Issue 6 / Play

January 01, 2019

Mainframe, Interrupted: Joan Greenbaum on the Early Days of Tech Worker Organizing

In 1969, a collective called Computer People for Peace (CPP) petitioned the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) to adopt the following proposals as part of its national policy:

We oppose the war in Vietnam, U.S. military presence throughout the world, and economic and political subversion of other nations. We oppose discrimination as practiced in the computer field. We oppose the establishment of mass data banks which pose a threat to our privacy.

Everything old is new again. Joan Greenbaum was a member of the CPP steering committee and rotating co-editor of its newsletter, Interrupt.

Joan has worked with, and written about, technology since getting hooked on programming in the early mainframe computer days with IBM. She is the author of Windows on the Workplace, Design at Work, and In the Name of Efficiency, and is Professor Emerita at City University of New York (CUNY), where she is on the faculty of Environmental Psychology.

In the conversation below, Joan recounts tactics, projects, and relationships built over fifty years of organizing. For those of us fumbling forward on what feel like new paths in the tech industry, her recollections furnish new (old?) possibilities and serve as heartening signs that our efforts have a history—and a long future.

This interview was conducted by Jen Kagan, who writes words for humans and computers. She is currently a tech fellow at Coworker.org.

How did you first get involved with Computer People for Peace (CPP)?

In the 1960s, I was working at IBM, which was a marvelous job for me because I was a single mother with a kid. Programming was the only thing that paid a woman a living wage. And they trained me, so that was wonderful.

Around 1968, I joined CPP. We had a steering committee of six to eight people, which I served on. We were working for different companies, mostly doing programming. It was mainframe-based. We had a lot of demonstrations in New York because it was the 1960s. It was the war that started us out—that’s why we put peace in our name.

I remember you saying something at one point about a commune. Were you all living together?

It was only a small part of CPP, but yes. In 1971, seven of us who met through the collective started a commune in Brooklyn. Our commune was in an amazing old brownstone with original oak panelling and a big kitchen on the lower level.

We reasoned that it would only take three people working at any one time to support the house and buy all the food and everything, and then the others could be doing movement work—anti-war work or what I got into, which was trying to organize a computer workers’ union.

You tried to organize a computer workers’ union at IBM?

No, this was during the year I took off. We each took six months to a year off to do movement work.

CPP had the idea that if we could organize mainframe programmers and mainframe operators, then we could shut down everything. I worked on implementing that vision, but it was very difficult. The only inroads I remember making were at NYU and a city agency. It was difficult because the workers were well-paid and thought of themselves as professionals.

One of the things that the mainframe era did was to enable women and working-class people to walk into a professional job and earn a decent living. It just required a college education. My division of IBM had a lot of working-class young men who got draft deferments for working there. It was a leg on the rung of the middle class.

Were these programmers receptive to the idea of unionizing?

Programmers were not really interested, but the operators were. Operators were the guys—and 99.9% of them were guys—who worked in the machine room, the mainframe room. They could shut anything down. And being an operator didn’t require a college education. There were a lot of African-Americans who hadn’t been to college and whose consciousness had been raised in the 1960s and 1970s.

But we had this idealistic vision of programmers and operators, together. Today it’d be like a union of… I don’t know what the job titles are now.

Software engineers?

I’m kind of confused by everyone being called an engineer now. In my day, an engineer was somebody who had an engineering degree, like a civil or mechanical engineer. But programmers or systems analysts weren’t that. Do software engineers have engineering degrees?

They might have computer science degrees. My sense is that “engineer” is an umbrella word for people who may be doing a bunch of things: developing front-end applications, programming how interfaces work and connect to a database, people working on servers and maintaining infrastructure…

Yeah, but there are a lot of class divisions within that work, and those are really important for organizing. I’ve been trying to follow the changes and crunch the numbers that the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out to understand what’s increasing and what’s decreasing. What I’m looking for is the numbers of people in the field—and what is the field?

In 1973, when I started teaching, young people were told to go study data processing. “That’s the wave of the future!” And, of course, it wasn’t. It never was. For a while, you could get jobs in it just walking in the door if you were white. But there were never that many jobs.

Tell me more about your work with CPP.

I edited and wrote for the CPP newsletter, Interrupt. “Interrupt” was a signal. You could program an interrupt to the mainframe. We meant it in a political way.

Scan of Interrupt, the CPP newsletter. Includes a fist over a title:
A glimpse of Interrupt, as digitized by Eli Naeher and Jen Kagan. Several issues of Interrupt are available at Naeher's website.

The CPP steering committee had a lot of interesting tactics. We would meet regularly and come up with ideas like going to an Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) convention to distribute antiwar literature.

The people at ACM were just dumbfounded by us. But there were others who came out of the woodwork and said, “I really think the war is a bad thing. What do you have?” And they’d get on our mailing list. Back then there was no email.

We had what we thought of as privileged jobs because we were making decent income and we had Xerox machines. That was the key to the movement: Xerox machines. In those days, most people had to crank out leaflets on mimeograph machines with this blue ink. It was a big drum and you had to roll it around. Xerox machines were much better. We would sneak in when no one was looking and make copies.

You had access to Xerox machines through the computing jobs you had?

Yeah, we thought that was the main criteria for a job. Earn a decent wage and have a Xerox machine.

We also raised bail for one of the Panther 21. His name was Clark Squire and he’s still in prison. Do you know about the Panther 21?

No.

The Panther 21 was a group of Black Panthers arrested in New York in 1969. The trial went on for a long time and they were all acquitted. One of them was a programmer named Clark Squire.

One of our members said: “Look, Clark Squire is a programmer. If we raise bail, it will raise consciousness among programmers not just about the war but about what’s happening to black people in America today.” So we went to ACM one year and raised a lot of money. People were aware that something really bad was happening to black people in America. Did we raise consciousness among a lot of computer workers? No. But enough of them ponied up money.

We got the money together but the judge wouldn’t take it. They kept all the Panthers in jail. They got out in 1971. I’m not sure what we did with the money, except then I went to work for the Women’s Bail Fund, which was an organization that included some Panther women. So we applied some of that money to women who were in prison.

Clark Squire is now known as Sundiata Acoli. He’s still in prison, on a different charge. He’s eighty-one years old. I write to him sometimes. He remembers everything about those days, things that I forget.

I’m curious about what you said about raising money but not consciousness. Sometimes I wonder whether tech workers who are speaking out now see themselves as part of larger movements and whether they’ll stick around for longer-term organizing that’s not directly tech-related. Did you ever worry about that?

I believe everything starts with a single issue. You start with a single issue, and my issue was working conditions. You start with a single issue and people start to say, “Oh, it’s not me. It’s not my fault. I didn’t do that. It’s happening to other people.” And then it can go anyplace.

The people I worked with then and now came in at different points and on different issues, but could all see the larger picture.

So when you think about your work today, it’s not as if Interrupt stopped and now you’re doing other things.

No, it’s a total continuum.

When did Interrupt stop publishing?

1973, I think. By then the energy wasn’t all in one basket anymore. The Panther trial made me very aware. It was also partly because we each took turns leaving our jobs to do movement work, and coming back was never easy.

In my case, coming back was particularly hard. In 1970, protesters had occupied the  Courant Institute, the computer center at NYU where I had tried to organize a union, and threatened to destroy some very expensive equipment there. So I had gone back to look for work and a woman who was a headhunter—this was totally new in the industry, that there were headhunters and that it would be a woman—sent me out on one or two interviews. Then—this is a wacky story but it’s true—she said, “Meet me at the public library on 42nd Street and don’t look like you know me. I’ll be wearing a big hat.”

She was dressed amazingly. She saw me and said, “Walk this way.” She said, “The FBI is after you. I can’t send you on any other interviews.”

I was wondering because the two I’d gone on, I knew the people who were interviewing me. And they were chilly. They did not move or change expression.

She said, “You can’t get a job. You’ve got to change your name.”

It was scary. I straightened my hair. I changed my name. I wore contact lenses.

The job I ended up getting in 1973 was at LaGuardia Community College, which was just starting. They were mainly hiring political activists. It was an absolutely wonderful environment for cooperative learning and working. The two guys who hired me, one had been associated with the Panthers and knew my work with Clark Squire and the other had been my manager at IBM. He had later left to start a small consulting firm—we would now call it a “startup”—and hired me away from IBM. Then I tried to organize a union there and he fired me!

But anyway, I was hired to teach. I was very lucky. LaGuardia Community College was a tribe that I loved.

In one of the issues of Interrupt, there were transcripts of “security hearings” in which workers who were being interviewed for government security clearances were asked about their associations with CPP. That must’ve scared people in the collective.

I was freaked.

We always knew that there was an informer in the group. All of our meetings were announced and anyone could come. There was one rather heavyset man who never said anything and turned up most of the time.

When I got married, he was the first one to come to my wedding party at the commune. Then, when I put in a Freedom of Information Act request several years later, the files showed our menu for the wedding, but almost everything else was redacted!

COINTELPRO was very active then. It could have been our work with the Panthers. It could have been my work with the union. I don’t know, but it was scary.

And you continued doing technical work?

Yeah. In those days it was called the data processing department. I taught programming and systems analysis and design for thirty-five years. That’s what I really liked: looking at the big picture. That’s what I got into at IBM and the skills were useful for CPP.

How do you connect the dots? How do you find the information? It was exciting. I think it was the beginning of my love of research and going on to get a PhD.

Is there anything else I didn’t ask that you wanted to talk about?

We didn’t have a model, we didn’t know what we were doing, but we became a collective that, well, we had a lot of arguments—if you look at any organization, you’ll find arguments—but we’d reach a consensus on the issues that we worked on in Interrupt.

I think it takes a physical presence. I was just on a Skype call with collaborators in Belgium for a participatory design conference. You can do certain things that way, of course. But I think you need the tribe.

I’ve been organizing in different groups for fifty or sixty years. Whether it was CPP or the CUNY union, it’s been a lot of work. But you have an evolving belief system together. And some naivete! I mean, I thought in 1971, “Organizing computer workers, oh yeah, this needs to be done! Operators and programmers together, yeah!” I had no idea what the structure of unions was. I had no idea National Labor Relations Board classifications can keep workers at the same workplace from forming a union together.  

If you slice and dice workers, you don’t have a union. You have mashed potatoes. Some battles we fought. Some we lost.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 6, "Play". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.