Computer Workers As Professionals

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Computer Workers As Professionals

by Larry Garner

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 6, November 1974, p. 28 – 32

The question of where to situate technical workers .in the class structure focuses on the debate over their relationship to blue-collar production workers. Are the interests of technical workers linked to those of wage workers in general? Or to those of management and capital? Or rather do they, together with all other salaried, white-collar workers, constitute an intermediate class between blue-collar production workers and the owners? Much of non-Marxist sociology has insisted on the differences which separate white-collar workers from production workers. Its dominant theme has been that the mentality or “value system” of white-collar workers sets them off from production workers; while their income, and even their work conditions, may be closer to that of blue-collar workers, their perception of their social status leads them to identify with management.

On the other hand, certain currents in Marxist sociology have insisted that white-collar workers comprise a “middle-class” distinct from both the working class and the capitalist class. Laborers of this kind do not belong to the working class because they do not exchange their labor with capital but rather with revenue. To the extent that their labor does not augment capital they do not belong to the category of productive laborers.

The concept of a middle-class was subsequently extended to all those who enter into the capitalist’s employ and perform services which, at an earlier time, would have been performed by the capitalist him/herself. The fact that these laborers appear to be substituting for the capitalist in many of his/her functions and that they do not bring about a direct transformation of a tangible object in their work, has led to the conclusion that they, like the “service class,” do not add any value to the product produced. Since they do not produce surplus value but only “contribute to its realization,” these laborers must also derive their income from revenue, i.e. from the surplus produced by other productive workers. Hence the intermediate, ambiguous position of this class of laborers: on the one hand, it must sell its labor in order to live, just like the working class; on the other hand, it benefits from the surplus value extracted from the labor of the working class, just like the capitalist class. 1

With the concept of the “collective worker,” Marx recognized the possibility that the process of production could reach such a point of complex interdependency of tasks that no single laborer would be able to produce surplus value without entering into a broad-scaled collective process.

As the co-operative character of the labour-process becomes more and more marked, so, as a necessary consequence, does our notion of productive labour, and of its agent the productive labourer, become extended. In order to labour productively, it is no longer necessary for you to do manual work yourself; enough if you are an organ of the collective labourer, and perform one of its subordinate functions.2

Marx states that an expanded concept of productive labor included “those who contribute in one way or another to the production of the commodity, from the actual operative to the manager or engineer (as distinct from the capitalist).”3 In other words, the concept of the working class is extended implicitly to all those who contribute “useful labor” to the totality of the process of production of goods.

Among those who concur in the view that technical and clerical workers belong to the working class there are two divergent stances. One side considers the inclusion of these laborers within the working class to be substantiated by an increasing “proletarianization” of their work conditions: the repetiveness, fragmentation, and regulated pace of the work process. The interests and demands of these workers will tend increasingly to resemble those of traditional assembly-line workers: shorter hours and higher pay.

The other side focuses on certain developments in the work conditions of technical workers which makes these workers a distinct, perhaps even a vanguard, stratum of the working class. For these workers the principal demands center around the lack of power over their own work conditions (a concern that harkens back to the demands of the earlier craft and artisan workers). 4 Under the conditions of automated industry the workers’ intervention is increasingly relegated to the beginning and the end of the work process: on the one hand, during the initial stages, the preparation and organization of the production process, calling forth creative intellectual energies; on the other hand, in the final stages, the checking and supervision of the machinery. They are led to develop a sense of mastery over their own labor power, and this provokes a resentment against its alienation under capitalism into an inert thing over which they have no control. Demands for full control over the use of their creative abilities in the work process come to the fore.

The heavy capital investments upon which these industries are based means that much of their revenues must be directed towards the amortization of their debts. This puts a high premium on the maximum utilization of the machinery without interruption. As a consequence, the workers must be “integrated” into the firm in order to assure that their performance will be regular and predictable. Their salary cannot be based on individual performance (too variable) but on the mass sum of personnel expenditures which the firm has planned for and which are distributed to individuals on the basis of their work roles. Their professional training is specially adapted to the nature of the machinery which the firm uses. Their professional careers are mapped out for them in a series of gradations which induces workers with experience not to seek employment elsewhere, thereby guaranteeing a stable work force.5 Thus, the workers’ sense of identification with the firm’s undertaking is increased, but their ability to give direction to it is constantly being undercut by the criteria of short-term profitability which management adopts. They find that their abilities are being used in an unproductive, stultifying fashion and struggle against it; while management, in order to reassert its authority, attempts to fragment the work process in such a manner that the producer is reduced to the state of a passive object.6

Definition of a Professional Employee Under the National Labor Relations Act.

Section 2 (12) Any employee engaged in work (i) predominantly intellectual and varied in character as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work; (ii) involving the consistent exercise of discretion and judgement in its performance; (iii) of such character that the output produced or the result accomplished cannot be standardized; (iv) requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of service or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study in an institution of higher learning… as distinguished from a general academic education or from an apprenticeship or from training in the performance of routine mental, manual or physical processes.

Computer Workers: Their Work Conditions

Work Content. The high capital investment entailed in the installation of computer equipment and the rapid rate of obsolescence of the hardware dictate the need for maximum utilization of the machinery during its life span. The worker finds that his/her work routine is increasingly subordinated to the requirements of the machine. When Rolls Royce computerized the operations performed by many of its engineers and designers it attempted to impose:

The acceptance of shift work in order to exploit high capital equipment, the acceptance of work measurement techniques, the division of work into basic elements, and the setting of times for these elements, such time to be compared with actual performance.7

The computerization of certain operations has placed a premium on synchronizing the various processes entering into the work flow; the maximum efficient use of the machinery demands that each element of the work process be prepared for its insertion at precisely the correct moment. This synchronization entails the fragmentation of the work process into measurable acts.

One of the main sources of feelings of superiority which office workers sense vis-a-vis production workers — viz., the conviction that their work required an individual touch which could not be paced and timed — goes by the board with the computerization of the office. The rationalization and standardization brought about by computerization deflates the office workers’ claims for special status recognition. With the elimination of that small area of discretionary self-discipline which had been accorded to the pre-computer office worker, the workers come to feel like ordinary proletarians. One American study reports the effects of the change-over to computers on the workers’ morale in a government office:

Budget analysts who formerly did a complete job of preparing forecasts were reduced to almost blindly placing numbers in certain blocks on preprinted forms… What was formerly a dedicated team effort of proud and enthusiastic employees supplying management with valuable reports, changed to a highly automated, dull, and repetitious activity. 8

Relations With Other Employees. Relations between the computer staff and other employees in an office are often strained because of the position of power seen to be occupied by the former (at least by programmers and analysts). To have control over the flow of information is to have the power to determine the sequence, pace, and methods of work of others. This power easily becomes a cause for resentment on the part of the non-computer office staff, impeding the possibility of concerted worker action.

Salary differentials are likely to reflect this greater marketability of computer workers, but so too are the more visible prerequisites of their position. Set off from other office workers, computer staffs are often located in a place which is distinguished by its better lighting, better air-conditioning, and more sophisticated equipment.9 Comments such as, “the company treats its machines better than its staff,” are often a veiled expression of the conflict that exists between the “old staff” and the “new staff.”

Relations with Management. Computer programmers and analysts find themselves in a relatively unique position in relation to management. On the one hand, they possess knowledge and skills which usually go beyond the ken of their supervisors and beyond the latter’s capacity to establish hard-and-fast performance criteria. On the other hand, they are employees and therefore subject to the hierarchical organization of authority which the company imposes on all of its employees. The fact that it is often difficult to judge whether a given program has been written well or poorly means that programmers/ analysts retain a measure of control over their labor which threatens management’s structure of command. Management has instituted “professionalism” in order to reintegrate programmers/analysts into the hierarchical structure of the firm and to re-establish their subordinate position. Professionalism has been defined in terms of “universal job descriptions and standards, formulated, of course, by personnel managers; common training programs; and a common certification process.”10 Licensing in this instance is to be under the aegis of organizations controlled by employers; and the standardization of job descriptions is to serve the purpose of allowing management to set its own criteria for the efficient performance of programming jobs. In addition, the tasks of programming and systems planning are to be fragmented into the discrete elements of the process, and to each element is to be assigned a job title in a hierarchical social order.

By breaking down the work process in this manner management can monitor the performance of workers more readily, and the workers will be more inclined to discipline themselves in order not to jeopardize their movement up the career ladder. Through “professionalization,” therefore, management attempts to reassert its control over the labor of programmers and analysts.

The U.S. Court of Appeals does not seem to put much stock in programmers’ professionalism. In a judgement handed down in March, 1971, the judges ruled in a suit involving a dispute between the NLRB and Westinghouse that programmers and analysts were better described as “technical” rather than “professional” employees. A professional’s work was deemed “intellectual” in character, whereas a programmer did not require a professional “measure of skill, knowledge, and independent exercise of judgement.” From the Law Journal, March 31, 1971.

Computer Workers: Prospects for Unionization

Market conditions have disinclined programmers and operators from unionization and, distinct strategies evolved by management have also had their effect. We have already mentioned the significance of the professionalism campaign as a means of ensuring that the worker will be not just expertly trained but also politically “reliable.” Promotion of professionalism serves the purpose also of dividing the ranks of the workers. Certain categories of workers are elevated to the status of “professionals,” while others remain merely clerical staff; a seemingly unbridgeable gulf separates the interests of the two groups. Furthermore, the entire thrust of the professionalism campaign is to fragment the ranks of the “professionals” themselves. To be a professional, in this managerial meaning of the term, is to establish a personal relationship with one’s employer based on mutual trust. The employer is to treat the employee-professional “as an individual,” and in return he is to be rewarded with the personal loyalty and devotion of the employee-professional. By such marks of individual distinction as job titles and merit ratings management recognizes the individual achievements of its employee-professionals. Since the relationship between management and the professional presumes to take into account the personal qualities and accomplishments of the latter, the worker is led to assume that only the slacker would stand to benefit by becoming part of an undifferentiated collective (union) category.

There exist, however, forces working to counteract the individualistic ideology propagated by management. The skill upon which the programmer bases his/her claim to professional status is increasingly being debased by the introduction of “canned programs,” particularly in medium- to large-scale programming operations. These programs represent “pre-written solutions designed for problems which, while not identical, are similar in their basic features.”11 The upshot is to provide management with a steady supply of labor and with cheaper labor costs, as a result of the lower level of skills necessary to perform programming tasks. These deskilled “applications programmers” find their work routine to be regimented in a way inconsistent with their supposed professional status (“fixed hours, short hair, ties, measureable performance”12). Under such circumstances, the programmer’s vaunted professionalism reduces itself to the “possession and acquisition of particular information, a knowledge of particular instruments and techniques;” it has little to do anymore with the traditional concept of a professional’s working ability: the “general capacity to confront a problem and resolve it.”13 The “applications programmer’s” kind of “professionalism” does not generate cumulative, expert “experience,” but instead becomes obsolete with a change in technology. A study of “black-coated workers” by David Lockwood has shown that unionization among white-collar workers increases to the degree that “bureaucratization” of the work place engenders “blocked mobility” and standardized working conditions. Bureaucratization in this sense entails regulation by “impersonal rules which strictly exclude all forms of personal consideration between employer and clerk.”14 If “canned programming” becomes wide-spread in the computer industry, it may have this “proletarianizing” effect, dispelling the ideological force of professionalism.15

However, even for those computer workers, such as systems analysts, who appear to continue to enjoy the special personal relationship with management and the discretionary self-pacing characteristic of the “professional,” another force seems to be moving them in the direction of collective bargaining. Recent signs indicate that the favorable labor-market conditions which had made individual bargaining so attractive are disappearing. One study, completed in late 1972, gave the following break-down on the employment situation: 560,000 programmers and systems analysts currently employed; 170,000 new programmers and systems analysts entering the job market each year; 71,000 new jobs opening up in programming and systems analysis each year.16 These employment conditions increase the importance of job security, and call forth the need for collective action to circumscribe the authority of management.

The one major attempt in this country to organize computer workers as computer workers (rather than as a secondary element in a larger bargaining unit) did not meet with much success. In December 1970, the Committee to Plan a Computer Union met in New York to map out a strategy. The objective was to form an industry-wide, all-inclusive union which would span the gap between professionals (programmers/ analysts/operators) and non-professionals (key-punch operators/tape-handlers). The major thrust of the union was to be in the areas of job security, job mobility, and “democracy in the workplace.”17 Some of the individuals associated with this effort had scored an earlier success when they forced the reinstatement of six programmers who had been fired from their work at Codon Corp. (Waltham, Mass.) for organizing efforts centered around opposition to the introduction of war-related work and the full disclosure of information on salary scales.18 By November, 1971, however, one of the CPCU’s activists had to admit failure in the democratizing-unionizing effort, ascribing it to the fact that most computer workers held values which prevented them from seeing “the meaninglessness of the work they are doing.” He had to avow that “to attempt to talk to people about the issue of doing socially useful work really amounts to telling them to leave (their) jobs, …” since “‘good”‘ jobs (i.e., socially useful ones) were always marginal in number in the computer industry.19

This statement is tantamount to an admission that much of the CPCU’s thrust presupposed the existence of the radical consciousness which it was the task of the union to create in the first place — a consciousness which could take shape only through a process of struggle opposing the interests of management/capital to those of labor, rather than through an intuitional recognition of the “meaninglessness” of one’s work.


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  1. See Donald C. Hodges, “Old and New Working Class,” Radical America, (January-February, 1971), pp. 11-32; Martin Nicolaus, “Proletariat and Middle Class in Marx;” Studies on the Left, VII (January-February, .1967), pp. 22-49; Nicos Poulantzas, “On Social Classes,” New Left Review, LXXVIII (March-April, 1973), pp. 27-35.
  2. Marx, K., Capital, trans. by S. Moore and E. Aveling (Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.), I, 476.
  3. Marx, K., Theories of Surplus Value, I, 156-157.
  4. See Andre Gorz, Strategy for Labor, trans. by M.A. Nicholas and Victoria Ortiz (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968): “For the highly skilled workers, …the dominant contradiction is between the active essence, the technical initiative required in their work, and the condition of passive performers to which the hierarchy of the enterprise nevertheless still condemns them… Responsible for his work, he is not master of the conditions under which he carries it out. The company which hires him requires of him both creativity in the execution of his task and passive, disciplined submission to the orders and standards handed down by management” (p. 36).
  5. Mallet, Serge, La nouvelle classe ouvriere, (Paris: Editions
    de Seuil, 1969), pp; 37-38, 41-42.
  6. Mallet, Serge, La nouvelle classe ouvriere, (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1969), pp; 37-38, 41-42.
  7. Cooley, Mike, “Computers, Automation and Technological Change,” Computers and Automation and People, XXII (March, 1973), p. 16. The union fought these regulations and had them abolished.
  8. Tomeski, E.A. and Lazarus, H., “A Humanized Approach to Computers,” Computers and Automation and People, XXII (June, 1973), p. 23.
  9. Rhee, H.A., Office Automation in Social Perspective: The Progress and Social Implications of Electronic Data Processing. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968), p. 134.
  10. Kraft, Philip., “Pushing Professionalism,” Science for the People, Vol. VI, No. 4, July, 1974.
  11. Kraft, Philip, “The Professionalizing of Computer Programmers,” p. 13, unpublished manuscript.
  12. Kuch, T.D.C., “Unions or Licensing? Or Both? Or Neither?” lnfosystems, January, 1973, p. 42.
  13. Unpublished paper of Italian IBM workers, n.d.
  14. Lockwood, David, The Blackcoated Worker. (London: Unwin University Books, 1958), pp. 141-150. Under such circumstances, the “senior programmer” must wonder why the tape-handler working next to him receives extra for overtime, while he, a “professional” does not.
  15. Indirect confirmation of this is found in the statement of one personnel director: “… The automated office with its key-driven equipment attracts a ‘lower type’ of help and also makes it harder for the office employee to relate himself psychologically to management instead of the mass of working-class people” (Hoos, “When the Computer Takes Over the Office,” p. 111).
  16. Gerberick, D.A., “Oversupply of People in Computer Field,” Computers and Automation, XXI (December, 1972), p. 23.
  17. See Interrupt, No. 13 (December, 1970), p. 1.
  18. Interrupt, No.10 (February, 1970); and No. 13 (December, 1970).
  19. Interrupt, No. 16 (November, 1971).