Tech’s big lie: Relations between capital and labor don't matter
IBM shafting fifty-somethings shows business-as-usual hasn't been disrupted
At a riotous final concert at San Francisco’s Winterland auditorium, The Sex Pistols’ frontman Johnny Rotten notoriously trolled the crowd with a final line, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” as the band walked offstage after a fifteen-minute set.
That phrase came to mind when stories surfaced last month in Pro Publica, exposing IBM’s long game - forcibly “retiring” or laying off their older and more expensive employees in favor of younger, cheaper - and, quite frequently offshore - replacements.
Thirty years ago, a job at IBM meant secure employment for a lifetime at the most valuable company in the world. IBM set the standard in diversity, in equality, in benefits. That all changed as the company pivoted from big iron into services, then from services into SaaS and cloud and AI and whatever else it is IBM does these days.
It’s easy to imagine mid-level management - their own jobs on the line - trawling through spreadsheets of departmental costs, and quickly zeroing on the most senior employees, identifying them as cost centres - rather than as performance amplifiers. Framed that way everything else becomes the logical operation of a cost-cutting machine with a deadly intent - to inflict the corporate equivalent of a lobotomy, slicing away decades of experience and embodied knowledge for the sake of a quarterly balance sheet.
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Rather than using the incredibly potent tool they’d spent decades honing, IBM chose to cut it off. It beggars belief. IBM is already paying the price for its intentional infliction of stupidity. But the folks laid off (‘retired’, in the Blade Runner sense) had a lot of trouble finding new jobs.
The pervasive ageism in the tech sector reflects another side of this willful stupidity, an of engaging know-nothing-ism that always prefers the twenty-something-with-potential than the fifty-something-with-a-track-record.
Ever wonder why the tech sector seems to make the same mistakes again and again? This is why. We don’t lack history or corporate memory - we excise them, an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind act of eternal, youthful renewal.
The workers affected find themselves completely unable to stop the predations of their employers because they too committed an act of willful stupidity, believing that they’d never need the protections of a union.
The biggest lie the tech devil ever told was that the tech sector was somehow different from and better than the old, nasty industrial economy with its divisions between capital and labor - and its need for strong unions to hold the line against the depredation of capital. Tech workers believed themselves to be better - both better suited to the historical moment, and simply better people - than their industrial forebears, an act of arrogance that finally cost them everything that should have been theirs the final victory laps of their careers.
One person alone cannot stand against a corporation the size of IBM, or Google or Apple or Facebook or Amazon. All those companies have always discouraged any efforts to unionise their workforces - just as the industrial capitalists did a hundred years ago. But the way capitalism works hasn’t changed much in a hundred years: people are disposable in capitalism, unless the people say otherwise.
This can only change if workers in the tech sector face the reality of the situation, accepting that they are just workers, and need the protections of unionisation. It will feel like a humiliation to three generations taught a lie - that tech is different and they are different.
Falling from that pedestal will hurt, no question. But it’s only when we reach the ground that we can stand together and force these trillion-dollar accumulations of capital into their own humiliation - serving the workers who create their quarterly profits.
In the end, both sides will benefit. But never, ever forget that there are two sides - or where your loyalties lie. ®