Transcript of a presentation given on behalf of the Tech Workers Coalition earlier this month, at Log Out! Worker Resistance Within and Against the Platform Economy, a symposium at the University of Toronto that examined labor unrest and organizing in the modern, tech-centered economy. This piece by Tech Workers Coalition in Technology and The Worker (#2) is republished from notesfrombelow.org.
Hello y’all, I’m representing the Tech Workers Coalition.
The TWC is a network of progressive and left-wing workers throughout the tech industry who are trying to organize and bring the labor movement into Silicon Valley, particularly parts of it that have not been grounds for labor organizing thus far. You can consider us to be a kind of workers center, that facilitates the building of new communities and new networks that are separate and in opposition to the business interests of the tech industry.
We’re mostly made up of people in various white-collar occupations in the industry: programmers, engineers, product managers, and so forth. But it’s important to note that we really want to help organize the entire industry, across all occupations and stratas: everybody from cafeteria workers, to customer service reps, to data scientists. In fact, TWC originally started as a group whose main purpose was to help unionization campaigns among service workers, and to enlist the support of the skilled technical workers at various sites. But since then, our ambitions have grown, especially as the experience of being in solidarity with service workers has lead to more of us thinking of ourselves as workers as well, as part of the same struggle.
So with regards to labor organizing in and against platform capitalism, we’re very excited and enthusiastic about considering the possibilities for leveraging the strategic position of skilled technical workers in the tech industry, in conjunction with the ongoing movements of what we could call “platform workers”. In other words, we’d like to think seriously about the potential to build a class alliance between the workers that build platforms and the workers that use – or are used by – platforms.
For example, imagine if Amazon warehouse workers were able to coordinate with Amazon engineers. Or if Deliveroo workers could organize with Deliveroo programmers. Bringing in the skilled technical layers of platform capitalism into the labor movement opens up a whole realm of possibilities for what we can accomplish.
Of course, right now, we’re a bit of a ways off from any of that. There has been a lot of spontaneous organizing and unrest happening in the industry in the past couple of years, but still the key task right now for us is to start with the basics of agitation and organizing. This is where “workers’ inquiry” comes in.
Our use of workers’ inquiry is a bit different than what’s been discussed before. We’re not academics or researchers, we the workers are ourselves doing the inquiry – on ourselves!
Our premise is that getting workers to talk to each other about problems that they have in the workplace is a powerful way to agitate, and build toward organizing; and that for would-be organizers like the core of TWC, there is no way in hell that you can have an effective campaign if you don’t know what your coworkers are actually thinking about and care about. It’s also an effective way to better understand what we can call the “class composition” of the tech industry; or in other words, where are people coming from in terms of backgrounds and occupations, where are they specifically located in the industry, what supply chains they’re a part of, and so on.
The reason that these kinds of discussion sessions can be effective is because oftentimes, especially in tech, workers feel like their gripes and grievances are their own problems. But once you start hearing other workers openly complaining and being angry about certain aspects of the industry, you start to realize that these aren’t, in fact, individual problems, but systemic problems. You also might start to realize that maybe you’re not some kind of “entrepreneur” or a temporarily-embarrassed founder or startup CEO, but that you are in fact a worker, who is under surveillance and managed and exploited. You are a cog in capitalism, just like everybody else.
And so for the Tech Workers Coalition, a lot of what we’ve been doing is grounding our organizing around creating space to simply hang out and talk, and discuss our gripes and grievances with the industry, and help our fellow workers develop some class consciousness. Or at least a bad attitude about work. And in this way we can start to build the foundation on which an alliance between skilled technical workers and platform workers and other segments of the working class can be developed.
So how do we go about doing inquiries?
Mostly, we’ve done the straightforward thing of having an event for a couple of hours where people show up, break off into groups of 2-4, and go through a questionnaire. And then maybe have a big group discussion.
The questions inquire into different aspects of working in tech, ranging from the details on specific occupations and the commodities and services that are produced, to general grievances that people have, or have seen expressed around them. So questions can be pretty simple conversational topics, like “Where do you work? What’s your job title? What tools do you use?”, and they can also be somewhat agitating, like “what do you dislike most about your workplace? How many hours do you work every week? What’s the stupidest thing you’ve seen management do?”
This stuff may seem pretty basic, which it is. This isn’t really complicated or advanced stuff here. Again, it’s worth emphasizing that a key objective right now is to simply get people to talk to each other in a critical manner and engage in some mutual and collective agitation.
To this end, the general inquiry sessions have been relatively effective and there’s been some good positive feedback. Some people have appreciated just having a space where people can openly vent frustrations and gripes about the tech industry, as opposed to more mainstream networking spaces where the expectation is that you are very cheerful and optimistic and enthusiastic. So in our spaces, instead of having to spin working 80 hours a week as “oh the work is so challenging and I’m learning so much”, you can admit “yeah this actually really sucks, I’d rather have an actual life outside of the workplace”.
For others, it has been useful to have a space to ground themselves into local concrete issues, as opposed to the big-picture macro-political stuff that they are used to thinking about. A lot of us are already very politicized, but we tend to think about politics in a very abstract and global way; so it’s really helpful to have discussions that force us to think about our own lives and how politics and political economy is impacting us on a day-to-day basis and how the workplace can be a node through which you can make a difference both for yourself and for others.
There has even been at least one case where a fellow worker, who is now a very enthusiastic member of TWC, explicitly pinned a workers inquiry session as being a pivotal moment when he recognized himself as a worker rather than a professional or an entrepreneur and how suddenly all this pressure was lifted from him. I’m not special! I’m just a fucking cog! Who cares!
All in all, we’re definitely going to continue to use workers inquiry as a strategy to facilitate conversations and reflections, as well as genuine relationships.
So inquiries have been a great tool to help build relationships between workers, but it’s also been effective at helping us understand what kinds of grievances and gripes that people around us have, that are driving them into organizing spaces. Or in other words, it helps shine a light on why the hell we techies are getting all worked up even though we supposedly have it really good with nice salaries and ping pong tables.
We can generally categorize tech worker grievances into three areas.
The first is standard workplace issues: things like bad management, long working hours, salary disparities, etc. I think it’s noteworthy that tech workers can still be riled up about basic workplace issues despite being relatively privileged and economically secure. We still may be working 60-80 hours a week, with an abusive manager, and heavy surveillance at work, and so on. Long working hours is definitely one of the popular grievances. Another is transparency around salaries; this is especially relevant when it comes to patterns of women and people of color getting underpaid, but not having a good way to figure this out with hard numbers. All in all, with regards to organizing, the fact that basic workplace issues are still a source of unrest means that we can apply a lot of the old lessons of union organizing to the tech industry.
The second category is issues of what we could call the “social composition” of the workplace, specifically issues of diversity (or lack thereof), and racism and sexism. Sexual harassment is a particularly key point of contention in the tech industry, and a lot of workers are really keen on figuring out ways to deal with it. And the general lack of management interest in dealing with these types of issues can be a big source of disillusionment and anger. So a key goal moving forward is going to be crafting strategies for rank-and-file solutions to issues of racism and sexism. We’ve actually already had some level of organizing success in certain workplaces where people were able to put collective pressure on serial harassers and get them disciplined or kicked out.
The third category is ethical and political issues. This is mainly with respect to how a company generally fits into the larger political context. For example, a company’s management trying to smooch up Donald Trump can be a serious source of anger for a workforce which is largely anti-Trump. It’s worth noting that this kind of grievance has actually been a very visible source of unrest for some time now; for example, workers at big companies like Google and Comcast had walkouts to protest Trump’s immigration policies. The ethics of technology are also a hot-button topic right now; for example, people working for various kinds of data companies are getting increasingly uneasy with the realization that actually, they’re working for surveillance companies. Shortly after the 2016 US election, a whole bunch of tech workers signed on to a petition pledging to never work on tech that could be used for the surveillance and targeting of minority groups. There’s also a disconnect between workers and companies on issues of privacy and security; a lot of workers take seriously the importance of privacy, but of course this runs against the very reason why a lot of tech companies exist in the first place.
So, those are the three general categories of grievances among tech workers. Hopefully it’s a little more clear now why TWC is optimistic about the prospects for bringing skilled technical workers into a larger working class movement. And one more thing I would note about this is that among all those grievances, by far, the most prevalent motivation for people who are agitated and want to organize is around issues of solidarity, either with underrepresented minority groups, or with tech workers who are not in relative positions of privilege, like contract workers and temporary workers. And it’s worth repeating that TWC originally started as a group that wanted to get skilled technical workers to be in solidarity with service workers on tech campuses.
So with this in mind, maybe it’s not such a crazy idea to think that we could organize tech workers to disrupt the disruption of the labor market, and resist right alongside platform workers.
And just a couple of notes about our actual organizing. I’d like to say that in general, it’s been going really well. And actually it’s going a lot better than a lot of us expected. Late last year we set some goals for the organization for 2018, and already we’re hitting those goals or surpassing them. In addition, there’s a lot of spontaneous organizing that’s happening independently of each other. At one big workplace where we have a presence, we’re discovering that there are a bunch of other informal groups who are also organizing to pressure management or subvert the company or whatever. And this gets at the concept of “invisible organization” that some people mentioned earlier today. So TWC in no way has a monopoly on tech worker organizing, which is great. It means there is a lot of energy around this stuff. Although we’re definitely the coolest.
There was also a really interesting recent case where the engineers at a tech startup ran a really successful unionization campaign, and all 15 or so engineers and programmers were on board. But then, after about a week after they told the company, they all got fired. Which is kind of hilarious; a tech startup fired all their tech workers. But in any case it’s a great example of the contradictions that we’re talking about here, and last week TWC helped organize a rally and a picket outside the company and we had about 70 people show up. And one thing to keep in mind about this kind of stuff is that even if initial attempts at organizing are met with retaliation like this, at the end of the day, that’s just going to increase the gap between management and workers in the tech industry.
So yeah. Things are going good. And we’re excited for 2018.