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Short Story: “Contractor Uprising” March 12, 2009

Posted by gznork26 in Business, Fiction, Short Stories.
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How important is your anonymity when you write something controversial?

“Contractor Uprising”
by P. Orin Zack
[3/12/2009]

Charlie had never thought that his suggestion would be taken literally. Posting it on the forum at the site where the software giant’s now-disgruntled ex-employees and ex-contractors gathered after their across-the-board rate cuts were implemented had been as much a throwaway rant as any of the other two dozen posts he’d left there. But something about this one had struck an unexpectedly responsive chord.

He stared at the Cat’s-Eye Blogger’s mike while she fiddled with the gadget it was attached to, wondering what she’d ask, and hoping he wouldn’t sound as nervous as he really was. After all, he hadn’t actually been employed by the company, either directly or through any of the two-dozen agencies that supplied contract labor, at the time of the cuts. Sure, he’d worked there over a decade earlier, but things were a lot different then. Contractors had been treated as part of the team he’d worked in, rather than as sub-human cannon fodder for the unending series of death-march projects the idiots they kept hiring as marketers insisted on in order to meet delivery dates that made sense only in their fever-dreams.

When the mike started to rise towards his red-rimmed eyes, Charlie shook himself awake and tried to focus on the young brunette’s anxious face, especially on the designer contacts, which gave her blog its name and logo. Of all the requests he’d gotten for an interview over the past day and a half, hers was the only one he’d agreed to. Posting under an alias was an easy way to divert attention from who he really was, but the moment a face was put to the suggestion which had triggered a nationwide avalanche of similar actions, he’d lose any possibility of employment. So, refusing a video interview was an easy choice. Accepting Margot’s pitch, though, had been a stroke of genius.

“Okay,” she said, “I’m ready now. What would you like me to call you?”

“Let’s make it easy on your readers. Just use my forum alias.”

Although Margot turned her head slightly towards the device in her hand and the cat’s-eye lenses flicked in that direction, Charlie knew that it reflected only her attention being focused on that hand for a moment, because anyone who read her blog knew that she’d been accidentally blinded as a child while visiting her father’s workplace. If ever someone had reason to play industrial watchdog, she did.

“It’s about three in the morning, and I’m standing at a deserted suburban park-and-ride interviewing the person who triggered the recent spate of what have been dubbed ‘meatspace denial of service attacks’ against selected companies that supply contract labor to big corporations. He’s requested that I use his alias, so please don’t think I’m being offensive when I call him Contractor Slime. He agreed to speak with me under the condition that I post a transcript rather than an MP3, and that I destroy the recording before posting the interview to my blog.”

Charlie raised a finger. “And that you don’t let anyone else hear it before it’s erased.”

“Yes,” she said, shrugging, “of course. Now, then, for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know what you started, could you please restate your suggestion?”

“Sure. And I don’t really understand what the big deal is. All I said was that, since there are so many agencies involved in this, that maybe we ought to pick one of them to boycott. That way, all of the company’s open job reqs still get filled, and the IT contracting community in the area can still get what jobs there are, but one of the middlemen gets shut out and maybe has to close its doors. After all, some of us end up unemployed. It’s only fair that at least one business has to deal with the same problem.”

Margot had opened her mouth, but then held her reply while a badly tuned car turned the corner and drove past. When crickets reclaimed the night, she continued. “That was two weeks ago. Within days, every contractor who had submitted a resume for a temp job with the company through one particular agency asked to rescind their interest.”

“I might point out here,” Charlie broke in, “that I didn’t suggest which agency to stiff. Someone else supplied a list, and one was chosen pretty much by acclamation.”

She nodded. “But you had made the initial suggestion, so the agency publicly called you out for it.”

“By my alias, yes. But they didn’t know who they were attacking, and therefore couldn’t do much about it.”

“And that’s when things started to snowball. People who were trying to get contracts at other companies through that agency reacted pretty strongly. Quite a number of them phoned the agency and told them to take a hike, that they’d be using another shop for their job search. And then people already on contracts through the agency – both the ones still on at reduced rates at the software giant, and those contracted to other businesses – started threatening to quit.”

Charlie frowned and looked away briefly. “Yeah. And when anyone asked why, they started pointing at me, like I was responsible for this sudden uprising.” His voice rose, as did his pulse. “But I’m not. I mean, none of the folks in the discussion forum even suggested that people working at other companies do anything. It was never about that. Never.”

Margot flipped off her recorder. “Look, we’re off the record now. Are you all right? Do you want to go through with this? It’s okay if you want to stop.”

He shook his head, annoyed with himself. “No. It’s okay. Really. Turn it back on. I want to get this over with.”

“So,” she said a few seconds later, “that was the night your little contractor revolt made the national news.”

“It’s not my revolt. Look, you said you would let me tell my story. Are you going to do that, or are you going to do a hit piece on me?”

“The former,” she said quietly, but I’d like to get you emotionally involved, so you don’t hold back or consciously edit what you have to say. I want it all, and I want it honestly.”

He took a deep breath and gave in to the anger that had begun seething in his gut. “All right. I don’t know if this is going to give my identity away to someone who was there at the time, but a dozen years ago, when I was a full-time employee there, I discovered that the work I really wanted to do in support of the project I was on wasn’t allowed to be done by direct hires. Only outside contract people could do it, and only off-site. So I decided to follow my gut and quit, just so I could do the kind of work that really interested me. Later on, I worked with a different part of the company as a vendor, which meant that I was on contract for the duration of a particular project. But it also meant that there wasn’t a blood-sucking temp agency raking off a cut of the bill rate just for processing some occasional paperwork. I saw how much profit the contract agencies were taking, and it disgusted me. So when some folks on the forum discovered that the rate cuts were instituted to feed yet another layer of economic vampire, that was the last straw. That was why I was so angry that day, why I suggested we pick a target and show them that they didn’t hold all of the cards in their little game of bluff.”

Margot’s mike hand was shaking. She was silent for a few seconds, while she caught her breath. “I think people must have picked up on that anger, or at least attributed some to you on the basis of your having signed your posts as ‘Contractor Slime’.”

“Yeah, well. I know some people who have worked as contractors since I left, and that’s how they refer to themselves in private. It’s a kind of gallows humor.”

“I understand. Now, the following week, as a result of the national coverage, people seeking jobs as contract help in dozens of industries started to follow suit. In each case, they picked one of the houses that were vying for the rake-off on the billings, and boycotted. It spread like wildfire, and the only person anyone ever pointed at when asked why they did it, was you.”

“Right. Like I’m some sort of labor leader or something. All I did was make a suggestion. Other people figured out how to implement it. Hell, I’m still not even employed, and I sure as hell don’t want anyone pestering me about what to do next. In the bigger scheme of things, I’m nothing but a goddamn observer! And now there’s this national hue and cry among the business interests about how unfair it is that the workers finally have gotten the upper hand about something. Well, all I’ve got to say about that is that it’s about time. The big corporations need us to make their products just as much as they need us to buy them. But what they don’t seem to understand is that the people they think are their enemies don’t need a leader. All they need is a sense of autonomy; that they are in control of their own destiny. ‘Cause that’s all there is, really: people. We’re everywhere. Without us, nothing happens. Not business. Not government. Not war. Nothing.”

She smiled. “Spoken like a true leader.”

Charlie crossed his arms unhappily and glared at her. “Is that what you wanted?”

“Part of it, yes. But I’m also interested in what you think about the dynamic that you triggered.”

“The dynamic?”

“Sure. It’s unusual to have so much concerted action without anyone directing it. It seemed almost like the workforce was a supersaturated solution, and all it needed to start making rock candy was an impurity to condense around.”

“Looked at that way,” he said, relaxing his stance, “it could have been anyone, couldn’t it?”

“I think so, yeah. And that’s why it intrigues me so much.”

“Because of what happened at your father’s jobsite when you were a kid?”

“Could be, yeah. I mean, that accident could have hurt anyone. I just happened to be standing in the wrong place. But since it did hurt me, I was the one whose course through life was altered as a result. It could have been my father, or a co-worker, or even the foreman. And in each case, what changed would have had different consequences. But because it was me, I’m living this version of my life instead of another one. Well, what you started has changed the course of who knows how many lives.”

He held up his hands. “Hey, you’re not going to hold me responsible for what a million strangers do. That’s their problem.”

“No it’s not. It’s their opportunity. It takes a lot of effort to turn a ship around. Whatever it was that you did, however it happened, a ton of people suddenly stood up and changed the course of something a whole lot bigger than their own lives. And it wouldn’t have happened without you. You’re not responsible for what happened, or for what any of them might do, but without you it would not have happened at all.”

“So, you don’t think they’ll want to string me up if they found out who I am?”

Margot chuckled. “Well, right now they might, especially the fat cats who just got bit in the ass by the concerted actions of a whole lot of people you inspired. But in the long run? No. I don’t think so. More likely, they’re gonna want to know who you were, so they could properly thank you for the world you helped to create. But that’s probably a way off.”

“Good. Then I made the right choice in picking you for this interview. After all, there’s no picture to tie the alias to, and you can’t peg me either since you’re blind.”

She was still for a long moment. Then, she flipped her recorder off and stowed the mike. As she held out her hand to thank him, she grinned mischievously. “They’ll find out eventually.”

He grasped her hand. “Oh? How?”

“There was a loophole in your restrictions. I have a camera. I took your picture. But it won’t be released until I’m dead.”

Charlie withdrew his hand. “A camera. Where?”

She pointed to her right eye. Cutting edge tech. And the best part?”

“Hmmm?”

“The research was paid for by the founder of the company your friends helped cut down to size. But he won’t know that for some time.”

THE END
Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack

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