Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Workplace surveillance and urban equity

In my hometown news today -- my hometown being a medium-sized city of a couple hundred thousand which, since it houses both a state capital and a state university, has a functioning transit system of city buses -- comes an interesting proposal for workplace surveillance pushed by workers themselves. Our local CBS affiliate reports:

In recent weeks Madison bus drivers have come forward with stories of the abuse and crime that regularly takes place on their buses. Tuesday they asked the [Transit and Parking] commission to intervene and make it safer for everyone by installing security cameras on busses.

Drivers asked that the cameras be placed on the busses with regular problematic routes. According to their proposal not every bus would have a camera.


Digital surveillance in the workplace is an aspect of the informationalization of labor that often gets overlooked, but when it is considered, it is most often either from a management point of view (with goals of speedup and discipline or assumptions of worker rulebreaking and lawbreaking) or a privacy point of view (with goals of better defining the blurry line between workplace control and individual control of action, speech, and thought). But here at least is a labor point of view: Drivers fearful of their personal safety and frustrated at their lack of options as they remain pinned in the front of the bus.

Importantly, though, this proposal is not without profound concerns. I'm not so much worried about the management surveillance implications -- I have no doubt that the city is already minutely logging bus miles and schedules in order to keep tabs on drivers. Neither am I worried about the privacy implications from a personal point of view -- I regularly ride the bus and, with proper signs alerting me to the surveillance environment, would willingly agree to video recording in the name of greater safety for all riders and drivers. The problem comes in the disparity introduced by putting cameras only on "problematic" routes. What are these routes in my city?

Drivers say teenagers are the biggest problem. "They yell, shout, scream, say profanities, push, write graffiti on the seats and it makes it real hard to drive a bus while all that stuff is going on behind your head," said driver Georgian Springan. "We've also been having problems with the South Transfer Point with fighting, graffiti, vulgar language. People waiting for the the bus have been pushed down and injured. A lady cut her head. We just have a lot of problems with teenagers."

In my city, "teenagers" at the "South Transfer Point" is often shorthand for people of color. Selective surveillance on public amenities of any sort which, intentionally or not, reduces the privacy and freedoms of one group but not all groups, is exactly the wrong strategy to push, in my opinion. The drivers seeking greater security on their routes should be commended for bringing innovative solutions to the city. After all, safe and efficient public transport is a public good that benefits even those who never use it with cleaner air, less congested roads, fewer parking lots, and efficient movement of both workers and consumers throughout the economic landscape. But if these are benefits we all share, with riders already bearing the costs of individual fares, then the risks of privacy loss in the name of worker and passenger safety should be risks that we all collectively bear as well. Make the proposal universal, and then open it to public debate.

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