It’s way too late now for the imaginative solution to the problem that Britain’s lease on the New Territories on the Chinese mainland, just across the water from Hong Kong Island, runs out in 1997. Since Britain has the right of possession of Hong Kong Island in perpetuity, it should have demanded an extension of […]
It’s way too late now for the imaginative solution to the problem that Britain’s lease on the New Territories on the Chinese mainland, just across the water from Hong Kong Island, runs out in 1997. Since Britain has the right of possession of Hong Kong Island in perpetuity, it should have demanded an extension of the lease, insisted that it would retain Hong Kong Island, and warn that if China tried to take the New Territories by force, it would create a new industrial and services colony from scratch on one of its many uninhabited island possessions in the South Pacific to which any Hong Kong citizen would have absolute right to settlement and citizenship. As it is, we – and far more importantly, the people of Hong Kong, have to place trust in the promise of the butchers of Tiananmen Square that Hong Kong will be allowed to be operate under a system of One Country, Two Systems, and that its way of life, and the rights of its citizens would remain essentially unchanged for at least 50 years after 1997. The employees of Lotus Development Corp have in effect received a promise from Louis Gerstner that it will be run under a regime of One Company, Two Systems, and while his record since steaming into the chairman’s office at IBM Corp mercifully does not bear comparison with that of the murderous gerontocracy in Peking, Lotus employees have every reason to be feeling just a little nervous – although they do have the benefit that they do not have to risk the dread perils of the South China Sea if they decide to vote with their feet against their new masters.
Fur around his neck
IBM has changed under Lou Gerstner. Not out of all recognition, still not enough, and by no means wholly for the good, but it has changed. In the days of John Akers and his predecessors, with every year that passed until the whole thing began to fall apart in at the turn of the current decade, employment by IBM became more desirable and more sought-after. True, it was the kind of paternalistic employment that the wolf rejected in Aesop’s fable when the dog, having described its warm and well-fed life, had to explain that the ring in his fur around his neck was left by the collar by which he was tied up, but the fact that it was a them against us world – IBMers against the world, that is – made for the most wonderful comaraderie, esprit de corps and sense of belonging to an exclusive and highly privileged elite. And every year, as IBM’s employment conditions got better – and, it must be said, more cushy, so its relationship with its its competitors, its business partners, and eventually its customers, got worse. Us against the world came to mean that IBM could do no wrong, that if the business partner didn’t like it he could go elsewhere, if the customer didn’t like it, he was stupid, and would have to accept it anyway – after all, where else was there for him to turn? Today most of that is very much history: you can make an IBMer blush by telling him you need Systems Application Architecture like a fish needs AD/Cycle, and IBM no longer claims that the RS/6000 will be number two in the Unix world any more: indeed it seems almost childishly grateful if the customer, having rejected the AS/400, actually agrees to take an RS/6000 running Oracle and Tuxedo with IPL Systems Inc disk arrays.
It is settling most of those festering lawsuits that just made it look like a fat and overbearing bully, and while not brilliant, even its relationships with its resellers are not quite as bad as they used to be. IBM has changed, and as far as the outside world is concerned, almost wholly for the better. If IBM had wanted to take over Lotus five years ago, armies of people would have been howling that the Feds must veto the deal on grounds of anti-trust, today it’s very hard to find anyone questioning IBM’s right to buy Lotus, even if many of us would still feel more comfortable if the anti-trust consent decree remained in force – IBM does still totally dominate the mainframe world, such as that fading world is. Resistor
is a newsletter of information, opinion and solidarity published by IBM Workers United, an organisation headquartered in Johnson City, New York long dedicated to rallying apathetic IBMers to stand up for their rights. It has been publishing the same kind of collectivist critique of IBM for years, and may be regarded by many as totally unrepresentative of a workforce that regards any mention of organised labour as a Commie plot. But in the June 1995 issue, the tone darkens perceptibly, and signs that the lid held down tightly on employee resentment is just about to blow. Even taking the contents of the issue with a pinch of salt, it is quite clear that the depth of disaffection and sheer misery among significant parts of IBM’s US workforce is something that Gerstner will ignore at his peril, and that remarks like the one at the annual meeting that employee morale is on the upswing are being greeted by howls of derision on the IBM factory floor or outside the door of the executive office where the secretaries chatter. And there is a palpable sense that the top brass is still living the old IBM life while even the poor benighted secretaries are being told that they are no longer worth what they are paid – but at least Louis now has a well-paid chef – and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Resistors. The means by which costs have been cut is a source of deep resentment, the extent to which people are having to cover for people that have left and not been replaced appears to be approaching the danger point where things will just not work at all any more, and the Resistors, which must be secretly thrilled about it, report that after years of being laughed at, IBM Workers United is today being greeted with where do we sign up? A brilliant open letter to the chairman from an executive secretary underlines just how transparently unfair the attack on secretaries’ pay really was.
She sounds like the kind of woman we’d love to have on the strength, the kind of employee that treats the company’s money with more care than she does her own, and describes a boss who regularly takes time off without recording it as vacation because he has a backlog of untaken vacation that is building up towards higher retirement benefits, a boss who attends college reunions overseas on IBM’s money. Let the secretaries in this corporation approve expenses for one week. I can assure you that IBM will save an unbelievable amount of money, she writes. Give the girl a raise and promote her to Jerry York’s office! All the changes wrought by Lou Gerstner make it certain that he will go down in history as the man that finally began to address the internal warfare between product groups, scaled the headquarters right back and ended the stuffy dress code. But if he does not begin to mend his fences with the poor bloody infantry, he will also go down in history as the man that wasted $3,500m on Lotus and finally brought to an end the era when IBM in the US was a union-free zone.