Engineering Illusions: An Insider’s Take On the Tech Industry — Conclusion
Organizing Labor against Organized Capital
In February 2020, the employees of the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted to unionize. It was the first time a well-known tech company recognized the decision of its employees to organize. Breaking the trend of unionization efforts largely contained within blue-collar and lower-paid white-collar workforces, Kickstarter’s union spanned the complete workforce, including its highly paid employees. As a University of California professor of labor law noted at the time, the milestone was “a hugely important step” that “signals to workers across the tech industry that it is both desirable and possible to build collective structures to influence wages, working conditions and even business decisions.” Referencing the desire of workers to control their own work and influence decisions made by the company, a former organizer at the company noted, “We wanted power in product decisions, certainly in the terms of our employment, and power to question management when needed.”
The unionization efforts were not without management backlash, and the majoritarian vote certainly had employees opposing the effort as well. For some, it remained ambiguous if the union would enable employees to influence business decisions, given that traditional union negotiations tackle salaries and working conditions, not necessarily business strategy. Indeed a valid and important demand to be made to the Office and Professional Employees International Union, with which the Kickstarter union affiliated. Responding to the vote, Kickstarter’s CEO noted, “We have a moment now where we can actually sit down and listen to what’s going on and I can engage the staff for the first time.”
A month later, the employees of the online software development collaboration company Glitch voted to unionize with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Under CWA’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE) initiative, the employees sought to elevate their voices in the workplace, including in matters of pay equity and employee protections. As CWA noted at the time, “Glitch workers’ overwhelming support for forming a union highlights the importance of organizing efforts in the industry, as well as CWA’s success in driving progressive changes for workers across corporations both large and small in the telecom, media, tech and game development industries.” The unionization drive was “painless” as a technology journal reported and was concluded cooperatively amongst the employees and management.
Just as hierarchies split a company into owners, managers and workers, so too the workforce itself — divided into full-time and well-paid labor, part-time and contract labor, and gig workers. The spectrum ranges from higher levels of labor protection, actualization and material comfort, to higher levels of exploitation, alienation and material discomfort. Prior to the developments at Kickstarter and Glitch, efforts to organize labor in the tech industry largely focused on single-issue campaigns, such as the aforementioned opposition by workers against building certain services for the Pentagon, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and fossil fuel companies. Furthermore, unionization efforts were scattered and were generally found amongst sections of part-time workers and gig workers, as seen with e-scooter company Spin and grocery delivery company Instacart. From an industry-wide perspective, company-specific single-issue campaigns and fractional unionization are limited in their impact. For instance, rejected government contracts can simply be taken up by a competitor, while the few workers who seek to negotiate for better wages or contribute to the decision-making process can simply be replaced by more cooperative employees. The developments at Kickstarter and Glitch show a path to universal franchise so workers can influence company decisions, among other avenues.
Obligatorily, these developments are not celebrated by the owners and managers, who prefer an atomized, easily disciplined workforce to ensure that the scientific and technical enterprise bends to their mandates. As Tesla Motors demonstrates, management routinely attacks attempts to unionize by intimidating workers. As a judge ruled, the company’s CEO openly violated labor laws by sabotaging efforts by employees to form a union. Hardly a novel occurrence in the long history of workers attempting to gain some voice, esteem and autonomy in an otherwise undemocratic institution. In an internal company presentation in June 2020, Facebook introduced various features for their new product, Facebook Workplace. A social networking tool for offices, Facebook Workplace provides office collaboration and chat services for various companies such as Walmart and Starbucks. The presentation acknowledged employers’ need for “content control” to moderate conversations. It provided one example of offensive terms that can be filtered out by employers: “unionize.”
Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing designs, builds and deploys automation systems for various applications. Founded in 1980 in Madison, Wisconsin, the company implements robotic systems for a wide range of processes in the biomedical, automotive and consumer industries, among others. The company works with several Fortune 500 companies, and it executes projects from the conceptualization and modeling phase, planning and design, building, implementation and validation, and finally, service and support. The most distinctive feature of the company is that it is owned by the workers themselves, making it a worker-owned cooperative. Members have a share and responsibility of conducting the business, and decisions are made democratically.
Worker cooperatives (coops) can be found across a wide range of industries, including technology. Despite the absence of favorable incorporation recognition, tax law, banking and development incentives for coops in many US states, there were 465 coops in the US generating approximately half a billion USD in annual revenue in 2019, according to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Silicon Valley, in northern California, is home to approximately fifty-five. Businesses range from web services such as hosting and applications development, enterprise IT solutions, even dog day-cares, restaurants, design firms and other commercial endeavors. Globally, there were 3 million cooperatives in 2019, employing approximately 280 million people, as reported by the International Co-operative Alliance. The organization notes that the largest 300 cooperatives and mutuals worldwide reported an annual revenue of approximately 2 trillion USD in the same period.
Under the banners of the “sharing economy,” “labor clouds,” “gig economy,” and “distributed work,” Silicon Valley spawns like Uber and Instacart seek to portray themselves as agents of emancipation and empowerment, committed to challenging regulatory frameworks so as to free labor to pursue work on their own terms as independent contractors. Looking to dissolve hierarchy and subservience to owners and management? Why, just download our app and get busy! Under pretensions of free experimentation and disruption, companies like Amazon and Apple seek to portray themselves as exemplars of creative exploration, committed to eroding barriers that regiment the brilliance of otherwise very innovative workers. Unfortunately, no matter how whimsical these hallucinations can get, there is no room in these tales for the genuine freedom of labor that comes with collaborative work in a democratic workplace. Indeed, the hallmark ‘creative disruption’ of Silicon Valley must not be allowed to extend to the hierarchical relations of employer-employee behind the app that supposedly frees labor. In this respect, by birthing the employee-owner, worker co-ops provide a means to actual creative disruption, one that enables those of the scientific and technical enterprise to control their own work and democratically build the systems of tomorrow.
Cooperatives can expand their membership to include not just employees, but the broader community as stakeholders as well. Elevation of the needs and voices of society would surely be a welcome development, if one is to believe the stated goal of the scientific and technical enterprise to serve humanity. Such a reorganization of the technical industry and its work could shape our technologies in very different ways. Liberated from the barren visions of today’s ideologues that think surveilled and regimented labor as free, reckless resource consumption and ecocide as efficient, and frivolous gimmicks as progress, the enterprise and its participants could finally organize their efforts to have industry service people, not the other way around.
To A Better Place
These efforts to develop new institutions and legal entities clearly require the participation of the state. As discussed, left to its own devices, the state will default to servicing its moneyed clients. It births and then twists the technology enterprise for its own power aims and the profit aims of its private clients. Democratic action provides a countervailing force. An unimpeded exercise of power can be and has been curbed and redirected towards more rational and constructive directions. Prominent political scientist and director of Harvard University Center for International Affairs Samuel Huntington had once prescribed, “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.” It is incumbent on the participants of the scientific and technical enterprise, from industry labor, researchers, teachers, students and others to expose to sunlight the destructive myopia and the fanaticism that characterizes much of our scientific and technical work today. At the altar of secular religion, state nationalism and private profiteering, sacrificed are rational applications of our techniques that could address urgent global challenges. Instead, funded, developed and scaled are those technologies and companies that adhere to the sterile rubric. It is a dubious operating principle for an enterprise that purports to improve the human condition and “make the world a better place,” an oft-recited hymn in Silicon Valley.
After all the grand proclamations of disruptive innovation, futuristic iconoclasm and original invention, it is the scientific and technical enterprise that exemplifies the dreariness and antiquity of religious doctrines, reactionary beliefs of state supremacy, and the unrelenting, unoriginal quest for wealth. The enterprise that routinely professes to precipitate human progress, and the industry that busies itself every day to realize the majestic promise of technical salvation merely serves the caprice of those who harbor no such motivations. Democratic and engaged communities, free and cooperative work, and rational deliberation are abhorrent notions antithetical to more pertinent matters of state power and private profit.
Returning to the pervasive notion of technology as an ethereal and autonomous entity that answers to no one, that phantom spear that moves linearly through time ostensibly at will, the nihilistic absurdity of such a conception only seeks to provide blind justification for the spear-throwers. The sciences and the technical arts have produced remarkable breakthroughs. The industry continues to demonstrate our far-reaching capacities. Yet, should the scientific and technical enterprise shed the doctrines that have subjugated it for centuries, reinvent itself with new institutions and social relationships, and set itself on a path of sensible and purposeful invention and use, the resulting system will be its grandest invention yet. Then, it may for the first time, honestly claim to be “making the world a better place.”