A Call For Change

Many of the candidates hoping to be the next US president have jumped on the bandwagon of ‘change’. They’ve eventually come to realize that the American public is so fed up with eight years of George W Bush and his lackeys, no candidate will make headway without constant reference to ‘change’.

There is, however, another change taking place, not just in America, but throughout the capitalist world. It’s insidious, creeping, and its been around far longer than George W Bush, or even some of those who preceded him.

This particular change is a gradual backwards slide into what can only be described as a modern form of slavery.

It may not have begun when the cocktail shaker of fate blended Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, but that ungodly combination became the catalyst that is today transforming the working lives of millions of ordinary people, by the gradual introduction of working practices that would have been considered inhumane fifty or more years ago.

In today’s workplace, experience and expertise are no longer of value. Both in the private sector, and within government departments like the Social Security Administration, the thirst to achieve more with less is forcing a multi-tasking environment that sees business banking experts manning teller positions and highly skilled Social Security Claims Representatives in the role of receptionists. Both are relatively highly paid workers forced to play out demeaning roles once manned by junior clerks.

This situation is now common throughout the western business world, particularly in public service industries, and results from a short-term, cut-staff-numbers-to-increase-profit, policy that relied heavily on the ability of computers to replace humans in the workplace. That policy is failing at an appalling rate.

Computers have not realized the corporate dream of a near worker-free company environment. For most service industry and government workers the opposite has been the case. Computers produce more work, not less. Add to that the endless frustrations of ever-changing software designed to improve on older versions, but more often developed by eager young college grads hoping to make a name for themselves, and with no comprehension of the day to day workings of the environment in which the product will operate (on the occasions it doesn’t continually crash and increase worker frustration) and the interminable staff training sessions on how to use it, and the recipe is a workplace in chaos, without sufficient experienced and able staff in attendance.

Few of us have not experienced the automated voice machine followed by interminable minutes spent holding while ‘“….our customer service representatives are dealing with other customers….” when we attempt to query a bill, or report a faulty line, at our local utility or telephone company. If we achieve the seemingly impossible and connect eventually with a human voice, it is to find a harassed, stressed to the eye-balls, call-center clerk who’s already dealt with twenty irate callers, and he’s only been at work an hour.

Employees are being used more and more as organic computers in the workplace. Rights, long fought for by the trade unionists of yesteryear, are being systematically eroded at an alarming rate.

Finding evidence, other than hearsay, to support this view is difficult as employees have no job security and are reluctant to openly criticize their senior management. Here is one account from 2001, by an employee, ‘Stefan’, of the National Westminster Bank in Britain:

I’m a Natwest employee. One of more that 20 years standing I might add. I’ve always been (and hopefully will remain) one of the Banks front line troops. Either face to face or on the telephone discussing my “specialist subject” of business lending.
Anyway, to the point of this mail. Steady deterioration in the quality of customer service and ever increasing bureaucracy has not only disillusioned the poor customer but has also taken its tool on the the Banks staff who are ever more frustrated and weary due to the fact that they are unable to provide a quality service with the restrictive tools provided. Gradual removal of empowerment to people such as myself who have the experience and demonstrated ability is an even stronger factor. Delivery of common sense approach banking is all but dead albeit that it remains latent in those of us who remember and have the interpersonal and technical skills to carry it out if allowed to do so. Nowadays, I’m sorry to say that I work for an organization whose so called middle management simply live in constant fear of being usurped by somebody younger, cheaper and far less experienced. Top management is (and always has been ) untouchable and untouched by the common employee. This is an organization where the troops carry out the function of passing customers and paperwork from pillar to post (and back again). Most are now brainwashed (I’m sorry to say) into thinking that this is the he way to get things done. Those of us who know (or remember) that there is a better way go unheard and despite how loud we shout, we never seem to get past the early stages of management because they’re working on a somewhat different agenda!!!”

Employees are suffering high stress levels due to the ever increasing pressure to perform multi-tasking (this involves handling their own workload, already way above normal due to staffing cuts at their own level, plus the work of more minor employees not replaced when their positions become vacant) and the overall effect of these policies is to severely cut the service many companies are offering to the public.

Profit, at any cost, is today’s business maxim, and who cares about losing customers when there are plenty more out there.

In the corporate, multi-national world, changing your bank simply means moving from one named establishment to another run by the same conglomerate. Big companies don’t lose customers, they just shuffle them around. As Stefan from NatWest says, they pass paperwork and customers “from pillar to post”.

The US Social Security Administration has cut its staffing levels by over 3,600 in the last two years. SSA employees, always under huge pressure in an extremely difficult job, are working longer hours, often twelve hour days, sometimes six days a week, and are still bogged down with cases extending back two years or more.

As an anonymous employee told me a few weeks ago:

“We now regularly have claimants forced out of their homes and living solely on food stamps because their claims are taking so long to process.”

Back in November 2006, the Washington Post’s Stephen Barr wrote of the SSA:

“……In a letter sent last week to the Senate Finance Committee, the GAO warned that Social Security is coping with staff shortages and operating under a hiring freeze just as the agency’s workload is expected to jump because of the [Medicare] premium increases. The GAO, the congressional auditing agency, noted that the premium change, though approved by Congress in 2003, may come as a surprise to some beneficiaries.”

This ‘hiring freeze’ is still in force over one year later, and has been a continuing process going back beyond the 1990’s. A large proportion of SSA employees are presently reaching retirement age, yet are not replaced. In one office alone, a workforce once seventeen strong (not including management) is now down to twelve. The workload was heavy when there were seventeen.

The Washington Post article continues:

“Mark Lassiter, a Social Security spokesman, said the agency plans to shift workloads among field offices if some offices “are getting disproportionately hit” by telephone calls and visits from Medicare beneficiaries.

He expressed confidence that the agency’s 1,300 field offices will be able to handle any surge in work. “We do the work we are assigned to get done,” he said.” [my bold]

How terribly noble and righteous of Mark Lassiter to make such a pronouncement. “Backs to the wall, lads. Give it all you’ve got!” Of course, Lassiter is the SSA’s chief press officer, on a stinking high salary and definitely not one of those “doing the work assigned to be done”.

Lassiter is also a liar. He knows full well the work is not being done, and it is the poor and needy who suffer most as a result.

But his attitude echoes senior management and board rooms, not just in America but in the UK, and if Sarkozy gets his way, in France as well.

The US SSA is financially controlled by Congress, all of whom are well-used to reclining in soft leather armchairs at various high-level board meetings scheming how to wring one more drop of blood from the workers on the ground floor.

If this situation is allowed to continue, the middle class of America will see its standard of living spiral ever downwards; a process already begun and part of the reason for the clamor for change that is gripping those Washington hopefuls. Removing George W Bush from office will not, however, prove the universal panacea that rights all wrongs, for what is happening is much bigger than George Bush, or Barack Obama, or any other politician.

The ‘change’ being so rapturously pledged by hopefuls in New Hampshire this week will not effect boardroom policies one iota.

This is not about repairing a broken government, but a dysfunctional system. Capitalism itself is fractured. The unmitigated greed of a relatively few individuals, unwilling to share their vast wealth more proportionately, is causing the fabric of capitalism to crack and rend.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in America today. The poor are ignored; those who work are abused, often low paid, insecure.

Where are the trade unions in 21st century America? Their leaders are drinking in the same bars as the bosses. Today, most unions are nothing more than money-making machines just like the companies for whom their members slave. Union dues ensure union leaders join the ranks of company directors and CEO’s, where workplace practices can be defined and agreed over a bourbon and soda in some exclusive Washington club.

For many, many years our fathers and grandfathers fought for the rights of the working man. It was because of their efforts that many Americans are now able to call themselves, not ‘working class’, but middle class. Now, everything our predecessors fought for is being taken away, methodically and deliberately. If the working people of America, and Britain, and France are not prepared to stand up for their hard-earned rights, the western world will continue to slip back into the industrial dark ages.

“Time for a change!” is the cry of the political hopefuls at the New Hampshire primary, but this time it is not the politicians who can help the working people.

This time the working people must begin to help themselves.

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6 Replies to “A Call For Change”

  1. Where is the outcry?
    If you ask the sheeple they don’t have time, RJA, they are too busy working overlong hours, feeding the kids and paying the mortgage which has now ballooned.
    “Change” is ringing so hollow for me. Barack and Hillary have been bought and paid for by Big Pharm and Wall Street.
    The whole structure needs to change from the bottom up with corporate donations a thing of the past.
    Quote from one of my brothers, a senior executive at an international bank when those ubiqitous banking machines began littering the outside walls of walls:
    “There we have you, out in the street, in the rain, where you belong”
    He meant it.
    And this philosopy could be applied to so much else. Think gas stations for starters.
    Well said, RJA, I don’t see any changes by politicians either, we are the ones who have to change. We have to stop feeding the machines.

  2. You paint a depressing scenario, RJ. It makes me even more relieved to be among the ranks of the retired.

    I worked for 24 years in the UK Civil Service (Industrial/Employment Tribunals), I saw our office move from totally “pen and paper” and manual typewriters, to the brink of “no paper files”, highly computerised, ultra-efficient. Saw it expand, expand and expand. We were shunted between Downing Street departments: Employment Department, then Dept. of Trade and Industry, and lately I understand it has been moved again and attached to the Lord Chancellor’s Department and the courts.

    I have happy memories of a well-run department and well-run regional office (which I had a hand in myself). Staff were well treated compared to many in non-government jobs, and our pensions were safe and generous. It was no cake-walk and could be stressful at times, but I have no complaints at all. Things nowadays may not be the same.

    I do see a very different picture here in the USA.
    From the few contacts I’ve had with government offices I don’t see the same standard of efficiency we were expected to meet. Perhaps I’ve been unlucky. The USCIS is a case in point. Incompetence run riot! Same goes for the health insurance companies and medical departments – so much duplication of paperwork – you’d think the computer hadn’t been invented yet! And the banks, at least in this state, seem to be years and years behind in their systems, copmpared with banks in the UK.

    I’ve been surprised at low standards here in the USA. Perhaps it IS due to lack of general unionisation. Vacation leave and sick leave are miserly compared with the UK, where unions have helped in raising standards over many years, especially before Maggie Thatcher came on the scene. Staff who are tired and dispirited will never give of their best.

    Like you, I’m cynical about the extent of change any new president will be able to effect. The corporations have gained too big a hold on things. Step by small step is the best to be hoped for. I hope that, as long as a Democrat becomes president – any one of the current candidates, things will get a tiny bit better, rather than a lot worse, if a Republican were to win again.

  3. WWW – “sheeple” is a good name. Clinton had only to sniff and wipe her eye for New Hampshire sheeple to change their votes. That’s assuming a ‘fair’ vote, of course. The opinion polls were remarkably wrong.

    Twilight – Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers’ strike while Thatcher was busy with similar tactics in Britain. As a result, neither nation now has strong unions. It is the fault of the people. When the transport workers went on strike in New York, public sympathy rapidly evaporated when they found they had to walk to work. They should have stayed home, on strike in sympathy. Bloomberg’s grin would have faded rapidly, had they done so. On the subject of a Democratic president, Clinton says she’s for universal healthcare yet takes nearly two million dollars in campaign funding from the “health” industry. I doubt much will change. Incidentally, Obama has accepted 1.6 million dollars from the same source.

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