processed world editorial
With Processed World 19 we return, flushed, but unchastened, from our special sex issue with a focus on a neglected feature of modern life--workplace transience.
America is becoming a land of transient workers and moveable workplace. The job turnover rate, supplemented by wave after wave of layoffs and forced early retirements, is cresting higher and higher. In this issue, we look not so much at the movement of work away from old-line, dying American industries, but rather at the more aimless flow into and out of the new service, office, and electronics sector jobs. Where is the Information Age taking us?
According to a Harper's Index item (September, 1986), the geographic center of the U.S. population is moving west by 58 feet and south by 29 feet each day. Whether they depart from the drying husks of Eastern factory towns or from the bulging shantytowns of Central America and Asia, the white, black, brown, and yellow émigrés arrive in patchwork urban habitats that offer very little community stability and even less job security. Stability and security of this sort an going the way of the manual typewriter and the great Amazon jungles. In place of the union hiring hall and the "permanent" full-time worker looms a "personnel services" industry that traffics in temporary and part-time workers, who comprise an ever larger proportion of the labor force.
To a great extent, the new workplace transience reflects the rise of low-paying, boring, and often dangerous "processing" jobs that no one cut tolerate indefinitely--or even, it seems, for more than 20-30 hours a week. Likewise notorious is the upper-tier job-hopping of salaried "professionals," whose career trajectories are described increasingly as "lateral movement." Upward mobility, that hallowed American artifice, is today more elusive than ever.
Does the growth in temporary and part-time work signal progress--a release from unsatisfying, full-time work? Does increased job turnover fulfill popular aspiration for greater individual autonomy? Probably. But what are the implications of workplace transience for workers--and for the workplace itself?
Throughout contemporary American life, then remains much to rebel against and to fight for. Many people might even agree on a limited agenda for social change. But what happens when people don't stay in one place long enough to develop common agendas, or, more important, meaningful ties to other people? Bootless people can and do rebel. But they rarely do so in groups. Instead, the social entropy of transience constricts the channels of rebellion to the most convenient, individual options--quitting frustrating jobs, moving away from uncomfortable social relationships, escaping disconcerting patronal affairs, dodging a "bad record." Drifting, like gothic cowboys, through town after town.
Neighborhoods, communities, and work-plan associations create bonds between people, a melding of personal and social Identity, These bonds can impede the mobility that capital, always seeking more profitable horizons, historically has imposed upon labor. A people unattached to one another are more likely to move when business needs them and to pursue its exaggerated, competitively derived dreams of isolated good fortune. This is why a transient workforce has long been attractive to western capitalism, especially during periods of rapid structural decay and transition.
The personal autonomy to leave oppressive jobs, to "move on," is often the best option for individuals. During the current realignment of capital and culture, however, unbridled individual mobility gives free rein to capital's most rapacious and speculative tendencies.
What happens when workers come and go with increasing frequency from job to job? A cluster of articles explores this question-and raises others. In "Itinerant Cultures, Lonely Trails, Work's Diminishing Connections," Dennis Hayes examines the impermanence and loneliness of Silicon Valley work. Electronics has become America's largest manufacturing sector. But unlike auto, steel and previous such employers, volatile electronics firms rely essentially on a transient workforce. With the deployment of Immigrant, temporary, and highly mobile professional workers, workplace organizing-and by implication, the power to strike for better conditions, wages, and benefits--has eluded high-tech workers. Is the workplace vanishing as a focus for collective rebellion? As electronics products assist in the economic transition to more servile, machine-paced office and shop work, workplace transience is structured into more and more occupations. In "Small Is Not Beautiful" Tom Wetzel describes the discontents and hypocrisy of the SF Bay Guardian, a nationally known "progressive" San Francisco weekly that has buffeted its workers with job-displacing automation and willfull neglect. Wetzel documents failed attempts to organize among workers made transient by low pay and by part-time job assignments.
The author is heartened by the success of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who vigorously, if temporarily, organized transient workers early in this century. At that time, however, the spirit of rebellion was given an immediately social outlook by the practical, often revolutionary, trade union traditions of European immigrant workers. More recently, American unions have lined up with banks to sell credit cards, have co-engineered CIA-backed intrigues from the Philippines to El Salvador, and have milked dwindling pension funds to the exclusion of workplace organizing. Today's immigrants are, as always hopeful, But unlike their European forebears, many arrive from lands where workplace organizing is greeted with American-supplied bullets fired by American-trained police.
Sophia Furia's "A Teaching Temp Talks Back" is a visceral expose of a public university/community college system in disarray and of the milieu of underpaid and overworked part-time teachers that increasingly populate its faculty positions. S.F. describes the stodgy cynicism among tenured faculty, the bitter ironies that confront teachers who care about education, and the underdevelopment of fraternity among part-time teachers. Joni Hockert's view is "From Inside the Beast--Temporarily." A Placement counselor for a temporary agency, Hockert tells all, including how temps and jobs are systematically mismatched, how secret discriminations result in the "release" of many temporary workers, and--in the author's case--how temporary temp counseling can be.
Has a nearly unbroken chain of union betrayals impaired our ability to imagine collective solutions to workplace problems? What happens when workers confront, rather than sidestep, workplace problem? "Kaiser Don't Care, SEIU Neither" is a brief account of a strike by health care workers that ended in qualified defeat. But a special PW interview (by Lucius Cabins) with activists critical of, yet sympathetic to their union generates provocative dialogue and insights into the dilemma of workplace organizing. Our periodic column Hot Under The Collar returns in this issue with a report on the unlikely settlement of a bitter and often violent strike by Hispanic frozen produce workers in Watsonville, California (see PW 15 and 16) and the microchip industry's curious response to a study that found twice-normal miscarriage rates among its workers.
Fiction is an appropriate genre for exploring the trauma of the job interview--an occasion to which transient workers frequently must rise. Had a rough one lately? So has David Ross, whose "Thursday Morning" gets to the clammy heart of the matter. Vignettes of American work and its discontents are captured with angst and verve in "All in a Day's Work" by Kurt Nimmo. In the tradition of James Thurber, G.Y. Jennings' "Sand and Steel" depicts a bored accountant's flirtation with the boxcar transience of hobo life--and the hobos' little surprise. Thoughtful reviews of Cultures in Contention (Ed. D. Kahn & D. Neumaier) and Langdon Winner's The Whale and the Reactor, poetry you'll not likely see or hear elsewhere, and your letters round out the issue.
Our little surprise is that, in contrast to this issue's theme, a semblance of stability has insinuated itself into the PW collective. It's not often that a core of willful people can coalesce for long around such an unwieldy project. Frankly we're wondering if we shouldn't begin to worry. The chaos of production is somehow becoming more tolerable, thanks to improvements in process-and product, we hope. We've seen the puffy face of the future-desktop publishing--and we're still blinking. But after a cautious look, we're taking the leap.
Financial stability, however, has been less forthcoming. We've managed to contain, and even reduce, some of our production costs. But we are about to launch--gee, there it goes--er, just launched, a campaign to increase our circulation. That means higher production and distribution costs once again. Wampum is what is wanted. You could help us immediately by subscribing now, or by renewing your subscription early, or by giving a gift subscription, or by suggesting a bookstore that doesn't yet carry PW, or by just leaving one on a bus seat.
In the meantime, enjoy this issue, and think about contributing to the next one,--which, among other topics, will explore the health care industry from the inside out. Take some time to write us a thoughtful letter-we've moved letters back to the front to emphasize PWs role as a forum for readers. And keep those articles, poems and short stories coming--hey, we'll read anything!