by Heather Menzies
Taking Control of Our Future: Clerical
Marcy Cohen and Margaret White
For all those who see technology destroying jobs and turning people into extensions of technological systems, and who want to reverse this but don't know where to start, this is a book that will encourage and help you. It is a lively compendium of history, case-study research and how-to lessons taken from grass roots actions in Canada and abroad. Grassroots, democratic alternatives that work in the design and application of technology might force the military industrialists to hold a bake sale.
As a book, as an educational document, it is a marvelous piece of women's work. It stresses collective action through unions and community groups. The authors are dedicated to community-based feminist research and are associated with the Micro technology Working Group, which includes community, health, union and peace activists and adult educators.
Accessible in design and layout, the book is leavened with cartoons and illustrations. On the lighter side, a report on self-serve ticketing in the airline industry is accompanied by a sketch of a smiling, doll-like airline ticket agent in a glass case, with a sign reading: "In case of emergency, break glass." On the darker side, there's a drug ad, the caption of which reads: "People like Martine Legrande who work as word processor operators get keyed up at their jobs at times. Occasionally, some turn to NYTOL sleep-aid tablets to help them get their rest .
The book reports on the authors' own research, funded by Labour Canada's Technology Impact Program. Three case-studies looking at the effect of office automation both on employment and on the organization of work. They documented the disappearance of work, the polarization of work into routine deskilled data-entry and other support work and, on the other side of a widening skills gap, more demanding, technologically intensive, clerical, managerial and professional work; also, the trickle-down effect of managerial-professional work deskilled to become newly enriched and professionalize clerical work.
At IBM, which hasn't hired anyone without a university degree for eight years, some secretaries act as information specialists, coaching professionals on how to use desk-top terminals and software. In a legal office, secretaries use enhanced software packages and expert systems to draft wills and other legal documents, freeing the legal-assistants to do more professional work freeing the lawyers to concentrate on only the most difficult aspects of their case loads.
Having laid out the problem, the book is equally comprehensive in laying the groundwork for solutions. The focus is both macro and micro; reviewing labour contract language in Canada, including that of the Saskatoon Community Health Services CUPE local, which comes close to Norway's Work Environment Act in affirming the worker's right to interesting and involving work. In the micro category, two gems deserve special mention: a discussion-starter developed by Ellen Balks of Simon Fraser University, and an interview with Jan Mears, a Toronto-based consultant on workplace democracy talking about a worker-participation project among 200 data-entry clerks at Statistics Canada.