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Thursday, February 22, 2007


Egyptian workers in unprecedented strike wave

Ali Ghalab sat on a dusty office couch in a pinstriped suit, explaining why his 11,700 employees joined a wave of wildcat strikes that have shocked the government and paralyzed Egypt's textile industry.

"It's the Muslim Brotherhood," the factory chairman yelled, referring to the officially banned Islamist movement, "and the communists. The Muslim Brotherhood stands behind every trouble in every single factory."

A mile away, more than 1,000 strikers had barricaded themselves inside the textile plant in Kafr el-Dawwar, a gritty town on the Nile Delta about 100 miles north of Cairo. They were demanding more money and greater opportunity for promotion. A shipment of cotton fabric destined for Turkey was locked inside with the disgruntled employees.

"Ali is a shoe," they chanted. "He is useless."

Rattled by rising prices, falling benefits and looming privatization, tens of thousands of Egyptian workers at state-owned industries have been in rebellion. In recent weeks, more than 35,000 workers at nearly a dozen textile, cement and poultry plants have gone on strike in a nation where any strike is illegal and even the smallest public protest can be squelched with police truncheons. Train engineers, miners and even riot police also have walked off the job or held demonstrations in the past 2 1/2 months.


Long live Israel

Sunday, February 18, 2007

"What governments should really fear is a communications expert."

I thought I'd give a brief highlight to the person who introduced me (and many others) to the ideas of anti-German communists, an oppositional current that emerged in the early 1990s around the Gulf war and has provided a powerful counter-weight to a left incapable of breaking with the macromass of the nation. In this sense, they continue the important work of Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Theodor Adorno, Klaus Theweleit and other intellectuals who confronted in the course of their struggle the universal demobilizing force of the nation-state and the particular counter-revolutionary character of the German nation.

CF argues with a persuasive and researched polemic which does not surrender to easy anti-imperialist logic or for that matter "history's end". His 'regular' writings can be read in the magazine datacide (issue 9 being the latest, and recommended). His position on Iraq in hindsight did not take into account the brutality of the American occupation (which works directly against the working class) nor foresee the Islamist/Ba'athist insurgence, but still has some interesting insights.

Jörg Haider on Al Jazeera

Why I won't be at the Peace March

The war has begun
"see here i disagree, I think neo-nazis are revolutionaries but in a totally different way than communists (should be), they want to revolutionise society into something much worse than it already is, the same is the case with the islamists they sympathise so much with.
I plead for a revolutionary movement that is entirely un-compatible with the nazi concepts, i'm not interested in a nazi-compatible left."

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Notes on an Ongoing Workplace Struggle (part 2)

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. The vertical relations are outwardly 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. The 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 (too obvious). Actually, the first line of defense will be the socialization of the employees which has already been instilled in them. This socialization allows for formations against the individual who imposes herself socially (with demands rooted outside of the workplace).

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, they've learned all this through hard circumstance. Thus every expression and vocalization made by the worker, who embarks on an inquiry inviting conflict with the workplace's organization, initially walks along the two options that do not cross workplace taboos i.e. quitting or making 'suggestions' (not yet demands). These two obvious options allow the individual to remove herself from the workplace totally and dissolve into the wider society, or to demand concessions at the cost of re-integration. Thus, any struggle in the integrated workplace (specifically the tech industry) begins with 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 that doesn't work, or if management delays and delays, I'll simply leave. That's more honorable. I could leave and still respect myself that way."

To escape these two options, which she recognizes as miserable, she has to 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 no one 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 conveys itself 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. Confident that others want to dance too, she starts moving her knees before her moving 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 suddenly separate themselves from the workplace radically. 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 are alive with a visible frustration that seems to have no handles. Some workers express themselves through absenteeism ('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' (in Japan, this is referred to as naishoku, wheedling away at private projects on company time). With enough volume, persistence and coordination (taking place on work-time), the supervisors feel compelled to intervene to rescue productivity. They attempt to shuck away the frustration and anger which aims at everything and look for what is unifiable (even before they look for what is "possible").

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 and the employees judge it to be intolerable. A supervisor may say something rude to an employee. An incident of sexual harassment may occur. In critiquing 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, a pre-requisite for engineering innovation (concentrate!), and diminishes the importance of e-mail and other substitute communication methods. Vocal interruptions recompose the employees as critics of their own responsibilities. 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 private (and therefore social) difference with the workplace (the groan) 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 retain their wholeness and not collapse back onto anti-social ground i.e. how can the company 'solve the problems'.

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?', or 'The workload is killing me' into 'Let's make the work flow more efficient', and 'I'm rotting not moving all day' into 'Let's sponsor 50% of employee gym memberships!'. 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. At the same time, the employees evade 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 individuals confront capital (other locations being housing [rent, mortgage], transport [fares] and so on). In protecting their individual demands, the employees build ladders outside of their office windows. 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' for negotiating 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 asserting the office as management's terrain. True enough, the meeting 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.

In such a setting, the workers can invert the 'serious efforts' of management via sarcasm and skepticism, which are methods of critique that don't stand on any ground, moving with a mocking breeze. For the employees, the meeting is no place for 'pointing out contradictions'. Here, every contradiction has an explanation and every problem a solution. When a solution is not favorable to the employees, they may be forced to threaten action while 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. Paradoxically, the potential for a contiguous struggle that wants to protect itself from being mutilated thus hinges on a retreat that refuses capture.

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 they confront beyond the workplace, looking for weak points that 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 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 is in front of them.

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