintered working class) and a ‘civil society’ that became more and more impossible to stand outside of. Any critique not made in relation to the well-being of the company (and in many cases the nation) became a non-critique. Any proposal without a counter-proposal was not a proposal. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, despite the increased rate of exploitation and the increasingly integrated nature of production and consumption within society, there were no negative struggles on the level of say, Fiat in Italy, in which the relation between the organization of work, the factory and daily life were confronted.

Given the historical plight of the working class, the average worker's experience with workplace struggle is not based on the power of withdrawing one's labor from the labor process, i.e. the antagonistic potential common to wage workers that always threatens to generalize, but in the forms of:

a) quitting their jobs; i.e. permanently withdrawing their individual labor, which yes can be replaced, but damages productivity temporarily. At my workplace, five senior employees quit within a space of three months, giving the effective experience of a strike since the upcoming labor shortage will make incredibly difficult the training of new employees and bring productivity down by 60%. Their abandonment of the workplace wound up setting the stage for the current struggle, in which the remaining employees criticizes the workplace and work conditions as inadequate and incapable of providing 'staying incentive' for veterans.

b) making requests (but not demands) to the boss in a direct way (usually forced into individual consultations) or in a collective way, almost always with the mediation of a union. Unions are rare among tech workers, who are normally compensated with relatively large salaries in order to balance the enormous amount of overtime that the company demands. However, grievances are not 'aberrant', but seen as an important ingredient of chouwa, the balancing of worker/management interest.

The idea of making 'demands' to a company on the other hand, is terrifying to most workers, who expect that their performance (jitsuryoku) will determine their salary and have been conditioned to accept that the lows of a firm amidst its highs are temporary, or even result from the performance of the firm's employees, the obligation to resolve the crisis lying with them. Critically, if the worker cannot make a demand, she cannot posit herself as different from the firm as labor to capital, and therefore can't make the second step towards revolutionary individuation, the positing of the self as separate from the worker, and therefore her critical confrontation with her position as social labor.

3. In view of points 1 and 2, the modern Japanese workplace and its social setting can be said to combine the barbaric impositions of early capitalist factory organization in the prohibition of cubicles and offices in favor of splaying workstations before the eyes of the supervisor, hierarchical organization that integrates the worker into the body of the firm (even if that integration is mediated by a union). However, the modern tech enterprise is caught in its own contradictions since the efficiency improvements offered by e-mail and network messaging enable the establishment of e-mail links between disgruntled employees in sections otherwise disparate and incommunicado, who may have very different contract scales and conditions, but who share a workplace.

There is also a tendency to develop collective think pads, most often message boards in technological (and therefore intellectual property) workplaces, which ostensibly serve as places for the development of new technologies and ideas; these places are always at risk however of being overwhelmed by their potential use as instruments of discussion and exchange. The workers can subvert and re-work collective means of communication intended for the development and coordination of capital, to discuss contradictions and inconsistencies in the workplace, or to convey dissent, even if that is done in vague ways. The supervisors can destroy the forums that they have created, or delete individual postings, but in doing so reveal their repressive role, risking an open confrontation. Every posting therefore has the potential to chip away at the organization of the workplace, having an always-accessible longevity that can be used as a gathering pole for those who are fed up. Some emails go out, some responses come in, a gathering is organized, a group coordinates itself...

4. The nefarious side of the 'timelessness' in digital communications, which replaces the shop room floor, is the unfortunate dulling of real antagonism in the workplace, which should move from: question, response--> exposure of contradiction-->confrontation-->activity-->potential rupture. Any worker prepared to begin a workplace struggle must be conscious of getting trapped in a struggle in the open, undivided and hierarchical space of the workplace, i.e. the open forum of the supervisor. Premature confrontation in this space risks the passivity of workers who have never considered speaking up, but much worse is the trap of a simmering confrontation that does not come to boil.

5. Once the stage is set for a collective struggle (even if it is partial and uneven), it is vital to argue against the ingrained concept of the 'company as life boat', i.e. that 'selfishness' or 'excessive demands' could bankrupt a company or harm its interests leading to other workers suffering. Any company is part of a wider division of labor that includes parent companies connected via capital investment to the company in question, not to mention factories, distribution, and other connections. Most capitalists who are trusted by banks to manage workers and dispose of capital can take out additional business loans or re-organize the workplace to accommodate worker demands. In the event of bankruptcy due to the price of labor power rising to unprofitable levels, most countries have unemployment laws which mandate payment to layed off workers (in Japan's case, a comparatively high payout in unemployment insurance). Overcoming the pretenses that cover management's constant tendency to impose austerities during crises is the first hurdle in separating the individual self-consideration from the company, the recognition that there have been past social struggles waged to provide the safety net for those in the future, and that this safety net creates the possibiliity of standing radically outside what one is inside.

6. How will the employees, who do not possess the experience of dissent, evade the despotic organization of the workplace which on the one hand threatens to crush them and on the other hand to integrate them? It is true that any advance into organization made by individuals who have never considered withdrawing their labor will proceed cautiously. A workplace staffed by those who consider themselves integrated (not interchangeable) to its functions will tend towards extreme vertical relations of authority since the employees do not steadfastly insist on separation. These vertical relations are ostensibly dormant, needing to operate in the open only when an employee or a group of them posits themselves in stark contrast to the organization and maintenance of the workplace. Normally, this is when disciplinary action is taken in order to circumvent future disruption, since when a person communicates their frustration to others and finds a similar echo, the command structure in place is worked around. This structure is also threatened

a) by horizontal communication unoccupied with modifying work processes to enhance efficiency

b) by the threat of stoppage, arising less from any possible strike, but from work time lost to this communication, its expansion, any meetings necessary to contain it and of course the threat of potential compromises down the line.

What acts first against the menace of communication then? Not the manager or the section supervisors, not directly (that would be too obvious). The first line of defense is the socialization of the employees which has already been instilled in them. This socialization works on a person-to-person basis against the individual who imposes herself socially (as a person with unique demands).

All of the employees have learned to speak in a certain way. Senior employees for instance have learned exactly how to compose themselves, which furrowed looks cross the lines of disloyalty, what words cannot be spoken, and so on, all learned through hard circumstance. Thus, every expression and vocalization made by the worker who embarks on an inquiry inviting conflict with the workplace's organization, is bordered by the two options that do not cross workplace taboos: quitting or making 'suggestions' (not yet demands). In these two options we find first the individual removing herself from the workplace to dissolve into the wider society or second demanding concessions at the cost of re-integration. Thus, any struggle in the integrated workplace (specifically the tech industry) begins with an inquiries that walk the line between liquidation and re-integration. The power that limits the individual to these two options so far goes unquestioned. More likely this bordering power is mystified as 'honor' or 'respect'. She reasons: "the company is the company I signed a contract with. I may disagree with it and attempt to reform it, but if I fail, or if management delays and delays, I'll simply leave. This is the honorable way. This way I can respect myself."

To escape these two options which she has come to recognize as miserable, she must exit her socialization (which is ruled by these choices) as she has known it. The possibility of radically staying in the workplace must be explored. While she stays she can experiment, locating weak points in the immediate relations of power. How much of my ribbing will the supervisor take? How can I alter the work uniform slightly to see if others follow my lead? Can I refuse to do overtime or has noone simply ever tried?

Conversations are held in the bathroom, over e-mail and go on with a great deal of sardonic laughter. She fields the complaints of others and listens to them. Taboo subjects are secularized. Objects that were previously immobile and fixed are moved around. Section chiefs find their chairs swapped out or the coffee machine moved closer to the workers' section. The periodicals library, stocked with PC Mag, Macworld and so on, is entirely replaced with video game and fashion magazines. A scandalous parody of a supervisor appears in the women's bathroom, where the supervisor can't go. Moving gregariously, the worker appropriates and demystifies office objects and relationships. This workplace blasphemy works well through humor. Whoever laughs is a potential ally. Humor is another instance where collective communication (e-mail, message boards etc.) cannot be silenced without revealing an obvious despotism.

The employee sets out critiquing what she finds with the allies she meets and the networks they establish. First quietly, through e-mail, on break or after work at a drinking party. In critiquing, she moves like a person who wants to dance in a room of still people. She's confident that others want to dance as well and so she starts moving her knees before her legs. When relationships of trust develop, the employees invite each other out after work, on the weekend, sometimes even to their private worlds (apartments, hang-outs, gardens) where their life projects are fed by the money they receive for their labor. Previously isolated individuals reveal to each other that the rewards of gainful employment are simply means. In so doing, they are suddenly radically separate from the workplace. They relate their life stories and discover a commonness which was previously unspeakable. As if they were observing a wall of TV monitors showing scenes of men and women pushing through subway gates, they realize that what was so irretrievably first-person is now external, that their individual sacrifices to arrive at 'gainful employment' have always been near duplicates of the sacrifices of others to arrive at that same 'success'. They are surprised to learn that they all peek at the internet when the supervisor goes to the bathroom.

The individual worker discusses her suffering with others, who have different sufferings. Some convergence points are found: the arrogance of the supervisor (that fuck!), work conditions (as if we were slaves!), the wage rate (I can't pay my rent!), the amount of hours worked (I never see my children!), the absence of physical activity in mental labor (I've grown so weak). They arrive back in the workplace, more confident.

Despite these valuable convergences, they find that their dissent takes its strength from its disunity (the collective groan). Dissatisfaction remains in a clamor because the clamor holds the most potential. As the dissatisfied begin to express themselves, supervisors, managers, quality circles etc. are interrupted with complaints and dissent. Face-to-face meetings become difficult to manage. The supervisors promise they'll 'try to get to the bottom of things'. Elsewhere, the message board and e-mail is alive with a visible frustration that seems to have no handles. Some workers express themselves through absenteeism ('I'll be out sick today' or even 'I'm simply exhausted'), others peek at the internet when the supervisor cannot see or occupy themselves with something or other on 'company time'. With enough volume, persistence and coordination (taking place on work-time), the supervisors feel compelled to intervene for the sake of productivity. They attempt to shuck away this frustration and anger which aims at everything and look for what is common (even before they look for what is possible in their own narrow vision).

7. To amplify their clamor, which has no necessary unity, the employees must try to seize objective moments of opportunity which occur outside of their control but present a venue for critiquing the workplace. These moments are unpredictable yet may have a pattern that develops out of the dissent thriving in the office. For instance, one, two, three employees may quit in quick succession, as in my workplace. More simply, a flood of work may come through that exceeds the normal workload, the employees judge it to be intolerable. A supervisor may say something rude to an employee. An incident of sexual harassment may occur. By critiquing such objective moments, the employees learn to vocalize themselves and their dissatisfaction, and also to act on the moment. This breaks the silence of the technological workplace, which is essential for engineering innovation, and diminishes the importance of e-mail and other substitute communication methods. Vocal interruptions recompose the employees as critics of their own processes. Initiative lies with them, not the supervisor structure, which slowly finds itself without an audience.

This is because so far, the employees have grounded their words in their own ethical judgment while holding back on specificity. They know that their power lies in the potential for workplace disruption and lost work time. Their grievances, which have become social, must be protected from collapsing back onto the anti-social ground of how the company can integrate them, i.e. they must maintain the wholeness of their misery and resist capture.

8. Management's main line of defense against the accumulating groan which seems to have no source is linguistic attack. Supervisors attempt to adapt the antagonism into a dialogue between two powers, and this adaption takes place on the field of vocabulary. They try to change complaints such as 'I'm always so exhausted' into 'What if we implemented 15 minute breaks every four hours?', 'The workload is killing me' into 'The work flow should be made more efficient', or 'I'm rotting not moving all day' into 'Sponsor 50% of employee gym membership fees'!. Every meeting held to mediate worker frustrations is a venue for this kind of re-wording. Mainly the supervisors will press these 'subtle' linguistic changes outside of the collective venue and on a person-to-person level within the workplace (or at group dinners where conviviality is implied). The employees, who are not unified in their demands, must maintain the heterogeneity of their critiques and refuse their integration into easy solutions. A workplace at a certain level of dissatisfaction forebodes dysfunction and lost capital. Such a situation will always force management, or an intermediate, to come running with proposals for compromises. At this point, having refused to present unified demands can allow:

a. The formation of a collective struggle for individual demands instead of a collective struggle for collective demands. This allows the employees a unity from which to attack collectively in the form of slow-downs, absentia or even a strike if individual demands (which already include collective demands) are not met via individual consultations, while evading the attempts of the company to bind concessions to a restored or even increased loyalty.

b. The preservation of the different vectors of those individual demands (from the housewife to the recent graduate, the part-time artist to the workaholic) also preserves the social nature of the confrontation, which takes place at one location of a circuit on which the individual confronts capital (other locations being housing [rent, mortgage], transport [fares] and so on). In protecting individual demands, the employees build a ladder outside of their office window. Outside is the city!

9. At some stage however the employees will be brought into a meeting with the supervisors. Hopefully they will have had the foresight to refuse to elect 'representatives' to negotiate on their behalf, and the meeting will feature the numerical advantage of the frustrated. Management will open by emphasizing its openness and 'flexibility', although the purpose of the meeting is to quiet dissent in the office. The employees who have been strong through their cacophony have limited goals here. They must show themselves willing to take action (or worse) maintain demoralization if not provided with individual consultation and satisfaction. They must also prevent the supervisors from ordering the proceedings and from asserting the office as management's terrain. The meeting itself is management's terrain. It is structured linguistically to ensnare the employees, who will be questioned and asked to come up with solutions for draining their own antagonism, something that is not exclusively produced by the workplace.

In such a setting, the workers can invert the 'serious efforts' of management via sarcasm and skepticism which are methods of critique that do not constitute grounds, but simply mock. The meeting is no place for 'pointing out contradictions'. In the meeting, every contradiction has an explanation and every problem a solution. When the solution is not favorable to the employees, they may be forced to threaten action while they are on very weak ground. A 'ceaseless advance' of angry confrontation will no doubt be advocated by people who maintain themselves by organizing others (unionists). No. Here the employees should choose a passive withdrawal, one that does not delight itself in the concessions made by the management (which could suddenly make 'the concessions' into contractual guarantees of hard work!), nor acknowledge the 'unity of demands' among the collective groan that management has endeavored to create. The passive withdrawal is active because it refuses to comment, never mind integrate. The workers remain intransigent. Thus, the potential for a contiguous struggle that can expand itself paradoxically rests on a retreat that refuses to be captured or satisfied.

10. The workers, who now have no obstacles towards a sustained and much wider conflict (because they have not been bound) must at this point retreat from the workplace and locate similar antagonists in the wider social context. Not only because their own office is duplicated across the social terrain, and by making links to those in similar circumstances, they strengthen themselves. The workers must also explore the poles of capital that they confront beyond the workplace, looking for weak points which will amplify the struggles they already wage. In doing so, they meet others much like them. Group lunches are arranged on the roofs of the city.

When they have made inquiries at every end of the structures which regulate them, they begin naturally to do the most dangerous thing possible, to theorize themselves and theorize their labor. 'Why do I work for a wage?' 'Why can I not live comfortably without one?' 'What do we make here?' 'Why are we making it?' 'How are we making it and why do we make it that way?' Like this, their struggle in the workplace, which was once so unspeakable, has given them room to breathe against the suffocation of all the coercions they endure. With the space that they have carved out, they begin to re-arrange what they see before them.