The article below details and reflects critically/politically on life in a modern NZ office situation.  Much thanks to Vomiting Diamonds for drawing our attention to it and suggesting we might be interested in re-blogging it from his site.  We’d also encourage other readers to send us stuff about their workplaces. . .

a-fairly-typical-open-office

A fairly typical open office, not our workplace, but vaguely similar if you remove all the clutter

Part One: Swipe in, log in, begin. . .

1

I’m treading slowly down a white, shiny corridor. As I head towards the lifts, I get a bit anxious about having to get through yet another shift as a data processor, and how to deal with the boredom. I get that oh shit feeling, here goes another day wasted in this slow, ritualistic daily torture, like I’m snared in an absurd Kafka-esque nightmare full of meaningless but never-ending nasty games that we call work. Oh well, I think “it has to be done”, “another day, another pay”, “I need to pay the bills”, so I can force myself to enter the workplace and avoid that fleeting feeling that you just want to flee, to escape, and say “bugger it” with it all. That daily lived contradiction between being legally free, but having to sell yourself in the work marketplace in order to live. Even though I’d love to steal some time and arrive late – or better still take the day off – I’ve managed to get there just in time.

2

As I walk, I reluctantly hang my lanyard around my neck, which contains my swipe card and ID card. Some workers are seemingly happy to wear their lanyards on the street, like some sort of perverse pride in these days of high unemployment that you have a job, to get some of that dignity and status that many associate with work. Instead, I quickly take off my cards during breaks when I duck out for fresh air, or some grub. It reminds me of my meaningless job, something I want to forget about. To me, the cord is a bit like a noose. Or maybe a prisoner’s ID.

3

I enter the lift and greet fellow data processing temps taking the ride. Most of the time I don’t know the others by name as it is a relatively large office. I swipe in so we can access our floor. As we ride up the floors, my mind wanders, back to one of those interesting conversations I had years back. An amiable guy, with rough features and his face always covered in stubble, said he used to like exploring office buildings, and find his way to the top of buildings. As in some kind of derive, the game the Situationists used to play in Europe when they wandered around cities everywhichway as their desires took them, consciously becoming disoriented and lost. But he said he couldn’t wander anymore because the buildings have been enclosed, either by security systems or swipe cards.

4

The lift opens. We’re spat out into the weird, unnatural glare of the modern office. We’re immediately greeted with a swagger of bright flouro lights that make your eyes wince, and take some time to adjust to, if ever. Under this fierce glaze it never feels right, it always feels artificial. Everything looks white and bright. I gasp for air in the sealed air conditioned environment. The air is suffocating, stuffy, and lifeless. My craving for fresh air will get worse throughout the day.

5

The data processing office itself is a sterile place. It’s spartan, non-descript, boring and ugly, with white walls and roof, industrial carpet, fake wood desks, water coolers, and small kitchens. I suppose such an artificial environment is engineered to try and keep your focus on work, and to maximise our ‘productivity’.

6

It’s a large open office, with about 100 people working our shift. While our desks are not organised in neat rows as if we are in some rigid 1970s or 80s office factory, they are huddled together in tight ‘teams’ of 10, with a ‘team leader’ sitting amongst you. The vast majority of our computer screens are organised in such a way that they can be seen by a team leader. The ‘team’ is sort of fenced off by low level partitions from other teams. But the other teams are crammed in beside you, and you can see and hear them at all times. The problem, of course, with open offices is that you can and are easily monitored at all times, in terms of team leaders keeping an eye out on how much you natter to others, take toilet and other breaks, and what is up on your computer screen. Conversely, having at least three or four fellow workers in your line of sight at all times means that there are plenty of opportunities to have a chat, and pass notes and drawings. This tension created by the office design will lead to many minor skirmishes between management and us lot, us workers.

7

Off to the side, there are a few individual offices, where the bigwig managers and assorted other high-ups sit. They make sure that people can’t see what they have on their computer screens.

8

I wind my way past the offices, people and desks, greeting people along the way, find my desk and sit down. It’s good to see my workmates. The best thing about work, of course, is the people. There are some interesting types, from all sorts of backgrounds and ages, here. All thrown together by work. We get on pretty well. Most of us are united in our hatred of the our absurd work, and the way we’re treated by management. Heaps of friendships develop, although there are many don’t really get on that well.

9

Phew, arrived on time. Bugger it, no time to catch up with my workmates as I have to login on time or get in more trouble. The bosses keep an eye on us, and tell us off for arriving even two minutes late, which after a couple of times means a round of disciplinary meetings and strict surveillance.

10

Groundhog day: here we go again. I sit down, tap in my operator number and password to login. For a while I didn’t remember my number and password, but now it is imprinted in my brain. Our team leader circles, making sure we have logged in and started work. I wait for the processing programme to load, and begin the endless cycle of repetition that is data processing. My day will consist of thousands of mouse clicks and checking innumerable numbers – until after a while all the data before my eyes starts to melt into one.

Part Two: Work – rhythm, repetition, resistance

11

battle-vs-office-boredoeI begin my day of data processing. We get thousands upon thousands of data forms to process. After a click, my first form for the day pops up, with the first ‘problem’ highlighted. I make sure people are assigned the right code for the place they live in, and assign individuals their correct number. We sometimes have to go through a few screens and steps in order to do this. Each ‘problem’ takes about 30 seconds to a minute to solve. Some take a few minutes when all the data is messed up or is unreadable. Others take a few seconds. As soon as the problem is solved, the form is processed, and the next form and problem appears. And so on…

12

The job is a bit like being a sped up filing clerk, having to put forms in the right places and give them the correct code. Except all the filing is done on a computer. Soon they will develop a computer programme to make our jobs obsolete. I loathe the work. It makes me feel like a machine. I am constantly processing and moving data around, clicking on stuff, organising stuff, sorting stuff. Its neverending, trivial, meaningless. It does my head in at times. Most others here agree: they say things like ‘this job makes me feel like a zombie.’

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At the start of the day, I find the work absurd, dumb and painful. The problems are boring and simple. Time moves incredibly slowly. Aw, how can I get through this day? This job is madness.

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Yet after a while, my reaction to this cycle of repetition differs. I find I can cope. I like the easy, non-taxing nature of the work. I don’t have to think much. I can turn my mind off, and get into a sort of rhythm, and click through problems. Time moves faster. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I get a weird sort of perverse pride in getting the problem correct, even though the work is silly and management absurd. This highlights a basic contradiction and ongoing tension between trying to get some satisfaction out of the job, and the horrifically unsatisfying nature of the job.

15

After about an hour of processing, I experience another phase of intense boredom. I become numb and I am not even aware of which problem I am solving. We get only about 8 or so problems to solve, and data to fix up, so our response to these problems becomes automatic. Sometimes I have to click back to the start screen in order to find out.

16

My mind wanders, watching myself do the tasks, while I think of over things, dream of home, of my partner, of my life, of what I am going to do outside work, of the important stuff outside work. But unfortunately I am stuck here in front of a computer having to sell my labour and time in order to live. And this job requires us to keep concentrating just enough to keep doing our job. It is not like an assembly line job where you do the same physical movement over and over again, and can totally escape and dream for a while, while you do the same tasks.

17

How can we escape from this imposition of work and its boredom? They’ve set up the computers here so that we have no escape. We don’t have access to the net, so internet surfing is out. We don’t have emails. We don’t even have games on our computer. All we have access to is our data processing programme.

18

Instead, I begin chatting with the person opposite me. I joke about funny aspects of the data, absurd things that come up. She talks about absurd things she has just processed. We then talk about home life, geography, films. Anything to keep our minds off work. But we can’t talk too long or else the team leader will notice too often, and we will be shifted to another desk, around people we don’t know. So we develop the art of quick, funny conversations. Sometimes though the job is just so painful the talking blows out into ten minute natters.

19

Boredom, and dealing with it, is a constant subject of conversation among us. While some of us natter, many sink into music. Others banter and tease. After another round of bantering, the guy next to me says ‘if you didn’t have banter in this job, you’d go mad’. Which is true. Others take toilet breaks, others wander to the water cooler, others share funny notes and funny drawings, and pass around pictogram games between each other. The creativity of the banter, joking around, and doodling is impressive. Some, who tend to be management’s pets so they can get away with more, openly joke to team leaders about working slowly, trying to reduce the workload, trying to avoid work.

20

I wonder if all this minor informal resistance is just a way of coping with work, rather than open and collective resistance to it. It certainly feels like it. At first, management mildly tolerated the banter and chatter and doodling, as they realise the job is mind numbing and we have to cope with it somehow. But they’re currently imposing a big speed up, which will create some workplace conflict. They’ve also got a raft of crude propaganda techniques about ‘attitude’, ‘being positive’ and ‘happy’, despite the job being inherently tedious and humdrum. And they’ve got divide and rule tactics, prizes, and even an over the top ‘motivational’ exercise session to try and keep us temp agency workers in line.

21

It’s been a while since I blogged. The data entry job is long gone now, thankfully, and I’ve ‘left the office’. I don’t miss the constant sound of mouse clicking…clicking here, over there, a neverending cacophony of clicking. And the mindless, relentless boredom. But I miss the people I met. Originally I intended the diary to follow a typical day’s work, so this blog entry would have been about the final few hours in a day at the office, ending on that feeling of tired relief when you’ve done your time and can take off home, and leave the glare of the lights and strange sterility of the office behind. Instead, this post will be a few jumbled thoughts and recollections about working as a data entry temp worker, working in a low paid, near minimum wage, completely non-unionised white-collar workplace for a temp agency. This type of work and workplace is becoming more common, so it’s worth having a glimpse at everyday work and the potential for conflict in such places.

22

Management attempted its big speed up mentioned above in the last post, and bugger it, they mostly won. They got us to work faster through some pretty crude methods, although some work groups and individual workers held out. This was not unsurprising in today’s context of an incredibly low level of class struggle in NZ, but can some other more specific reasons be teased out?

23

For a start, the temp employment agency put us all on individual employment contracts which granted them all of the power. We had to sign the contracts or else we wouldn’t get the job. The contract outlined how we could get fired or disciplined for literally anything. At the end of long list of reasons why they could discipline us, including the normal insubordination and the like, there was a clause which said we could be fired or disciplined for anything not included in the list above!

24

If that was bad enough, there was also a specific clause which contained the ominous assertion we could be sacked or given a warning for not having a positive attitude!! In reality, ‘positivity’ could mean anything. Bosses could just bide their time, and pick on someone or some informal work group they disliked whenever they deemed they were not being ‘positive’. And when you are working a mundane, repetitive data entry job – a ‘bullshit job’ if there ever was one – you don’t exactly feel positive most of the time. The work by its very nature was not fun and positive, it is mundane, zombiefying and absurd. It is as if management think if just we just become happy shiny positive little automatons this data entry work will somehow become fun. If you think this clause is absurd, and would have never be used by management, think again. At least one worker was fired for having a poor attitude as far as I am aware.

Scary positivity in the office

Scary positivity in the office

25

Management believes that the ‘positive atmosphere we [i.e. the team leaders] created at the start’ meant that there was not a high turnover of workers (this was an actual quote from a team leader during my ‘assessment’, which involved being taking aside and told to work faster). Yet I got the impression that most workers saw through their simplistic, crude propaganda and feel good manipulative ‘energising’ techniques were seen through right from the start. Maybe some bought into the crude ‘pumping up’ and bullshit talk about how wonderful it was to be here, how great it is to be part of a team, what an important job you are doing, and all the collective exercises complete with upbeat music and stupid motivational talk. But most didn’t. We were there for one thing: money. And as my co-worker pointed out ‘that’s bullshit [that a positive atmosphere stopped people from leaving]. We didn’t leave because there are no other jobs.’ Unemployment is high, and jobs are scarce. So most put up with all the ‘smile or die’ positivity bollocks, the quizzes and exercise breaks, because at least we are getting paid for it. Anyway, as the job went on after a few months, a few left after they got new jobs, and during the breaks and sometimes during work time people openly talked about how they were looking for other jobs, occasionally even to team leaders.

26

Perhaps the most surreal part of the day was the exercise breaks, which formed a core part of the positivity bollocks they tried to enmesh us in. We had two such ‘breaks’ a shift, at about 2 hours in, and 2 hours before the end of a shift. The exercises took place in the ‘break out’ area (namely an area where we had our lunches and cuppa tea during our real breaks). We would line up and face a hyped-up team leader together with a couple of willing cronies who would stand up the front, like at a gym. Then they would go through the weird routine of the gym: pep talk, playing loud, upbeat music (which was given some sort of democracy because workers could choose what to play themselves) and then into the exercises.

A few gym junkies liked it, and most of us put up with it, maybe a bit embarrassed at first at just how silly it was (particularly the more weird exercises, like pretending to swim, and twirling your arms around in circles). But as the job went on an increasing minority grew to loathe the exercises. A few of us went to the back where they couldn’t be seen very well, or took long toilet breaks, or faked injuries. Some people occasionally stood behind poles where they couldn’t be seen at all, and just read magazines. But the most common form of resistance was when a group of work friends did the exercises with little enthusiasm, or barely did them at all, while all the time chatting to each other and ignoring all the histrionics emanating from the front.

A lot of us made fun of the instructor barking out the enthusiastic orders, and many refused to do certain exercises which seemed humiliating or silly. This lack of enthusiasm did lead to conflict, with the team leader calling out individuals for harassment during the exercises if they were not doing them well enough. People did fight back a bit, and still continued to do the exercises poorly even in the face of warnings from team leaders, but overall it was not a major site of conflict, unlike the speed up.

27

A major reason why people disliked the exercises was that they were absurd: they were not really designed to help us, but more designed to stop any legal action against the temp agency for things like repetitive strain injury, namely injuries to our wrists and fingers through repetitive clicking (which did happen to a few people just after a few months at the job), and sitting in our seats for too long, straining our eyesight and backs. The absurdity of the exercises here was that they were not designed to help our wrists, fingers and hands, or our backs, but instead were something out of a football exercise manual! The whole thing reminded me of being at school again in phys ed class, rather than specific ones for office work. They didn’t take actual health and safety seriously, and just reduced it to advice about not tripping over power cords and the like. Office work, while nowhere as dangerous as manual work, is a pain if you do it for years on end, and often leads to bad backs, RSI, poor eyesight, and the like. These injuries tend to be hidden but I reckon you ask most people who have worked in an office for 15 or 20 years they would have suffered from one of them.

shut-up-and-work-faster28

Onto the big speed up. At first, we are ahead of schedule. The work is easy. So most agree on the need to slow down, including some team leaders. Team leaders even devise ‘team games’ and give us half an hour off early in order to slow us down. But one young nerdy guy wants to push himself, and aims to do 3 times the set work rate. This leads to open arguments. ‘You’ll put us all out of work’ ‘if you work harder you will reduce our pay’ by getting the overall job done before time (if the job was completed a few weeks early, we will lose a couple of weeks pay). He ignores the arguments and says he wants a reference, it is only the second job he has had, and it is a step up from his previous job in the Warehouse – and he explicitly says he only cares about himself, and not others. These sorts of internal conflicts will come more to a head when the pressure is put on.

work-fast-scary-infographic29

A new manager is appointed, promoted from being a team leader. She claims that we are now actually behind on schedule. So she enforces a new mean regime based on a big speed up. Oh the irony, because when she was a team leader she was encouraging people to slow down. We are sternly told we are slacking off, talking too much, our ‘numbers are down’, and we come late back from breaks. Perhaps the real reasons behind the speed up are probably to get the work completed a few weeks before the temp agencies contract with the firm that wants the statistics is over, so the agency can save all that money and our pay; and also her head is now on the line. So new targets are enforced: 2500 forms to process per work group in an 8 hour shift, 250 per head. Targets are written up on a board, but thankfully only work team numbers are put up there, not our individual ‘outputs’ like in some call centres. People are pulled up for arriving to work or back from lunch just a minute or two minutes too late, and a crude regime of rewards for ‘person of the month’ in each ‘team’ is introduced. Yet when we began the job, we were indoctrinated into the need for ‘quality statistics’ and making sure we got things right. But now, as one workmate says to me, ‘it’s all about the numbers.’ So quality begins to drop off. It’s all about getting the work done fast; management doesn’t care about quality any more.

30

Some speed up – they tend to be the young and inexperienced individualistic types who are concerned about themselves (and their job reference), and not anyone else. Maybe they also want ‘to prove themselves’. A few are out to impress as they want to get promoted and become a team leader if a position becomes available. As well, many young people treat the data entry work like a video game, as if they have to dismiss problems as fast as possible, as if they as going for a high score, just like that nerdy guy. They looked wired and intense at work, like when they are playing. This is encouraged by team leaders, who constantly up their individual targets. (This is not to write off young people, who are often the most rebellious in the history of class struggle – in NZ the young workers who don’t have kids and mortgages and the like are often the ones with least to lose, and probably more likely to struggle – and I found quite a few young workers to be subversive, and willing to fight but just had little experience of how to do it in a very difficult climate, how to bring others on board and get people working together. For example, one young guy said to me ‘temp agencies are like cancer, they drive down wages and conditions’ but he did seem to know how to fight them.)

31

But others do not speed up – especially the older workers, who have a bit of work experience and know that if you increase your work speed, they will just keep increasing your targets, until you are worn out. Which is exactly what management did, of course. Many of the older workers say you can’t keep working fast all the time, as you will get burnt out. So they say ‘I will just do the same numbers I have always done’, reasoning you don’t get more pay for it. They find a comfortable level that they are happy with, and stick to it. But generally they just keep to themselves, and do not encourage the younger ones to slow down, maybe hoping they will learn through experience.

32

One older worker did attempt to get the fast, individualistic ones to go slower, and did get a few people in their particular work group on board, but the plan was upset by a fast young worker out to prove herself by going as fast as possible. So it is very difficult to get some collective action going. Obviously, some sort of informal collective go-slow, or at least limiting of the speed up, was needed.  The new manager is unpopular, and speed-up puts much pressure on some people.

We talk, on our way home, or on breaks, about how to reduce work intensity, how awful management is, how absurd the work is. The talk is refreshingly open and critical, compared to working in some jobs where you have to be very careful what you say and when you say it, because it could be reported to management. But does still lead to open resistance? A sort of everyday war over work intensity does occur. Yet, again, individual coping strategies were mainly used, and only a few collective slowdowns occurred between some small circles of work friends.

A big problem is that because the work is so boring, some work fast just as a means of coping with it: they need a fast numbing rhythm to get thru it, if they stop and think it makes things worse, so it seems to me a few welcomed the speed up. Myself, I have to admit I initially got swept along with the speed up like almost everybody, even though I didn’t want to speed up at all. You know it is wrong to speed up for all the reasons above, but somehow you think jeepers most people are speeding up here, and I don’t want to get in more trouble, so I will have to go quicker so my ‘output’ is not so low. But after a while, I realise this is silly, I can just set an easy pace and encourage others to do so now and then.

33

When the pressure was put on everyone to increase their targets, people find ways to increase our outputs without doing much work. Some ‘up their stats’ simply by short cutting their work, by not filing certain forms correctly, but it looks like on the system they have completed the problem. Also, people can send through many of our problems that take a long time to do on to a specialist work group that deals with problems that are ambiguous and hard to answer. While team leaders can monitor your individual output, they can’t tell exactly what you are doing with the individual problems, so this is possible. However, some (especially the more ‘nerdy’ ones who want to ‘up their stats’) do this to such an extent that they don’t do anything but the easiest of the problems, ones that take only 10 seconds or less to solve, and this creates resentment that they are not pulling their weight.

Management view of an office

Management view of an office

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Part of the speed up is to pick on workers who are working too slow, but again, this is applied unevenly as some team leaders just recognise that is the speed people are capable of. Some workers deemed too slow are dragged into meetings, and offered ‘training’ to work faster, with the threat if they don’t work faster warnings and the sack is around the corner). Yet still some slowbies resist. However, some workers again see the ‘slow’ workers as problems, bringing the team statistics down. There is a general lack of goodwill to everyone. That workplace reminded me of school in more ways than one.

35

Part of their divide and rule tactics that make resistance difficult is how they move people around from seat to seat in their work groups. They move people around every 3 weeks or so, so you have to sit at a different desk and get to know new people. This is particularly the case when they notice strong friendships develop between workers, and you talk too much to certain people. This is incredibly frustrating as it feels like you’ve just got to know the people sitting beside you. You can get around it a bit, by talking to your mates during the breaks and lunchtime, but still you need somewhere to natter away with on the job. Yet a good side of being moved around is that you are forced into nattering to the new people you sit beside after a while, I found, or else the boredom would set in. A few people remain quiet and I wonder how they do it.

36

The speed up does lead to morale starting to crack though, and many start to grumble. You get the feeling if we were pushed further, or another absurd twist to this job (being told it was all about quality but then told it’s all about working fast) a collective fight back would have occurred, and management would have had to pull back in some ways. If the job had maybe lasted for 6 months I think such a fight back would have occurred. It would have been messy and uneven, but many would have taken part.

37

Although we wield more power than we thought on the office floor, most workers didn’t realise it. The majority of the workers were very young (under 25) and inexperienced. For some, it was their first job. Probably a majority have university degrees, so have high expectations that they are going to get well-paid and somewhat stimulating jobs, so this is what is called ‘not a real job’ for them, just an ‘in between’ job before they supposedly get those well-paid and somewhat stimulating jobs (that mostly doesn’t happen, of course).

Overall, my impression was that few had experienced open workplace conflict, or collective struggle, or even unions for that matter. A lot are just shuffling around from temporary contract to temporary contract, so think that they will just put up with things if they get bad, because in a few months they will be working somewhere else (or on the dole queue). The workforce was multicultural – a majority were white, yet a substantial minority were Maori, Samoan, Cook Island, Tongan, Indian, and Japanese. A few are migrants from Britain, Zimbabwe and Eastern Europe. The workforce was also evenly divided between female and male workers.

People’s political views are diverse, ranging from right wing to far left. Most of the young workers don’t have firm politics, with some coming across as a bit nihilist. Yet this diversity did not create problems between workers, as most people got on pretty well. But in the short time we were there (the job lasted 4 or 5 months) it was difficult to build lasting communal bonds between all the workers (while of course a few solid cliques formed). This was especially difficult on the job with the management technique of moving people around all the time.

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Yet, at the same time, there were plenty of reasons for collective struggle. The work was intensely boring. Management were pretty shambolic and ad-hoc, we had no say in what was going on, but had the pretence of ‘consultation’ now and then. Overall management treated us like school kids: they thought we were dumb and thick, in constant need of being monitored, and constantly making mistakes. Just like school, the team leaders had a few ‘naughty girls and boys’ who they picked on, and used as examples to keep others in line.

One technique was to put the ‘naughty ones’ in ‘hot seats’ right next to the team leader who could directly look at their screens. Their work gets closely monitored and commented on. This is a familiar technique – it is common in many offices I’ve found, to put the worker deemed too rebellious in the most exposed place in the whole open office, so they can be seen and monitored (one guy who I met in another job said he was put right in the middle of an open office where his work behaviour was in the line of sight of three managers).

As well, team leaders take on board ‘teacher’s pets’ who have buttered up to the team leader and thus were considered angels no matter what they did. Thus they could get away with more. And the super fast workers who treated their jobs as a computer game were never disciplined for being inaccurate. Of course, this crude favouritism suits management perfectly, as it is a classic and tried and tested form of divide and rule (and I’ve found it in all the offices I’ve worked in, including ones where the workers have permanent jobs in the ‘public service’).

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Overall, it was the messy, contradictory tension between inexperience and a crude disciplinarian management (and behind it the dictates of capitalist exploitation, as management has to follow the dictates of capital) that created a messy, contradictory workplace, one in which there was lots of subversion, but little of it was collectively organised. I have written this to perhaps try to understand a wee bit why there are virtually no strikes in New Zealand today – despite there being falling real wages, widening inequality, restructuring due to the global recession, strange human resources management techniques being thrown on workers, and productivity speed-ups.

The answer is complex – a combination of capital having enormous power over workers (eg. through individual contracts and a constantly recycled precarious, temporary workforce), high unemployment, little job security, low expectations, widespread inexperience in successful class struggle for young workers and so on (as outlined above) all make it very, very difficult to struggle. Yet we shouldn’t write off all workers as compliant, individualistic and obsessed with gaming, facebook and the like, and then rabbit on about how the working class has disappeared/been restructured/decomposed, and how workers’ identity, culture and class consciousness has been lost, and then launch into some form of nostalgia about how great class conflicts were in the past, or mythologise some group like the NZ IWW, or argue what is really needed is ‘a fighting union’.

A lot of these critiques, while they contain many grains of truth, are based on critiques from afar, on abstract theories like for example the communisation current. I get the impression these theories are the product of a few intellectuals who look from the outside on workers, and often down on workers (although I agree there is a real need to re-assess working class politics today in the light of the ongoing and quite successful assault by capital since the 1970s).

It is not like I am an expert in all this, I am continually learning from my experiences (and those of others too) and making mistakes; I don’t claim to really know, or have greater insight or experiences, than the vast majority of other working class people. Or that I think, in a moralistic way, that people must take jobs in offices or factories or whatever. But I do think there is a need for politics to be based on the actual everyday conditions we experience, and the messy contradictions of them – ie. for politics not be based on gazing or condemning from afar, but on the actual, real conditions people face today.

And part of that dealing with current conditions is to find out how modern office work actual works, and how working with temp agencies in temp jobs works, and how these modern forms of capital are actually an area where the contradictions of capital still exist, rather than assuming capital has completely won, dismissing all office or temp agency workers as having no potential for class struggle, and lamenting the decline of the traditional blue-collar work and identity and so on.

I once wrote: “Strategy is more effective in the long term if it is the product of workers’ direct experience and struggles. That is, a well-thought out strategy just builds upon the actual strategies used by workers on the shop floor, except in a more clear, systematic and coherent way. If strategies are not a product of workers’ direct experience or actual struggles, then they are likely to become either artificial and lacking any support (eg. setting up ‘pure’ anarcho-syndicalist unions) or lead to a top-down approach where workers are manipulated by a few bureaucrats, organisers, delegates or politicos.”

To that we can add abstract theory which claims to have a grip on the actual conditions we face under capital today.

Further reading:

A nightmare in whiteware: the teamwork system, exploitation and alienation

The real working life of a chef: a view from the inside

Bending over backwards: NZ’s temp economy and capital’s growing need for ‘flexible’ labour

Information technology and the rise of NZ’s modern servant class

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Comments
  1. Paul says:

    After struggling to find work for many months I took a position as a data-entry temp for a government department until I was terminated. I sympathize with anyone subjected to this dehumanizing activity. I worked in a section with one other temp and 10 or so permanents. My desk faced directly opposite the manager, and I found it difficult to speak freely to the other temp even around permanent staff. It was difficult to identify let alone meet other temps outside my section, though I’m sure there were many, possibly hundreds. There was no network or group for them to discuss or oppose either the mysterious workings of the temp agency or the organization into which we’d been placed. The author of the article above gives many good reasons explaining for this.

    While “working” after hours when everyone had gone home I would browse the internet, read and sometimes print radical political materials. I became very paranoid one evening after the printer jammed while printing an insurrectionary anarchist journal, which I could not retrieve from the machine. Eventually an eager new manager pinged me for multiple discrepancies between my electronic card sign-in and my written-out time-sheets. I was called into a surprise meeting where she and two reps from the temp agency “agreed” to terminate my contract. Asked to pack my things and leave immediately, I did so without telling anyone except a temp I vaguely knew from another department via email (no doubt also monitored). I was genuinely shocked and upset at that meeting, in fact to be embarrassingly honest, I was in tears. Not from the loss of this job that disgusted me, but I think, in retrospect, because it had so nakedly exposed my utter impotence and isolation.

    The author criticizes abstract theories that dismiss radical potential of temp workers, but I’m afraid I don’t find his/her equally abstract point about capital’s contradictory nature a very convincing alternative.