Are any tech jobs unionized?
Programming under duress
At the beginning of the year, the tech company Lanetix fired its entire workforce of software developers because they had tried to organize themselves in the NewsGuild-CWA union. NewsGuild then filed a complaint with the labor rights regulator, the outcome of which is still uncertain. But the dispute already has historic potential.
Because trade unions have been trying to organize female software developers for decades - without much success. This time it could be different. Ben Tarnoff spoke to two programmers fired by Lanetix, Björn Westergard and an anonymous colleague we call "Will".
How did the first conversations about organizing in the workplace start?
Bjorn Westergard: There was one co-worker - let's call her Jane - who really got things rolling. Jane had a tight circle of friends in the company. They all attended a women's coding bootcamp in San Francisco called Hackbright Academy and then started working at Lanetix.
At some point they opened a channel for chatting in Slack, the company's communication platform. This became a place for personal conversations, in which, for example, the aim was to support female colleagues who were going through a difficult time. But at some point the issue of paid leave also came up.
Lanetix offers two weeks of paid vacation. Practically, however, the number of vacation days people could take was in the hands of their manager. Everyone was annoyed that their manager kept pressuring them not to take a vacation. There was the feeling of ultimately being dependent on the bosses' discretion.
Jane raised this issue with her manager and encouraged others to do the same. One of the superiors was also in the said chat, so the management already knew about the conversations. Jane then began to move things forward - and eventually managed to make a big concession. The company boss said people would get more paid vacation days.
Want: Jane was already known to reach out to her manager with concerns shared by other developers at the company. She wasn't the only one doing this, but she was definitely one of the noisy voices.
Bjorn Westergard: But shortly afterwards, another problem came on the table: At the beginning of 2017, the technical manager had announced a grandiose plan for how we could compete with the Slack platform. The programmers, including Jane, went out of their way to create a Slack competitor. But in November 2017 it became clear that the market was not responding at all. The number of users was tiny.
Jane and her team had been working on the project for several months when they were asked to redesign the entire user interface within two weeks. Although it was already clear to everyone that the project would not be successful. Jane was quite shocked and unsuspectingly asked, “I really would like to understand what happened here: How did we get to this point? And what can we do to prevent it from happening again? " I think that's why - and because she had always spoken openly about problems in the company - she was suddenly fired on November 26, 2017.
Want: It was clear that Jane had done a good job. Her standing was fine. She had just been hired to lead a team and was given more responsibility. It just seemed that her critical questions weren't so well received.
And how did people react to Jane's sacking?
Want: The programmers are all pretty freaked out. It was utterly incomprehensible how Jane could just be fired out of the blue, especially given what she had done before. We were also worried about our own jobs.
The next day my division manager invited us to his office. He had received instructions from management for the interview and had written them word for word on small index cards: “Don't be a splitter. If you have any problems, don't talk to each other about them, but bring them up to your manager through the approved channels. "
In private, he said that he had been instructed to speak to all of his employees on the external Slack channel. If I am part of this channel, I should leave it as soon as possible. Anyone who takes part is on the management's shit list ’. I didn't know anything about an external Slack channel at the time. At first we talked about the company slack.
But in the end it led to the fact that we really opened up a new channel to discuss these things. Because we found that management has absolutely no right to control our exchange of information. That the workers must be allowed to speak to each other however they want. About the new Slack, we wanted to discuss how we can apply our frustration to management.
Björn Westergard: But the management didn't want us to use the external Slack channel because there were no managers involved and made a number of repressive statements against it. They even looked over the shoulders of the programmers while they were working to see if they were on the Slack channel.
The open layout of the San Francisco office made it relatively easy for management to see who was using the worker slack. But the office design was also the reason why the developers used Slack. Because the open spaces increased the likelihood that the managers could overhear conversations. Programmers talked about Slack even when they were sitting next to each other.
Sounds like Slack played an important role in organizing it.
Bjorn Westergard: The campaign couldn't have happened without Slack. Over 90 percent of the activities took place through Slack. Otherwise it would not have been possible because the company had two offices, one in San Francisco and one in Arlington, Virginia.
So Slack became both an organizational tool and a place to vent your anger. People were angry. Not only because Jane was fired, but also because they were banned from having their own slack without the control of the managers. It was just like they say: Bosses are the best organizers.
Then how did the idea of forming a union come about after Jane was fired?
Want: It didn't happen overnight. All in all, the process took just under three months.
Bjorn Westergard: One of Jane's friends was a journalist before she became a programmer and worked for a Milwaukee newspaper that was part of the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America (CWA). She was the first to say the word "union" out loud after Jane was fired.
First of all, she didn't say we should unionize. But she said something like, "When I was working in a union shop, women workers couldn't be arbitrarily fired." So the idea was there, but it still took some people to seriously discuss it.
What exactly happened that made people start discussing the idea more seriously?
Want: After Jane was fired, we got together to write a letter. We urged the company to: a) recognize our right to organize; and b) make reparation to Jane.
In the beginning the management ignored us. Then at some point the head of the company fanned out to arrange face-to-face meetings with each and every one of us. We told him that we wanted to meet as a group, after all we wrote the letter together. So he called a conference.
There he was very condescending and paternalistic. The bottom line was: "Hey, sorry that none of this was handled properly - but Dad is back home now and is taking care of it."
Björn Westergard: Time and again he compared himself to a parent and us to children. That really pissed us off.
Want: We took away that this was going to be a long, drawn-out fight. The boss made a lot of vague niceties, but it was clear he wasn't going to address our problems. The majority of programmers still wanted to wait and see what management would do. At this point organizing discussions began; but that had little support.
Bjorn Westergard: Then in January 2018 we received an email from management stating that the company was planning to open an office in Eastern Europe someday soon. More precise was - deliberately - not to be inferred. The same email dumped almost all of the programmers from the company's annual closed meeting. Both of these things upset a lot of us
Want: That email was the hub. People now came up with the idea that maybe we should unionize - if we cared enough about our work to stick together instead of looking for a new job.
It was the threat of outsourcing our jobs that led the majority to support unionization. To be clear, we didn't think it was a credible threat. The programming code was by far the most complicated I've ever worked on - it wouldn't have been easy to outsource the programming work.
Bjorn Westergard: The management had no plan, they just wanted to intimidate us. But it backfired because at that point the majority decided to unionize.
We had overwhelming support. In mid-January 2018 we wrote a letter to management summarizing our complaints and expressing our intention to organize ourselves in the NewsGuild-CWA. We have also filed a petition with the Labor Rights Inspectorate, NLRB.
Ten days later, Lanetix management kicked out the entire developer workforce. NewsGuild-CWA immediately filed a complaint with the NLRB, alleging that the mass layoffs were illegal retaliation for attempts to unionize. We also called on the NLRB and the court to intervene immediately to force management to give us back our jobs - including back pay.
You mentioned that the letter to management listed your complaints. To some, the idea of a tech union may seem bogus because they find it hard to believe that tech workers have a reason to complain at all. After all, women software developers are paid quite well. how do you see it?
Bjorn Westergard: One thing that drives us - and that I have discussed with many friends in tech - is the role that the whims of managers play in your work environment when there are no well-defined rules. For most people outside of these very privileged white collar jobs, the trend is towards micromanagement and highly restrictive work rules. Just think of the warehouse workers at Amazon. The discipline is becoming more and more fine-grained. In tech, on the other hand, they don't even admit that they exist.
There came a real turning point in the campaign when the programmers realized how much they had in common. People suddenly said things like, "I just thought I was doing so badly because I'm not as productive as other people or because I don't fit into the corporate culture." But when they started comparing their reports, they realized that each Manager everywhere had tried to individualize the complaints that everyone had.
For us that was the main reason to go through the NLRB. We wanted to have a contract that regulates exactly how much vacation we get, when we should be on call, and so on. Then there would have been no more psychological games between female workers and managers.
People didn't want that much more vacation or less time on call. They just wanted to know where they were. They didn't want to get caught up in these totally isolated negotiations all the time. It wasn't even a matter of the rules favoring management - there were simply no rules, and it was precisely this lack of definition that worked in favor of management.
Want: Software programmers charge relatively high wages, but financial compensation isn't the only thing people care about. If you have a manager who acts erratically or even maliciously, or if you lack clarity and transparency, it damages the corporate culture. Sure, many developers could just leave and find a job elsewhere. But if the workers are loyal to one another, they would rather improve their jobs than exit straight away.
The working conditions of a programmer are obviously much better than those of most workers. But software developers often work very long hours of overtime. Could this problem also be a way to spark talks about tech organizing?
Want: There is an inherent boom-bust cycle in software engineering. In other types of engineering, such as civil engineering and mechanical engineering, you have a static input that leads to a static output. When building a car door, you start with a known set of materials and use the same process over and over to get the same result over and over again in the same amount of time.
In software engineering, on the other hand, you have a variable amount of inputs and a variable amount of outputs. This leads to the familiar scenario that projects lag behind because they have to adapt to changing requirements and situations. That's why software developers often have to work incredibly long at the end of a project to bring it to a conclusion.
It can become a vicious circle. Everyone who has worked in software knows this hero mode cycle: You and your team work through the nights and weekends to get a crisis under control, but you are under so much pressure that you cut corners and make bad ones Write codes. If you manage to get the project done, you will be celebrated as a hero, but very soon this sloppiness will create another crisis - and it will be worse than the previous one if no one is actively working to break the cycle.
This is the precarious situation that leads to the fact that tech workers are more and more exploited. But this situation is not inevitable. You don't have to accept that. You can organize yourself and become active together to counter the management with something, if it does not work, to point out this recurring problem on your own. You can create a better place to work, and organizing will help you do that.
Björn Westergard: Another promising topic is the ever-present fear of personal professional development. Women programmers are expected to constantly learn new technologies in order to stay employable. They are afraid of falling behind.
In fact, the subject came up a lot at Lanetix. When two of the older developers left, people were afraid that they would no longer be able to keep up with the skills treadmill. This is because these two programmers had very in-depth knowledge and we, simply by working with them, learned a lot of things that have materially improved our long-term job security.
You find this dynamic very often. When management decides to speed things up or get people to work overtime, it is primarily learning opportunities that are lost. This is a serious threat to someone trying to make a living from programming.
So I do think that the programmers' need to improve their skills on the job can provide a possible motive for organizing. But this kind of solidarity is complicated and not exactly straightforward. Because women workers can stick together in a company to keep their skills up to date, and at the same time enter into labor market competition with women workers from other companies. The question is how can we bring people with such fears together and integrate them into a broader social project that doesn't divide them in that way.
That brings up an important point. How equally are the opportunities to organize in the tech area? I can imagine that it is easier for certain workers to oppose management than for others.
Want: We always have to pay attention to the context. Your ability to fight back against management depends a lot on the company you work for and your own status as a developer.A workforce made up of young programmers who have just completed one of the boot camps will have a weaker negotiating position than a few senior developers.
This is a challenge when it comes to organizing, because the bargaining power of the former is significantly greater than that of the latter. In fact, and despite the talk of the shortage of software professionals, many bootcamp graduates are struggling to gain a foothold in the industry.
In addition, the software industry is very unequal. This world is hailed as the glorious utopia of post-Fordist labor relations, but the reality is that many software companies are pretty haphazard flashbacks. They are incredibly badly managed and produce useless products, if they produce anything at all. So there are companies that are doing extremely well and in which joint actions are more feasible, because it is objectively in the interest of management if the interaction with you works. And then there are the majority of companies where this is not so easily the case.
Finally, what role do you think left politics can play in these organizing debates? In the past few years, a small but significant tech left has emerged, embodied by organizations like the Tech Workers Coalition and the Tech Action Working Group of the New York Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Did the knowledge of these current political developments play a role among your colleagues in the organizing campaign?
Björn Westergard: If you'd asked me the day before we got fired how informed my colleagues are about the tech left, I would have said: not at all. But then after we got fired, it turned out that a couple of my colleagues were at a Tech Workers Coalition demo in San Francisco. And some had girlfriends with the DSA group in San Francisco.
Still, as much as I might have wanted, we didn't hold up the banner of the tech left. We were motivated by simple, obvious things: defending Jane, defending the slack, more paid vacation.
But even if politics weren't the main driving force behind our organizing efforts, management tried to use politics to keep us from organizing.
A few managers who wanted to appear particularly left-wing in view of the start of unionization have always talked about how bad Trump is. As long as you are against Trump at heart, they must have thought, you can't be an evil anti-union manager. I was intrigued by the fact that management used the opposition to Trump as a shield so as not to face the strained relationship between bosses and workers.
The tension wasn't new, but awareness of it was. That was what ultimately made me so happy about the whole experience: The feeling that the veil was lifted. Everyone said something like that: It wasn't that everything got really bad all of a sudden, but that we became aware of how bad it was all along.
As the typical internet Marxist that I was, I thought I was prepared for it. But actually seeing it happen was really extraordinary. People who were keen on management positions a month earlier suddenly knew very clearly which side they were on. You learn very quickly which side you are on.
This text was first published in English by our cooperation partner Jacobin-Magazine. Translation by Till Manderbach
Björn Westergard is a software engineer from California and is an advocate for organizing his industry.
Ben Tarnoff is the editor and co-founder of the US magazine Logic.
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