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Friday, January 26, 2007

Notes on an ongoing workplace struggle (Part 1)

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 separate 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. Both models are historical forms etched by post-fordist workers, who refused traditional organizations of work not only in terms of the border of overtime and worktime, but also rearranged the spatial organization of the workplace and disaggregated the assembly line into individualized laboratories. Nowadays, 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 while 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. 'Refusal' was an unpopular word. 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 was not widely rooted in the power of withdrawing labor from the labor process (striking, shirking, sabotage), but in:

a) quitting their jobs; permanently withdrawing their individual labor, which can be replaced, but
temporarily damages productivity. For instance, t 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 the training of new employees incredibly difficult 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 criticize 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', and 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 at some point a 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, and mediation-based organization that integrates the worker into the body of the firm. 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 share a workplace.

There is also a tendency to develop collective think pads, most often message boards in technological (thus intellectual property) workplaces, which ostensibly serve as places for the development of new technologies and ideas, but these places are always at risk 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 intra-workplace digital communication, which replaces the shop room floor as a venue of discussion, is the unfortunate dulling of real-time 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.

Next I'll consider how how workers can effectively organize conflict in a way that defies the attempts by supervisors and capitalists to capture it in individualized contract changes or by the assignment of mediation to a trade union (which would paralyze it).

(Parts 5-10 coming next week)

Very interesting. I recognize some similar problems in my industry (short haul trucking). Currently, the company I work for is too small to invest in the most popular worker tracking tech (GPS), but most of the big companies have installed it in their trucks. Thus, drivers' autonomy can be severely limited - much more than before.

Further, communication and coordination amongst workers in this business can be difficult since the we are by definition separated from each other all day. Getting even three or four workers together to discuss a problem and plan, not to mention actually confront the boss is quite difficult because of this. Of course, this problem is compounded by the tracking tech. Given the difficulty of meeting face to face, cell phones can offer a limited way around this, although it is no substitute for in person meetings. So, cell phones can serve a role similar to the function of the bulletin boards you reference, although the ability of the boss to curtail it is much more limited. I hear that some companies are tracking cell phones, but I have not encountered this yet, personally. At the same time, cracking down on cell phone use on company time can be done in a much less public manner, as can discipline in general, thus isolating the worker.

The level of precarity is high among the lowest paid workers (non-CDL), and that can act as a deterrent on action. Very often, pay and skill levels are divided by firm, so that lower paid workers tend to work in certain companies while those that are higher paid work in a other ones.

Cross company solidarity is low in terms of action, although tips, gripes and ideas for shirking, etc, are often shared between workers of different companies whenever they happen to roll up on the same delivery at the same time. This makes it so information on resistance sometimes has to travel from a worker at company A to a worker at company B in order for it get to another worker at company A, as workers from different firms often see each other more than they see their co-workers.

Within a company, instead of open confrontation with bosses, drivers tend to resist more through theft, slow or late deliveries, long breaks or (when possible) appropriating company property for their own purposes, such as running personal errands, taking naps, etc.
Thanks not only for the intriguing comment but the write-up on your blog. It would be nice to get this old thing some exposure. Incidentally, in relation to the above, the struggle at my workplace is only accelerating all of a sudden. The more grievances come out the more the supervisor and the boss have to answer up in confrontational meetings. I'll save the details for the second part I guess.

I'm interested in what the justification for introducing GPS is to trucks. Am I right that the capitalists pitch it as an easy navigation tool for finding delivery spots, maintaining routes and generally improving the efficiency of runs? Is there a way to disable the GPS or block it? What are the potentials of CB radio in terms of communicating with each other? I guess that's really short range...so unless you see someone from the same company it may not have much of an effect.

Are you also saying that the bosses object to cell phone use on the clock simply to discourage any potential worker self-organization? Or have they invented a task that they want you to be doing?

Definitely the division of an overall circuit of capital (distribution) into a wide array of different companies makes capital mobile in the event that workers from one company strike but workers in another company don't. Still, a cross-company strike of 30% of short haulers is enough to cause serious damage. Organizing it would be tough as hell, but it's something to keep in sight.

You might find the article linked to in this thread pretty interesting:


In your industry, do bosses take advantage of white racial loyalty? For instance against more precarious chicano workers.
Hi Nice Blog .This labor time tracker is used to track the time and attendance of employees, and at the same time track labor activity against specific parts, jobs, and operations.
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