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(en) Organise #61 - Class Struggle in the ‘New Economy’

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 20 Oct 2003 10:43:36 +0200 (CEST)


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You might have noticed if you’ve read any of the bosses’
own publications (The Economist, Financial Times, Business
Week etc) that they are pushing the idea of a ‘New
Economy’. An economy based on the latest technology and IT,
which has somehow overcome all the contradictions of the ‘old
economy’ and developed a fundamentally harmonious basis;
workers and bosses co-operating for the common good, the end of
workplace struggle.
It’s the same self-serving myth the bosses have always dished
out when they want to make changes that benefit them and harm
us, right from the start of the Industrial Revolution. Marx said 150
years ago that "It would be possible to write a whole history of the
inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing
capital with weapons against working-class revolt", which is
essentially what is happening today. The bosses are trying to use
work-place technology against us, whilst simultaneously claiming
it’s for our benefit. A look at what is actually happening in the
‘new economy’ will dispel some of these myths. You have
to look at call-centres and similar workplaces and the production
and assembly plants that make the components for this new
technology, not just information workers or high-paid software
designers.

The first thing to emphasise is that the development of the New
Economy is deliberate. It is the logical result of mostly US
state-funded development programs that explicitly sought to create
a pro-management environment through the use of technology. The
early electronic plants in the 1950s were used as laboratories for
road-testing new management plans to deal with the collective
strength of what became known as "the mass worker" - a
workplace community that had gained strength from the sheer
numbers of people concentrated in one plant. The concept of
‘team-management’ grew from this experiment and was
exported to other industries most notably the Detroit car factories
and steel industries.


It’s not only the advertised product that the ‘new
economy’ is selling - it also sells plans to minimise worker
resistance and new ways of making us work harder for longer for
less pay whilst watching us every second. We should keep a very
careful eye on what is happening in the ‘new economy’ as
it may very well be happening close to home before too long - as
the spread of just-in-time production, toyotism, self-management,
work circles and other management ploys have demonstrated. So
how have workers been responding to all this?

Worker Resistance

Despite the myths of a peaceful workplace there have been
numerous examples of class struggle taking place in the hi-tech
sector - practically from its origins. There’s a number of
struggles that seem to be of particular significance because of the
areas in which they took place, how they were organised, and the
opportunities for spreading struggle among other parts of the
working. The 1993 strike by workers at the Versatronex circuit
board assembly plant in Sunnyvale, Silicon Valley was of great
significance as it was the first to take place among production
workers (mainly female Mexican immigrants) who are the basis of
the ‘new economy’ but who remain hidden behind the
scenes in favour of stories about dot-com entrepreneurs. These
workers were employed in a sweat-shop: forced to work
damagingly long hours, with the usual problems that this causes in
the family, at very high line speeds, in unhealthy conditions with no
medical plan and with very little pay or job security. This is life at
the most basic of levels of the ‘new economy’ - looks very
much like life in thee ‘old economy’ doesn’t it? No
stock options here! The workers eventually struck and managed to
spread the struggle to other factories in Silicon Valley and to other
immigrant workers in unskilled jobs, janitors in these hi-tech
factories being a prime example. The reality of conditions in the
‘new economy’ met with a worker response straight out of
the old days of class struggle, of the boss and the worker having
nothing in common. The work conditions allowed the workers to
socialise and talk of their problems together and then come up with
collective solutions. There was recognition of the common
problems felt by the women and the social solidarity to do
something about them. This contrasts with the better paid end of
the hi-tech sector where one of the most common complaints is the
social isolation felt by workers who no longer have to turn up at a
definite place for a definite time and who consequently feel they
have to battle the boss alone or even that there is no point in
struggling at all.

Microserfs

Moving up the scale (so to speak) we have the programmers - the
people satirised as ‘micro serfs’ in Douglas
Coupland’s novel of the same name. A recent study by the
University of California made the claim that these jobs are the
modern equivalent of the 19th Century factory. These workers are
a clear example of how the bosses myths of "modern flexible
working, untied by geographical office boundaries, able to work on
their own initiative and offered stock options in their firms." has
been used against the workforce. The reality is that these people
are often forced into working 16 hours a day to meet deadlines (in
some states overtime legislation has been abolished), and are
forced to constantly update their skills (not paid for by the
company) in order to stay in work. Resentment came to a head in
the last few years with the bursting of the dot.com bubble, the
transfer of jobs to ‘developing’ countries and the mass
immigration of IT workers prepared to work for lower wages from
those same countries. But "when the economic crisis hit, they
found themselves with few collective guarantees, they were cast
to their individual fates". There have now been a number of
initiatives by these workers to form some form of collective
organisation - trade unions or interest-based associations - to
defend their interests and the lessons of social solidarity that the
Versatronex workers learned are now being taken up by other
sections of the ‘new economy’. However much of this still
aims to protect individual careers rather then improve conditions
for workers as a whole. One thing that this group has become
aware of is that it has unique skills which management takes for
granted - assuming that people can be easily replaced – but
which they can use when deadlines loom. It’s a fact that is
increasingly being used to gain concessions; these workers have
not yet had their skills appropriated by the bosses. Whether this
leads to 19th Century-style craft unions and guild organisations or
whether they are going to recognise that their disputes are part of a
wider network of struggles is going to be a key question over the
coming years.

Telecommunications

Call centres stand somewhere in the middle ground: neither
production work nor designing and developing original plans, they
are (along with data-entry clerks and similar) stuck in boring
repetitive factory-like jobs but their tools are no longer the lathe
but the pc. They are probably the most monitored workforce going,
with constant intrusive supervision, almost every single task
broken down into timed actions and compulsory overtime.
Unsurprisingly this has led to well above average workforce
turnover, sometimes a high as 80%, as stress levels become just
too high. August 2000 saw 87,000 telecommunications workers
strike against Verizon Communications in the US over forced
overtime, job stress and job security. Forced overtime was the key
issue: in some states management can force people to work 15
hours a week overtime, more in certain months, while another
(New Jersey) has no limits on the amount of overtime that can be
forced on workers. As one striking technician put it, "Management
can come up to you as you are getting ready to leave and require
you to work another two hours, or before your day off they can
require you to work four hours of it." This is now the norm
throughout the industry - not an exceptional case at all. Other
complaints were the speed of work and the supervision - a striker
wrote : "For every call that comes in we have to 'assume the sale.'
If we do not try to find a need and sell the customer a new service
then we are disciplined. Depending on the supervisor, you could get
a suspension. All of this and completing the repair or customer
service order has to be done within specified time constraints. For
a customer repair the calls have to be down to 300 seconds. Five
seconds over and we are reprimanded… Mostly everyone in the
business office is on Prozac. Many people are also out on sick
leave due to the stress. I transferred out after two years. On
Sunday nights I couldn't sleep because I was thinking about going
back to work on Monday. That job was hell."

The strike which seemed so solid after two weeks out was brought
to a halt by another throwback from the ‘old economy’ - a
union sell out. The Communication Workers of America (CWA)
split the workforce and all but ran a strike-breaking operation in
areas where they met with determined opposition, imposing a deal
that actually made the workers job even more stressful. The lesson
in the ‘new economy’ remains the same as in the old:
don’t trust union bureaucrats, rely on your own autonomous
strength and solidarity in collective action. In the last years or so
there have been strikes in call-centres all over the world (and a
possibly quite large one looming at BT) as workers come to realise
that many companies are now almost totally reliant on these
modern day sweatshops. They are in fact a weakness that can be
exploited, a point where capital is particularly vulnerable.

Common to all the above sectors is stress. A recent TUC study
has shown that: "Workers with stressful jobs are more than twice
as likely to die from heart disease. An individuals mental health
deteriorates when a change in workload results in higher demands,
less control and reduced support. Poor management planning and
organisation can lead to heart disease. Working for unreasonable
and unfair bosses leads to dangerously high blood pressure.
Workers are smoking, drinking and ‘slobbing out’ to deal
with workplace stress. Long-term work-related stress is worse for
the heart than aging 30 years or gaining 40lbs in weight." This is
the ‘new economy’, eating up the working class just as
surely as did the ‘old economy’

The boss talk of class harmony and co-operation is being used to
deny all of this. But the fact is that a society that is organised
around the capital-labour relation can never escape class struggle,
can never escape from bosses vs workers. It may be old but its
still true:

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in
common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are
found among millions of the working people and the few, who make
up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers
of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of
production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the
Earth."


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