State of the Union
6:03PM Mar 3, 2021
All right, welcome and good morning. We're very excited to be kicking off TC justice today with this is I think, for me, at least the panel that, you know, I've been thinking about the most, and I think is probably one of the if not the most timely panels that we're, we have on the show today, we'll be discussing unionizing and tech, obviously, we've seen a major uptick in labor activity with tech companies over the past couple of years. Certainly, within the past 12 months, this marks a really big change for the industry, tech, as anyone who follows it knows it's basically famously anti union. So I'd like to just kick off everything by opening up to the panel and asking, why is this all happening right now? How did we get here and why? So hi, corsia, let's, let's start with you.
I can jump in. Yeah. I mean, I, from my perspective, it seems like, it seems like tech workers are reacting to some of the maturity of tech and the expansion of the platforms that we all work on. And also more worker instability in general in the US, especially. So I think it's sort of a response that workers are becoming more formal in their organizing efforts. But I'm sure Grayson ferrule could give a little bit more on that.
Yeah, I mean, I think it's a question that we've been hearing a lot over the past few years as Why are we starting to see this? Now? Why didn't we see this in the past. And I want to push back on that a little bit. Because I do want to say that people have been organizing in the tech industry for decades. And this, although we've seen recent wins at full time tech companies over the past few years. And that's been groundbreaking and historic. I do want to recognize the fact that workers have been organizing and have been union organizing for decades. Back in the Silicon Valley. In the early days, there were engineers and also product people in sales who were organizing for union rights. And while we've only started the recent, actual, like recognition of those union rights within the past few years, I want to make sure that there's like recognition of the the labor movement has been intrinsic to tech for a while. That being said, I agree with what Clarissa was saying about the fact that like, I think we're reaching a Nexus where the industry of tech has been growing to a degree that we haven't seen before, the sorts of impacts that tech as an industry has had on people, not just the workers themselves in the immediate opposite, but also across the country. And across the world. Those sorts of impacts are to the scale that we haven't seen, and many other industries. And I think the workers themselves are starting to realize that and understand that. Not only do they have the ability to change their immediate working conditions, but also influence some of those large scale effects that they're seeing across the world. I
think there's also something to be said about the maturity of the worker organizing movement. Because, like Clarissa and grace mentioned, it's been happening for many, many years now. But a variety of tactics and strategies have been tried. And, you know, we've been able to analyze the successes and failures of past movements and arrive at a point where we've developed enough sort of institutional or organizational knowledge to try something new and in some ways, more complex. I think there's also something to be said about the fact that the labor movement has also developed that experience. The code CWA campaign, for example, is still a relatively new thing, and in some ways, is the amalgamation of like years of experience in the tech telecom and games industry that's built up to a point where organizers and like labor unions themselves feel a level of confidence going into what is, you know, relatively new territory for them?
Would you push back on the notion that, that that tech in general has been more anti labor than then other industries? Historically? I mean, obviously, all three of you have different experiences, but do you have experiences organizing companies? You know, do you get the sense that it is and has been more difficult in tech companies and startups to unionize?
So it's interesting point, I think that the tactics that we're seeing from employers from bosses, the sort of rhetoric, talking points against the ends that we've started to see in tech are honestly not that different from what we've seen in other industries. I've worked in, like with service workers with janitors and security officers who've been organizing I've worked nurses who have organized unions. I've worked with nonprofit employees who have organized unions, I've seen some really egregious actions taken by those employers. And I've seen some similar stuff taken by employers within the tech. And I think where the challenge lies is that tech already has such an ethos that promotes innovation and moving quickly and breaking things and disrupting different structures. And while that can be all well and good, and actually creating progress, in many ways, I think it does run up against the types of cultures that we're trying to promote with organizing in terms of collective action, in terms of solidarity with your co workers, like those sorts of values can sometimes run counter to the dominant narrative coming out of the Silicon Valley. And that's not to say that the people who work at tech companies run counter to those values. But I do think that that's where we see.
So So there, there have been, obviously, as you alluded to earlier, some historical examples of organizing. But, you know, I think at least says as far as somebody who obviously follows us pretty closely, it's safe to say that we're hitting something of a critical mass that you know, that that certainly there has been an uptick in an increase in the past couple of years. Do you get the sense that COVID-19 is going to have kind of a major transformational change when it comes to organizing in the workplace.
For one thing, I think it's been really remarkable to see how much, you know, companies and organizing projects and campaigns have achieved under these circumstances. I started organizing the union at Google in January of 2020. Before COVID happen, and when March hit, and we all moved to work from home, I think many of us felt like, okay, we're gonna put this project on pause for now and pick back up when we return to the office. Obviously, we had no sense of how long that was going to take. But I think in our case, specifically, what we saw instead was, you know, companies moving to work from home, and then certain categories of employees, not really receiving the benefits of like what other employees working from home were receiving, whether it's, you know, a stipend to buy equipment that you can use at home, or whether it's even having the benefit of working from home, there were TVC that Google TVC stands for tech, temps vendors and contractors who are being asked to come into work during the COVID pandemic for much longer than full time Google employees were. We also saw a mass movement of, you know, social and political protests against police brutality erupt, like right in the middle of the pandemic. And for me, certainly, and many other organizers at Google, it really galvanized us to try to do something and respond to that movement in the streets in our own way, in our own organizing. So yeah, the conditions of, you know, being able to talk to people have obviously become more difficult, but the social and political contradictions of the society we live in have become more glaring and more apparent than ever.
Yeah, yeah, I
would totally agree with that. And we've definitely seen an uptick not only in this more like union focused organizing, but also in all other types of organizing, like the tech workers coalition has seen a lot more people joining the community and getting interested in getting involved in collective action events, and collective action in tech, the group that sort of archiving these efforts has seen an uptick of like mutual aid efforts and other protests that are related to what's happening in the moment right
So one of the unfortunate trends that I've noticed is a few of the companies that we have seen unionize, we've seen subsequent layoffs. I suspect this differs from company to company and contract to contract, but what sorts of protections Can you give to a staff by unionizing? I mean, ultimately, can you protect against layoffs.
So if we're, let's just take one of the examples which Claire's is obviously very familiar with, and I'm familiar with as well, because the Kickstarter union, so Kickstarter won its union in February of 2020, February 18, of 2020 was one of the official vote count ones. The pandemic hit in mid March, the company announced that they were going to have pretty massive layoffs in early April. That was a very difficult time. We also were a month into the pandemic kickstart had just won their union. And we looked at the numbers and we did see that, you know, a lot of the people who were there are proposing to lay off were advocates for the union who were union members that was very hard to stomach. What happens though, and where the union comes into play is that the company was not able to just lay people off like that, especially under the terms that they wanted to propose, unilaterally without any consultation with staff. The difference was, was that when the company proposed these layoffs because there was already a union in place Kickstarter had to negotiate with the group of employees as a collective about the terms of that layoff. And that was unprecedented in the tech industry, we had never had those protections in the tech industry. And what happened was those employees were able to negotiate over their, you know, the health extension of healthcare, their salary extension, severance packages, we were able to negotiate we call rights, which is also a major, major victory in tech, we were also able to make sure that, you know, those who wanted to opt into layoffs had the opportunity to do so and accept packages in advance. So overall, it was a much more humane process. Obviously, we weren't able to prevent those layoffs. And that's devastating. And I wish we were able to, but I think having the ability to negotiate those, we saw a lot of people who had voted, who either likely voted against it, were not supportive of the Union, suddenly were clamoring to be involved and to be part of the conversation. And I think that's what matters.
For you, sorry. Go ahead.
Yeah, no, I was just I think another thing to sort of stress when you're bringing up the idea of layoffs, and even the pandemic is, these were things that workers at least a Kickstarter, were not expecting, we were not organizing to give ourselves protections from layoffs or protections in the event of a major disaster like, like, you know, the pandemic and showing having a union in place gave workers this tool to address things that were surprises to our work into our working conditions.
So, Grace, I wanted to ask you specifically, you know, for those who aren't familiar with the process, what role does an organization like yours play? And you know, why? Why is it important to seek sort of the guidance through the process from someone outside of the company that's unionizing?
Sure, it's a big question for what exactly we do. So ultimately, the purpose of forming a union at your workplace is so you can have a seat at the table when decisions are made in your workplace is particularly when those decisions affect your day to day work, affect your working conditions, your compensation, your workflow, etc. Workers are the people who you know, the people who sit at their desk and do the work every day and are typically the experts in that position. And they should have more of a say in how that work is being done, what our organization and I work for the office and professional Employees International Union, or P IU, we allow for you all to have those protections and to actually have the representation to make sure that your rights are being protected and upheld, when you organize collectively. So when you are organizing a union with your co workers, you choose to affiliate you can choose to affiliate with a union like opia you like code CWA, like the steelworkers whatever it is, that you feel is the best fit, you are choosing that so that we can provide guidance throughout the campaign. And then once you are actually in the stage where you are going to an election, we can help make sure you're taking the steps to win that election or win voluntary recognition. And then once you have a union, your workplace, you know, even though you all are going to have come together and work together to build this collective group, it's going to take a lot of nuance to understand how to actually prepare for negotiations and to work in language and how to, you know, counter things against the boss. And so we have kind of expertise that we work with, with people on, on how to set yourself up to have this victorious proposals and when we call rights or when labor protections or whatever it is.
Great, and good.
I wanted to add, you know, Grace outline like established the national Union's common with all this expertise. And they recognize when they're in these workplaces, that the tactic that bosses use in the tech industry are really, in some ways, not very different from what bosses in every other industry news. And we knew that, you know, it might be a challenge to win software engineers over to this idea, but it's a very common practice in tech, to not reinvent the wheel with our software out there that does the thing really well. You know, you purchase it and you use it instead of trying to build from scratch. And it's a very simplistic analogy, but it's kind of the same thing. These are experts who have been doing this for decades and have all of this knowledge and experience with organizing, why try to reinvent the wheel ourselves.
This pretty, pretty difficult union drive and just hearing from them that the struggles that we were experiencing were valid and not new and that they had seen them before. was incredibly important in keeping our energy up.
Great. So, Paul, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your specific experiences. So the process that you that that that alphabet that the alphabet union took toward forming a labor union was, was a minority you can, can you break down what the distinction is and and why you went that route?
Yeah, sure. And, you know, I'm happy to and I also want to sort of push back against the language that is used to describe our union or union is still very much a union, I think the key difference between our union and other unions is that we aren't bargaining for a contract. So the, you know, the union isn't secured bargaining units that are going to be coming to the table with the employer, and bargaining for, you know, a contract that specifies some terms of the work that they do, or the compensation they receive, and other such things. Other than that, we really follow the same principle that unions historically have always taken, which is a union is a group of employees, sometimes just two employees coming together and working together to fight for their rights and to fight for dignity and respect and solidarity with each other in the workplace. We felt that this was really important because Google, and alphabet more generally presents a lot of challenges to contract unit, unionization. It's a massive company, it's spread out all over the country, all over the world, really. And you offices are at times 10s of 1000s of employees, a union drive a secret underground union drivers contract campaigns usually go would have been incredibly difficult to execute. And the other challenge is that a huge part of alphabet workforce isn't technically employed by alphabet, it's people who work for, you know, contractors and vendors and entities like that. They're often facing the worst of Google's working conditions, they're often receiving the lowest wages, they're receiving the worst benefits, they're really facing the brunt of the working conditions at Google, and they wouldn't be eligible for a bargaining unit in a contract campaign in the same way at alphabet. Because they aren't technically employed by alphabet, we felt that it was absolutely central to include tvcs in our union, so that the benefits that we received from the union and that we received from pulling our resources together and fighting together need to extend to the most marginalized people in our workforce. So that was, you know, one of some of the sort of really big motivations for why we opted to go for this model.
So, so I've actually got a number of questions in chat. But I do want to ask one more important thing. Before we move on the, obviously the other big, or I guess potentially, one of the biggest votes coming up is the Amazon warehouse workers. Traditionally, we've tended to draw a distinction between, you know, what we refer to as white collar workers and blue collar workers when it comes to unionizing. And, and it seems that for the most part, that's how most of these tech companies or these tech unions have organized historically. Is there. Is there any benefit to drawing that distinction? I mean, is it ultimately useful and necessary to do this piece by piece? Or does there need to be more unity between these different, I guess what we would sort of deem classes of workers
I think, I would love to see it all together, I don't want to see it bit by bit. I think there's a lot that can be won, and a lot more that can be won if we are able to organize what you know, what we call wall to wall units. So everyone that is employed in that company, regardless of what type of classification you have, the challenge obviously also arises when it comes to National Labor Relations Act, which is the labor law that governs organizing within the United States. And in my role as as an organizer for labor union, that's an act that I have become very familiar with. And there are some limitations about who can be included in one unit versus the other. That's a challenge on its own, I think there are ways to overcome that. One is by engaging in other forms of collective action to show up for one another, let's say if you are, for whatever reason, unable to form a unit that includes warehouse workers, and some of the office workers and a kitchen staff. There are ways to organize collectively side by side, and to organize still across the industry, and to make sure that we are communicating across the industry. I think one way of doing that is forming the kinds of Coalition's that we're already seeing with such as a tech workers coalition, such as getting involved with other labor groups locally that are doing that kind of solidarity work, but we are going to see a lot more wins, especially when you look at the numbers of people who are working in warehouses, but also those who are working in offices. The more people we have involved, the more leverage we will have it across the industry.
Yeah. And I want to add to that, that there's no one size fits all solution here, right. And sometimes doing this piece by piece is much easier, especially in terms of labor law, which is, in so many ways, just against workers entirely. One of the I think, huge benefits of the way that we've been choosing to organize an alphabet is that opting for a contract campaign by some specific bargaining unit with an alphabet is not off the table, that can still happen, and they can still be part of our larger umbrella union. And ultimately, I think that's the that's the only way that we're going to get to a point where, you know, a significant portion of all workers have a union and also hopefully have some of the benefits of having an actual contract has.
Yeah, and I think a few more things to keep in mind, for tech workers out there who are organizing and thinking of whether or not they should reach out to different segments of the company. And it benefits all of us to have larger units. So that's one thing to keep in mind. The more people you have behind your union, the more power you have, obviously. But then also, there's a lot to be learned from these other groups in tech that are not office workers that have organizing histories, maybe not necessarily in tech, but for instance, like security guards at Google and cafeteria workers, those groups have already unionized. And it's, we could just learn so much from our co workers in that respect.
Yeah, I mean, I guess, from from an outsider's perspective, part of what I envisioned the benefit of being in terms of focusing on a specific group is that, obviously, when it comes to growing a movement, you know, you start small and, and grow from there. Well, I'd love to get your feedback, because, you know, obviously, there have been a few roadblocks along the way, when it comes to really expanding this, like, you know, that the alphabet, Google workforce is massive. What are some of the biggest hurdles and difficulties when it comes to really trying to build an international coalition?
Yeah, um, there's no one single difficulty, there's so many challenges that pop up, you know, in every part of the process, I think that the hardest thing that we've had to do in some ways is build new leaders, there's no way that this movement is going to succeed without building new, you know, trained, skilled, smart, sharp organizers at every location that we're trying to organize. It makes sense that, you know, given the past history of organizing at Google and the way it was very distributed nationally, and people were meeting over the internet and collaborating that way that our union also sort of ended up forming in that way. But for us to really stuck roots within the company and build up pockets of, you know, real serious density, where there are teams and product areas where a significant portion or a majority of the workers are in the Union, that's going to take building real leadership on the ground in those places. And that isn't easy. That takes a lot of time. That takes a lot of experience. And that comes at the expense of facing, you know, retaliation and the bosses fighting back. So I'd say that's one of our biggest challenges right now.
So we have a number of questions from the audience. So starting with one from Jeffrey, how do you think that the How can the various union campaigns in tech best support one another? And I would add on that, again, since we're all talking about Amazon, as people who've been through the process before, what advice would you specifically give to those workers?
And you can best support each other by starting to get into one by getting into conversation with your co workers and understanding what's been going on with them. I think the the first question I often get from people is how to start having conversations with people because I think that is a challenge, especially since we're not taught how to do that. But just starting to bring people into conversation about what their experiences have been like at the organization or at the company. How long have they been there? How has their time there change? What do they want to see? When they were hired? Like, what sort of workplace were they looking for? And how can we make sure that we have some way of achieving that? So starting to just, you know, get people into groups into places where they feel like they can actually share their true experiences. And then in terms of supporting the movement more broadly, I would get in touch with you know, Coalition's, like tech workers coalition with labor groups with labor unions, even if you don't feel like there's a union campaign that's viable at your workplace. Right now, we're always willing, like I'm sure, Berlin pillars are always willing to talk with people, I'm always willing to talk with people, even if it's not about a union campaign. Like, I just want to hear about it so we can connect others, because a lot of our work as organizers more broadly is to find spaces to bring people together, because that's where we start to see those benefits is where we can learn from each other, like Laura said, and where we can start to build those connections. Yeah,
yeah, I totally agree with that. Like everything that grace just said, all the questions that you ask, anytime you ask a fellow coworker, like how they're doing, how they're feeling, if you do like a salary, transparency, swap, all of those things are organizing, you don't have to say that you word in order to build power in your organization. And when it comes to supporting the larger community, like winning a union at your own organization makes us all stronger. But I think another thing that can be really helpful is as much as possible, as safely as possible, sharing your stories and experiences. Because there is this fog of tech culture that sort of obscures all of our traditional worker power dynamics. And the more people can identify the anti worker relationships and tactics and structures within tech, the more we can all learn and be inoculated early. So that that can be really helpful to
that. And I'd also add, you know, staying close to the workers staple to your coworkers, that is where the power comes from, and really, really listened to them really try to understand what their issues are, and the things that they care about. Because you might be surprised, some of them are not going to be as motivated by the things that, you know, you feel strongly about, some of them are not going to be sold on the sort of ethical or moralistic idea of forming a union and have issues that, you know, relate very fundamentally to, you know, bread and butter issues. Pay attention to those things, and be really scientific about how you organize and pool everyone's concerns together. And lastly, listen to your organizers. I'm sure grace would agree with this, but organizers you work with really know what they're doing and make sure you listen to them.
I appreciate that.
Great. So we've only got a couple of minutes left. And this is a very interesting question coming in from Michael, an angle I hadn't really considered before. He notes that President Biden recently expressed support for the Amazon warehouse union efforts, which his CEO has also come out with a positive statement. The so the question is whether or not these sorts of statements from I guess, you know, management or leaders owners are can ultimately be counterproductive to the goals of organizers. And, you know, I guess I would really open this up to cortices specifically. You know, in light of yesterday's glitch news, there was a statement from Kickstarter saying essentially, like we have always fully supported and respected our staffs decision to unionize. I saw you push back against that a little bit on on Twitter. So with about a minute or so left? What are your thoughts on all of this? Yeah,
yeah, I think first and foremost, it's really important to remember that the things that people in power, say, do not matter. It's all of the power that you have doesn't come from people at the top giving it to you, it comes from linking arms with the people next to you and taking that power and influence for yourself. That's, that's one thing to keep in mind when we're talking about like Biden, for example. But I think that it's really, really important for workers to push back on the glossing over of what happens in organizing, you know, Google, Pinterest, Spotify, all of these places that have had worker organizing have had challenges as well. And when we allow people in power to gloss over those challenges, and not
I guess, like, yeah, just like, paper over them, then it creates an even harder atmosphere for everyone else who's trying to organize because like, people at Kickstarter, we all thought that organizing was going to be relatively easy. And we worked in a progressive company, we thought that the company would be on board. I mean, Google as well, you know, has that wonderful slogan that I don't know if
up to and I just think it's really, really important for workers to make sure that what really happened remains in in print. Yeah.
Great. I think we're unfortunately just about out of time, obviously. A lot more to talk about. We could keep this going and let's keep the conversation going. Thanks everyone so much for joining us today.