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[whitespace] Eggheads Unite!

You have nothing to lose but your yolks

By Annalee Newitz

WAY BACK IN 1992, right around the holiday season, I was on strike. We had to arrive on the picket lines at 7am. In the freezing cold, hundreds of graduate student instructors at UC-Berkeley were striking--not for more pay or benefits or a better work environment, but so the university would recognize us as workers.

You see, when you're a teacher, you're in a very sick, twisted branch of the service industry. The situation could be compared with that of customer service reps in the computer industry--such as those who are trying to unionize at Amazon.com and Microsoft and our own etown.com. For most service workers, it's hard to say what kind of product you're producing. A better-educated and more informed human? Luckily, customer service reps aren't under the illusion that they're offering some kind of philosophical enlightenment to customers. In the education biz, however, teachers are told that they're supposed to be spreading knowledge out of a love of learning, not money. And that's the sort of bizarre logic that allowed the university to tell us graduate student instructors that we weren't actually workers.

The university, although it was paying us by the hour to teach, insisted that we weren't employees--we were students "learning to teach," who were getting "stipends," not salaries. Since we weren't real workers, of course, our departments didn't have to provide job descriptions to us, nor did they have to engage in anything remotely resembling fair hiring practices (to give credit where it's due, some departments did make an effort to follow fair hiring standards).

Our strike that year was crushed soundly, although since I've graduated, the Association of Graduate Student Employees (AGSE) has been recognized as a union and is affiliated with the UAW.

The sad thing in 1992 wasn't just that our strike was crushed, but how it happened. The university administration got us to go back to work by saying that we would "let down" our students if we continued to refuse to teach them and give them grades. Instead of behaving like workers who deserved to be recognized and respected as such, the majority of striking instructors were cowed into handing out grades, thus breaking the strike and making us look like obedient students rather than righteous workers in solidarity. Even though the strike was broken, several of us were fired, although not in my department.

Therefore, when I hear the latest news from the unionizing front on etown.com or Amazon, I feel like I'm in Die Hard With a Vengeance: I've been through this crap before, and so I felt personally involved when I read a press release from the customer service reps at etown.com, who report that they "will vote January 12 on union representation, following the first-ever petition filed for a dot-com workforce under the National Labor Relations Board." Meanwhile, I can check out the progress of unionization at Amazon through their customer service reps' website, Day 2: www.

The fact is, unionizing is one of those political acts which are also profoundly personal. It's about community building, but it's also about individuals making an ethical choice to help out their office mates. Erin Poh, a local representative of the Northern California Media Workers Guild who is helping with the etown.com case, said, "It's about the person working next to you. It's important to remember that we look out for each other--that's what unions are for. We all need dignity. If workers have a collective voice in their workplace, we know we can make their lives happier and more stable."

When I think about unionizing dotcoms, I always think about coders. My friends are coders. They work insanely, under unstable conditions and with uncertain futures. They have no sense of collectivity, except for the sort of camaraderie that comes from coding together. Sure, they're making shitloads of money compared to people like me, or customer service reps or janitors or whatever. But what about when the cash runs out? What happens when they're too tired to work crazy hours, when they get older, when they suddenly need benefits?

Too often, I hear coders talking about their work as if they weren't really laborers. They view themselves as people who do it for love, who are indispensable to their companies, who are "too valuable" to get screwed over the way the customer service reps are. But they're not. Look around at the economic rubble, kids: coders won't be spared when the money evaporates. And nobody is going to protect you except your fellow workers. They know what you're going through. They've seen this crap before.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who once wept while reading Georg Lukacs. Reach her at [email protected].

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From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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