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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Sweat Shop Abuses in the High-Tech Age

July 28, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Modern automobile assembly plants were once labeled "gold-plated sweat shops" by the late union leader Walter Reuther because almost every motion of the hard-pressed workers was controlled minute by minute by rapidly moving assembly lines.

Distressingly, our high-tech society has allowed employers to impose that sort of rigid discipline on millions of once comparatively independent office workers.

Computers can monitor every motion of office workers--every second of every working day. Supervisors use computers to, among other things, count the number of times a worker strikes the keyboard of a word processor.

If an office worker goes to the bathroom, that trip is often logged by the computer. If the toilet visit takes longer than the supervisor believes appropriate, the worker can be asked to explain.

At some companies, workers are even subjected to subliminal messages flashed on the screens of word processors. They range from benign phrases like "my world is calm" to offensive ones like "work faster."

Several studies have shown that second-by-second electronic surveillance of workers significantly increases job-related stress and often diminishes efficiency.

Usually, workers know they are being watched by their machines. But electronic supervision often is surreptitious.

An estimated 10 million of the 15 million workers who use video display terminals are regularly monitored, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Telephones, too, play an increasingly important role in management's surveillance of workers. Employees' telephones are often bugged to make sure workers follow company rules.

The practice is legal everywhere but in California and West Virginia, which have sensible anti-bugging laws requiring employers to use a "beep" signal when monitoring calls.

Even in California, employees' telephones are being tapped. A temporary court injunction suspending the state law has been obtained by the airline industry, which contends that the telephone tapping issue has been preempted by federal legislation.

Shades of Frederick W. Taylor!

Taylor was the genius behind mass production, made possible by his idea of breaking big jobs into many small, easily performed tasks that could be performed on assembly lines controlled by management.

Taylor figured that jobs in what he called the new scientific age of the early 1900s had to be made so simple that "a child or a gorilla" could perform them.

He said that closely supervised, simple jobs were needed because average workers could not understand more complex tasks because of their "lack of education or insufficient mental capacity."

But managers of assembly-line factories finally are recognizing the dehumanizing effects of Taylorism. Increasingly, factory workers are getting more complex and more interesting jobs. And companies are giving workers more and more responsibility for everything from quality control to production quotas to assembly-line speed.

Many office managers, though, are heading in the opposite direction by adopting Taylor's attitude of simple jobs for simple-minded people.

A few, very minimal steps may be taken soon to put some limits on these worker abuses, which are spreading rapidly in this electronic age.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress and in several state legislatures to curb telephone bugging, for instance. Modest bills in Congress proposed by Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) would prohibit employers from secretly listening to employees' telephone calls. That is similar to the California law.

Industry is fighting the legislation, arguing that workers' phone calls must be closely monitored to make sure they treat customers according to rules laid down by management.

Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America, told a House subcommittee the other day that "this insidious management practice" doesn't affect just workers.

"While most Americans believe their telephone calls are private and free from bugging, in fact, hundred of millions of calls (from consumers) are secretly listened in to," he said.

Bugging has long been a problem in the telephone industry, and the union's complaints have had little effect. Complaints by individual workers do little good, either.

Take the case of Mary L. Williams, who insists that her angry criticism of the practice led to her dismissal last week as a reservation clerk for United Airlines.

On June 23, she went on Ted Koppel's ABC television news program, "Nightline," to denounce the bugging of conversations between employees and customers as well as eavesdropping on personal conversations among co-workers.

Three days later, Williams received a letter from United instructing her to see a psychiatrist about her use of a long medical leave for a foot operation.

United said that it was only a coincidence that she was asked to go to a psychiatrist shortly after her appearance on the Koppel show, and that could be true.

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