Surviving the New Economy
Editor: John Amman, Tris Carpenter, Gina Neff
Publisher: Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007
Review Published: September 2009
We appreciate Dr. Rosales-Sequeiros's thorough reading of our book. We conceived of this edited volume as a broad-reaching critique of both work and technology within what is widely called "the new economy." As the review pointed out, our authors covered a fair amount of ground, from the creative efforts of high tech workers to organize, to local economic development in Silicon Valley, to a history of technologies in the workplace, to the impact of globalization and increasing economic insecurity on IT workers.
The initial spark for this collection came from a pair of articles written by Amman and Carpenter which promoted an "old media," entertainment industry model of workforce organization and of unionism as a possible route for "new media" IT professionals. In less than ten years since then, we see a collapse of the distinction between "old" and "new" media, as technological innovations blur the lines between the distribution of online and broadcast content. Old" media companies are attempting to address the very real economic pressures placed upon them, and their options are limited. A surge in high-bandwidth internet access, increasing ownership of internet-enabled mobile devices, and an explosion of content generated for the internet threaten to fundamentally and permanently change the business of media.
While studios and networks figure out a way to make money off web content -- something that's managed to befuddle technology giants -- they face pressure to cut their costs to compete with freely distributed content. As the flat screen and the web browser merge, the economic foundations of the "old" media industries collapse. The questions that remain are truly fundamental: Who will pay for content and how and where will the people who make that content work?
The effect of this seismic shift is certainly felt by the unions that represent these workers. As we see it, the information technology workforce and the creative workforce are now more similar than ever, with Google as much (if not more) in the content business as NBC. The most convincing evidence of this is the fact that the central issues in recent labor union disputes in the film and television industry concern payments for content distributed across new media. Wherever the line between old and new media may be ultimately drawn, the technological changes in content distribution mean that companies will push more and more of their economic risk onto the people that work for them.
And this bears out one of the main conclusions we reach in our book. The issues facing the information technology (IT) workforce now affect the U.S. workforce more broadly, particularly the contingent nature of work, employer abdication of responsibility for health and retirement benefits, and an increasingly competitive and fluid labor market. Neither their skills nor their industry can protect high tech workers from the increasing economic insecurity that they face. Although they have key differences, the high tech workers profiled in our book share challenges, triumphs, and frustrations with the "old" media workers -- as well as with low-skill workers across the U.S economy. We argue that it is these economic and political forces, more than any technological changes of the last twenty years, that define the new economy.
We felt that it was essential for our book to be more than just a critique; we also wanted to explore solutions to the problems created by this economic insecurity. For that reason, another goal of our book was to continue to promote the idea that what is needed is an organizational structure that retains the best of the historical roots and intentions of both the AFL and the CIO while redressing the problems of contemporary workers. More than simply a theoretical solution, we point out these characteristics in places where high tech workers are, in fact, organizing. To be clear, it was not our intention to be unduly harsh on existing labor movement organizations -- just that certain structures may not work with a far more transient workforce (and more geographically mobile workplaces) than we've ever seen before.
The U.S. labor movement simply cannot fight the problems of the contingent workplace of the 21st century with 20th century weapons -- it's like sending up old fashioned union biplanes in a dogfight against corporate F16s. Innovations and adaptations of the best strategies from the labor movement's history may work for the IT workforce as well as offer ways to security for the rest of the U.S. economy.
Finally, one of our key arguments is that the forces that created the new economy are themselves not new. The current financial crisis in the U.S. and around the world is far more profound and troubling than the dot-com crash that we examined. However, the root causes -- the practice of financial institutions of passing risk onto unsuspecting others and a nearly naive belief in an ever expanding economy -- are the same. Over the course of the last few decades, corporations have passed on more and more risk to their employees whether that meant higher healthcare premiums, 401(k) plans in lieu of more stable union pensions or limiting workers' rights to union representation by labeling them "associates" or "supervisors." Economic risk was glamorized and welcomed during the dot-com era, as savvy corporations passed risk on to employees more eager to share in its rewards than able to bear its costs. However, what we learned through editing this book was that there is nothing new in this struggle. Whether the 1880s, the 1930s, or today, corporations have always looked for ways to cut or minimize labor costs particularly in times of technological change. History also teaches us that the only sure way to limit corporate excesses is through effective systems of organizing workers to protect their common interests.
This is where labor unions typically come in. However, for unions to be effective their structures and tools must have relevance for the economies in which they exist. We argue that for much of the economy a labor movement based on an industrial or purely craft model cannot adequately attract, organize, and represent a largely contingent workforce. In addition, the new employment relationships of the IT sector make obsolete U.S. labor laws even more antiquated and less effectual. When healthcare costs increase faster than inflation for years, the housing bubble erases fragile home equity, and nest eggs are smashed in the stock market crash, economic risks become very real to average Americans. Current policy debates underscore the insecurities that people are facing. The lessons from the history of the dot-com crash and the experience of the IT workers within it may well teach us how to readdress these concerns. Until then, the U.S. may be doomed to repeat these mistakes of in the booms and busts of future new economies.
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