Reading Group — 12.02.00 Monday Reading + Article on Unions and Dot-Coms

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Some remnants:
In an effort to add some fragments from previous
meetings. We are adding short descriptions that
were sent out as emails. Before March 2001, the meetings
were shared mainly through a mailing list we maintained.
Eventhough the remnants of correspondences
from 1999-2001 are fragmentary and incomplete,
they give an idea of the kinds of meetings which
were taking place and some of the different questions
and modes involved.

Reading Group — 12.02.00 Monday Reading + Article on Unions and Dot-Coms

SPECIAL NOTE: This Week’s meeting begins at 7:00
(if you can show up no earlier than 8, please still attend)

1. About this Monday
Reading Group at 16 Beaver. This week in conjunction with the Conference CULTURAL CAPITAL/CULTURAL LABOR at NYU/New School we will be reading a text by Andrew Ross, recently published (Summer, 2000) by Social Text. The title of the text is The Mental Labor Problem, for those who would like to seek it out on their own. The subjects of cultural work / labor? (also funding, privatization of culture..etc..) are ones that have interested many people who have been involved with the Reading Group (and several other projects at 16 Beaver for that matter) over the last year+. The idea was to distribute this text and then meet on Monday to discuss our thoughts on the conference and this Ross essay ( he is one of the organizers of the conference and will be presenting ). The reading will be distributed via efax tomorrow or late today (Thursday). It would also be nice to get an update from the Columbia conference if people attend.

2. Unions Next Dot-Com Revolution?
by Farhad Manjoo

Considering the chilly economic times for e-commerce, Friday’s news of layoffs at the consumer electronics site etown.com might have seemed routine: another struggling dot-com sacks employees to stay afloat.

But 13 of the company’s 28 layoffs were in its San Francisco customer service department, where during the past several weeks employees have been engaged in a labor dispute with management. Last Monday, they filed a petition to hold an election that could, eventually, turn the customer service department into a union shop.
To the employees, then, Friday’s layoffs seemed to be a message from management: If you want a union, get out of etown. Management denied it was lashing out at union-lovers, saying that the layoffs had been planned in advance and had been determined by employee seniority, not by who wanted a union and who didn’t.

Given how few employees it really affects — about 30 in all — the etown imbroglio might seem like a fairly trivial matter. But it’s one of the first efforts to organize at a dot-com company.
Because of that, labor leaders and new economy executives alike are paying attention. What happens here, some think, might be happening at other companies soon enough.
Lew Brown — the president and chief operating officer of Collaborative Media, the company that owns etown — said he didn’t think his employees were generally upset with conditions at etown. He disputed claims of workers who said that they were underpaid and badly treated — pointing out that etown’s customer service wages of between $10.50 and $16 per hour were consistent with customer service wages in San Francisco.

But Erin Poh, of the Northern California Media Workers guild, which is trying to organize etown, said that employees’ concerns go beyond pay.

“This is about security,” she said. “Dot-com employees are realizing that they are just that — employees. The honeymoon is over with the idea that you’d join a company and become a millionaire. The stock options are dwindling and the reality is that they face the same issues that workers all over face.”

This end-of-the-honeymoon idea seems to be the central thought among labor activists who are trying to organize new economy workers. Carl Hall, a science reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and the president of Local 39521 of the Newspaper Guild, said that workers in the digital age have pressing reasons to unionize.

“They’re overworked, underpaid, many have no health benefits and no job security,” he said. “More power to them if they become millionaires with their options — but most people don’t become millionaires these days. And do potential millionaires not have a need to get their kids braces before their options pay off?”

Hall is currently in negotiations with the Hearst Corporation to unionize workers at the SF Gate, one of the Web’s first daily news sites.

Hearst, which recently purchased the Chronicle and the Gate, seems to have taken a decidedly more cooperative attitude toward unionization than etown did.

Instead of hiring a law firm such as Jackson & Lewis, which the AFL-CIO says is notoriously anti-union, as etown did, Hearst has agreed that Gate workers will be given the option to join the newspaper guild. All that remains to be negotiated, Hall said, are the details.
Hearst’s accommodation to a union at a dot-com perhaps reflects the fact that it isn’t a new economy corporation, and that it has a long history of dealing with organized labor.
But digital-age companies such as etown — and Amazon, which has also recently had its union troubles — are in a brave new world when it comes to organization.

“Many business may prefer to work in a ‘union-free’ environment,” Poh said. “But they have found that working with unions isn’t all that terrible.”

When etown executives told the employees about the layoffs on Friday, people in the customer service department immediately became suspicious, according to Ruben Cadabes, an employee who did not lose his job.

Cadabes said they had reason to be wary. After employees staged a sickout in October in retaliation for what they thought were inadequate pay raises, two managers who had organized the protest were promptly fired.
Then last week, two other workers who had voiced their disagreements with management were suddenly let go, Cadabes said.

So the layoffs seemed “awkward,” Cadabes said. “To an extent, I understand their reasoning. They did it to get funding. And I expected there would be layoffs — but not half the call center.”
Cadabes said that the employees had started a drive to unionize because they were given extra responsibilities without pay, and because they felt they had no job security. He added that the latest layoffs highlight the security issue.

“All these guys that were working today, they had no clue that they would be fired,” he said.
But Lew Brown knew they were coming, and that’s what matters, he said. Brown said that because the layoffs were decided upon two weeks ago at a board meeting, they are clearly not a reaction to the union drive.

“The six people we know of who signed the petition are still here,” he said. “The people who were laid off were those who were hired most recently.”

“And we didn’t lay off 15 other people from other departments in order to get to a union effort — it’s not like we would try to disable our organization to do that,” Brown said.

Brown was emphatic on the key point. “No one has been terminated for any kind of union activity.”
Asked whether he thought a union would be a bad thing for etown, Brown said he didn’t know. “I’m not familiar enough with this particular union,” he said of the Northern California Media Workers guild.


For Mondays we often like to distribute work, notes, readings to accompany presentations. In these cases we use this messenger as a simple and cost efficient way of distributing the materials. The download is short (it is a small program) and quite simple to use. It allows you to read digital faxes (and of course to print them). When you follow the link below, please make sure to download the correct viewer. There is one for Windows and one for Mac. The one for Mac will take a bit longer to download. Here is the link,

4. Ed – 12/4 Monday Meeting Recap
Date: 12/8/00

16 Beaver Group:
This Monday’s dialogue focused on issues foregrounded by the Conference on Cultural Capital/Cultural Labor at NYU/New School and Andrew Ross’s text The Mental Labor Problem. We began with some questions raised during a panel discussion at the conference including: What is at stake when artists unionize? To what degrees will accountability, singularity, productivity, passion and pleasure be modified? What practical, possible and realistic concerns will benefit from unionizing? To the latter question, we imagined the elimination of the great disparity between emerging artists, who pay for many elements of their first shows (including publicity, installation, materials, rent?) and fully [corporately] sponsored artists whose expenses are “covered.”

We explored aspects that separate artists from other fields; John expressed that quantifying project oriented and conceptual artwork would be exceedingly difficult, since one project can develop quickly while another can take months to resolve. As a result, forming scales for compensation would be a challenge. Would compensation apply differently to painters, performance, installation and conceptual art? And what of the possibility of art-scabs, looking for their first show? Patrick and others drew eloquent comparisons between art unions and those of professional sports, .coms, hip-hop, teachers and janitors.

Following a thread form the Ross essay, we discussed possible, philosophical foils to the union structure that are inherent to some artist personas: Will a fear of complicity thwart an attempt to build consensus among artists? Will the oppositionality of certain artists’ content preclude them from colluding with others? Perhaps, some artists would resist the diminishing of their own cultural capital, which some consider compromised by financial compensation. Some of us questioned what benefit (if any) artists, who are presently validated by institutions, would derive from joining a union. In the end, is this cause worth tapering their proliferating artistic presence?

Paige elaborated on the perception of art as “second shift” labor, which fits into off-the-clock time; this further obfuscates the quantification of artistic processes…

Our conversation turned to address and readdress [often inadequate and/or stereotypical] definitions of art, occupation and art as occupation.

Again, we concluded with many questions and great, probing tenacity. These topics will likely be revisited at a future time.

Until then…