or, "World Wide Web Workers Unite"
July 29, 2001
The other day, one of my co-workers (someone a couple of ranks up from me and in another department) told me it was okay -- that I wasn't really a slacker at work. That because this wasn't my career of choice and I was spending a lot of extra time working on my acting career, my poor work ethic was somewhat understandable, but the fact that a few of my co-workers worked no harder than me (despite the lack of second career) was reprehensible.
I stood for a moment, blinking. It's true -- my day job is not my career of choice. I do spend a lot of my outside-of-work time trying to forward my sadly floundering acting career. However, I still work 9-10 hours a day, and I spend at least a few hours working at home every weekend. I told her this, and expressed my amazement that a 50+ hour work week should be considered "slacking." Her response: "That's the way it is now."
It brings to mind another anecdote. This one happened maybe four months ago. A friend of mine (a business development guy for the dot-com which laid me off last October) was telling a story about a company run by a mutual acquaintance of ours. It seems that while the director of software development there had been assigning his engineers' available work hours to upcoming projects, he allotted exactly 40 hours per worker per week. Well, when the company higher-ups found this out, they told him that he should be planning for 60 hours of work for each of his engineers every week. He refused, was fired, and was replaced by a director who was more willing to squeeze the life out of his guys.
I expressed my horror at the fact that any boss should be fired for trying to keep his engineers from burning out. I pointed out that projects inevitably run long (feature-bloat and whatnot), and those forty hours would quickly become 50 or more when real-life kicked in anyway. Planning for 60 means that your guys will really end up working 70 or 80, and burn out like shooting stars. My friend (we'll call him "Horace" 'cause it'll piss him off) disagreed. "They should be working 60 hours a week, at least," Horace said, "that's what they get paid so much for." I suggested that they don't get paid all that much, and are paid well because they do a highly skilled job that only a few understand, and even fewer can do well. Horace just laughed and shook his head like I was a mildly retarded child.
I can't say I've always been immune to this workaholic temperament that pervades the dot-com industry. At my second dot-com startup (where I was among the first 30 employees), I worked 12-14 hour days pretty regularly. I have horrifying memories of the 8 days straight I spent at work right after our initial launch, sleeping under my desk for a few hours each night, so I could help provide much-needed post-launch support. But, in those heady days of 1999 (it seems like so much longer ago), all of us who were working our butts off were doing it with a goal in mind. Though my salary was low, my stock option grants were extremely generous. If I worked my tail off and the company did well and the stock rose, I'd be rewarded when I could cash in my options. If I worked hard enough, long enough, and the stock rose far enough, I could cash out in just a few years, and devote myself to acting full-time. The company knew this, and offered more and more benefits to those of us willing to put forth the extra effort.
We all know how it really turned out. The market bubble burst, we were all laid off, and the ex-CEOs and CFOs walked away with piles of cash, while we started looking for new jobs that still paid enough so that we could make our rent.
I don't mean to whine overmuch here -- I've got a wide range of some pretty strong skills, so I was never out of work long, though I've had more than one dot-com fold under me. I've got a decent gig now. It pays fairly well, and it is one of the few mythical profitable dot-coms, so my job is fairly stable.
But, what we "veterans" are finding in our new gigs is that, even though the golden carrots like piles of great stock options and bonus incentives for meeting tough deadlines are a long gone, our bosses still expect us to work just as much, or more, than we ever did in those days of $90 shares and $1 options. Now, instead of being incented, we are threatened with job loss. The job market is slack for geeks, and if we don't work like slaves for mediocre wages, there are 5 more geeks behind us who have been out of work for months and are desperate to make rent. So, we buckle down, work weekends, apologize to our wives and girlfriends, and kiss our bosses asses. In some places, with threats of job cuts looming, workers stab each other in the back, looking to save their jobs by forcing the elimination of their cube mates.
In the 1920's as the Depression came crashing down, workers desperate to feed their families actually bid, auction-style for their daily wages. Everyone was a day-worker and a boss would go to whatever alley in which the workers hung out, announce a job, and the workers would fight each other for it, underbidding their day's wages until the final amount wasn't nearly enough to live on anyway. The winner would go work a 12 hour day or longer, get a few hours' sleep, and go back and fight his peers again the next day.
That's not quite what is happening in the tech world, yet. The jobs are pretty highly skilled and require a lot of experience in many cases, so most of us are in the middle to high middle classes and we are far from starving. But we are working under slave conditions, under the threat of termination if we don't work weekends and evenings, even while we are on vacation. And, because we do it, it will never stop.
My boss confessed to my team recently that there is no structure in place at my company for regular reviews and merit-based salary increases. He's been at my company for over a year, and never had a review or any hope of an increase. We have 401k, but there are no matching funds from the company at all, and there are no immediate plans to put that in place. With no hope of increase or promotion or fewer hours down the road, why should we burn ourselves out this way? There is only one reason -- if we don't, we will get fired. In fact, one recent morning, we arrived at work to the announcement that roughly ten percent of my department had been laid off quickly, quietly, and without any warning to us or to those workers. Because the number was relatively small compared to the whole company (less than one percent), there was no fanfare and no press announcement. They arrived at work, and were told to go home. They'll have severance, of course, but in this job market, that is small comfort for most.
The rest of us gathered with our supervisors, looking for some assurance that we'd not be next -- the supervisors did their best to reassure us, but the truth was they didn't have anything to tell us. They hadn't known the job cuts were coming any more than we did. So we all, from middle-management on down, labor away with the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. Our incentive for our hard work is not monetary reward, or chance of promotion, or even recognition. It is the simple fear that any morning we could arrive at work, turn on our computers, and find that our network access has been removed. There'll be a cardboard box waiting on our desks, and a security guard to escort us to our cars. And that will be all.
So it is time that the dot-coms unionize. It sounds silly to some, but I'm serious. Actors are unionized so that we are not worked to death for unreasonable pay (I'm a member of SAG and AFTRA ). Pilots unionize so that they are paid for the risks they take and so that their hours are reasonable. Technology workers are working far too hard and too long for our salary. We are skilled workers, and we are human beings with lives and families. And we are being used and disrespected by big companies that treat us like indentured servants because the market is slack and they know we have few other options.
Sadly, I'm not Caezar Chavez or Harry Bridges or Crystal Lee Sutton. I don't have the heart or the balls to do what they did. I'm just an actor who pays his bills by working at a dot-com. But. I'm surrounded by people for whom this technology job is a career -- people who have families they never see and friends who've long forgotten them and who live in fear of being canned every day if they are seen leaving work before 6:30 in the evening, or before their supervisor leaves, no matter how high the quality of their work.
In late 2000, customer support workers at Amazon.com made an attempt to unionize. Amazon fought back with a campaign to warn managers about the signs of impending unionization among workers, and management held many long anti-union meetings. Ultimately, when the stock market dipped further in early 2001, they were given the proper excuse to lay off the offending workers before any voting could take place.
This is one example that, like any other historical union movement, this will be a long, hard fight.
But, if the result of that fight is that we can go to work every day without dreading our initial network log-in, and go home every night after 8 or 9 or 10 hours of work without a sick feeling in our stomachs that says "what if my boss notices I'm gone already," it will be worth it.