Bank of America Infiltrated!
The 57‑floor Bank of America building towered over us, its black granite grid menacing us like a giant waffle iron ready to snap shut. Posing as contractors, we were about to remove an interior wall from an office and take it home with us. Carrying a motorcycle helmet and a shoulder bag I explored most of the building as a lost courier. Identical offices line identical halls on identical floors—perfect for the job.
BofA suffers from the muddled management structure typical of large American corporations: distant, overpaid executives direct redundant levels of middle managers who supervise countless specialized workers. We suspected we could enter an office, cut out a wall, cover a hole with toxic danger signs and leave without anyone knowing we hadn't been hired to do it. We wanted to be as disruptive as possible without attracting the authorities. We would create chaos and pretend to be in control of it.
According to our computer‑produced IDs, we were Halyard Semmins and Laila Finecke, field investigators for Spemtech, a toxics testing company. A work order detailed the rest: Spemtech had been authorized by the State Toxics Board to conduct tests for commercial Health and Safety Certification. We were testing for ThorofilTM, a carcinogenic DuPont fiber once used to fireproof drywall. Required by law, the work was free. Could they say no?
To make our appointment we called on a Thursday just before 5 p.m., hoping the building manager had left for the day. He had. We left a message saying we'd be there Friday afternoon, and we supplied a random fax number to slow down verification. It might buy us time if anyone decided to check us out while we were in the building.
Friday at 4:15 p.m., Laila adjusted her tool‑company baseball cap, I tucked in my “Perot for America” t‑shirt, and we went in with toolboxes and bored contractor expressions. The assistant in charge was confused by our work order. He kept asking, “You want to do what?” and saying “I don't know anything about this.” I repeated our job's description, which was to remove a small section of drywall for testing.
“You're going to have to come back Monday so I can clear this with my boss,” he decided.
“Look,” I said, “we just came all the way from Hayward to do a 20‑minute job. You send us back, we're going to have to refile your paperwork with the state, which is going to delay your certification. You know what the late fine would be on a building this big?”
He ushered us up to the Office of Overseas Affairs, which we had chosen for its sinister name and proximity to freight elevators. While I removed corporate art (matches the carpets) from the wall and stacked furniture in a corner, Laila explained our presence to nearby workers.
“We're just doing some routine fiber separation tests here,” she announced. “Shouldn't take more than a few minutes.”
The workers seemed satisfied. Laila put down dropcloths and duct‑taped them to the floor while I ran an electronic stud sensor over the walls, selected for the irritating beep it produces when it senses a nail. We marked these spots with a graffiti‑grade permanent marker. I drew a square around them and marked big right angles in its corners, adding equations where appropriate. It was time to put on the suits.
The suits were the key to creating chaos. We would put on as much frightening emergency gear as possible while reassuring the workers around us that they were completely safe. The suits, made of bright white Tyvek and emblazoned with red “Spemtech,” “Biohazard” and “Extreme Danger” logos, had draw‑tight hoods and rubberized feet. Donning latex gloves, safety goggles and respirators, we were extra careful to tuck everything in. Laila handed me a three‑quarter‑inch hole drill.
“Are you sure we don't need suits?” a worker asked, laughing nervously. Others were closing their doors or peering cautiously over partitions. “Absolutely,” I said through my respirator. “You're perfectly safe.”
As I drilled holes in the wall, Laila plugged them with black rubber stoppers. After drilling each hole, we carefully shook the drill‑bit dust into a plastic sample bag. Workers watched us from behind glass doors now. I sweated in my suit. After I slashed deep into the white wall with a utility knife, we pulled out a 3x5‑foot wedge of wall. While I cut it into pieces sized to fit our yellow sample bags (marked “DANGER”), Laila spread plastic over the wound and sealed it with duct tape. Then we plastered the surrounding wall with warning stickers ‑‑ French, English and Spanish versions of “Do Not Ventilate” and “Danger of Death.”
We cleaned up and got out with our drywall trophies. Two days later a friend photographed our work. The wall had been fixed, all evidence removed.
What did this act prove? Did the assistant who let us in get in trouble? Lose his job? It's easy to get swept up in the excitement and ignore the downside — something we can't afford to do in the future. But the possibilities that this “practice run” opened up are heartening. With the right preparation and attitude, structures can be infiltrated. With added content, ideas could be introduced and minds opened.
On Friday, February 5, 1993, Bank of America announced in its particularly arrogant fashion that it was cutting all (or most) of its full‑time tellers and administrative support staff to less than 20 hours a week. Along with the cut in hours, the Bank sheds all the burdensome (to its bottom line) benefits such as sick pay, paid vacations, and medical insurance while reporting record profits! The result for bank workers is a major cut in living standards and an urgent push toward the door if they want to hold on to the income they've become accustomed to. But if they leave the Bank of America, many are no doubt thinking, where will they go?
The Monday newspaper revealed that the local monopoly utility PG&E is planning to cut back its San Francisco‑based, white collar workforce by as much as 10% over the next few months, and is bringing in management consultants to help in this “downsizing,” supposedly because of market competition! Then the Tuesday newspaper reports that Safeway, the nation's largest supermarket chain, based in Oakland, is also going to be trimming its home office staff, and is publicly targeting its 85 stores in the Canadian province of Alberta as a major cost‑cutting area. “If efforts to address our labor costs fail, we may have to abandon the Alberta market altogether,” said Peter Magowan, Safeway's CEO (the same Magowan who recently led the purchase of the SF Giants and signed outfielder Barry Bonds to a $43 million contract). Dozens of small businesses go under every week, and many self‑employed are also choking on recessionary dust.
Years after the advent of the Rust Bowl and the gradual deindustrialization of the United States, the purge of workers and rationalization of labor processes have finally begun to hit white collar workers as hard as blue collar workers were hit in the 1970s and '80s. And not surprisingly, it's being done using the same methods: BofA insiders reported that the cutbacks were the result of Taylorist time‑and‑motion studies conducted last year on branch operations. After analyzing how long it took to do typical operations such as cashing checks, opening accounts and selling traveler's checks, management came to the obvious conclusion (obvious to anyone who has ever worked in a bank) that a lot of the work time they were buying from workers wasn't being used to carry on bank activities and increase bank profits. Hence the dramatic cuts and speedup for those who hold on.
Daily reports of economic recovery and wildly improved productivity measurements underscore the reality that this wave of wage‑cuts, rationalization and layoffs is no fluke. The assault on living standards is precisely the mechanism by which “economic health” is restored. Historically, renewed business activity led to increased employment, but that was before the enormous wave of computerization and generalized automation of the past two decades. Glowing reports of improved productivity and profits will not lead to widespread hiring. In fact, Clinton's plans to link health care coverage to employment is already a major incentive for companies to rid themselves of as many employees as possible, replacing them where necessary with temporary workers supplied by other companies.
Moreover, the big picture of social change looks like more and more people are being thrown down the stairs, out of the upper tier which offered middle class living standards and some sense of security and guaranteed material well‑being, and into the much larger lower tier. In the lower tier (which in turn rests on the burgeoning underclass of homeless and permanently unemployed), people never quite get enough income or work, and find themselves anxiously awaiting a call from the employment or temp agency, hoping for another few days, weeks or months of steady work, only to find the periods between paid work growing longer as the paid work becomes increasingly part‑time and intermittent. Fear and desperation in turn increases one's willingness to endure intolerably dull, stupid and dangerous work.
So how do we respond? Do we organize ourselves to demand jobs? Do we insist that the government guarantee employment or mandate that companies make new, larger unemployment payments to offset the loss of paid work? Why not?
Or do we finally begin to look beyond the existing setup to demand a new relationship between human society, the work it does, and the way the products of human work are distributed?
Isn't it long overdue that we expand our social rights to include our RIGHT TO DO USEFUL, MEANINGFUL WORK?
Isn't it long overdue that we guarantee all members of society a decent standard of living, regardless of what contributions they actually make? After two centuries of automation and dramatic increases in productivity, there is no justification for maintaining 40‑hour work weeks, 50 weeks of work per year. It is time to restructure the work in society so no one has to spend more than a few hours a week at anything (although everyone should be free to spend as long as they like at activities they enjoy, useful or “frivolous”). It is time to make a permanent break between work and income, a break that will be resisted to the death by the owners and managers of this society. In the short term, we should begin discussing and insisting on our right to worthwhile work. In the medium and longer term we should begin imagining how much better life could be without the absurd economic structures that promote overwork and conspicuous consumption at one end, desperate homelessness and crime‑ridden insanity at the other, and precarious insecurity for all in between. The current assault on white-collar workers in the Bay Area is just the latest installment of a long process that will lead to an increasingly barbaric society unless we forcibly resist.
Those of you still inside have a lot more power than you think. You control valuable hardware, data, and other vulnerable links in the corporate empire. Use your imagination, find your allies; they are all around you! Abandon the false comfort that comes from the belief that if you are sufficiently docile and obedient, the Paternal Corporation will take care of you. Nothing could be further from the truth in this dog‑eat‑dog (or is that company‑eat‑people?) world. The two‑tiered society is being created by design, not by accident. Your place in it is not certain, but it is certainly not at the top! The longer they are allowed to pursue this process, the weaker we become. While you still have some leverage over things they care about (data integrity, hardware, software, attitudes, and so on), take advantage! And let us know what's happening, and we'll try to get the word out.
—Nasty Secretary Liberation Front
“What's wrong with education?” many people like to ask, as if to fix it. What's “wrong” is that education — particularly the university — is under attack from within by its students' refusal of work, and nothing can be done about it short of abolishing the schools, which is fine with me. Many of us want it all now, and this doesn't often include work, waged or unwaged. Scamming is the way we satisfy our needs: cheating, using financial aid for things besides school, and graduating after having done little or no work whatsoever. I'm a scammer, and when I'm done I hope to have a Ph.D. This is a guide for you to get one too.
Scamming as a Tactic. In one sense, universities are merely factories that expect students to do the unwaged work of teaching ourselves to work endlessly, without direct supervision, but with periodic productivity checks (tests, grades, GPAs). The crisis in higher education suggests that we have been relatively successful at both refusing and transcending this process: There has been some transformation of the university into spaces that serve our desires to learn about ourselves and our histories.
Refusal, however, is not limited to “multiculturalism” or “student activism,” but includes scamming and refusing all school/work no matter what its content. And it occurs on such a widespread level that it already has networks that circulate tests, notes, papers, and other information and techniques. Scamming's significant advantage over traditional student movements that make demands through protesting is that it focuses on undermining the logic of the system, and the processes within which we are forced to operate; merely protesting for changes in the system does not. The best part of it is that this can go undetected indefinitely, while protesters can be easily identified and cut off.
Scamming can combine using “alternative” courses whose content is generally antagonistic to the purposes of the university ‑‑ although many times they merely reproduce the university system through grades, homework, teacher‑student hierarchy, etc. ‑ with using the system against itself. This can be done individually, or in groups (frats and sororities are very good at this) that have circulated information among themselves over time. There may not be an ultimate end ‑‑ other than just hanging out and enjoying life ‑‑ but a long‑term payoff like a diploma indicates nothing about how much one worked to get it. Some scamming students may even end up with a high standard of living, unrelated to the amount they worked in school.
No Work...Of the 121 hours I completed 11 were knocked off before I started, by taking placement tests. Since I receive financial aid, I got to take the tests for free. As a result I skipped my first french semester and the intro classes in my major and english. This worked out well since my first french and english profs told me to my face that I should not have skipped the intro courses.
Self‑designed courses also work well, if you pick the right people. Just find professors who are willing to let you design and pace your own course of study. One possibility is to find one who needs a little assistance on his or her own project. Organize it so you can get away with doing very little. I did.
Internships — working for a business for the piece wages of grades — are possibly the most exploitative offshoot of school, if you don't use them with some imagination. In the late 1980s, I found myself working as a legislative aid. I decided that I might as well use it to get some grades. I signed up for an internship credit and got six hours of A's for a job I was getting paid to do. The two papers I had to write were done mostly at work, on the state's computer.
Use pass/fail options: Majors in my department can take six hours of classes this way, and I used them all. This means you can take a class and do very little work, since even the slightest effort usually results in at least a passing grade of D.
For those remaining classes you have to take, there is little need to actually go. I learned too late that if you borrow at least two people's notes (so you can compare) for the classes you missed, it's as good as being there. Most intro courses have notes available for purchase from local note‑taking businesses. But don't give them your money unless you have to. Just trade notes with people in class. It already happens all the time.
If you don't do as well as you like, go talk to the TA. They will frequently tack on a few points just to get you to leave them alone.
...and Pay. The key to scamming is getting paid while you do it. Although financial aid means some work (and increasingly so to discourage us from it), it's been my subsistence and has paid for traveling ‑‑ for fun and student conferences ‑‑ and has bought everything I own. Since you only need to take 12 credit hours to get full aid, the above scams can help you get through in four years and a summer if you want ‑‑ and I stupidly did before waking up to the possibilities.
This university gives you three “strikes” for violating aid rules. You get a strike for falling below 12 hours or the minimum GPA, or dropping out. (I was able to avoid a strike when I dropped to nine hours by explaining how a fascist professor threatened to fail me if I didn't drop the course. A true story, but it doesn't have to be.) You can drop your courses by a specified date and get back your full tuition and fees, plus keep the aid money. For the next semester all you need to do is apply for a Student Loan Supplement (an “SLS”) to cover the amount they'll subtract from the aid money you were supposed to return. Check into how they do it at your school. I've made up for the reduced aid by taking out an SLS.
To use an SLS you have to be an independent. I had to have my parents sign a paper stating that they would not deduct me from their next return. As an independent, you get nearly full Pell Grants (likely to increase dramatically according to a recent congressional proposal) and you can use SLSs (which, unlike Stafford loans, begin to accrue interest immediately — for those who for some reason intend to repay their loans). Another good use for SLSs is to borrow the amount calculated as the “student contribution” (i.e. a second job), something financial aid doesn't tell you outright.
In all, I scammed on 35 of the required undergraduate 120 hours. And this has all become easier in grad school, since I had only four required classes and have to take only nine thesis hours to have a “full load.”
Aid for grad students is superb. You can borrow up to $50,000 for a master's, and $105,000 total in Stafford loans and SLSs to complete a Ph.D. At about $9,000/year (including the summer) I can work on my master's for five years. Employed grad students can get full aid on top of their salary. That means working, but having more money to fund traveling when you're supposed to be working on your thesis or dissertation. In fact, if you invest the extra money you can make a few thousand extra off the backs of other workers by the time you decide whether to repay the loans.
It has certainly been easy for me to spend three‑and‑a‑half years working on my piddling MA in Fine Arts. Although financial aid only allows you to take 30 hours of course work, I can graduate with incompletes if they are not in my department. I could theoretically keep taking classes outside of my department until my aid runs out and still graduate! I might as well soak up all the $50,000 (or more if congress increases the ceiling) since I don't plan to pay it back.
After two more semesters I'll begin on my dissertation, which could still last for a while, since I haven't borrowed even half the $105,000 I can borrow through Stafford and SLSs. Since I wrote enough for a dissertation while writing my thesis I'll have little work to do. I figure I can go for another four years “working” on my dissertation: Traveling around every semester, coming back to get my aid, and making some gratuitous visits to my committee. I hope by that time the loan cap will be hiked again.
Eating the Insides Out. Financial aid has been a major source of the crisis of the universities both in the US and internationally. In the US, a growing number of students are refusing ‑‑ because they don't want to reduce their standard of living, or they don't care ‑‑ or are unable to repay their loans. Total defaults have doubled since the mid‑'80s. In the meanwhile, guarantors have gone bankrupt, banks refuse to loan students money or delay processing applications, the government and universities are divesting from aid programs, trade schools are being banned from the program, and banks are going under.
Student debt default is considered one of the top reasons for the collapse of banking (along with “Third World” debt, farming loan defaults, etc., thus indicating a link between student, third‑world, and farmers' struggles). Like the shift from grants to loans in the US, using loans to replace free schooling in the UK and Australia can be seen as a response to students' taking and using the money without doing much work.
Scamming makes it damn near impossible for the folks who worry endlessly about what's fucking up their factories to realize what's really going on. While Business Week and the rest cry about the universities churning out “lemons” who don't want to work (they say we “don't know how” or are “unprepared”), we should be looking at ways to circulate tactics for continuing the quiet insurgency. Much of the right‑wing attack on so‑called “PC” is predicated on reimposing discipline in the universities on students who don't so much read Marx instead of Plato, but don't do anything the university plans for us to do—that is, endless hours reading, writing, studying, going to class, etc. Instead, we're busy doing what we want in our own way while using their money, and learning a hell of a lot more as a result. It's no coincidence that right‑wing organizations such as Madison Center and the National Association of Scholars are funded by huge corporations like Coors, Mobil, Bechtel, KMart, and Olin. By learning how not to work we are threatening not only the universities, but capital's control over us through work itself.
The beauty of scamming through school is getting paid to have fun. And because it's not a concerted, organized, explicit movement, it is beyond the grasp of both the university planners and the left. While the Progressive Student Network suggests we “study and struggle,” I say “struggle against study”!