Tech Bullshit Explained: Tech Worker Unionization

They’ll encourage you to do everything else but exercise your right to a union.

Why don't tech workers unionize? It's well known that despite generally high salaries, tech workers are often unhappy with the companies they work for. Worker discontent often centers around systematic discrimination and the effects tech companies are having on our world. Especially in the era of Covid and civic unrest, this is all over the news. It would make sense for tech workers to unionize to address these issues. But generally they don’t.

Earlier this week I read The Failure to Unionize the Tech Industry Will Eat the Labor Movement Alive by Hamilton Nolan. I have some thoughts on this, thoughts that are informed by the fact I was part of a unionizing effort at a tech company. By no means is this exhaustive and it's heavily informed by my own experience. Take what you will from that. 

The Endless Meeting Problem

My first experience with tech worker organizing was being in the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) Slack, which I joined around 2017. Full disclosure my experiences are mainly with the Slack and Chicago branches, and not with the main branch in the Bay. The organization suffers from the same problems that plague a lot of leftism. Which is there are plenty of meetings and theory and discussion, and not a lot of actually unionizing. It doesn't surprise me to hear that the games workers organization has similar issues. Many minorities in tech do not feel welcome in these organizations. Including myself. I remember after seeing some troubling behavior I asked why the Slack didn’t have a Code of Conduct. They offered to let me write one…

Not to say there aren't some good things about these organizations. But I’m not sure they are an ideal use of time if you want to actually unionize. Fortunately my body has zero energy so I can't really do the whole meetings thing and also am resistant to the uncompensated labor men in these organizations frequently demand from women. Sometimes this is a blessing because it's harder to waste my time. 

Why not just do a petition?

One time an executive asked me "why can't workers just organize without having a union? I'd be happy to help them with that." A lot of the activity coming from the tech workers space is exactly that. It's walkouts. Petitions. Leaks. Everything but the union. And I don't want to seem too critical of these. Their organizers have the best intentions, but I'll say what I told that executive: workers fought hard for the right to unionize, it is legally protected in a way a petition isn't. 

I know we never would have unionized if I'd taken the advice I got from TWC. They connected me with Coworker.org. Hamilton Nolan mentions this and other similar platforms in his article The Long-Neglected Online Labor Organizing Space Is Getting More Crowded. The workers I met from Coworker were very nice people and I wish them the best (and hope they themselves are able to unionize). The problem is that Coworker has a product. And that's petitions. They highly encourage you to do a petition. 

I'm not a labor lawyer but I'm pretty sure a petition isn't protected collective bargaining. Furthermore, it tips off leadership that workers are talking. Gives them time to hire anti-union lawyers and consultants. 

Even worse is GetFrank, the other product mentioned in the article. At least Coworker.org is run by people experienced in unions and is a non-profit. But GetFrank is a for-profit company. And their leadership is cagey about how they see unions. One Tweet I saw by a founder said Unions are great but it's "very very difficult. We hope to be the first step." 

All I can say is stay away from these products. Their goal is not unionization, they have other goals. All you need to organize is to talk to people. Use Signal and a spreadsheet.

If you want a union you should form a union right now 

Luckily another coworker connected us to CWA, which is an established union. We never would have unionized without their help. They coached us and provided resources. 

Do not make noise until you have critical mass. Do not do a petition. You're going to have to do this quietly. You're going to have to talk to a lot of people. You're going to have to hide your work from the type of leftist that cares more about making noise than other workers.  

I don't want to hear excuses about remote because at Glitch we were half remote. Work with an actual established union. It will be more expensive dues wise but they have the lawyers and other resources you'll need. Glitch organized with CWA and Kickstarter with OPEIU.

You're going to have to make compromises and work with people you don't like or agree with. Ideal union organizing is fast and quiet. Glitch had a huge advantage of being a smaller company but if you work with an established union they may be able to argue for smaller bargaining units (like a single Google office in Chicago). 

If there is one thing I could tell other tech workers it's that do not underestimate how much people hate unions. Even people who claim they support unions. Even people you think are cool and progressive. They'll come up with every single excuse why a union just isn't right for you. They’ll encourage you to do everything else but exercise your right to a union.

I don't want to oversell unions as some kind of utopia. Media's unionization showed us that they are only one part of the solution. Obviously a union could not save my own job, but it did negotiate severance which is much more than I could have gotten in an individual negotiation.  

Getting in the media for complaining may provide temporary gratification, but it creates an endless cycle where leadership will make promises, quietly retaliate, and no one will be able to hold them accountable. Unions have problems. They also have more rights and more power than you do.

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