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Monday, February 05, 2007

One union wakes up to the threat of technology at work

The New York City government has plans to spend $180 million dollars on hand scanners for all city employees. The government says it's just so that they can track work hours, not to gather information on workers (if so, what was their objection to with time cards?).

The local union, however, has not been pacified by the "privacy will be protected" argument that employers routinely trot out in cases like these (essentially: "Sure, we're going to track you, but we won't share that information with a third party"). In a Reuters article that ran Monday, the Civil Service Technical Guild, recognizing the class war implications of the technology, has denounced the scanners as amounting to "geo-slavery."
[T]he planned roll-out of hand geometry scanners in all New York City government agencies has sparked union cries of "geoslavery" and assertions that technology developed for security will be used to track, label and control workforces.

"It's frustrating, it's kind of an insult," Colson, 53, told Reuters. "They are talking about going to voice and retina scanners and that's an invasion of privacy in that they can track you wherever you go."

Jon Forster, of the Civil Service Technical Guild, which represents Department of Design and Construction workers, said the biometric systems gave the city a license to obtain personal, uniquely identifiable data to track workers.

"It's really a matter of this kind of technology having far outstripped any legislation or even case law in the United States in terms of what are the restrictions," Forster told Reuters.

"On the one hand I think people might all agree that if you put a GPS system in ambulances then that's a good thing. On the other hand you have an employer in Ohio who has demanded that two of his employees have chips implanted in their bodies."

If these are the extremes, the question is where does the line get drawn?" he said.
These are important questions for workers and their organizations to be asking. In the age of high technology, the class war has increasingly become technologized as well. While applying technology to attack workers power isn't new, these days the technological assault has broadened to the point of near ubiquity. Very soon, such technology will be everywhere, and the ability of workers to organize autonomously for their own ends, much less to directly confront technology, will be extremely limited. We need to attack now, while there is still time and space to do so.

However, an expert interviewed expressed this interesting dissent:
Biometrics expert Jim Wayman, who consults for the US, British and Australia governments, said mobile phones and credit cards were the "No. 1 enemies" for workers worried about geoslavery, not biometrics.

"There may be large forces at work in western society wishing to enslave the workforce. I want to acknowledge that fear. But hand geometry is not part of this," Wayman, who has studied biometrics for more than two decades, told Reuters.

He said monitoring computer and phone usage were the "tools by which an employer would seek to enslave the workforce - it would not be done through biometrics."
This is an important dissent, because it shows that the attack is multi-faceted, meaning that our critique of technology must go deeper than one technology or another. We have to be willing to develop a expansive view of the class war nature of technology and, at the same time, be prepared to engage in a fight along a broad front if we are successfully to challenge the high tech attack on our power at work.

Just how broad? American workers would do well to learn a lesson that immigrant workers are learning right now, as the US government trots out its new IMAGE program. Under pressure from the ever more reactionary white working and middle classes - themselves under attack by an increasingly globalized capitalism - the government, through ICE, has begun inviting companies to voluntarily run workers' information through a variety of government databases in order to single out those workers with papers from those without. By doing this, white working class Americans hope to defend their relative but shrinking privilege through the tried and true method of attacking the non-white section of their own class, effectively eliminating the competition.

This is important to understand, because many reactionary workers on the right, who are opposed to undocumented workers, have been advocating for a broad worker database ('Worker Verification') by which every worker will have to be approved in order to gain employment (thus betraying their commitment to white supremacy over libertarian values). In fact, some anti-immigrant organizations, like WeHireAliens.com have set about creating their own databases. Aside from the clumsy attack on workers power that the vigilante databases represent, how could a basic technology like a government computer database of all workers be used for class war applications?
Pittman called Smithfield's agreement with ICE "a business decision" resulting from an implied threat. "We knew raids could be a possibility," he said. "We felt going this way, there would be less of an effect."

But Smithfield received an added benefit from cooperating with the government, according to the union that is helping its workers organize. Union officials say the company submitted the names of organizers as a tactic to intimidate some workers and get rid of others. The officials note that the National Labor Relations Board has found that Smithfield worked to undermine union elections by intimidating employees in 1994 and 1997.
"Most of the leaders of a walkout in November are on their list," said Leila McDowell, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers. "Whether ICE is consciously in collusion or not, Smithfield could very easily manipulate the process and can use it as a tool to intimidate and threaten workers, which it has done in the past and been found to have done so illegally."
New technologies very often find their initial application against vulnerable populations like immigrants and other minorities. It doesn't take long, however, for them to spread to even broader sections of society. By supporting the application of database technology to immigrants, white workers are unknowingly sowing the seeds of their own regulation and, eventually, their defeat. Just like the effects of biometrics cannot possibly be limited to merely clocking in and out each day at work, the effects of a computer database of all workers cannot be held to just undocumented workers. Our opposition to technologies in the workplace must be broad and militant.

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