labor 14 Tech Organizers and Labor Experts Share Their Ideas For Re-empowering American Workers
- Over the past half century, workers' wages have stagnated, their rights have been eroded, and whistleblowers have faced frequent retaliation for calling attention to the problems.
- But in the tech industry, a new alliance of workers from warehouses to cubicles — bolstered by the pandemic and anti-racism protests — is speaking with a louder and more unified voice than ever.
- They're demanding everything from better pay and workplace protections to a bigger say over how the products they build are designed and put to use.
- Business Insider spoke to 14 tech organizers and labor experts about what obstacles the movement faces as well as the changes they'd like to see in American workplaces to empower workers once again.
All is not well for workers in Silicon Valley.
Amid a devastating pandemic that has left millions of Americans jobless, the four largest US tech companies blew past Wall Street's expectations, reporting quarterly earnings that pushed their combined net worth past $5 trillion and boosted their CEOs' personal fortunes by billions.
But as the tech industry soared to unprecedented heights, many of the workers fueling its rise have seen their wages and benefits stagnate, grueling job environments have become more dangerous, and efforts to call attention to workplace inequities have been met with retaliation.
Despite this, the tide is shifting. Last week, the top executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google faced a grilling from lawmakers that focused on their companies' outsized power.
Over the past few years, the experiences of rank-and-file employees have become increasingly at odds with those of the wealthy executives at the top — both on the job and in how they see their employers' impact on society. Bolstered by the pandemic and sweeping protests against systemic racism, tech workers from warehouses to corporate office buildings have been speaking up with a unified voice for the first time.
Their demands: Better pay, benefits, and working conditions. But there's a broader agenda in place. They want to shift the balance of power at their organizations so they can have more control over how their work gets done, how products are built, and who their companies do business with.
And now they're inspiring others across the country to do the same at their own workplaces.
Business Insider spoke with 14 tech organizers and labor experts who said the industry has reached an inflection point and that things aren't going back to the way they were before. Here are their thoughts on how to empower workers once again and the obstacles that still lie ahead.
Chris Smalls — organizer and former Amazon warehouse worker
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: Smalls said Amazon and other companies' self-interest and antagonism toward workers continues to jeopardize their safety. "Everything [Amazon's] doing doesn't benefit the employees, everything they're doing benefits the company and the company only," he said adding that companies like Amazon "smear the lower class people, they intimidate the working class people."
How can we improve American workplaces: Amazon needs to be taxed and workers need better pay, Smalls said. "You're telling me at $25 an hour I'm working for the richest man in the world and I'm capped out," he said, referring to the salary limit he hit after five years with the company.
What organizers should focus on now: "What we need is for the families who actually lost somebody [to COVID-19] to actually come out to the public," Smalls said. Concerns about coronavirus exposure were raised as early as March and he said Amazon's response fell short. "This could have been prevented ... somebody needs to be held accountable."
Oriana Leckert — former Kickstarter outreach team member and organizer for the Kickstarter United employee union
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "There's a strain of individualism that runs through tech for sure, Leckert said. Convincing workers who have good jobs now to organize on behalf of their coworkers — and their future selves — can be challenging at times, she said.
How can we improve American workplaces: Leckert said companies should start "listening to workers and giving the people who are doing the work some more influence over how and when and why the work gets done." Executives should trust their employees to have good ideas instead of dictating everything via "opaque, top-down hierarchical management," she said.
What organizers should focus on now: "Talk to everybody in your workplace, talk to everybody outside of your workplace. Get advice from other folks," Leckert said. "There are lots of people who are having a struggle at the same time and who have done it before," she said, and people looking to organize at their workplaces can learn from others' efforts.
Grace Reckers — organizer at the Office and Professional Employees International Union
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "The lack of hardened geographic bounds is an important component of the tech organizing movement, and it mirrors the structures of the tech companies themselves," Reckers said. "Unlike nurse unions that represent RNs in a few distinct hospitals, typically in one region or city, organizers in the tech industry have to take into account the growing number of remote workers, international employees, contract workers, and vendors that are all affiliated with their companies."
How can we improve American workplaces: "The biggest change I would like to see is for workers to have unobstructed rights to form unions at their workplaces," she said. "Employers need to be swiftly disciplined and employees need to be reinstated when organizers are fired in retaliation for their union activity. I also believe that the amount of money companies spend on anti-union consultants and 'union avoidance' law firms should be publicized, called out, and eventually redistributed to workers' paychecks."
What organizers should focus on now: "Going forward, I imagine that the remnants of these fears around job security will remain for a lot of workers in the tech industry. My hope is that employees will continue to organize around these issues and recognize that as long as you are an at-will employee, you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all—without any guarantee of severance pay or continued healthcare coverage. It's only with a union contract that workers have the right to negotiate terminations and the safety nets that come with them."
Laurence Berland — organizer and former Google engineer
Tyler Sonnemaker/Business Insider
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "In the pandemic, with so many out of work, a lot of people might have the attitude they are lucky to even have a job," Berland said. "But workers should remember that despite high unemployment, their experience and institutional knowledge is valuable, and not so easily replaced by a new hire, especially if they act collectively."
How can we improve American workplaces: Berland said people need to fight for coworkers "across class and roles," especially those who have to work in person or whose jobs are jeopardized by the remote work surge during the pandemic. "Workers who are able to work from home need to fight for those workers and stand in solidarity with them," he said.
What organizers should focus on now: "Make those connections with the most vulnerable workers — the Black and Brown essential workers, the unemployed service workers. Ask them what you can do to be a part of what they need," Berland said. "They know what they need and if you are genuinely showing up for them, they will tell you exactly what they need. Listen to them."
Jacinta Gonzalez — organizer at Mijente
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "Office tech workers are recognizing that their technologies are inherently political and are never 'race neutral,'" Gonzalez said, pointing to the growing surveillance state and "the insidious relationship between tech corporations and law enforcement." Gonzalez said that at companies like Google and Microsoft, "tech workers have made clear demands that all contracts with law enforcement be dropped, a necessary and long overdue step."
How can we improve American workplaces: Gonzalez said that "while office tech workers today may not be underpaid, they are recognizing that the cushy benefits they currently receive does not mean they have a voice in the types of technologies and contracts their companies engage with, even if workers recognize that their technologies are harmful." She added that giving workers more power would create "more accountability within the companies creating the technologies that are actively harming Black and Brown communities."
What organizers should focus on now: "The revolving door between government contractors and corporations must end and the curtain must be pulled back to reveal the full impacts of the growing surveillance state," she said. "As Naomi Klein said on a recent Mijente panel with Edward Snowden, we have a right to live illegible lives. It is time for technology to be transparent, human focused and end the growing surveillance and ownership of our data."
Wesley McEnany — organizer at CODE-CWA
Wesley McEnany helped launch CODE-CWA, which supports organizing efforts by tech and gaming workers.
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "Workers are seeing the use of their labor for immoral or unethical reasons as cause to organize because these issues are fundamentally working conditions as much as wages or benefits are," McEnany said. "These are also workers, especially at the big 5, who potentially hold a lot of structural power."
How can we improve American workplaces: "Tech companies have a serious responsibility to end systemic and structural racism. They are uniquely positioned to use technology for good and lead on issues of diversity and inclusion."
What organizers should focus on now: To make money, tech firms are incentivized to "take on nefarious projects, whether it's facial recognition software for oppressed governmental agencies or upgrading the technological infrastructure of local police departments surveilling Black Lives Matter activists," McEnany said. "[Tech companies] aren't going to be moral institutions without worker input."
Dania Rajendra — director of Athena, a coalition of activists and Amazon workers
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: The "sheer size and utter disregard for transparency or accountability" of companies like Amazon lets them get away with mistreating workers, Rajendra said. "Amazon's outsized power and its impunity about wielding it is the obstacle."
How can we improve American workplaces: Rajendra said she'd like to see "more elected officials — at every level — start to use their investigative and regulatory power to prioritize everyday people." She pointed to France, where a court ruled in April that Amazon wasn't doing enough to protect workers and would have to shut down or take stronger precautions.
What organizers should focus on now: "We'll continue to see more bridges built between the issues workers deal with on the job and the issues people — including those very same workers — deal with in their communities," Rajendra said. "Both COVID and the uprising [against systemic racism] expose the fact that the risks working people face on the job don't just end at the warehouse exits."
Ben Gwin — data analyst at HCL Technologies and organizer for the United HCL Workers of Pittsburgh
Jared Alan Smith
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "Corporate-friendly labor laws," Gwin said. "Companies would rather pay lawyers and union busters, break the law, and pay a fine than honor workers' rights to organize and bargain in good faith."
How can we improve American workplaces: "Medicare for All," Gwin said. Nearly half of Americans get health insurance through their employers, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the pandemic has shown gaping flaws in the US' approach. A study from Health Management Associates said 35 million could lose coverage due to layoffs.
What organizers should focus on now: Gwin said a change in the White House is needed before things improve for workers. Under Trump, the National Labor Relations Board, the top federal agency tasked with protecting workers, "is awful, and we need at least nominally pro-labor appointees in there," he added.
Nicole Moore — Lyft driver and volunteer organizer for Rideshare Drivers United
Scott Varley/Getty Images
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: For gig workers, Moore said the biggest challenge is not having the same rights and labor protections as employees. "If we want safe industries where people aren't dying to put a box on your porch, people aren't becoming homeless as they buy a new car so they can drive you and anybody else with an app around, then we have to put these basic things in place," she said.
How can we improve American workplaces: "We need to see a reform of labor law that makes that easier for groups of workers to organize," Moore said. Workers should be able to band together to negotiate contracts that guarantee fair wages, she said, "so that when you wake up in the morning, you know what kind of money you're going to make, it's not going to change overnight."
What organizers should focus on now: Moore said she's focused on getting "fair pay and a voice on the job, more PPE for drivers, and "somebody in the White House who actually is going to have a Labor Department that's worried about the welfare of workers, not just how much profit companies can make off of them."
Y-Vonne Hutchinson — CEO and founder of ReadySet and cofounder of Black Tech For Black LIves
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: While "a lot of people are waking up to the reality of racism in the tech sector and racism in this country," said Hutchinson, "there are still people who are invested in keeping things the same who are going to push back, and we have to be prepared to face those people."
How can we improve American workplaces: "When it comes to anti-racism, we do need to hold people accountable," Hutchinson said. "People don't change their behavior if they're not incentivized to change their behavior." She said employees who serve on diversity and inclusion committees and managers who hire, promote, or mentor diverse workers should be rewarded, not forced to sacrifice their work toward these goals in order to accomplish others.
What organizers should focus on now: Within tech, Hutchinson said Black Tech For Black Lives wants to "make sure that Black people are hired and promoted and supported and really able to thrive" in a way she said hasn't happened so far, even as companies have said they want more diversity and inclusion.
Steve Smith — communications director at the California Labor Federation
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "Tech CEOs have become very adept at employing anti-union strategies to crush organizing," Smith said. While executives' opposition to unions isn't new, Smith said the difference now is that tech companies have "some of the wealthiest and most powerful CEOs on the planet with vast resources to fight organizing at their disposal."
How can we improve American workplaces: Companies need to follow existing labor laws, Smith said. "Provide workers with the basic protections and pay they deserve."
What organizers should focus on now: Smith, who works closely with rideshare and food delivery drivers, said they're focused on defeating Proposition 22, a California ballot measure backed by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and Postmates, that would permanently make drivers independent contractors. If it passes, Smith said it will hurt drivers "who have few basic protections" as well as "small businesses who are at a competitive advantage when these large tech companies cheat the system."
Erin Hatton — associate professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "Labor movements — like all social movements — require an incredible amount of work," Hatton said. Keeping up the momentum while trying to support families, survive a pandemic, and fight for civil rights will be "a Herculean task" for workers, she said.
How can we improve American workplaces: Hatton said "all workers who perform labor from which others profit" should be covered by all labor and employment laws, not be forced to work in unsafe work environments, and should be protected from "coercion and abuse" by their employers. That includes diverse groups such as "Uber drivers, student athletes, incarcerated workers, graduate students, Instacart drivers, meatpacking workers, grocery store workers, and doctors and nurses," she said.
What organizers should focus on now: Worker rights as well as basic civil rights for Black people, immigrants, and transgender people should be top priorities, Hatton said. "As a country, as a democracy, and as an economy, we are only as strong as our most vulnerable population."
Clair Brown — professor of economics at the University of California Berkeley
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "Right now the problem is at the national level," Brown said. "The Department of Labor was set up to speak for workers, to protect workers, to represent workers. And right now it doesn't. Right now, it really represents employers under Trump."
How can we improve American workplaces: Brown said unemployment programs in the US should look more like those in Europe, which "focus less on payments directly to individuals once they're thrown out of work" and instead on "how can we actually pay to keep them on the job."
What organizers should focus on now: "We have to get back to this question of: 'what kind of social safety net do we want to provide people in the United States?'" Brown said workers who are laid off or can't work have no way to "just basically get through life, pay their mortgage or their rent, pay their health insurance, pay their kids' bills."
Tom Kochan — professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: "Employer opposition, and that hasn't changed at all," Kochan said. "Any employer that wants to defeat a union organizing campaign can do so because the penalties are so weak and so slow to be enforced."
How can we improve American workplaces: "We have to open up our labor law to new forms" in order to give workers more voice, Kochan said. That could include creating works councils or putting rank-and-file employees on corporate boards, "not to control it, but to bring a worker's perspective to these issues and the knowledge and the information that workers can bring."
What organizers should focus on now: Kochan said the upcoming election will have huge implications for workers. "If we get a change in government, both in the presidency and in the Congress, then we are going to see a massive debate around the future of work and how we learn from this crisis and fill the holes in the safety net that have been temporarily filled."
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