Tech workers in warehouses and offices get together

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“Wow, there’s so much going on at Apple.”

It was one of the DMs that labor organizer Clarissa Redwine received on Christmas Eve, not about the latest gadget to appear under the tree, but about worker activism within the ‘business. Some Apple Store employees had said that they were hitting on the day of last-minute shopping, and calling for a consumer boycott, to demand better working conditions for retail workers. While the limited walkout may not have seemed like much of a stir to outside observers, it did cause technicians and organizers around the Redwine world to take notice of the activity and how employee issues at ‘Apple were released “on so many different levels”.

Every year since Google employees walked out to protest workplace discrimination in 2018 was a historic step for organizing in tech. Now 2022 is about to contain even more high profile voice, legal actions, and campaigns. There is one organizing possibility that could help workers wield even more power and influence over management: answering a central question of organizing in the tech industry: what is a tech worker? – with an inclusive response.

Workplace actions have the potential to have even greater impact when “tech employees” are identified as all workers at tech companies, from startups to large tech companies, upstream and downstream of the supply chain. Warehouse workers, retail sales reps, quality assurance or customer support contractors, designers, coders, and anyone else who makes the world of technology work needs to work as if they were together, union organizers said.

“What’s really exciting to me is how much we can do together when we’re a bigger force with numbers,” Redwine, a Tech Workers Coalition organizer and former Kickstarter employee who helped lead the successful union campaign said it. “So to see those lines blurring in the industry, and to see people really embracing solidarity across roles, is a huge sign that this movement is accelerating and moving in the right direction.”

This all sounds a bit kumbaya in theory, but in practice, this kind of solidarity within technology has already spurred change. Recently, members of the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) called Google to provide high-quality home Covid testing to permanent Google employees, but not to contractors. This puts pressure on the tech giant to take a fairer approach to worker safety. Both UTA, and a movement at Apple aimed at speaking out against inequality in the workplace called AppleToo, in particular make the association of full-time technical workers and non-technical, part-time, contract, retail or logistics workers a founding principle of their organisations.

Redwine points to a number of other projects “expressly intended to blur the line between office and non-office, or software engineer and non-technical worker, that are happening in industry.” In November, the writers of New York Times‘ and shopping website Wirecutter went on strike on Black Friday – one of the site’s busiest traffic days of the year – to agitate for a fair deal. Members of New York Times Tech Guild, or the employees who run the website, apps, and technical side of the media empire, supported campaign online and on the picket line. Thread cutter finally concluded a contract with management a few weeks later.

In the run-up to Amazon warehouse workers voting to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama, Redwine’s organization has used its tech chops to help educate workers. When Amazon released a misleading website on trade unions, the Coalition has created a annotated version of the site that used facts, nonsense and web design to counter anti-union propaganda. The Bessemer union’s vote did not pass in April, but the National Labor Relations Board ruled after the fact that Amazon had unlawfully interfered in the vote. The workers are ready to vote again in 2022, and various other Amazon organizing efforts are underway. Jess Kutch, co-founder of advocacy organization Coworker.org, said her organization supports grassroots movements at multiple levels of Amazon, including warehouse and delivery workers, as well as workers like UX designers at headquarters.

“There is pressure inside Amazon in various parts of the company to organize,” Kutch said. “Workers are trying to build power.”

For the most part, in recent years and historically, the organization in technology has been stratified. Workers such as Amazon employees who vote to unionize in Bessemer and Staten Island run campaigns with demands similar to other labor efforts outside of technology that focus on issues such as wages, benefits and worker safety. But at the tech office headquarters, workers’ actions have focused on issues of workplace fairness and business ethics, such as not accepting government contracts to provide infrastructure for ICE or building AI for it. ‘army.

It is not inevitable that the two merge.

“There would be a big cultural, educational, and class divide between Amazon programmers and Amazon warehouse workers,” said Louis Hyman, director of the Institute for Workplace Studies at the University. ‘Cornell University, which studied the technological organization in Silicon Valley. These shortcomings have always prevented the organization of movements, he added. Kutch is “not yet clear” on whether Amazon warehouse workers consider themselves tech workers.

But the fact that office workers are standing up to management means the story might not have such a strong hand to write the next chapter. General Electric factory workers went on strike in the 20th century, but “there were no strikes in GE management to get GE to treat its workers better or build bombs,” he said. said Hyman about how the organization seems to seep into places it hasn’t before.

When Kutch worked with Google employees at the start of the organization in the mid-2010s, Google employees were concerned about contractors and vendors such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers, but they didn’t think they had their own beef with management or rights. problems.

“That’s no longer the case,” Kutch said. Executive decisions on government contracts have shown employees that they may have less influence than they thought, despite the company’s talking points about objective-driven missions. Some tech workers “now see themselves as workers, and they understand that they have only limited power in their company, despite their salary, and that the only way to really have power is to unite”.

It’s possible that the Benevolent Funds Organizing Tool could further help this cause. Benevolence funds are fundraisers that union advocates use to financially support people organizing their workplaces who may need a financial safety net if they face retaliation from their employers. The money comes from professional peers. Thanks to benevolent funds, highly paid workers can reach out to anyone in need, whether they are engineers, quality assurance contractors or logistics employees.

Several of these funds have sprung up in recent years, and each has different criteria for who can apply and which committee members award the funds. Kutch’s organization is currently fundraising for its third round of winners for the Solidarity fund, which distributes $2,500 to the technicians they select. There is a fund called Technicians for technicians, intended to support gig-economy workers, such as ride-sharing drivers. And when Blizzard Activision workers announced their intention to go on strike in December, they also launched a StrikeFund and called on “our gaming industry peers” to fund it to cover lost wages.

Funds have already demonstrated their ability to connect, and perhaps solidify, groups that organize within technology. In creating the Solidarity Fund, Kutch said the organizing committee actually had to define a “tech worker” in order to determine who would qualify. They decided that “all workers in the technology industry, regardless of their function” were eligible. Thus, even the creation of the fund laid the foundations of solidarity.

Contributing and receiving funds could reinforce these obligations. Kutch said she was surprised when organizers of the Apple retailer strike tweeted a link to the Solidarity Fund because her organization hadn’t actually worked with them. But she saw in real time that Apple employees across the organization were making “significantly large” contributions, though Kutch didn’t specify a dollar amount.

“It’s really interesting that there are now these lines of mutual recognition and solidarity between different types of workers,” Hyman said.

Kutch also observed that the funds do more than provide financial support. For workers who are under extreme pressure both at work and perhaps at home, it is validation that their work matters.

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“I saw a lot of people were just touched by just having a third party recognize their sacrifices and efforts,” Kutch said.

Hyman pointed out that logistics workers like warehouse workers and Amazon drivers currently hold an immense amount of power thanks to the way the supply chain has faltered. Meanwhile, social media companies like Facebook and TikTok need a steady stream of content moderators to keep their platforms from turning into depraved mayhem. Game companies like Blizzard need QA testers to make sure their games don’t break, media companies need techies and creatives to produce content, and everyone needs programmers. and highly paid engineers – but more content – to maintain and build the Internet.

And although the organization has been siloed in the past, things may be different in the years to come.

“Solidarity across classes is incredibly powerful and meaningful, it’s actually how we’re going to build worker power in tech,” Kutch said. “Our destinies are all linked.”

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