Revolt of the Net Slaves

The dirty secret of the Internet revolution is its class structure.

I shouldn’t be complaining. For some reason, brand-name journalists stand among the elite in the new order. (In the old days we were wage slaves.) But the fact is, that for every Internet entrepreneur, we find dozens of men and women in hard, boring, low-paying jobs. And that isn’t likely to change.

Whether they’re in customer service, picking and shipping products, or just moderating online discussions, most workers in the New Economy are working hard for low wages with little autonomy and no hope of seeing change soon.

This was also true at the dawn of the Industrial Age, only it was worse. Back then folks shoveled coal, worked at assembly lines, and risked their lives six days each week, often 12 hours each day. You can still see this in many developing countries it’s 1800 all over again.

Compared to those workers, our Net slaves have little to complain about. Aside from carpal tunnel syndrome and a chill from the air conditioning, there’s little physical risk in today’s jobs. But most are still pretty menial; they’re not worth much money; and that will remain the case until automation and productivity justify higher salaries.

For a long time, stock options papered over these cracks, but the summer’s “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” market has re-opened them. This is what makes the strike against Verizon Wireless so important.

While installers are part of the strike, most workers involved are customer-service people, members of the Communications Workers of America. These are the people who answer the phones and respond to the emails at thousands of dot-com companies.

It’s true that labor law today heavily favors private employers, and very few Internet employees are organized. Management has lots of weapons to stop a union drive, and when they cross the lines, the penalties are trivial. But modern industrial unions grew up before there was a National Labor Relations Board. Laws simply codified what had been won in the streets.

Now I’m no labor agitator. I’ve never been a union member. In my own career, I’m management. I find labor unions to be the most conservative institutions we have, opposing change and automation at every turn. (I’ve always marveled at how political scientists put unions on the left. Seeking tomorrow’s wages for yesterday’s skills seems the height of conservatism to me.)

But modern management is as Clueless as Ford Motor was in the 1930s. You can see it in the Verizon strike. Customer data has been leaked, and company lawyers have tried to stamp out all forms of dissent. Picking stupid fights in a democracy is a sure way to lose the war.

No, the real question I have for those on top (that’s you, gentle reader) is, “What (if anything) are we willing to do for the rest of the Internet economy?” I enjoy big shrimp, free drinks, and monogrammed gym bags as much as the next person. But I also know that the heart of a successful business lies in creating win-win deals they’re the only deals that last.

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