Tech workers are unionizing, sending shivers across an industry that sits on the pedestal of disruption.
I’m not talking about the blue-collared cafeteria workers or security guards that work in Google or Facebook campuses. Now, efforts to unionize have spread to the ultimate critical resource that powers the industry — software engineers. Just last month, around 80 Google contractors agreed to join the Philadelphia chapter of the United SteelWorkers Union.
This move to unionize, one can argue, is a continuation of a trend of activism that has hit Silicon valley.
Last year, a group of software engineers sought to form a workers’ union in San Francisco, to which the company responded by immediately terminating their contracts. Organizations such as the Tech Workers Coalition have popped up to fill the perceived need to fight for workers’ rights and economic inclusion.
There’s even a GitHub repository which tracks all collective actions by workers within the technology industry.
Why are tech workers seeking to unionize? What could possibly be driving the most highly paid, highly sought after type of worker in modern times to seek union membership?
The Dangers of Overtime and Burnout
Anyone who’s participated in the labour market knows about, or has heard of, burnout. The feeling of dread that comes with having to report to work, stemming from a perceived futility of the work performed. Unfortunately, Close to 60% of tech workers feel burnt out, with women being more likely to feel it.
Why do tech workers burn out so much? Some argue it has to do with the impossibilities of Silicon Valley work culture, which includes working excessive overtime. One may claim that the federally-mandated overtime compensation offsets the drawbacks of putting more hours at work. While correct, there’s two problems with this thinking.
First, there are exceptions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. If a tech workers earns no less than $27.63 an hour (which most do), and if their occupations entail complex job duties (programming counts), the employer can legally choose to not pay that tech worker for overtime.
And second? While one can claim that spending free time on honing one’s craft is part of the job, working overtime is glorified in the Silicon Valley ethos. The celebrated Elon Musk has claimed that those work less than 40 hours a week are underachievers. 38% of game developers work unpaid overtime, and those who refuse are easily replaced by less dissenting employees. And those who have the nerve to protest are summarily fired from their positions without explanation or compensation.
Excessive working hours and increased burnout rates are a fact of life in many tech companies. It’s no wonder why groups of tech workers at NPM and at Kickstarter have attempted to push back, albeit with limited results.
The Move Against Forced Arbitration
More than 60 million American workers have no access to the judicial system. The reason? Forced arbitration.
For years, it has been common practice in the techspace to include forced arbitration agreements in employment contracts. When a worker signs the contract, he or she agrees that all disputes are settled within the company. That is, he or she waives the right to take any disputes with the company to court. The evidence points that this overwhelmingly favors employers, and even if a claimant were to win, the average payout rate is significantly smaller than through the normal judicial system.
But how have forced arbitration agreements fanned the flames of tech worker activism? Forced arbitration has been used to silence sexual misconduct by upper management in more than one tech company. Others claim that forced arbitration agreements have been used to stifle complaints regarding racial and gender discrimination.
Tech workers are becoming more militant in their resistance to these arbitration clauses. Last year, around 20,000 Google workers across the globe marched to protest the culture of sexual assault, and demanded an end to forced arbitration across the entire tech industry.
In another demonstration of worker mobilization, 150 employees at Riot Games, the company responsible for big-name titles such as League of Legends, left their workplace in protest of how sexual misconduct was being actively uncovered by the company.
As a result of these mobilizations, some victories have been achieved. Earlier this year, Google agreed to cease applying forced arbitration in cases of sexual misconduct. Other tech giants such as Facebook and Ebay have followed in their footsteps. As the struggle to end forced arbitration continues, and as more tech workers see that concessions can be obtained if they organize, perhaps a more concrete form of worker collectivization is not too far off the cards.
What does a unionized high-value tech workforce imply for the industry?
Now that we’ve examined the forces that could bring about a tech workers’ union, what are its implications?
For starters, the tech industry would have to tone down its message of constant innovation and limitless flexibility. It’s no secret that part of the reason technology companies have been so successful is because they can quickly use temporary workers to scale up or down production. In more mundane terms, the use of temporary contracts makes workers easy to hire and easy to fire depending on demand. A union of tech workers could possibly be powerful enough to enforce more stable work contracts for all workers. They may even go as far as banning all types of contract work in the technology industry.
One could argue that a unionized tech workforce would make doing business more expensive, stemming wealth creation and ultimately reducing tax collection. While it is wise to anticipate companies would suffer a financial blow, a unionized tech workforce would also drive more meaningful policy changes within the tech space. With enough coordinated action, tech workers could force technology companies to improve workers’ conditions. Better systems could be implemented in which sexual misconduct does not go unpunished. Regulations for safe working hours, as well as systems for avoiding burnout, could be set in place.
Technology workers are in a unique economic situation in which their skills are in high demand, and the supply of workers is acutely scarce. Few times in the history of workers’ movements has one workforce had so much sway over their conditions. While one may argue that having this unique position eliminates the need to unionize, one could also claim that creating a tech workers’ union now would solidify the advantage in the event of change. Who knows? Perhaps the Philly Google workers mentioned at the beginning of this article are up to something.