Modern day workers’ inquiry into call centres (Kolinko)

This is part of a draft pamphlet I wrote a couple of years ago, called ‘The Practice of the Impractical’, which looks at many different current strategies and tactics of non-union based workplace groups in resisting work around the world. I never have published it. It was intended to be a primer of these strategies and tactics, to introduce people to them, as a reply to the Leninist, syndicalist and social democratic view that these struggles are impractical and infantile. as such, this section mainly summarises the investigation by Kolinko into European call centres, and Aufheben’s critique of them. its just a draft, so critical comment welcome! Wouldn’t mind publishing this year. Yes the photos should be bigger but you get the drift.

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V.

MILITANT RESEARCH/ WORKERS’ INQUIRY

Militant research or workers’ inquiry is a strategy that was developed by some Italian autonomist Marxists (also called operaismo or ‘workerism’) in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the Ruhr-based German group Kolinko has tried to update this strategy for the changed conditions of our time. The people behind kolinko are also the people behind the excellent global newsletter which focuses on workers’ struggles called Prol-Position (although overall Prol-Position tends to focus, of necessity, on European struggles because that is where they are based). Prol-position have links and sometimes overlapping membership with German (non-Leninist) communist group Wildcat. (No relation whatsover to the Wellington anarchist group, which are far from being communist — see this interview for example, and compare it with Wildcat (Germany)).

So what the hell is workers’ inquiry? Background: Autonomist Marxism: industrial sociology turned upside down

Mao once said ‘No investigation, no right to speak!’ in the early 1970s. Oh dear. I’ve quoted Mao. But anyway, this was part of general movement amongst some New Leftists and especially its neo-Leninist wing to go into the factories in the 1970s, to get away from the movements’ student base and its associated elitism. Their desire to learn from the working class was contradicted by their desire to lead the working class, with often tragic results. This happened in New Zealand in the late 1970s and 1980s (but I won’t mention names).

Kolinko reject this vanguardist approach. They see themselves as following the tradition of operaismo (Italian for workerism, sometimes known as “autonomist Marxism”). Unfortunately, recently operaismo has often been reduced to the ideas of one of their thinkers, Antonio Negri. Negri has unfortunately attempted to meld post-structuralism with Marxism (particularly in Empire and Multitude written with Michael Hardt),[1] which is an entirely different approach from the original exponents of operaismo. The original ‘autonomists’, such as Alquati and Tronti, disregarded such elaborate and often groundless theorising that was abstracted from the struggles of the working class. Instead, they attempted to find out how working class people resist capital everyday.

Their basic premise was that orthodox Marxists assumed that capital dominates workers, and so focussed on what capital was doing. Hence the Leninist focus on internal workings of capital such as the ‘falling rate of profit’ or how capital allegedly manipulates and indoctrinates workers etc. (eg. Gramsci and his notorious theory of capitalist hegemony over workers). In the process, Leninists overlooked workers everyday resistance to capital. The ‘autonomists’ found that much workers self-activity was autonomous from parties, unions, the orthodox left etc hence the term ‘autonomism’.

Some ‘autonomists’ considered that bourgeois sociology could be used in a radical way. ‘Industrial sociology’ developed in the US in the early twentieth century. It aimed to improve profits. It did this by careful study of the actual production process and workers intimate knowledge of it. The aim was to maximise the exploitation of workers by extracting this knowledge through interviews. The Italians thought this could be inverted. They thought these interviews could become a basis for ‘self-research’ and assist in new forms of working class autonomous resistance or self-activity.

An example of this was Alquati’s studies of workers resistance at FIAT and Olivetti, (I think they are typewriter manufacturers), in the 1950s.[2] Alquati examined the attitudes and situation of these workers. The aim was to gain contacts with workers, to better understand their subjective, concrete situation, and uncover workers hidden resistance and invisible forms of counter-organisation (the long term aim was to build a party based on this – the original autonomists were somewhat Leninist. Actually, some are still that way – Operaismo and autonomia have an ambiguous relationship with Leninism eg. their inquiries were sometimes designed to find the vanguard of workers struggles — they sometimes argued that in the 1960s and 1970s that auto workers were the most important fraction of the working class. However, that is an aside. Most of the current interest in workers inquiry comes from libertarian Marxists, anarchists and left communists, not Leninists).

So what did he find? By the early 1960s, Alquati had argued capital had successfully reorganised much of the workplace along Taylorist or Fordist mass production lines (ie. assembly line factory work). This had effectively eliminated or marginalised skilled workers who had some degree of informal control over their work. But this new development did not mean the end of class struggle. Instead, it sowed the seeds for a new form of resistance, from the ‘mass worker’ created by the assembly line. And these new unskilled or semiskilled workers did not fight for workers control, like skilled workers. Instead they were, allegedly, disgusted by the whole work process. Rather than using unions, these workers generally took wildcat action outside the unions. Hence new forms of production, formed by capital to break up workers resistance and increase profit, created new forms of resistance. This is the central maxim of operaismo. The key for the autonomists was to find these new forms of resistance, and base their strategy on it.

A modern inquiry by Kolinko: call centre workers

Kolinko have studied call centre workers in a book called Hotlines: Call Centre, Inquiry, Communism (Duisburg, 2002). The full text is available online here. The book is quite detailed, so this summary is rather large, even tho I have tried to be brief (note: their online book is unnumbered, so I am unable to supply page references – despite since picking up a paper copy of their book in the UK last year — all quotes below are from Hotlines unless otherwise stated). If people are interested further in Kolinko, I suggest dipping into Hotlines – it’s quite easy to read, quite entertaining and honest too, but I found their other work on their website to be, in contrast, quite theoretical. Overall it’s an important read, as so few modern day inquiries and anti-state communist workplace ‘interventions’ have been written about in such detail.

What did their project consist of?

An ambitious project where a bunch of revolutionaries got jobs in the same sector, ie, call centres, in order to investigate the struggles therein. They state their approach fundamentally differs from the ideological left: “A revolutionary class movement can only grow from the material conditions of the exploited, from their forms of co-operation and from the struggles that take different forms, arising from specific conditions.” (Kolinko, part one). They got jobs in 10 different call centres in Germany (mainly the Ruhr), and corresponded with many other call centre workers in other countries. Their book consisted of questionnaires with workers, the agitational leaflets they handed out, subjective accounts of everyday experience and work refusal in call centres, an analysis of call centres and restructuring in the sectors they service, such as banking, telecommunications, commerce and services, among other things.

Their first premise is:

Call Centres were and are an attack on the refusal of many office workers to accept a deterioration of their conditions (in banks, insurances, the post office, telecom and other offices). For many workers call centres mean longer working hours, forced shift work, constant control and intensification of work. [hotlines no.1, October 2000].

That is, they claim call centres were developed by capital in order to bypass or circumvent resistance from workers. Their investigation is an attempt to locate new forms of resistance to this recomposition of capital.

Call centres: nice clean workplaces or service hell (modern factory assembly line)?

There are two main views of call centres:

1. Part of the service society: a clean, nice, modern, pleasant, humanised job, replete with job enrichment, ‘self-determined work’ etc

2. Modern day factories, where pay is shit, work is repetitive, neverending, boring, under constant monitoring, a “‘service hell’ where there is one hundred percent control and workers have been reduced to slaves of false friendliness” etc.

Kolinko investigated whether these were true. They note that many workers join the call centre with the first spectacular image in mind: workers like the idea of getting a quiet, clean job with a ‘hip’ working atmosphere without much responsibility. They know that they will have to deal with people, but they won’t have to see or touch them.

But what happens when that image wears off and the everyday reality of work sets in? Generally, they found that call centres are sort of modern day factories, though with some qualifications, such as that capital only appears to have 100% control in them, and that many workers found it a nicer and less physically demanding job than manual blue-collar work, such as labouring. So I’ll quote the some responses they got from workers:

It’s easy work. You don’t have to think much, you don’t get dirty, and you don’t have to sweat, carry bricks or anything like that. And you get money… You can pretty much set your own working hours or change them around. As an electrician, obviously you do more physical work. You aren’t allowed to make mistakes either. In the call centre you make mistakes but you won’t even know about it, there aren’t any big consequences. Working as an electrician is more fun, though. [Duisburg, 2000]

It’s much less exhausting but also more annoying. I worked as a waitress before and that meant more responsibility and more physical stress. But it’s also funny in the call centre. We’re allowed to talk to each other a lot. But I also think it burns you out after a while. [Amsterdam, 2000]

On a construction site, you can simply do your work, carry bricks, pull cables, speed up, work ahead to have longer breaks, etc. Somehow you make the day go by without thinking about the work itself. If there is tension you can scream around, yell at the boss, simply say what you think because everyone does it. In the call centre it’s different: You have to watch out all the time because it’s brainwork. You might find a rhythm but that means switching your head off and thinking simply nothing. Somehow everyone watches their manners. It’s the same in other offices. [Oberhausen, 2002]

The first difference from the factory is that the work is not hard physically. In the call centre you don’t have to know much or know how to do things, which is different from steelworkers. If they make a mistake, everything’s messed up. [Duisburg, 2000]

But in general most soon find the work to be shit: ‘They pay you like shit, they treat you like shit, the work is boring. Nobody wants to work there for a long time.’ ‘It’s shit work. I’ll look for something else. Somebody should burn this place down!’ ‘You meet nice people from other countries there. But that’s the only positive thing!’ ‘It’s like in prison here!’ [Fiat call centre workers, 2002.]

The computerised assembly phone line: many call centre workers describe the feeling that ‘I’m getting calls like on an assembly line, one computer task after the other pops up, and it’s sucking me dry.’ For example,

I do three different customer lines. Only the message on the phone tells me which call is coming in. A digital voice says something about ‘spare parts’ or ‘warranty case’. Then I have to recite my greeting line right away because the customer is immediately on the line. At some point that happens automatically. You hear the voice and say the line, without thinking. You finish the call, hang up… and again it’s voice, greeting, handling the call, hanging up… [Fiat, Milan, 2002]

You get calls, calls, calls… You have the conveyor belt in your head. After having processed one call you get the next, then the next. The work is tiring. Because the same processes keep repeating themselves, because the callers keep having the same questions and you keep having the same answers, because you have to stick exactly to the software mask: name, number, another number, third number…, because you keep looking at the monitor, because you have a hard time understanding people, because the line is crackling… till your head is humming at the end of the shift and you can’t even read your paper in the metro.

Often people claim that the service economy means individualising and alienating workers into small workplaces. But Kolinko found the opposite in call centres. Call centres concentrate scores if not hundreds of unskilled or semi-skilled workers under one roof, and because of this conditions are somewhat similar to those faced by workers on a traditional assembly line:

Call centers are presented by many as nice new work-places that have nothing to do with “dirty” factories anymore. We experience the opposite every day. Often we sit with 100 and more people in one room, no matter where we are from, what profession or job we had before, getting radiated by the monitors in the rhythm of the calling machine. After the shift we go home burnt out and tired. Apart from us there are hundreds, thousands feeling the same, but when the stress it getting too big, we try to get out individually, looking for another job. The difference to the “dirty” factories is not, that we would have less reason to do something to improve our situation or to change it. Also in the “clean” call centres we are being forced to work special shifts and overtime and to follow the accelerated work rhythm. Therefore we have to find out together which possibilities we have to fight against that. [Kolinko, ‘Why workers interviews?’ leaflet

Everyday working life

They have a long section about call processing, about how it is monitored, standardisation, the division of labour, informal co-operation, the data system, voice computers, ‘smiling on the phone’ etc. But they do describe everyday work well:

Arrive.

Log into the personnel program.

Start up computer, log into the program.

Start up intranet, check out news, possibly read mail.

Log into the telephone.

Plug in headset.

Switch phone to ‘ready’ and start.

Talk to customers, talk to superiors, talk to co-workers,

make data entries, send mail, fill in forms,

take breaks, drink coffee, chat online, flirt, lie, read magazines,

find information, have arguments, be bored.

Unplug headset.

Log out of the telephone.

Log out of the software program.

Shut down computer.

Log out of personnel computer.

Leave.

“That is a general short version of the daily steps of work.” Here is an example that makes this more concrete:

Inbound, first level computer hotline

It’s Monday, we’re on early shift. Before I do anything I first have to log onto the personnel program. I do that on the team leader’s computer. Okay, from now on I get paid for everything I do. At least that’s something. I go to ‘my’ desk and turn on the computer, give my password and log onto the phone. The phone demands a password too. By now the computer has started up so I log into the program. This way they can see who did what and when in the customer records. I wonder why I haven’t ever mixed up all those passwords. Hasn’t happened to me yet. They have probably burned themselves into my brain and I will never be able to erase them again.

I have a few voice mails. I listen to them, maybe there is something private among them. We all have dreams. It’s shortly after seven a.m. and somehow I’ll make it until three p.m. I have done it before and I will do it again today although I know that in the meantime I will have doubts more than once. I have seventy-two minutes of break. Half an hour is fixed, the rest is at my own disposal. Luckily there are not many callers this early in the morning. If I had to talk to one of those good-tempered jokers I would die. Since there is not that much to do yet and the team leader hangs out in the coffee room, I go out to get coffee without logging off from the phone. When I come back either one of my friends will have taken the call or the phone will have been set to ‘absent without reason’. This will show up in my statistics and be taken from my time off, but who cares?

The phone rings. If it rings three times and I don’t answer the ACD computer routes the call to the ‘next free agent’. But if I do answer, which is what is expected, I have one of four standard situations: registering customers, putting customers through to the technician, informing customers about the state of their complaints about broken appliances or taking an order. Or I have something exotic requiring the talents of a private investigator or a social worker: markets are looking for a notebook computer or a customer needs someone to assure him that he is not the only one having trouble with the capitalist world of commodities. In between I set my phone to ‘post-processing’ so no calls will arrive. Then I enter the data into the customer records or I use the time for a chat with my co-workers. Sooner or later it’s that time: all lines are ringing hot. So I put an infinite number of customers through to the tech department, run back and forth between the team leader’s desk and mine, put customers through to other departments, call back a customer and write notes and e-mail forms to other co-workers.

By some miracle it has turned three p.m. I log out of the program, say good-bye to the computer, log off from the phone and finally log out of the personnel program. Fortunately time always passes somehow.

Confrontations

They found class conflict emerged around these main issues:

a [Insecure working-conditions] temp agency work, short term contracts. Attempts by capital to have constantly revolving workforce that is never around long enuf to cause trouble.

b [Outsourcing] opening up a new call centre in another country or part of the country with cheaper wages

c [Extension of working time, pressure on wages and intensification of work] shift work (often asked to do extra shifts, impossible shift schedules, overtime but still paid the same, low wages (working poor).

d [Monitoring and control] foremen/team leader

e [Bullying, arbitrariness and hoodwinking] Also lack of training. Hoodwinking – lying deceiving customers, selling them shit when you know its shit

f [health problems] – tinnitus, headaches, etc

Types of struggle:

A)   Informal resistance, sabotage — individual acts quite common, esp. when they up the work pressure

B)   Petitions — don’t really work, management ignores them, and sometimes fire those who sign them

C)    Strikes — uncommon

Informal Resistance

As explained above under affinity groups, a fact of everyday working life is that workers do many small acts of refusal: they steal little breaks here and there to get thru the day:

Many workers say quite openly that this work is shit and that they couldn’t care less. And yet they are still friendly to the customers and somehow do what has to be done… The fact that your work is with customers makes you somehow do your work.’ They develop techniques for dealing with the shit: making friends with fellow workers, putting wrong entries into the database to gain time, flirting with customers, having fun…The machinery imposes a rhythm of work, which workers can only liberate themselves from by cutting their connection to the machine: going into ‘post-processing’, taking breaks, ignoring calls. Team leaders try to make sure that doesn’t happen.

In the quote below, Kolinko describe in more detail these small acts of refusal (taking breaks, making wrong data entries, working to rule, taking sickies etc) but they claim such acts help workers cope with wage-slavery, rather than shaking that slavery:

In order to still be sane at the end of the shift, workers think of ways to take breaks, oases of quiet that let them breathe. To that end, they pretend they have important things to do and then somehow end up in front of the coffee machine. They make wrong entries into the computer in order to shorten the processing of a call or they ‘work to rule’, nice and slowly, so nothing goes wrong. If all that is not enough they have no other choice but to call in sick. After a few days in bed or at parties the telephone terror is easier to take.

We have found such forms of refusal in all call centres. Many workers who are usually not very rebellious use them. Most of the time they happen on an individual basis. They make it easier to survive, but they don’t shake the regime of exploitation. Rather, they are a part of the process of exploitation because they make sure we don’t collapse under the workload.

That is, they argue that individual acts of refusal, in contrast to Kampa, are not in themselves ‘a rebellious attitude leading up to a revolutionary dynamic. Rather, we find that dynamic in collective forms of refusal that make space for collective experiences of strength, such as collectively ignoring orders.’ (n.80)

So, they found that these small acts of refusal by workers sometimes brought them into conflict with team leaders, which might suggest that class struggle in call-centres is purposely channelled through them rather than directed against middle-management, top-management and bosses? They assert team leaders basically police the workers on behalf of management, and play a cushioning role between workers and management (that is, they are basically foremen or supervisors):

Team leaders, supervisors etc. are there to make us work and to impose the intensification of work. They control whether we accept enough calls per hour, how long our breaks are, whether we comply with quality guidelines etc. Apart from controlling us, they’re assigned other tasks like organising, retrieving information etc. so that we don’t see them exclusively as watchdogs or spies. We are supposed to have to talk to them if something goes wrong or when we need something – and at the same time they impose the call statistics on us. That way, the team leaders collect information on the work process and pass it on to management. The latter use the information to further intensify work. Since the team leaders are our first ‘contact partners’ they also act as a buffer. Whenever there are problems, whenever we’re angry about something we are supposed to let it out on the team leader instead of attacking management directly. This is supposed to minimise and limit conflict. The Team leaders are supposed to impose the will of management on us. Depending on the kind of conflict and what they want from it they behave differently: Those who used to work on the phones before are good at acting more ‘buddy-like’; they get very friendly with us and pretend they try to solve all the problems. Team leaders who have been hired from the outside are often more ‘distanced’ and authoritarian; they keep their distance and openly take measures against workers. [hotlines no. 2, December 2000]

Strikes

Are uncommon. Most erupt around the issues listed above, such as being against the shifting and outsourcing of work and workers, against new working time schedules that speed up work (overtime, shifts too close together), for better wages, more human working-conditions, and for adherence to health and safety-standards. But they observed that workers have little experience of collective action, most are unsuccessful and only last a day. Common problems were a lack of unity and solidarity among workers. Most were part time workers so all could not strike on the same day and at the same time –

[they could not] go on strike for a whole week or during times when more calls come in. A unified answer of the workers was also impeded by the different expectations amongst them: many were students who saw the job just as a temporarily annoyance, while for others it was their ‘work-place’, which has to serve to make a living now and in the future. A lot of the ‘students’ were more combative, because they apparently had less to lose. When it became obvious that nobody was going to get a new contract the frustration of getting nowhere with the (strike-)actions was already predominant.

Another problem was that workers are in a precarious position – the bosses just shut down the call centre, re-routed calls to another call centre, or hired temp staff to keep the centre open etc. In Britain’s first (allegedly) call centre strike in 2000 by “about 4000 workers of 37 call centres” in British Telecom, the strike was hampered because the temp workers did not go out on strike. The strike was organised by the Communication Workers Union. “The temp-workers did not go on strike, which was partly because of their insecure legal status: British Telecom can send them home from one day to the next. As well as that, the temp agency can sack them immediately if the customer (i.e. British Telecom) doesn’t need or want them anymore.”

A successful strike: Verizon 2000

In terms of results, the strike of the workers at Verizon was more successful – under different circumstances. Over 86,000 workers – call-centre workers, technicians… – in several states of the US went on strike after the old negotiated contract ran out. Most of the workers were organised in one of the two big unions of the sector, the majority in the Communications Workers Union (72,000), the rest in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (14,000). The official aim of the strike was to achieve the right for the union to organise the workers in the new ‘boom’- sectors such as mobile-communications and internet-service. Verizon imposed deteriorated conditions in these sectors and tried to impose the inferior conditions on other workers by shifting them from one sector to the other. During the 15 days of walk out, hundreds of picket lines were organised every day.

The high level of participation can be put down to the fact that the strike was also directed against the shitty working-conditions in general: the obligation to do a lot of overtime, stress due to a high work intensity…During the strike the telephone-communication was not affected, because 98 percent of all calls are distributed automatically. Some workers took action to solve this problem and destroyed relay stations, mainly in New York.

A university professor comments on these actions: ‘Verizon-workers possess a very effective weapon which is their knowledge about the complicated electronic connections of New York – and their security that the interruption of these connections will have an immense impact on the public. They know the infrastructure because they have constructed it’. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]

The employment of about 30,000 scabs recruited from the lower and middle management was meant to guarantee a minimal service, but this often failed, due to their incompetence.

‘In Directory Inquiries, where a worker usually gives out information to 1,000 to 1,200 customers a day, the strike-breaking tie-heroes managed just a quarter of that… tens of thousands were waiting for a new telephone-connection, repair works were not done, there were long call-queues and loads of break-downs in the call centres.’ [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]

This strike also had its contradictions: the workers in the mobile-communication sector did not walk out, also the ‘Verizon-workers’ of other sectors, where the negotiated contract was not valid, did not participate. The unions also used this strike to secure their position as negotiation-leaders and partners of a new bargaining contract. The agreement after two weeks of strike consisted in a wage rise and increased performance-bonuses, the limitation of over-time and the right for the unions to sign-up workers in the mobile communication and internet-sector.

So what can be learnt from the strike? That only strikes organised by big and moneyed (relative to here) unions work? That to get higher participation, the strike needs to revolve around shitty working conditions? That telecommunication workers have a lot of knowledge and experience of electronic connections, and thus cannot be easily replaced with scabs? But doesn’t this apply more to technicians than call centre operators?

They claim strikes are more likely to erupt in ex-state owned industries (British Telecom, Telecom Italia) rather than new call centres:

The fact that in some of the call centres in this sector the resistance seems to be bigger than in other sectors has to do with a certain tradition of struggles and union organisations there – at least in countries like Italy, Britain and the USA. The unions legitimize themselves as defenders of the existing conditions – if necessary with an escalation of the confrontations up to a strike. That also means that the unions straight away take the given route of corporatist partnership with employers.

In the ‘new’ sectors the unions don’t play that role yet. Due to the legal monopoly of the unions for official strikes there are hardly any experiences with these kind of ‘open struggles’.

Unions

Kolinko see unions as de-escalators of struggle. In brief: ‘The unions can use strikes as mere means of pressure in collective bargaining. They channel the conflicts into controlled strike mobilisations in order to get signatures for a contract and administer the continuing exploitation. That’s why we focus on struggles and forms of behaviour that question and undermine this function of unions.”

Kolinko are critical of Italian base unions who’ve recently been involved in organising strikes in call centres, such as FLMU-CUB base unions that organised a series of small, monthly, rolling strikes in Florence, in Telecom Italia in 2001. In short, they see base or alternative unions as little different from mainstream unions (more on this in section 2).

Kolinko found that, in the workplaces they worked in, workers considered unions to be largely irrelevant:

Hardly anyone is in the union. Most couldn’t care less. They work there for a few months and then they look for something else. Although who knows if that would be any better… Some dream of well-paid positions, a few will make it. Most see only two possibilities anyway: either you quit because the work sucks or because you’re moving on (different job, different country…); or you get promoted, that is, you get away from the phone… When striking workers from the neighbouring Alfa Romeo factory who were protesting against the impending shutdown of the last remaining productive units blockaded the call centre, some call centre workers came at five or six a.m. so they could still get into the building.’

Questionnaires

Interviews as part of revolutionary inquiry are not an interrogation of workers in order to collect facts. The questionnaire should be criticized and developed further together with the workers. Our aim is that the interview will become a discussion in which the daily myths of the capitalist production process are destroyed and the development of society is put into question. The inquiry will become part of the revolutionary process when it manages to support the debate on capitalism, class struggle and communism within the field of exploitation and when it becomes the beginning of political self-organizing itself! [kolinko, Questionnaire for Call Centre-Workers, November 1999]

So they claim the questionnaires they used were used as tools for not only investigation, but also for instigation (a.k.a. troublemaking, shit-stirring).

Their questionnaire is rather long, so I won’t reproduce it here in the text (but see Appendix A for the questionnaire in all its glory!), but I quote from one of their shorter sections, which asks questions about struggles:

1. What kinds of problems exist? (organization of work, sick leave rate, increase of work…)

2. What were the most recent actions of the bosses? (changes in the technology, redundancies…)

3. Why are they going ahead with that? (reduction of breaks, ensuring peace…)

4. How do the workers react? (discussion, ignorance, action…)

5. How have the conflicts between the workers changed (arguments…)

6. What have the unions and workers representatives done recently? (notice boards…)

7. What do the workers discuss regarding that? (interest, indifference, curiosity…)

8. What can the workers do themselves to change the situation?

9. What political discussions take place? (crisis, war, sick pay…)

Strengths and Weaknesses:

Strengths

Kolinko have detailed info about call centres, the work processes, the everyday working life, and resistance and co-operation from the bottom up. It’s an excellent attempt to find out where things are at and where things might be heading in terms of modern class struggle, rather than relying on ideological posturing etc. It has an authentic feel about it. I like the bottom-up method they use: they liberally intersperse their text with quotes from workers themselves (top-down methods of investigation only quote a few key leaders or union officials, and generally ignore workers at the base, apart from a few token interviews). And they don’t get bogged down in abstract theorising. As I said above, the work is highly readable, down to earth, honest, self-critical and sometimes entertaining.

Criticisms

There are many. I have relied upon a reasonably good and comprehensive if a little over-critical critique of Hotlines published in the UK communist magazine Aufheben.[3] It is not online unfortunately. The main criticisms: (all are Aufheben’s)

  • did their inquiry find out things we don’t already know?
  • their questionnaire was off-putting and their investigation was incomplete.
  • “radical sociology” – patronisingly observing workers as some sort of object from the outside, tho Kolinko deny this.
  • “militantism” – possible veiled, hidden vanguardism, tho also Kolinko deny this
  • view of unions too one-sided and hardline.

(1) Did their inquiry find out things most of us don’t already know? One of their overall findings was that there is a tremendous gap between local, informal struggles and revolutionary praxis. That is, they ‘discovered’ most workers did not share Kolinko’s interest in workplace subversion during an age of low class struggle, and did not want to take part in their investigation, let alone do a self-inquiry of themselves. But we know this already. The question is, and Kolinko did not really address it, is how do larger and more subversive struggles emerge from these small informal gestures of resistance during a time of political decomposition and subsequently low-levels of class struggle? If the modern day refusals on the job are just a way of coping and surviving on the job, rather than being subversive, how will they somehow become the basis for wider subversion? And then the question begs itself: what is the role of the revolutionary group in this context? Kolinko claim that the role of the revolutionary group is firstly to investigate class reality, and secondly to intervene in class struggles in a non-vanguardist way, and Kolinko think that workers’ inquiry is a vehicle for this intervention:

We asked ourselves, what is the point in leaflets and other kind of interventions at all if there is no workers’ self-activity to refer to? We don’t think that interventions in a period of relatively few struggles inevitably descend into vanguardism or unionism, but they do remain on the outside. This could be the reason why the inquiry stayed in our hands and did not become a ‘workers self-inquiry’, where we could discuss the political content of everyday working life with other workers, and arrive at a common strategy for developing the class struggle. (Hotlines).

But others disagree: they claim that, as noted below, Kolinko do not always intervene in a non-vanguardist way, and believe that workers inquiry isn’t a good vehicle for intervention. Aufheben write: “Actually workers don’t need to do an inquiry, not even a ‘self-inquiry’: the problem is not so much that workers are not aware of their situation of exploitation; the question is more what they can do about it…” (“We have ways”, p. 58, my emphasis)

However, overall, their inquiry did find out many interesting things, and was a pretty thorough investigation of shop floor conditions and resistance. They did find out many interesting facts, processes and experiences – it contains a wealth of detail and subjective experiences. It’s just that some of their major findings are pretty obvious to anyone who does office work like me, slaving away in front of the computer screen everyday, grumble grumble, but just because much of it is obvious, it doesn’t mean the entire concept of workers’ inquiry should be dumped. (see this review article from Swedish group Riff-Raff).

(2). The most obvious weakness is that only 12 workers completed their full questionnaires after making the questionnaires their pivotal tool in analysing workers’ experiences of call centres! This makes their investigation incomplete, and thus possibly not an accurate representation of the experiences of many workers (although, obviously, it is an accurate representation of the subjective experience of the call centre workers they interviewed). Their questionnaires were too long, involved and tortuous, and somewhat reminiscent to workplace surveys and those that bosses/management use to find out workers’ morale, monitor them and let them let off some steam. Not to mention those bloody really fucking annoying self-assessment forms that I am supposed to bloody carry out this week. Also, as Aufheben note, most workers after another hard days work would hardly want to fill out an extensive survey! Most would want to go home or go out and forget about work and unwind or blob out in front of the tele or go out and have fun. Aufheben also note:

The questionnaire, with its didactic, at times patronising questioning seems intended as a spark of consciousness. Sometimes there is a sense that the questionnaire is almost manipulative; or that the ‘right’ answers are being elicited, as when a teacher tries to guide pupils by giving the correct response by prompt-feeding. There could be a link here with certain management techniques involving use of questionnaires to make workers feel included, listened to. Both management and revolutionaries in a sense are trying to get the workers to do what they want them to do. So there is a sense that Kolinko, while criticising Leninist vanguardism (for what they want the workers to do is self-organise!) are almost attempting to ‘get in through the back door’, anti-Leninist alibi at the ready, with a more subtle or disguised form of consciousness-raising by questionnaire. (“We have ways”, Aufheben, 12, 2004, p. 57).

So they raise the issue that they are trying to, in a veiled way, manipulate workers through the questionnaire, leading to a sort of vanguardism (see next criticism).

(3) Militantism, and a veiled form of bringing consciousness to the workers from the outside ie. Leninist vanguardism: Kolinko tend to assume workers are not analysing their own struggles, “that they are struggling blindly, and need to be taught how to see by means of an inquiry” (p. 58). Aufheben argue that they implicitly see workers’ inquiry as a tool whereby revolutionaries spark struggles and then link them with other struggles so that they don’t become fragmented and isolated (p. 60). However, Kolinko disagree, and just say their role is just to support workers’ self-reflection and self-organisation. Aufheben reply that their stated role is often contradicted in Hotlines: they once talked of “opening up the consciousness” of workers. (This is much like Leninism with its idea that workers have a false consciousness, and need to be taught real workers’ consciousness by a vanguard of experienced militants and intellectuals.)

(4) Radical sociology. Patronisingly observing workers as some sort of object from the outside, just like academics do. If true, this leads to a division between subject and object, and thus separation and alienation, resulting in elitism and manipulation. This is no different from the classical Leninist and anarchist conception that the revolutionary group/party is somehow separate or distant from the working class or class struggle in some way (eg, the platformist stress upon developing their own organisational programme, and trying to recruit workers to that programme ie. an ideological approach). Kolinko deny this, and claim that they reject the hierarchical Leninist division of subject and object (meaning, the workers are the objects who are acted upon by the party members, the subject). Aufheben question this and claim that Kolinko see themselves as moralistic revolutionary mentors who see ‘the questionnaire…[as] confronting the workers with their behaviour’ (direct quote from Hotlines). Aufheben note that because workers did not become involved in their inquiry, they did not really overcome their stated aim of overcoming the subject-object divide.

If one see workers as just some sort of object to be studied and understood, then it can lead to the worst kind of intellectualism: an “’ultra-left’ paralysis, where armchair theorists, in the absence of a practice, ‘disappear up their own arses.’”

(5) Their view of the relationship between workers and unions is too simplistic. Sure, unions repress struggles. Time and time again. But from a workers’ perspective, sometimes it’s useful to use unions to win gains. Aufheben put this very-well in their critique of Kolinko’s ‘ultra-leftism’ and their tendency to freeze only the high points of class struggle, and then use that as a lens from which to criticise unions. Aufheben wrote:

A movement that is broken is breakable.

Kolinko are exasperated by the failure of call-centre workers to act independently of unions and works councils, except on an individual basis (eg tricks to skive off). Kolinko document numerous examples of struggles which are negotiated away by unions and works councils, with negligible gains for the workers. It is possible that a rigid anti-union position has a certain validity in the context of the German corporatist ‘social partnership’ between the state, employers and unions.

However the critique of the recuperative role of unions has a tendency to become ideological within ‘ultra-left’ groups; a common characterisation of the role of unions as functionaries of capital is that they act as a ‘safety valve’ to dissipate the revolutionary energy of an otherwise rebellious class; this conception runs the risk of not understanding the process of struggle. The class has a critique of the unions when it is in a position to have one — ie. through struggles and positions of relative strength. There is a danger of seeing workers as a dumb passive mass duped by the unions. This is a common contradiction of many ‘ultra left’ analyses which seek to differentiate a pure, autonomous class from the ‘external’ institutions of the workers’ movement (unions, leftist parties), and in so doing, end up concluding that the class has been duped by the ideology of these external forces.

We would argue that Kolinko’s critique of the unions and privileging of ‘self-activity’, autonomous organizing, and wildcat strikes reflects such an ‘ultra-left’ ideological position; this position freezes the high points of class struggle, when the balance of forces is such that it is in workers’ collective interests to act outside or against the unions, and seeks to preserve them as principles or measures by which it judges the present situation.

In our experience the attitude of workers to unions varies: some are relatively pro-union, others anti-union, some both at the same time or both in different situations, and many are indifferent; yet in concrete situations of disputes, their attitude to the union is more likely to be based upon practical considerations, rather than ideological ones — their criterion is more likely to be whether something is to be gained by following the union, or alternatively acting outside the union. In contrast the ‘ultra-left’ critique of the unions doesn’t relate to practical situations as they present themselves (“We have ways of making you talk”, Aufheben 12, 2004, p. 59).


[1] Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000) and Multitude (Penguin, 2005)

[2] However, this was not the first workers’ inquiry. In 1947, Paul Romano of the Johnson-Forest tendency in the US wrote a booklet called The American Worker – it was basically an account of his subjective experiences in a factory. Read it here — it’s fascinating. Alquati and the Operaismo networks translated this work and it was read widely. It has been republished by Bewick editions, and distributed by AK Press since 2005. Also Daniel Mothe of the French councilist group Socialism or Barbarism also wrote an influential account of his experiences in a Renault factory in the 1950s.

[3] “We have ways of making you talk!”, Aufheben 12, 2004, pp. 50-60.

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~ by vomitingdiamonds on 21/03/2010.

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