Workplace Politics: Honeywell Capers

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Workplace Politics: Honeywell Capers

by Alex Szejman

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 1, January 1973, p. 11 – 13

In June of 1972, after having worked for Honeywell for a period of three years, I was fired. The firing was in all likelihood precipated by my political and organizational activities.

Honeywell Information Systems is a branch of Honeywell corporation specializing in the manufacturing computers. In 1968 Honeywell launched a major effort to produce a new line of ‘fourth generation’ computers, which if successful would constitute a major challenge to IBM.

In 1970 Honeywell acquired from the General Electric Corporation its computer manufactoring facilities, becoming a second largest computer manufacturer in the U.S.A ..

The two years since the acquisition of the G-E computer plant was a period of enormous instability. First, since the G-E and Honeywell facilities were both engaged in the design of a new computer line, the merger allowed the management to consolidate and to layoff several hundred engineers and programmers. The lay-offs were concentrated in the New England area. Second, one of the conditions of the merger, insisted upon by the French government was that the French facilities involved in the acquisition were not to suffer from the cutbacks and that a substantial part of the design and the development was to be done there. As a consequence a large portion of the design effort was moved to France. This however was only accomplished after a period of intense struggle between various groups in the upper management.

For these reasons the period 1970-72 was characterized by great organizational instability. Major across-the-company restructurings were occuring on the average of every six months. In addition local reorganizations on the departmental and project level were occuring with great frequency. The likelihood of any project being completed rather than abruptly terminated was very small. It was a common experience to see one’s effort completely wasted, and the results of months of thought and labor end up under the shredder.

These conditions generated among the technical employees a climate of insecurity and demoralization. Nevertheless due to the prevailing unfavorable economic conditions the turnover was relatively low.

Until 1971, Honeywell was politically a very quiet place. The war in Viet-Nam and the role that Honeywell plays in the production of weaponry used there undoubtedly produced in many individual employees feelings of unease, doubt and revulsion. But neither these feelings, nor the lay-offs, gave rise to political or organizational activities.

The only expression of the opposition to Honeywell’s involvement in the production of deadly weaponry (anti-personal fragmentation bombs etc.) took the form of individual protest. One individual, an employee of long standing went to the stockholders meeting in Minneapolis to propose formation of a committee to review the moral and social implications of the corporation policy. As could be expected the proposal was rejected or what is perhaps a more accurate description ignored. The man himself was eventually rebuked by his superior who, after unsuccessfully trying to convince him that his action was inappropriate, told him that if he persisted in such activities his professional judgement would have been questioned.

In May 1972 a meeting by the committee of Clergy and Laity Concerned was called in a Lexington church, at which a slide lecture “Automated Battlefield” was shown and discussed. The meeting was attended by about twenty Honeywell employees.

The ensuing discussion revolved around whether the plant represents a proper focus for antiwar activities. In addition to the conventional abstract arguments against political activity within the place of work (i.e. the company is merely doing business, the pressure should be directed at the government, etc.) Some individuals very honestly expressed their feelings of impotence and fear. The fact that people were openly describing those very conditions in their lives, which are the key to the maintenance of the corporate structure, seemed to me significant. I took it as a sign that people are beginning to go beyond the diverse levels of justifications to the roots of the problems: the lack of effective political organization at the work place level. After talking to two other Honeywell employees of similar conviction we decided to try to hold a similar meeting (lecture with slides followed by a discussion) on Honeywell’s premises right after working hours. Subsequently we drafted a letter to the corporation’s management asking for permission to use the premises and circulated it among the employees.

I think it was important to hold the meeting on the premises for the following reasons: (1) Such a meeting is bound to generate more interest among the employees and is likely to be attended by a large number of people. (2) The fact that a meeting critical of company policies is held on the premises means that an element of conflict between the corporation and the employees is introduced. (3) People attending such a meeting attend it as employees rather than as private individuals; this may foster a feeling of collectivity. (4) Getting people to sign a petition requesting Honeywell’s permission for use of facilities was in itself an important step in helping people to commit themselves. (5) Circulating the petition gave us a chance to talk  about political questions to a large number of our colleagues.

The response was very good. Within a couple of days we got over 50 signatures. Moreover several people helped us circulate the petition. The petition was signed and sent through appropriate channels within Honeywell and, as could be expected, rejected.

In talking with people while circulating the petition, I suggested to some that there were a number of issues of common interest to us as employees of a particular corporation, which it would be worthwhile to discuss collectively. Without being very specific about the issues I stressed my own feeling of not having enough control over my life. I raised the question of the possibility of a struggle for the restructuring of work environment, and suggested that a few of us meet informally to discuss these issues.

A small meeting was held subsequently which was attended by 6 people including 3 non-Honeywell employees with similar interests. We decided at this meeting to try to launch a kind of underground company newspaper. It was thought that such a newspaper, in which a large number of people could participate, would provide a forum for issues which are never publicly discussed (one is tempted to say—repressed). In effect the paper would serve as an instrument of politicization of the employees. We also felt that this collective forum of activity would precipitate a sense of collectivity, the need for which was felt strongly by all of us. Subsequently we approached a number of employees who could be counted on having a fairly sympathetic reaction to such a project and arranged for an organizational meeting to take place. This meeting was held approximately two weeks later and was attended by about 25 people. Though all of those present agreed on the need for such a paper, certain differences in political perspective became evident. Broadly speaking two points of view emerged. There were those who tended to see a basic clash of interest between the employees and the corporation and therefore viewed the paper as fundamentally inimical to the interests of the corporation. On the other hand, there were also those employees who tended to view the newspaper as either complementary to the already existing company publications, or at most letting the management know about certain shortcomings which for some reason had escaped their attention. These underlying attitudes showed in the particular issues facing us at this meeting. Those were: should we seek the corporation’s prior approval of the newspaper or perhaps seek a voice on the existing company publication? what kind of articles are admissible? what should the editorial policy be? who should write for the paper? should the managers be invited to cooperate and should they be allowed to write for it.

The decisions reached at this meeting were of a rather vague sort, partially because of the desire to reach a consensus and partially because it seemed possible to deal with these issues as they arose. We did decide however to proceed without asking the management for prior permission and to refrain for the time being from inviting managers, even those who could be considered sympathetic to our views. We then decided to hold another meeting in a week in order to work out a statement of purpose, read over articles submitted, and further solidify organizational details. The meeting was concluded with a declaration of solidarity whereby those present declared themselves responsible in equal measure for the paper. I was then entrusted with the job of writing a summary of the meeting and an announcement concerning the next one, which was to be distributed to a wider group of people.

On Friday of the same week, I was summoned to the department head office and was informed that I was being fired for ‘incompetence’. In spite of my insistence, I was not shown my personnel file in which the justification of my firing should be, according to the internal company guidelines, documented.

My discharge from the company proved itself to be a catalytic event. Some people, present at the previous meeting, expressed the fear of reprisals and did not show up. I had written an account of my firing and sought to submit it as an article for the paper. The article, in addition to the factual account of the firing, raised some general questions concerning management prerogatives’ and suggested possible reforms. This article aroused intense controversy. Some people felt that it could not be objective since it was written by an ‘interested party’, others felt that issues of that sort should not be raised since they are too provocative. Also raised was the issue of alienating management and some more conservative employees. The reforms I have suggested—an employee grievance committee, accessibility to personnel files and evaluation of an employee by his colleagues in addition to evaluation by his managers—were considered by some unacceptable to the corporation’s management. Nevertheless, after a very heated debate the article was, with some minor modifications, accepted.

There were also two other articles submitted: one by an individual who went to the stockholders’ meeting, and another initiating a questionnaire concerning salaries with a view of discovering possible unfairness in salary levels. As a justification for the questionnaire, the article stated that the secretiveness surrounding the salary policy of the corporation works only to the latter’s advantage. This also aroused conflict on the ground that such imputation of intention is unwarranted. Then somebody proposed that the names which were to appear on the newspaper’s masthead should be divided into two categories: those who “supported its right to exist” and those who were responsible for the paper. This deeply divisive proposal was approved. We then agreed to reconvene next week with the revised articles and a statement of purpose.

The rest of the story is anticlimactic. The next and several more meetings were attended by a dwindling number of people. The initial enthusiasm was clearly abating. With a smaller number of people, the remaining individuals began to feel too exposed. One of the most committed people withdrew from active support in view of his already too visible commitment to the campaign against Honeywell’s involvement in war production. Though the remaining individuals never formally acknowledged it, eventually the idea of the paper was effectively buried.

I will try now to present my own ideas concerning this experience and the reasons for the failure of the project.

First, I think it is important to discuss exhaustively political ideas with a nucleus of committed people prior to the launching of an organizational effort. It is important to reach a common perspective and to act in unison and decisively within the larger group.

Second, it is important to choose a proper time for the launching of the project. The time should coincide with some time of crisis affecting the lives of the employees. For example, I feel that the paper could have been successful had it been launched at the time of the lay-offs. Finally, one should not try to minimize the difference in political perspectives between various segments of employees participating in the project. On the contrary, the existing differences should be seized as an opportunity to discuss thoroughly the underlying political attitudes. Then action can proceed on a real basis of unity.

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