Tech’s new labor movement is harnessing lessons learned a century ago

The workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, wanted a union

The center opened in March of last year, just as stay-at-home orders for covid-19 went into effect. While much of the world economy tanked, some sectors thrived, including tech—Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would add some $75 billion to his own net worth in 2020. Back at Bessemer, though, workers were being pressed to work harder and longer, and they felt dehumanized. They wanted dignity, not just higher wages.

The workers’ push to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was always going to be an uphill battle. Amazon used its ever-growing wealth to fight the union’s campaign. Bosses used social distancing protocols meant to stop covid-19 transmission as a pretext to stymie communication between workers. Employer-favoring federal and state labor laws allowed management to run a scorched-earth anti-union effort: Amazon hired anti-union consultants, flooded employees with text messages and signs urging them to “vote no,” and held “captive audience” meetings where workers were required to sit through anti-union lectures. 

The results were painful for supporters: 738 votes for the union, 1,798 against. But even as the votes were being counted, workers around the country were agitating. On April 7, self-organized workers under the mantle of Amazonians United Chicagoland struck against the company’s “megacycle,” a grueling 10-hour overnight warehouse shift. Workers organized in California’s Inland Empire. Nationwide, hundreds of employees from at least 50 Amazon facilities refused to work during the pandemic. A group on Staten Island was moving to start its own grassroots union. In the Twin Cities, the Awood Center, a workers’ advocacy group for East African immigrants, convinced the company to sit down with workers and come to an agreement about accommodations for religious observances. 

The Bessemer fight, and Amazon organizing as a whole, reflect a new groundswell of interest in organizing among tech workers. But that current has also raised a question: What is a “tech” worker, anyway? The term could reasonably be applied to anyone from programmers to data center staff to warehouse pickers to assembly-line autoworkers in a Tesla factory. 

For both sides in this struggle, the bottom line is not money but power. 

The reality is that organizing in “tech” is sort of like organizing in “industry” in the 1930s. Back then, the Congress of Industrial Organizations shifted the focus of the labor movement from organizing the skilled trades to bringing together the “unskilled” workers in massive new factories. The new labor movement was epitomized by Detroit’s auto plants but emerged across a wide variety of industries characterized by new technology and scientific management tactics. This era of industry required a new kind of union, and labor struggled for decades before hitting upon methods that worked—and, importantly, getting the backing of the Depression-era federal government. 

Organizing tech workers will require a similar effort, a similar reorganization of labor tactics, and, quite possibly, a similarly supportive federal government. As the result in Bessemer shows, today’s workers are up against the world’s richest companies—companies with the world’s most sophisticated surveillance and information systems, not to mention millions to spend on anti-union consultants. For both sides in this struggle, though, the bottom line is not money but power. 

Shared power

To understand tech’s new labor movement, says Emma Kinema, an organizer with the Communications Workers of America’s tech-sector organizing project CODE-CWA, one must understand that tech is everywhere, that most workers are in some sense working with technology, and that nevertheless there is a consistency to the thing we call the “tech industry,” even if it is massive and diverse. 

It’s also important to remember that the culture of Silicon Valley was anti-union from the start; one reason California became the tech hub of choice was that the Boston area, where many early leaders in the industry got their start, had a long-established union presence. Logic Magazine’s Ben Tarnoff notes that the common perks and amenities of the tech workplace—free food, toys and games, and casual dress—began as explicitly anti-union measures. This culture, which sociologist Andrew Ross has called “no-collar,” was designed to engender not just loyalty but a love for and identification with the company.

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein says Big Tech has a tendency to lean on its transformational image to paper over any labor complaints and minimize them as quibbles that are impeding the evolution of the world. That’s nothing new, he argues—Henry Ford responded in much the same way when workers in his factories spoke up, and Ford learned the tactic from the railroad magnates who preceded him. 

Despite the bosses’ pushback, workers in these trailblazing sectors did eventually unionize—though it took years and quite a few failed efforts. Steelworkers held massive strikes in 1919 but failed. “In the ’20s and ’30s everyone thought steel was impossible to organize,” says Kinema. “Those workers were too well paid; their industry was too new; they had these new, modern ways of management.” But by 1937, US Steel recognized the union. “Can you imagine if Google workers went on strike?” she asks. The site reliability engineers alone, who maintain the technical infrastructure of Google, “could shut down half the internet.”

Chewy Shaw is one of those engineers, as well as the executive vice chair of the Alphabet Workers Union, which is part of CWA. The union went public in January of 2021 with just over 200 members and now has more than 800, including Google programming staff like Shaw and executive chair Parul Koul, as well as researchers, data-center workers, temps, and vendors. 

The union is not big enough to level the internet anytime soon, nor is a strike imminent (Alphabet, Google’s parent company, employs 135,000 people). But it has challenged the company to do better by its workers, leveraging its complement of “no-collar” staff like Shaw and Koul to win real changes for employees with less power and security. As one example, the union supported Shannon Wait, a data-center technician employed through a subcontractor in South Carolina, through a wrongful suspension this March for speaking to coworkers about her working conditions. The National Labor Relations Board reversed the suspension and ordered the company to post notices informing workers that they have the right to organize. 

Much of this work builds on previous tech-worker activism that gained steam during Donald Trump’s presidency, when liberal-leaning no-collar employees learned that the bosses they had thought shared their values were in fact happy to work with the administration. When Google workers realized they were building infrastructure for Project Maven, an artificial-intelligence project for the US military, they noted that programmers working on the software might not even know that their code could be used for drone attacks. 

Thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in Project Maven in early 2018, and Google let its Maven contract expire the next year. That wasn’t workers’ only concern, though—a massive international work stoppage followed in November 2018, centering on sexual harassment and discrimination at the company. 

The Google walkout underscored the fact that many workers, even those with the highest salaries or the most job security, didn’t feel valued by the company. And while many observers scoffed—venture capitalist Mike Solana wrote on Twitter that workers like Shaw and Koul “aren’t oppressed coal miners”—this feeling led to the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union. “Asking for respect on the job is not specific to coal miners, and that’s really why we all do this,” Koul says. 

These workers want to leverage the power they have within the company as part of a broader working-class movement. That meant refusing to work on Maven; and now it means demanding, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, that the company not sell tech to police. This organizing takes cues from unions like the Chicago Teachers Union, which made racial justice and economic inequality across the city central to its demands—and won those fights through two widely publicized strikes in 2012 and 2019. Longtime union strategist Stephen Lerner says that through such “bargaining for the common good” at Google, the workers challenge the company’s impact on society, not just their own treatment. “I don’t think the tech organizing would have any of the kind of resonance it has now if people opened up with ‘Well, we need a better 401(k) plan,’” Lerner says. 

The rise of the tech worker

Even in the early 1990s, when Lerner went to war with Apple as an organizer of the Justice for Janitors campaign and won union rights for subcontracted cleaning workers across the tech sector, the question of “Who is a tech worker?” loomed large. Through those successful campaigns, Lerner helped extend the definition of a tech worker to virtually anyone who makes a tech company run. Cori Crider, an attorney with Foxglove, a firm that aims to challenge the power of Big Tech, has been working with subcontracted content moderators—real humans who sift through posts with violence and racism and graphic sex every day, trying to determine what violates a constantly shifting set of rules. 

Those workers are often bound by nondisclosure agreements that keep them from speaking publicly about their working conditions. That allows companies like Facebook to deny they exist—an assertion the company stuck with last year even after reports emerged that moderators working for the outsourcing firm Accenture were being pushed back into the office during the pandemic. 

Tech workers outside the normal definition of “employees” are still finding ways to organize and protect themselves., a campaign platform for labor organizing, is using donations from well-off tech workers to build a “solidarity fund” distributed to workers on the other side of the tech supply chain. Gig workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform are using the site Turkopticon to come together and fight for better terms. 

A wave of rebellions within the unions and wildcat strikes challenged the idea that automation was making their jobs easier. 

At the other end of the tech-worker spectrum are those building electric cars at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California. Before Elon Musk’s company bought the Fremont facility, it was known as New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc., or NUMMI, a collaboration between General Motors and Toyota where Japanese “lean production” was brought to America. NUMMI didn’t survive GM’s bankruptcy in 2008, and Tesla snatched it up. 

Cooperating with the United Auto Workers was one of NUMMI’s big innovations, but Tesla’s gone another way. Recently, an administrative judge at the NLRB ruled that several of the company’s actions in response to worker organizing were illegal—including a couple of Musk’s tweets as well as harassment of workers passing out union pamphlets, banning of pro-union T-shirts and buttons, and the interrogation of organizers and firing of one. The NLRB’s penalties amount to little more than a finger-wag—Musk must read a statement telling workers that they have the right to unionize, and rehire the fired worker. He’s appealed the decision anyway.

The workers at the plant, even the union supporters, are enthusiastic about producing electric vehicles, but they note that the technical sophistication of the plant does not prevent a lot of backbreaking manual labor—or injuries. Jose Moran, one of the leaders of the union drive and a former NUMMI worker, wrote a blog post about the things he wanted to improve, including the grueling pace of the work and some badly designed machinery. 

Autoworkers have struggled with machinery since the days of Henry Ford. But Tesla workers’ stories echo the complaints of autoworkers in the 1960s who battled “speed-up”—the way management would use new technology to ratchet up the pace of work—in places like Lordstown, Ohio, and Detroit. A wave of rebellions within the unions and wildcat strikes challenged the idea that automation was making their jobs easier. 

As machines sped up the manufacturing process, workers had to hustle faster to keep up. The autoworkers at Tesla, far from representing a labor aristocracy among autoworkers, say they make less than unionized workers at GM and Ford. As Moran wrote, “I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past.” 

The long game

In the Amazon warehouses, too, everything old is new again. “The auto industry tried to do lots of automation back in the ’80s, ’70s, whatever, and they basically plateaued out where they couldn’t do it anymore. And Tesla basically tried to do the same thing,” says Tyler Hamilton, an Amazon warehouse worker from Minneapolis. “It’s the same thing with Amazon. There’s only so much you can do with automation.” 

Mohamed Mire, a coworker of Hamilton’s, explains that most of Amazon’s vaunted technology goes to tracking the workers rather than making the work efficient. Scanners that the workers use to scan packages also keep track of their so-called “time off task,” and they get written up if their productivity rate falls. Robots that Hamilton likens to “giant Roombas” carry merchandise around the warehouse but malfunction often—lately his job has included setting the robots right when they stop working. Data from Amazon shows that injury rates are higher at facilities with robots than without them. 

Hamilton and Mire work with the Awood Center, which—since it is a worker center rather than a union—doesn’t go through NLRB elections but instead organizes through direct action. Awood members have won some concessions from Amazon, particularly around prayer time (many are practicing Muslims) and accommodations for fasting during Ramadan. They’ve also gotten people hired back who’d been fired. 

Despite the results in Alabama, workers like Hamilton and Mire have no intention of slowing their organizing. But Amazon’s heavy-handed tactics—including the hiring of actual Pinkertons, security agents from a company that has been helping employers break unions since the 19th century—are also unlikely to stop. The NLRB is deciding whether to consolidate complaints against the company across its various regions—there have been at least 37 in 20 US cities since the beginning of the pandemic. RWDSU filed 23 complaints of unfair labor practices just in Bessemer, including the charge that Amazon illegally threatened workers with layoffs or the facility’s closure. 

There is clearly still a long way to go before tech workers win at the bargaining table, but history offers them plenty of models to look to. Lichtenstein, the labor historian, points to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a powerful West Coast waterfront union that inked an agreement with shippers in 1958 to get dockworkers a slice of the gains from automation. When selective use of automation led to more injuries, the union actually pushed for more tech to improve safety. They drove wages for what had been insecure, contingent work to over $150,000 a year.

In the current struggle, the Biden administration has signaled support both for sweeping labor law reform—which would make many of Amazon’s tactics at Bessemer illegal—and potentially for regulating Big Tech. 

And Hamilton notes, “It took something like 50 years to unionize US Steel. Amazon’s warehouses were just built a handful of years ago. If it’s not this year or next year, it’ll be five years from now.”

Sarah Jaffe is a fellow at Type Media Center and author of Work Won’t Love You Back.

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