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Monday, July 10, 2006

The RFID attack on workers power

There is little doubt in my mind that technology, especially since the rise of industrial capitalism, has been a disaster for humanity. Those of you who know my politics are certainly aware that I am a firm believer in the notion that technology is not a neutral force, but rather a political tool wielded by the capitalist and bureaucratic class for the domination of the working class (see my article, "Future's Past: Technology and the Class War by Other Means"). This is accomplished through increasing control over the worker, workplace and work day - limiting worker autonomy - as well as increased control over inventory and, very often, de-skilling and eliminating workers entirely.

Along those lines, the Washington Post reports today that wages for lower income workers have grown at an anemic rate while those of upper income workers and managers have soared. The reason?
[C]ompanies are simultaneously finding ways to automate clerical tasks, move call centers to cheaper places and handle business online, weakening demand for less-skilled workers.

Consider Focuspoint Inc., a company in Manassas that sells recorded messages for companies to play when callers are on hold. Three years ago, two order clerks frantically juggled calls and faxes from several hundred clients placing orders. Now the company has 1,700 clients and is expanding its sales and other high-level staff but still has just those two clerks -- who now sit quietly overseeing Internet orders.

"Three years ago, we would have had to hire more people to handle all our new clients," said Joe Martin, a vice president. "Now, we rely on new technology to pick up that work."

Such innovations help explain why, from 2003 to 2005, the average wage for people in the lowest pay bracket, with salaries around $20,000, rose only 5.4 percent in the Washington region -- not enough to keep up with rising prices. For the jobs that pay around $60,000, salaries rose 12.4 percent, well ahead of the 6.8 percent inflation in that period.
Technology has allowed bosses to reduce the power of some of their workers on the job, and that has reduced their ability to demand higher wages. As someone who has personally suffered job de-skilling and the resulting collapse of a good wage package, I can understand this phenomenon quite well. This deskilling has a direct impact on workers. From the same article:
"This is a divided labor market," said Jonas Prising, president of Manpower North America, a large staffing firm. "There's no talent shortage for people with low skills or no skills, but you do have a talent shortage for people with specific skills."

In the 1990s boom, Prising said, there was a shortage of low-skilled as well as high-skilled talent, sending wages up across the board.

What changed? Many new technologies and ways of operating -- often aimed at cutting labor costs -- were in their infancy in the late 1990s. Now they are maturing, tamping demand for low-skilled workers.

Some examples: The retail industry has shifted to big stores that require fewer cashiers (two-year wage gain nationwide: 2.1 percent) and stock clerks (2.7 percent) than the department stores and small shops they replace. Firms that once employed dozens of people handling payrolls now hand the work to huge companies that do nothing else and rely heavily on automation (payroll clerk wages: up 4.7 percent). And long-distance telephone costs have dropped so much that it is feasible for big companies to hire people in the rural United States or abroad -- far from corporate offices -- to take phone orders (order clerk wages: up 3.2 percent).
Consider the impact of technology on the wages and job power of a typical bank teller.
More people are banking on the Internet, by telephone or at teller machines. So while banks had 88 tellers per $1 billion in bank assets in the region in 2003, two years later they had 84, based on a comparison of data from bank regulators and the Labor Department. And in those two years, tellers' average salary rose only 4.6 percent, to $24,090.

When demand for even a few types of low-wage jobs goes soft, wages can be held down in all of them, economists say. That's because a worker qualified to be a retail clerk might just as well become a security guard or receptionist. That means, in effect, that all low-wage workers are competing with one another, a sharp contrast with more specialized jobs.
Technology, in effect, turns one worker against another as we are increasingly forced to compete for whatever jobs remain for low or de-skilled workers.

Meanwhile, the Post reports in the very same issue, that
It was another banner year for the Washington area's highest-paid executives.

The median total compensation for the 100 highest-paid executives at local public companies rose 21.2 percent in 2005, to $6.4 million from $5.2 million the year before. While the median salary for that group increased 4 percent, bonuses climbed nearly 14 percent, the value of the typical stock option grant went up by more than 25 percent, and other forms of long-term compensation leapt by a third.
There is a direct connection between these two stories, as reduced worker power to demand wages and increased exploitation at work leads directly to increasing profits and incomes for managers and capitalists. According to the article:
Altogether, the more than 700 executives at 157 firms in The Post's study took home $467.5 million in salary and bonus. Their total compensation -- including options, perks and other items -- had a combined value of almost $1.4 billion, more than the budget of the D.C. public schools.

The average worker in the Washington area was making $50,000 in wages or salary as of May 2005, according to the most recent local snapshot from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For private-sector workers nationwide, total compensation rose an average of 2.9 percent last year.
A stark difference indeed.

It's important to realize, however, that technology serves more than one purpose for the capitalist. Sure, it de-skills and reduces wages, but it also reduces worker power and independence on the job. One of the most important tools we have, as workers, is our ability to re-appropriate time and product for our own ends. In essence, we take the job, which is designed by the boss to suit her own ends, and we use it to advance our own position either relative to the boss or perhaps in other areas in our lives. Examples of this include taking long breaks, stealing product, making personal phone calls and a whole host of other scams and manipulations with which all workers are familiar. This autonomous activity is at the core of the struggle between the capitalist and the worker, as he attempts to regulate us and we fight for independence. In the broad sense, when we do this, we are fighting for control over our lives and the means of production, both of which the capitalist and managers jealously guard but which we must control if we are to be free.

And, so to illustrate this point, consider an article today from the RFID Journal. Entitled, "USPS Uses RFID to Manage Vehicles, Drivers", this article strikes a special chord with me, since I was a reasonably well-paid postal worker for a while, before being suddenly and quite coldly shown the door, along with a hundred of my union brothers and sisters, when new software and computers made our jobs redundant.

For those who don't know, RFID is key to the capitalist's new vision of the workplace. This technology, involving small imbedded radio transmitters, readable at a distance, promises to revolutionize inventory and control of workers, allowing the boss, for the first time, to know the location of individual items and workers at any time. This is a tremendous threat to worker autonomy. As with all major technologies, the nanny state, protector of the capitalist class, has massively subsidized this attack on the working class. After several years of heavy military purchasing to get the technology off the ground, it's now ready for prime time, and businesses across the country from Wal-Mart to, well, the Post Office, are jumping on board, hoping to reap the benefits they can derive from increased "efficiency," doublespeak for increased exploitation of workers.

USPS "manager of material-handling deployment with the USPS' engineering department," Victoria K. Stephen, gushes enthusiastically as she highlights the features of the new system.
"This system allows for driver authentication; real-time location of vehicles; two-way messaging; maintenance and productivity tracking; speed, weight and impact sensing; and impact accountability; and facilitates OSHA [the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration] compliance and tracking, just to name a few of its capabilities."
The article continues,
After a vehicle's VAC reads a postal employee's employee ID badge, the PIVMS authenticates that person as the authorized driver, confirming that his or her training certification is valid and current. PIVMS will also provide the driver with the required OSHA checklist at the start of each operating day, ensuring that the vehicle is in safe operating condition before being put into service.

Supervisors can use the PIVMS system to locate the nearest driver to pick up or move mail containers to the next operation, or to ensure that the mail makes it onto a specific truck for a critical dispatch. This facilitates USPS' ability to meet its delivery service goals. They can also send information to a specific driver or vehicle. PIVMS helps the USPS manage driver training and vehicle maintenance, while reporting features can analyze operations, identify potential problems and create operational plans.

Stephen says PIVMS provides the USPS with a wealth of new data, largely because much of the information it is designed to collect has not been available before. "In one of our early installations, we saw that in a facility with a fleet of approximately 50 powered industrial vehicles, there were two PIVs that were not even turned on for over two months during the fall and holiday mailing season," she says. "This type of information allows us to appropriately size the PIV fleet and reduce associated equipment/lease/maintenance costs, without compromise to mail delivery service."
Clearly, this new technology will have deleterious effects on worker autonomy. Increasingly able to track every move workers make, USPS employees will find their independence severely curtailed with RFID implementation. For instance, from working at the Post Office and warehouses, I can say that there are all kinds of reasons why workers might want to keep vehicles down, contrary to the wishes of their managers, including reducing work, stretching out hours for overtime or keeping unsafe vehicles off the road. This is what I mean by worker autonomy, and RFID represents a serious attack by the capitalists on this critical independence.

DigitalJournal.com reported a few days ago on RFID, highlighting Wal-Mart's application of the technology.
In 2003, Wal-Mart announced it was going to require its top suppliers to use the tags and after much testing, its RFID campaign went live in January 2005. Execs drooled even more when analysts projected savings of up to $8.35 billion with a complete RFID makeover. How? Simply by making supply chains more efficient.

Before RFID, stockroom clerks would manually record products as they arrived to the store, sifting through order forms to confirm inventory. On the sales floor, if toothpaste was running low, the “associate” (as Wal-Mart calls them) would have to scan the barcode to see how many items were left in stock, then go through the tedious task of finding more Colgate in the crowded stockroom.

But by using RFID, Wal-Mart completely overhauled the process: On every door at the back of the store, the company installed RFID readers and antennas. As each skid and box passes an RFID antenna, a flashing light indicates that the case’s tag had been read — no computer screens, no manual counting. The products are automatically added to the store’s inventory through its computer system.

The retailer also installed RFID readers on doors leading out to the sales floor. As boxes are taken out of the stockroom to replenish shelves, tags on the cases are read and the system updates itself, knowing the items have been put on the floor. If a product is sold out, the computer sends a message to the store manager to indicate what needs replenishing.

In addition to finding product, RFID has the potential to eliminate one of shopping’s worst headaches: the checkout desk. Future versions could allow you to simply walk through an RFID checkout with all of your groceries in hand and readers could automatically debit your bank account or credit card. A cashier’s job might be rendered obsolete.
Cashiering is a horrible, boring and annoying job. I did it for many years. As bad as it is, however, cashiering - especially in grocery stores - is one of the few places left in this country where a relatively unskilled worker - disproportionately women in this case - can earn a decent wage. Is it any wonder that the capitalist wants to eliminate it? Further, imagine the power that RFID checkout hands over to the boss during a strike? It's no "neutral" coincidence that these cashier-less checkouts have proliferated in the last several years. These systems are an attack on workers. Indeed, RFID transfers massive power over production and inventory off the shop floor and into the manager's office, and that's a set-back for workers.

Also from the same article:
One celebrated study from the University of Arkansas reported that RFID-enabled stores had reduced out-of-stock items by 16 per cent. The study also said that RFID-tagged items were put on the shelf three times faster than usual.
With the diminished power of the workers on the shop floor, there is little chance that these efficiencies will result in higher wages for workers. Without the power to collectively challenge the boss's authority, workers will increasingly find themselves on the low end of the pay scale. It's for this reason, among others, that the fight against the boss must include the fight against technology on the floor.


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