The real dot-communists stand up

A union rally protesting dismissals at Etown, a San Francisco start-up, energizes the faithful with some good, old-fashioned people power.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published December 8, 2000 11:19PM (EST)

Now that the decadent dot-com party circuit has all but dried up, as fast fading a memory as yesterday's get-rich-quick dreams, what's next? Will the gritty street-corner union rally replace the swanky launch fete as the place to be for dot-communists?

On Friday, about 75 laid off dot-com workers, grizzled union veterans and assorted hipster hangers-on assembled at noon in front of the Mission District offices of Etown to stick it to The Man. They whistled, chanted, marched and speechified. One protester with a bullhorn apologized for the hackneyed nature of the group's chants, but defended them as "time-tested." He led the crowd in boisterous renditions of "Who's got the power! We've got the power! What kind of power? UNION power!" and cries of "What do we want?" "UNION!" "When do we want it? "NOW!"

Etown has recently come under fire from labor organizers for suspiciously laying off 28 workers just as customer service reps at the company were in the midst of a union organizing drive. But the grievances cited describe life among the ranks at most dot-coms: lack of job security, mandatory overtime, lack of access to training or chances for promotion.

Protesters waved signs calling on the cubicle drones to rise up: "Dot-com workers unite" and "Union busters get lost." A lone harmonica played back-up to the cries of "Etown united! Will never be defeated!" Sympathizers from the Northern California Media Workers Local 39521 and other unions joined the crowd, creating an unusual mix of dot-commies with cellphones clipped to their belts and crusty, older, bearded men in work boots.

Walter Johnson from the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, a dapper gent in full coat and tie, called on the motley crowd to not let managers treat employees as automatons or computers. He spoke of the rally as the beginning of a national dot-com labor movement: "This is our town, not Etown," he orated to the enrapt crowd.

One speaker from the National Writers Union even went so far as to invoke the work of German poet Friedrich Schiller as part of his denunciation of Etown's idiocy in undervaluing the only asset a dot-com has -- its people. "With stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain," he cried. Another, a tattooed stump-speaker identifying himself as a bike messenger, brought cheers with his pronouncement: "The power is within the workers' hearts!"

Spectators appeared to be exhilarated by the demonstration of working-class solidarity. Why not? In these dog days of the dot-com downturn, amid the mounting layoffs, what dot-commer couldn't use a little rousing rhetoric to get the old fire in the belly burning? And with stock options now worth nothing, what better time to throw off your chains?

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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