Why the balance of power in technology is shifting towards workers

Why the balance of power in technology is shifting towards workers


According to Collective Action in Tech, a project that monitors the industry’s organizational efforts, more workers have spoken each year since leaving. The image of big technology companies as friendly giants was ruined. Part of the legacy of abandonment, Stapleton says, was “helping people see the gap between the way companies present themselves and the way they run their business, and what the capitalist machine is and does.”

In 2021, the number of collective actions decreased. But that’s because the nature of those actions has changed, say JS Tan and Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya, who help run the Collective Action in Tech archive.

“Compared to 2018, I think there is a lot more realism about what it means to organize workers and what comes with it,” said Nedzvetskaya, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. “One theory of why we see this base building is because people realize that this is difficult to do individually.”

Last year, instead of writing open letters (which can be a fairly quick process), workers began advocating union membership, a notorious long-standing temptation. But creating unions – even if they are “solidarity unions” with less legal protection – is an investment in the future. According to the analysis of Collective Action in Tech, in 2021, twelve unions of technical workers were formed, more than in any previous year. Tan, who originally designed the archive, says most of these unions are in smaller branches where there are fewer barriers to organization. But workers from larger companies are also involved in the action.

“If the goal is to hold these big technology companies accountable,” says Tan, a former technology worker who helped organize within Microsoft, “not just one of these groups of workers will be able to do it.” It’s their combined strength. “

Fight against “digital slavery”

Nader Awaad knows where to find Uber drivers with free time. He approaches them as they hover in the parking lots in front of busy London airports, waiting for customers. Awaad gives them a flyer and talks to them about joining the union, patiently listening to them make the same complaints he has heard reverberating across the industry.

Concert drivers are not white collar software developers you can imagine when you think of a technical worker, but they make up a huge and growing group of technology employees. Over the past year, they have become increasingly vocal about several basic demands: for a better salary, increased security, a way to seek recourse if they are unfairly kicked out of a company application. In the UK and South Africa, drivers have brought Uber to court. In the U.S., DoorDash drivers have gone on an unprecedented strike over pay cuts. In Hong Kong and mainland China, food delivery workers have organized strikes for better pay and security. In Croatia, Uber drivers held a press conference and a strike, saying they were late with payments. “We feel like digital slaves,” one union member said.

Uber driver strike
In October 2021, Awaad helped organize a demonstration among drivers to protest the cancellation without the possibility of appeal.

WIKTOR SZYMANOWICZ / NURPHOTO VIA AP

Awaad started driving for Uber in 2019 after being fired from his previous job as a senior manager. He immediately sensed the problems of the industry. “It reminded me of reading Charles Dickens,” he says. “The level of exploitation. Level of deprivation. I said, ‘I can’t believe it.’ “He realized just as quickly that he wasn’t alone. The other driver he met at Heathrow sympathized. He asked the union around him to join, and by April 2019 he had become a member of United Private Hire Drivers, a branch of the Independent Trade Union of Great Britain. He is now the elected chairman.

His local membership of about 900 drivers reflects those global problems, and he has helped organize pickets and strikes, but says companies are refusing to engage in open dialogue. Awaad says drivers must stay on the road 12 or 14 hours a day to earn enough to survive.

In a significant case last February, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided that drivers are entitled to annual leave, pensions and the minimum wage. Several unions say Uber has avoided those new obligations, but the European Commission has also noticed the problem. In December, it issued a directive on “improving the working conditions of the platform”, which means that new rules will follow.

Nader Awaad
Nader Awaad has joined United Private Hire Drivers, a branch of the Independent Trade Union of Great Britain, in 2019. He has now been elected President.

COURTESY PHOTO

Then there is the problem of algorithmic discrimination. Companies use algorithms to verify that drivers are who they claim to be, but face recognition technology is notoriously worse at recognizing non-white faces than white ones. In London, the vast majority of drivers are colored people, and some are removed from the platform because of that gap.

A break without the possibility of an appeal was the main motive for the strike that Awaad helped organize in October. About 100 drivers gathered in the lively London air, holding a large black banner that read “End unjust dismissals, stop destroying lives” in white. Protesters held signs in the background with photos of the driver. “Give it back to Deborah,” one of them said. “Bring back Amadou,” said another.

During that rally, United Private Hire Drivers filed a discrimination complaint filed on the basis of facial recognition errors. “We expect the court to be tough on Uber because it is happening in other countries, not just in our country,” Awaad said.

“At first I didn’t think I realized how big the moment would be,” says Field. By the afternoon, celebrities were giving support.

Drivers who get a job face other dangers. Exposure to Covid is a constant concern. Like the attack – Awaad talked to the drivers who were attacked and stole their cars. He plans to hold a protest in front of the UK Parliament demanding security measures, and has addressed other unions representing drivers, hoping to form a coalition and get companies to act.

“We have two drivers who died in Nigeria. We have a driver who was killed on February 17 in London. We have attacks on drivers every day, ”says Awaad. “It’s not just about London. It’s a global issue. “

Breaking up union breakers

In September, workers at Imperfect Foods who voted for the union found that their employer was ready to play the role of union breaker. The same thing happened in November at HelloFresh, another grocery delivery service, whose workers in Aurora, Colorado, reported harassment and intimidation by management. When workers at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama held a vote in April on whether to join the union, the company intervened so much that the U.S. National Board of Labor ordered a change. (In a separate neighborhood, the agency said Amazon must allow its workers to organize unions freely.)

Such tactics are spreading, according to Yonatan Miller, a volunteer with the Berlin branch of the Coalition of Technical Workers. “Germany has a strong tradition of social compromise and social partnership, where companies are not so much rival or hostile,” Miller says. “This is something you see imported from the United States – this kind of American-style union-breaking industry.”

Yonatan Miller
Yonatan Miller is a member of the Tech Workers Coalition, a local organization run by volunteers from 21 branches around the world.

ULI KAUFMANN

The Tech Workers Coalition is a core organization led by volunteers from 21 branches around the world. Miller got involved in 2019 and still remembers the first meeting, in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, which was attended by about 40 technology workers. “Most of us were, as they say in Germany, newcomers. “Some of us were of Arab or Muslim descent,” he said. But most were from Latin America, Eastern Europe, or elsewhere in Europe.

The idea behind the coalition is to help find a global answer to the global problem, and in the two years of operation of the Berlin branch, it has achieved many tangible results. He helped organizers with the Gorillas grocery app, the first German unicorn company to fight bitterly against a workers ‘council, a union-like organization within a company that negotiates workers’ rights. It also helped raise funds for an Amazon worker in a warehouse in Poland who was fired in what the coalition says was retaliation for her union activity. When HelloFresh workers tried to unite, the coalition branch in Berlin organized a protest in front of the company’s headquarters as a sign of solidarity. Whenever there is a need or desire, a coalition comes to provide training, advice or support, and most of it “happens more discreetly behind the scenes,” Miller says.

In his eyes, these efforts bring the technology industry closer to the standards of other industries. His organization of work was inspired as much by the activities of teachers and health workers, as well as by the departure of Google. The inability to socialize with these other workers is one of the reasons the pandemic was so frustrating – it cut off access to bars and gatherings where complaints turn into ideas and, finally, into action at a time when the industry was just beginning to accept the need to organize work. “We won the moral argument,” Miller says, “but we failed to fix it.”

Technique, with integrity

The dust from Frances Haugen’s testimony last October had not yet settled when two former Facebook employees announced themselves. Sahar Massachi and Jeff Allen have launched the Integrity Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to publishing independent research and helping set standards for integrity professionals working to prevent social platforms from harming. Both Massachi and Allen have been thinking about the idea for a while. They worked on cleaning up the platforms as part of Facebook’s integrity team; some of Allen’s research was among the documents leaked by Haugen. Now they wanted to answer the big questions: What does integrity work look like as a discipline? What does it mean to build an internet platform responsibly?



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