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Monday, July 24, 2006

Giving the finger to the boss: Workers stop fingerprint time clocks!

It's not all bad news on the high-tech class war battlefield these days. While most American workers have not yet formed a clear set of politics with regard to technology in the work place and it's oppressive character, some bright spots have appeared on the horizon lately.

Rich Lord writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees locals 2037 and 2719 battle to stop the imposition of fingerprint-scanning time clocks in their workplace. After an arbitrator awarded more than $30,000 in back pay to a falsely terminated public works sweeper operator in a dispute over alleged absenteeism, the City of Pittsburgh sought to replace the old time clock system, which relied on workers writing in their own hours, with a $70,000 fingerprint scanning time clock.

Managers hoped that the new system would "would prevent [attendance disputes] from occurring again," meaning it would successfully undermine democratic worker autonomy and solidarity on the job floor and transfer power over hours and wages to the manager's office. Likewise, the bosses probably hoped that the new control over the time clock would also give them the added bonus of weeding out militant workers, as indicated by the fact that the reinstated worker, Mallory Craig, had a history of filing "frequent grievances, typically more than one a year."

Writing about a week earlier in the same publication, Lord quoted Public Works Director Guy Costa saying, "Someone may come in and sign in for their buddy, and their buddy might come in 10 or 15 minutes later." It's easy to see how that kind of worker solidarity is a threat to management. Further, under the current system, since workers could write in their own start time, they could manipulate the time sheets directly through the mere stroke of a pen.

Costas hopes that the expensive new system will pay for itself by wringing from the workers increased productivity and eliminating what he views as overpayment. According to Costas, "If they come to work late or leave early, they're going to see a reduction in their pay." Unsurprisingly, the fingerprint surveillance is planned only for the city's blue collar workers; there is no plan to fingerprint or set up a similar system for the city's white collar managers.

But, fortunately, the workers and their union have not allowed this attack on their power to pass without challenge. Control over the time clock not only represents an important front in the battle between bosses and workers but, practically speaking, it can amount to a payraise workers extract from the boss against his or her will. According to Lord:
"I consider this very, very intrusive, a personal violation, if you will," said Eric Momberger, staff representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees locals 2037 and 2719. "We're going to try to stop this."
The union also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the state Labor Relations Board. The Pittsburgh Joint Collective Bargaining Committee also filed a grievance against the city, claiming that the city cannot change the conditions of work without first notifying and bargaining with them.

Strangely, the resistance from workers has some support on the city council.
"Fingerprinting, I think, is beyond what we need," said city Councilman Jeffrey Koch, who was an acting foreman under Mr. Costa prior to his election in March. "If people are leaving early, and that's your reason for the time clocks, then where's your supervision?"
If workers successfully prevent the installation of the new system, the city will be stuck not only with the bill but also with the system which, unless workers remain vigilant, might reappear on another job site in the future.

But Pittsburgh workers can take some reassurance from their comrades in New Zealand, where supermarket employees early in July forced their bosses at the Motueka New World grocery to abandon a plan to force workers to utilize a fingerprint scanning time clock. Over the last few weeks, managers at the supermarket chain had collected fingerprints from the majority of its employees, hoping to force compliance with the new system at all the chains stores.

Citing the familiar mantra of techno-class war, a spokesperson for Foodstuffs, the umbrella company touted the efficiencies such a system derives for managers, including preventing workers clocking in and out for each other. But, one worker refused to participate in the system. Keely-Anne Robinson, a part-time shelf stacker "complained that the fingerprinting system was introduced without any staff consultation or assurances that their fingerprints would be used solely for clocking in."

In fact, according to an article in the New Zealand Herald, "Supermarket manager Bruce Miller had told staff they had to supply their fingerprints in order to be clocked in and out, suggesting they would not otherwise be paid, Close Up reported."

In the face of that coercion, Robinson responded, "I think they've taken advantage of a small chain of people, people that really need their jobs. I think they've taken advantage of them and just ushered them in like a whole bunch of sheep because they won't say anything."

In response to the pressure from workers and negative publicity, however, managers were forced to back down, allowing Robinson and others to log in and out with a PIN number instead of a finger scan, preserving autonomy and some workers power over the machine and, thus management. Most importantly, a precendent has now been set for future challenges to technology at work, offering the chance of developing a critical, broader view of the class war nature of technology at the point of production. All hope is not lost after all.


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