Office work diary part three: the incredible absurdity of positivity, and the messiness of the speed up

•12/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

battle-vs-office boredoe

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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 automations 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.

Work

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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.

scary positivity in the office

scary positivity in the office

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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.

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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-faster

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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 sort of internal conflicts will come more to a head when the pressure is put on.

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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 begun 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.

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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.)

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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.

work-fast-scary-infographic

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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 slow downs 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.

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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.

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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.

panopticon

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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.

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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.

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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 is 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. Peoples 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.

Management view of an office

Management view of an office

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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 3 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.

Office work diary part two. Work: rhythm, repetition, resistance

•03/08/2013 • Leave a Comment

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I 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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Office work diary part one: Swipe in, login, begin…

•17/06/2013 • Leave a Comment
A fairly typical open office, not our workplace, but vaguely similar.

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

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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 neverending 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 to 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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

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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.

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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 surveillence.

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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.

General strike in Auckland (1913), Bert Roth

•29/03/2013 • 1 Comment
Strikers and supporters march in Auckland, Nov 1913, in the vicinity of the gasometer, college hill and victoria street

Strikers and supporters march in Auckland, Nov 1913, in the vicinity of the gasometer, college hill and victoria street

It’s 100 years since an attempted general strike in New Zealand, so here’s an article from Bert Roth on the pinnacle of that dispute, the Auckland general strike of 1913. I don’t agree with everything he says, but Roth’s history is the best short overview of the events I have come across. Some more online material on the events in 1913 can be found on the Red Ruffians website, Frank Prebble’s pamphlet Troublemakers, Tom Barker’s memoirs, as well as no doubt many other sources. And Don Franks of Redline has written an article about the relevance of the strike to today.

H. [Bert] Roth. ‘General Strike in Auckland’ Here and Now, November 1956, pp. 15-17

In the third week of October 1913, Huntly miners and Wellington watersiders ceased work. Their action precipitated what was to be the most serious industrial dispute in New Zealand history, not to be eclipsed in magnitude until 1951.

Various theories were advanced as to the causes of the strike. According to the Prime Minister, foreigners were responsible. ‘If we had to deal with New Zealanders on both sides of the dispute there would have been no difficulty at all,’ said Mr Massey, himself an Ulsterman.

There is more serious evidence to suggest that the employers were anxious to provoke a dispute at a time favourable to themselves. It is equally clear that the watersiders, at least, were only too eager to take up the challenge and allowed themselves to be baited into a premature walk-out. The rashness of the corporal’s guard, to quote one labour leader, was to involve the whole army in a fight for which it was not prepared.

For a week the strike remained confined to Wellington and Huntly. Talks with the shipowners brought no results, but attempts to unload ships with voluntary labour were frustrated by the strikers. On 26 October, the first violent incidents were reported from Wellington, and the Auckland watersiders sent their president down to see what the position was. He was told that no settlement was in sight and on his own initiative he instructed his union to ‘let her rip’. Westport watersiders, also, spontaneously ceased work and, a day later, the United Federation of Labour called out the remaining waterfront unions.

In Wellington, riots and violence became almost continuous. ‘So far as the employers are concerned,’ reported the Wellington correspondent of the Otago Daily Times, ‘it is now war to the knife’; and Police Commissioner Cullen was said to have told his men: ‘If they won’t go, ride over the top of them’.

Auckland, however, remained quiet. In charge of the local police was Superintendent Mitchell who, a year earlier, had refused to take action against the Huntly strikers and who was suspected of having given at least tacit encouragement to the policemen’s trade union formed in Auckland earlier in 1913. Mitchell now refused to swear in special constables, and he promised that union pickets would not be interfered with as long as order was maintained.

This did not suit the employers who wanted to open the port. The Mayor and the chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board complained and the Government quickly replaced Mitchell (he was soon dismissed altogether). On 5 November the first mounted ‘specials’ — ‘Massey’s Cossacks’, as they were called — arrived in Auckland from the Waikato. They were stoned while riding through Epsom, and two days later 250 building workers on the Exhibition site ceased work because a ‘special’ had come near them in search of grass for his horse.

Vain Appeals to Employers

Massey's Cossacks or 'mounted specials' camped in the Auckland Domain 1913

Massey’s Cossacks or ‘mounted specials’ camped in the Auckland Domain 1913

The situation in Auckland quickly became explosive. Auckland workers had first hand knowledge of the violence which had marked the Waihi strike a year earlier. They had seen the strike leaders taken to Mt Eden gaol and, indeed, given rousing receptions to each batch of prisoners and had held mass meetings outside the prison gates. After the defeat of the Waihi strike, hundreds of miners who had been run out of town by the arbitrationists had come to live and work in Auckland and some of them already held leading office in Auckland trade unions.

Auckland workers did not want to see their town become another Waihi, and when the Waikato farmers set up camp in the Domain, the Strike Committee warned that a general strike would follow attempts to occupy the wharves and work the port. Several leading citizens, among them Messrs T. W. Leys, Ernest Davis, A. Sanford, Colonel Bell and Bishop Cleary, urged the Employers’ Association to take a conciliatory attitude, but all appeals were in vain.

Meeting at the Chamber of Commerce, a number of farmer volunteers secretly formed an arbitration wharf union. On 8 November, 800 specials, armed with revolvers, hardwood batons, and axe-handles, occupied the wharves and raided the offices of the watersiders’ union in Gladstone Buildings where they tore down a placard reading ‘Workers of the World Unite! One Big Union!’ That same day a general strike began in Auckland, the first in New Zealand history.

Seamen and general labourers ceased work, as did carpenters, drivers, bricklayers, Harbour Board employees, shipwrights, tinsmiths and cooks and waiters. They were soon joined by timber workers and painters, furniture workers, brewery workers, and engine-drivers. Even jockeys and newspaper runners joined in, reported the Maoriland Worker.

Altogether, over 7000 men ceased work and thousands of others were rendered idle by the strike. The tram service, for instance, was suspended for lack of coal a day before the strike started, but the tramwaymen considered themselves on strike and were represented on the Strike Committee. The ‘strike fever’ positively embarrassed the committee, who would have preferred to see some unions remain at work and support the strike financially.

Restaurants and tea-rooms closed and hotel guests had to cook their own meals. Bars were closed by order of the magistrates for the duration of the strike. Hairdressers, bakers, and blacksmiths refused to serve the specials and paid a levy to the strike funds, and midwives, it was reported, offered to attend strikers’ wives without pay. Taxi drivers refused to carry specials and were called before the City Council and threatened with cancellation of their licenses.

Hardly any of the striking unions had any previous connection with the United Federation of Labour which conducted the strike. Some of the Auckland unions were still affiliated to the right-wing United Labour Party. The president of the Auckland District Council of this organisation was the Hon. George Fowlds, a wealthy draper. Far from leading his men into battle, Fowlds’ main concern at this crucial moment was for the safety of his business. ‘Some of the more criminal and extreme elements might want to take it out of me’, he wrote to a friend in Britain and he was not at ease until his friend had arranged for special fire and riot insurance policies.

On 10 November, several hundred strikers’ wives and children marched from the Trades Hall through Queen Street behind a banner ‘We Have Come to See the Cockies.’ The ‘cockies’ were concentrated on the waterfront where they had cordoned off lower Queen Street. It was not a place to take the children, for a variety of reasons. ‘An objectionable feature of the arrangements within the lines of horses’, reported the Auckland Star, ‘is that no provision has been made to clean up the roadway. The condition this forenoon was little short of disgraceful. The prevalent odour was distinctly unpleasant, and over a wide area of the thoroughfare where the hundreds of horses have been tethered or in service there were accumulations calculated to set up any kind of fever.’

The success of the Auckland strike encouraged the United Federation of Labour to call for a general strike throughout New Zealand ‘in order to preserve unionism against blackleggism’. The response was negligible and the Government at once retaliated by arresting the strike leaders, Young, Semple, H. E. Holland and Fraser, and in Auckland, Tom Barker, the young I.W.W. leader, who was arrested outside the Trades Hall where he had just finished selling 700 copies of his Industrial Unionist, ‘the most revolutionary paper south of the line’.

The Rot Sets In

Massey's cossacks lined up outside the Kauri TImber Company, Freeman's Bay, Auckland, 1913

Massey’s cossacks lined up outside the Kauri TImber Company, Freeman’s Bay, Auckland, 1913

For a week the general strike in Auckland remained solid. Business was at a standstill and three hundred Auckland shopkeepers signed an appeal to Members of Parliament asking the Government to bring pressure to bear on the Employers’ Federation and ‘not to allow their stubbornness to ruin our trade’. More than 7000 strikers attended a mass meeting in Victoria Park and a representative citizens’ meeting urged a peaceful solution of the conflict. Mounted specials deliberately rode along Hobson Street, past the crowds in front of the Trades Hall, but attempts to provoke incidents failed and the regular police quickly restored order.

The City Council employees were the first to return to work, followed by building and hotel workers. After the first enthusiastic week there was a revulsion of feeling, and each day more and more strikers resumed work. Some were threatened with loss of employment through the formation of rival arbitration unions, while others were lured by promises of higher pay.

The carpenters, one of whose members, Tom Bloodworth, was chairman of the Central Strike Committee, were faced with the arrival from Wellington of their national secretary who declared the strike illegal and threatened strikers with loss of union benefits. He was deeply shocked by what he saw in the Auckland office of the society. ‘The Strike Committee composed of our members turned the District Council, the organiser and lady collector out of the Society’s office’, he reported on his return to Wellington, ‘and took full possession themselves. They actually buried the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, and the chairman of the Strike Committee sealed it by writing across the pages of our general rule book “R.I.P.” in large letters, and the Committee framed the rules, hung them on the wall, and draped them in black. Such diabolical work shows clearly that these members are not fit to belong to such a glorious and respectable organisation as the Amalgamated.’

On 21 November, the timber mills reopened with adequate staff. Eight hundred carpenters had by now resumed work and the painters announced that they would return. By the end of the second week, half the strikers had resumed work. The Central Strike Committee saw no alternative to calling off the general strike and on 23 November it advised all unions to return to work on the following day, Monday, with the exception only of the transport union — watersiders, seamen and drivers. Some unions, notably the bricklayers and general labourers, decided to continue the strike but otherwise the orders of the committee were obeyed. The general strike in Auckland came to an end.

The British warship Pyramus, which had been kept in Auckland, its searchlight trained on Queen Street while its crew drilled on the wharves with fixed bayonets in full view of the strikers, was now transferred to Lyttelton where the specials were waiting to occupy the wharves. On leaving Auckland the captain of the Pyramus thanked the specials, telling them that ‘Deeds like this help one to realise the cause of the greatness of the British Empire’. When Mr Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was later asked in the House of Commons why the British Government had departed from traditional policy by letting the Navy be used in an industrial dispute, he replied that this action had been taken at the express wish of the New Zealand Government.

On 25 November the trams resumed and next day the hotels reopened. The following day there were riots in Auckland and thirty-eight men were arrested. Arbitration unions were formed for drivers and seamen, and on 4 December the scratch crew of the Maheno, largely farmer volunteers, assaulted C. T. Reeve, a prominent member of the Auckland I.W.W., who was about to embark for Sydney.

In the presence of detectives who had come to search his luggage Reeve was attacked, dragged off the ship and prevented from sailing. Policemen on the wharf, reported the Otago Daily Times, ‘made as if to interfere’ but did not. Charges of assault arising out of this incident were dismissed because the culprits could not be found, but a Sydney crowd took revenge on the Maheno’s crew with the result that one of them bad to be taken to hospital.

Causes of Defeat

Although the general strike in Auckland had lasted only a fortnight, the waterfront strike continued for almost another month. The Auckland watersiders held out to the bitter end, and they refused to surrender even after the seamen had come to a separate agreement with the employers. On 19 December, when a special conference officially called off the strike, Canham, the president of the Auckland watersiders, was one of the minority of four who voted against surrender.

As in 1890, the employers had insisted on total annihilation of their opponents, but in 1913 they needed the full help of the State to carry them to victory. Even then it took fifty-eight days (two days longer than in 1890) and a total cost of nearly a million sterling to break the power of the ‘Red’ Federation. Major causes of the defeat were the defection of the railwaymen and the meagre assistance received from Australia, as well as the lack of resolution shown by the Federation leadership.

‘Now they return to work’, wrote a correspondent in the New Statesman, ‘thousands of missionaries of discontent; sullen, knocked about, gaoled, but each a ferment, each a nucleus of disaffection against the existing social system and each a pioneer towards better things.’

During the months which followed the strike great efforts were made to rebuild the movement. One by one the bogus arbitration unions collapsed or were taken over by the strikers, and soon only the Auckland and Greymouth wharf unions remained closed to genuine unionists.

At first, very few Auckland strikers were able to find work again on the wharves. Prospective members of the new arbitration union had to undergo a rigid cross-examination and known Federationists were automatically excluded. Some of the more notorious ‘Red Feds’ were forced to go gum-digging in the Far North, where they put to good use a quantity of gelignite sticks which had been stolen during the strike and had caused the police much needless concern.

It took more than two years of bitter struggle before the Auckland wharf union opened its doors to the strikers. ‘For six solid months I worked on the wharves’, wrote a former Wellington striker who had joined the Auckland union under an assumed name. ‘I was silent — one had to be in those days, but I learned many things. There were three hundred men outside the gates who could not come inside to look for a job. If they did, they were liable to prosecution. To be seen making friends with those honest strikers meant a “freeze”, but we made friends on the quiet. We organised us best we could to capture the union for the genuine Labour Movement.’

Early in 1916, these efforts at last bore fruit. In quick succession the Auckland wharf union took three important decisions: to open wide its doors to all who wanted to join, to suspend its arbitrationist president, and to join the new Waterside Workers’ Federation which had been organised in Wellington on the initiative of Jim Roberts.

Boredom at the office

•24/02/2013 • Leave a Comment

bored-guy-at-work-office

A 1973 leaflet from the Brisbane Self-Management Group. An oldie, but some of it still relevant today. I intend to comment on office work and whether self-management is the key to subverting it later.

BOREDOM AT THE OFFICE

“It’s nine o’clock. Once again I’m at my utterly boring, monotonous job. My eyes wander to the grey-haired man near me. This office has drained thirty precious years of his life. I can expect the same.”

It should be obvious that white-collar workers spend most of their time avoiding work. A quick look around the office shows people actively doing as little as possible – reading books under the desks, talking to others, or taking long, slow trips to the toilet. It seems universally true that office workers have little interest in their jobs. They spend almost the entire day dreaming of life outside the office. They try to overcome the reality of the situation by rationalising it or slipping into fanciful escapisms.

FOUR VARIATIONS ON HOW TO GRUDGINGLY ACCEPT DRUDGERY OF OFFICE WORK

1) WORK IS A NECESSARY EVIL. One common reaction to boring and meaningless activity is to assume that work in itself is the basic fault and should be avoided. People accept that watching T.V. or drinking beer at the local are the only alternatives to the oppressive work environment. However, ‘Revolution Seven and ‘XXXX’ and eight hours of boredom do not add up to a joyous and fulfilling existence. Man has a basic need to work – to engage in creative and productive activity – activity over which he has control.

2) IT’S ONLY FOR EIGHT HOURS A DAY. Many think they only have to worry about it all between eight and five. But work has a dominating influence on peoples lives. People attempt to cement their superficial relationships. Their relationships are superficial because their work does not carry the weight of people initiating and controlling their own activity. Work is trivial and pre-determined. There is no creative co-operation from which trust could be built. People try to compensate for this lack of solidarity by building group identity and using meaningless differences like colour to define another group as separate and inferior. Because people feel powerless to change their situation, they are full of resentment, and they hurl it around blaming or scape-goating an identifiable group. Only by having a positive alternative to submission at work will workers abandon their racism. Moreover, because attempts to change their situation are frustrated, workers believe they cannot run their own lives. They either identify with a leader in an effort to feel potent through him, or vie for leadership positions to exercise power over others. In the family, they hold authority over wife and children for these same reasons. Where love, equality, co-operation and trust should prevail, i.e. both at home and at work, indeed anywhere people gather socially, there is instead irrational authority, clearly expressed at work and more subtly carried over into the home and other institutions in society.

3) IT COULD BE WORSE – I MIGHT BE DIGGING ROADS. Office jobs and industrial work have one thing in common – the utter drudgery. A person who has to dig roads and trenches shares the same continual feeling of hopelessness that office workers experience in their jobs. At least such labourers have plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Considering the layout of most offices, they bear close resemblance to a prison, and exhibit great lack of regard for people who must use them. Almost nothing is as hideous as the thought of spending thirty or forty years in such an office.

4) IT STINKS BUT DONT TELL ME – TELL THE BOSS OR THE UNION. Because people dont initiate work (office work does not flow from the needs or impulses of workers) nor control work, they feel alienated from the content of their work and powerless to alter the form of work. This leads to a belief in their own inability to change their situation and a belief in leaders (bosses and unions) to change it for them. But bosses and unions cannot alter things to suit people’s needs; they dont even know what such needs are. The re-organisation of work and all aspects of life and society can only be accomplished by the activity of workers trying collectively and equally to determine the best way of satisfying their needs. The means of carrying out this task is workers’ management of production, organised as workers’ councils on shop-floors, in offices, in factories and throughout whole industries and all society.

WHAT IS WORKERS’ MANAGEMENT?

Workers’ management does not mean that individuals of working class origin are appointed to replace today’s managers. It means that industry is managed by the collectivity of the workers, employees and technicians. Affairs affecting the shop or the department are decided by the assemblies of workers of the particular shop or department concerned. Routine or emergency problems are handled by stewards, elected and subject to instant recall. Co-ordination between two or more shops or departments is ensured by meetings of stewards or by common assemblies. Co-ordination for the factory and relations with the rest of the economy are tasks for the Workers’ Councils, composed of elected and revocable delegates from the various departments. Fundamental issues are decided in general assemblies, comprising all workers in a factory.

Workers’ management will mark the end of labour’s domination over man, and the beginning of man’s domination over his labour. Each enterprise will be autonomous to the greatest possible degree, itself deciding all aspects of production and work which do not affect the rest of the economy, and participating in decisions which concern the overall organization of production and social life. The general objectives of production will be decided by the whole working population. The chosen plan will ascribe to each enterprise the tasks to be accomplished in a given period, and the means will be supplied to them for this end. But within this general framework, workers of each enterprise will have to organize their own work. A study of the demands of workers and their informal struggles indicates the lines along which the reorganization of production will develop. Externally imposed standards of work will be abolished, co-ordination of work will take place through direct contacts and co-operation; the rigid division of labour will start being eliminated through rotation of people between departments and between jobs.

There will be direct contact between machine and tool-using departments and machine or tool-making departments and factories. This will result in a change in the workers’ relation to the instruments of production. The main objective of today’s equipment is to raise production through the subordination of man to machine. When the workers themselves manage production, they will start adapting equipment not only to the needs of the work to be done but mainly to their own needs.

By the conscious transformation of technology, man will become master of his productive activity. Work will cease to be the realm of necessity. It will become a field where man exerts his creative power. Present science and technique offer immense possibilities in this area. Of course, such a transformation will not take place overnight, but it must not be seen as lying in the very distant future. These matters will not take care of themselves, but must be fought for as soon as the working class takes power. This will be the start of socialism.

No more bosses and bureaucrats – let the workers rule.

SELF-MANAGEMENT GROUP – FOR A SOCIETY BASED ON WORKERS’ COUNCILS.

N.B. Contact with S.M.G. is through the Red and Black bookshop, shops 21 and 22, Elizabeth Arcade, Elizabeth St., City.

4th May 1973.

Hobbit Hysteria

•13/01/2013 • 3 Comments

[This is an article I wrote for the latest issue of Mutiny (no. 68), an Australian magazine. Thanks to the editors for publishing it.]

Fans hold up Hobbit signs at world premiere in Wellington

The recent release of the first film of The Hobbit trilogy has created an alarming hullabaloo in New Zealand. Happily, we were out of the country when Hobbit fever hit, but, drat it, we didn’t manage to escape it on our return a few weeks later. After getting on the plane, Air New Zealand showed a smug safety video based on the Hobbit. As we left the plane at Wellington airport, we were greeted by a garish, grotesque Hobbit mural down the sides of the airbridge. Arriving in the terminal, a 12 metre sculpture of Gollum menaced us from the roof. Even the top of the conveyer belt at baggage claim was decorated with scenes from Hobbiton.

wellington airport

middle-earth-baggage-services-003

On the bus home, we passed by a giant Gandalf statue protruding from the theatre where the world premiere of the Hobbit was held a few weeks earlier. Possibly about 100,000 people had lined Courtenay Place for the premiere. This was an extraordinary number, as Wellington only has a population of about 400,000. Both ‘public’ and commercial organisations had gone to extraordinary lengths to offer free advertising for the film. The Wellington City Council – currently imposing austerity cuts – forked out over a million dollars to host the premiere, and to launch a campaign that proclaimed Wellington was ‘the middle of middle earth’ (they even put up banners on streets proclaiming so). An Air New Zealand plane emblazoned with Hobbit advertising performed a low fly-by during the premiere. New Zealand Post issued hobbit stamps, stamped mail destined for overseas with ‘middle earth’ instead of ‘New Zealand’, and even issued Gandalf and Bilbo coins which apparently are legal tender. The list goes on …

Hobbit-Stamps

hobbit coin

It was like we were either having a bad surreal dream, or had entered some tacky tinpot tourist dystopia which had been clumsily and smugly rebranded as Middle Earth (as Tourism New Zealand has actually done – their cringeworthy slogan is that New Zealand is ‘100% Middle Earth, 100% pure New Zealand’ and that the ‘fantasy of Middle Earth is the reality of New Zealand’) In this short piece, I will briefly look at a few events Australians and others outside New Zealand might be unaware of, especially the ugly and tragic saga of the making of the Hobbit.

tourism-new-zealand-lost-world

tourism-new-zealand-hobbiton-2

Epic Pooh
In the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien – a conservative and a Catholic — offers an idealised, romanticised picture of rural, pre-industrial England (namely, The Shire and the Hobbits) where content little hobbits could live happily ever after. Yet, their peaceful little patch of earth is being threatened by the rise of mysterious forces and creatures from the east. One sturdy and reserved little hobbit is reluctantly drawn into a quest with a wizard and some swarthy dwarves and their dwarf king (in the film, the dwarves are portrayed as Scottish and Irish) to wage a glorious reign of death on the inherently evil, wicked creatures of the east.

(As an aside, many other interpretations of the Hobbit can be offered. For example, it’s remarkable that only one woman appeared in the whole film, and she, Cate Blanchett as elf queen Galadriel, is bizarrely portrayed as glowing and ethereal. Michael Moorcock once slated Tolkien’s work as ‘epic pooh’, that is, it is ‘Winnie the Pooh posing as an epic’. China Mieville cuttingly wrote ‘Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature… there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity.’ Perhaps my favourite interpretation comes from Ishay Landa who argued in Historical Materialism that Middle Earth is Tolkien’s alarmist response to ‘the crisis of capitalist property relations at the beginning of the twentieth century culminating in the First World War’ and the Russian revolution. He sees the goblins/orcs as proles who embody ‘Tolkien’s underlying terror at the prospect of revolution’. As John Molyneux has written, this reading seems ‘forced and unconvincing’ but nonetheless it is somewhat intriguing.)

The Battle of the Hobbit
In Tolkien’s fantasy world, there is no class struggle. Unfortunately for Tolkien, Hollywood, Warner Brothers (the financiers of the film), and ‘Sir’ Peter Jackson, such conflict actually exists. It raised its ugly head during the making of the film, even delaying its production for a month or so.

slane cartoon

The saga commenced in late 2010, before the Hobbit had gone into production. Warner Brothers offered contracts to New Zealand actors for working on the Hobbit which undercut many previous industry wide conditions, and did not offer the same benefits as actors outside New Zealand. The NZ Actors’ union, NZ Actors’ Equity, an autonomous union which is part of the broader Australasian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), then attempted to enter negotiations about these contracts, with the aim of attempting to secure a collectively bargained employment agreement, and to win some of the cut back conditions. After Warners refused to talk, the actors union passed a resolution calling on all actors part of the International Federation of Actors to ‘wait before accepting any engagement on the production of The Hobbit until the production has advised whether it will enter into good faith negotiations with NZ Actors’ Equity with respect to the minimum conditions of engagement under which NZ Actors’ Equity will recommend performers work on the production The Hobbit’ (see Kelly).

weta workshop organised anti union protest 2

The response from the film industry was astounding. Accusations flew, emotional pleas were made by Jackson in the media worthy of someone who feared losing his precious, threats were made that the film would not be made in New Zealand (ie. capital flight), public slating of actors who spoke out occurred, as well as a disturbing wave of nationalism. The low point was a couple of anti-union ‘save the Hobbit’ marches in Wellington by hundreds and hundreds of film technicians (drummed up and supported by the owner of Weta Workshops, ‘Sir’ Richard Taylor – Weta workshops are the special effects and prop company for Jackson’s films), in which protesters held signs such as ‘film actors are killing our industry’. The techies even besieged an Actors’ Equity meeting, which was cancelled as a result. Some fans posted photos on the internet that they would ‘work for food’ on the Hobbit.

hobbit work-for-food

weta workshop anti union protestHobbit2

The result was that Actors’ Equity lifted their international blacking [or greylisting] of the film, and the film went ahead and was shot. What’s worse is that the NZ government, in a classic example of how the state is a fundamental support for capital accumulation (and vice versa), made sure that filming the Hobbit in New Zealand was retained after offering Warners a massive multi-million dollar subsidy, new employment legislation that odiously ensures all film workers are permanently ‘self-employed’ contractors rather than employees (thus individualising film workers, stopping them from collective bargaining, making collective organising difficult, and cutting workers out of holidays, sick days, and accident compensation), and enacting various legislation to enclose the digital commons and stop downloading of copyrighted material.

save the hobbit rally

Despite the overwhelming defeat of the actors, a few minor positive things resulted. For example, the dispute has led to a general questioning of the extremity of the NZ government’s actions, many have become sick of the tacky commodification surrounding the Hobbit, and the hero worship of Peter Jackson has taken a big dint.

save the hobbit rally labour day

What does this all mean? In many respects, it’s not so shocking or sickening, as I have portrayed above. The battle of the Hobbit illustrates the enormous power of the spectacle, which is still an integral part of modern capitalism. Further, it’s standard Hollywood practice internationally to twist governments’ arms to secure subsidies, and reduce working conditions. And the film industry is notorious internationally for being based on the hyper-exploitation of a precarious and often low-paid workforce who work extremely long hours for intense spells, and then are out of work for long periods. It’s sad but not surprising that during an international depression, and in New Zealand at least a very low level of class struggle and solidarity, that many unemployed film techies were desperate for jobs, and many (but not all) went out and actively hobbled the actors’ dispute. And it shows the difficulties of a small bunch of 600 actors taking on a mobile and massively capital intensive industry. However, there is plenty of scope for criticism of the role of unions, too: their overestimation of their power, their lack of attempts to build solidarity with film technicians, and their apparent belief that only an effective PR campaign is needed to win a struggle rather than grassroots activity and self-organisation. Overall, it is fitting that a brutal fantasy which (unsurprisingly) upholds the status quo ended up, by suppressing a nascent actor’s revolt, doing the same thing in reality.

Rolling out the red carpet

Rolling out the red carpet

References
Helen Kelly (2011), ‘The Hobbit Dispute’ http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1104/S00081/helen-kelly-the-hobbit-dispute.htm
Ishay Landa (2002) ‘Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien’s Political Unconscious’, Historical Materialism number 10 volume 4, pp. 113-33.
Michael Moorcock (1978) ‘Epic Pooh’, http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953
John Molyneux (2011) ‘Tolkien’s world: A Marxist analysis’ http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.co.nz/2011/09/tolkiens-world-marxist-analysis.html

Further reading (not included in published article)

There is a fair bit written on the Hobbit and J.R.R. Tolkien from a leftist point of view.

If you are lucky enough to have access to academic databases, these articles are worth checking out:

The 2002 (volume 10, no 4) issue of Historical Materialism contains a few articles analysing the Tolkien from a Marxist point of view.

Ian McAndrew and Martin Risak, ‘Shakedown in the Shaky Isles: Union Bashing in New Zealand’, Labor Studies Journal, vol 20 no 10, 2012, pp. 1-25 contains a very good overview of the dispute, and is quite critical of the union’s strategy.

Bryce Edwards – Liberation blog – ‘We are not for the Hobbit workers, and we are not against them’ (on the Labour Party and the Hobbits)

Carol Jess – Equal Times – The Hobbit vs The Unions

NZ Against the Current blog – That’s all folks!

Bat, Bean, Beam – Leaving Middle Earth

Joe Karaganis – Kill the Hobbit subsidies to save regular earth

The Anatomy of Decision and other completely related things

•21/12/2012 • 1 Comment

Turning away from the deathly dull world of politics, here are some important facts:

samuel and andre

  1. Did you know Samuel Beckett, the author of immortal lines such as ‘the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new’ (itself a play upon the bible, of all things) played two first-class cricket games for Dublin University in 1925 and 1926? His top score was just 18, but he possessed a ‘gritty defence’.
  2. Did you know Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant, of wrestling fame, to school everyday in France? Yes, that Andre the Giant, 7 foot plus tall and couldn’t really wrestle or speak English too well (I could never really understand what he said during those melodramatic interviews, but he possessed a wicked grin). Beckett knew Andre’s father, who helped him build his cottage, and so to repay the gift Beckett drove an already oversized Andre to school everyday in his truck – it was one of the few vehicles that Andre could fit in. And, of course, the main subject they talked about was cricket.
  3. Did you know that the largest shopping mall in the world is in Dongguan, China, and has the potential to hold 2350 shops! Wowee! I must visit sometime. Even better, 99% of the shops are vacant! Must be the coolest shopping mall in the world, though I bet they don’t do exciting things like play cricket or watch terrible wrestling matches in that mall. south china shopping mall
  4. On a completely related topic, has anyone noticed that Gangnam Style is in a fact a poor quality, poppy remake of a much better, weirder and groovier 2003 song from Benny Benassi called satisfaction? Have a listen. The riffs are almost exactly the same, and all PSY has done has added in a few bridges and some lyrics. No talk of great subjects like cricket, shopping malls, Beckett and Andre the Giant in the lyrics, just some gentle. ironic satire for the consumption of the Korean and now global spectacle (and added in a funny dance to sell more records and make more profits, kerchinggg…). As this article says, PSY is no anti-capitalist making fun of the lifestyles of the filthy rich, but is actually from the wealthy, ostentatious suburb of Gangnam, and partakes in its nightlife and scene. I’m all for plagiarism (it’s all very communist, you see) – indeed, it is great that the song has itself become globally spoofed numerous times (including one by Shirley Boys High making fun of the attempt by the govt to merge their school with a horrible elite school in Christchurch, just to rub salt into the wounds the quakes have caused in Christchurch) but it is funny how most music is dead, re-packaged, re-modelled stuff from the past. Even a pop indie band like Metric ironically produced dead music to comment that today’s music is dead. It is like ‘post-modern’ irony, man. It is also like the spectacle is consuming and feeding from itself. (Yes this is a blatant attempt at populism on this blog, in the hope irate supporters of the PSY spectacle turn up here.)

gangnam

Now for something completely different…

Here is a pamphlet written in 1974 by Steve Taylor of the Revolutionary Committee of the Communist Party of New Zealand (Expelled) called anatomy of decision. Fantastically silly name for a group! They were expelled from the CPNZ for opposing the Maoist CPNZ’s support for elections, parliament, and how the CPNZ did not allow dissent/freedom. They then became councilists, influenced by the British Solidarity group, but you can still trace elements of Maoism in their thinking (and this pamphlet).

The exciting cover of Anatomy of Decision

The exciting cover of Anatomy of Decision

The pamphlet is a careful (if a little mechanistic) analysis of the decision-making process. I have been unable to scan it – for some reason old gestetnered pamphlets from the 1970s do not process well in OCR text recognition programmes, so here is the contents list for those who are interested in delving in it.

Contents.

Chapter One. Political Background.

Sub-headings: Start with the axioms; China and the USSR; Lenin on the Party

Chapter Two: Decision, The Gate between Ideas and Action.

The fundamental nature of decision; Decision in the context of social life

Chapter Three: On the Question of Votes and Voting.

Study of the vote as a thing ‘in itself'; How political decisions can be made; the statement of the problem; ideology

Chapter Four: Categories of Decision.

Politics compared with blood circulation; from the simple to the complex; decision by appointed leader; a study of the policy vote or majority decision; a group of twenty-one; the fetish of property

Chapter Five: The Anatomy of Socialism.
Chapter Six. The Parliamentary Elective Vote and How Its Socialist Counterpart Could Compare.

The Elective Vote under capitalism; In Summary and Comment; Definitions.

—-

You can see how Taylor placed a lot of importance on critiquing Leninist parliamentarism and participation in elections. It is good that Taylor thoughtfully supports bringing women into the centre stage of socialism, rejects Leninism and parliament, and supports voting (rather than fetishising consensus decision-making) and freedom of thought and organisation.

But I guess he fell into the trap a lot of councilists did – that is, he fetishised the direct democratic decision-making process itself over the content of communism. I guess he was trying to avoid the big thing they were reacting against: Leninism, whether in its Stalinist, Maoist or Trotskyist varieties. They were trying to get away from what they called bureaucratic capitalism, and instead have workers decide things for themselves through workers’ councils. But, of course, when you fetishise and idealise a perfect process — whatever that process is, whether it be consensus decision-making or mass discussion and voting in mass assemblies — you tend to overlook content (or at least be very murky on it, as you can see in Taylor’s chapter on the content of socialism, which simply says socialism is self-organisation, and freedom of thought and assembly and the ability to make decisions freely. I’d agree, but we need to go beyond that… ).

That is, you can have the best process in the world, but the content of your politics can still lack concrete substance and sometimes be unprincipled eg. support self-managed capitalism, which is in the end self-managed exploitation. This in my experience has been a common mistake of the councilist and anarchist milieu, which tends to seize upon and fetishise certain formulas and organisational forms, and then at its worst use them idealistically and moralistically to denounce all those who don’t share their belief in their perfect ideal, rather than use an open-ended, non-dogmatic materialist analysis to work out what’s best.

 
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