Transcript of a panel co-hosted by Tech Workers Coalition and Notes From Below at Left Forum 2018


July 15, 2018

This is an abridged transcript of a panel co-hosted by Tech Workers Coalition and Notes From Below last month, at Left Forum in New York City. This panel, called Towards an Organized Tech Industry—Part One, was the first of two panels hosted by Tech Workers Coalition, and focused on the specifics of worker organising in the tech industry. It was chaired by Wendy Liu and featured Alex Press, Jason Prado, Mohini Dutta, and Danny Spitzberg.

The second panel, Towards an Organized Tech Industry—Part Two, focused on the broader vision of what an organised tech industry could achieve, and a transcript of that panel will soon be published by New Socialist.

Even abridged, this transcript is extremely long, so we’ve included links to sections:


Introduction

WThis panel is called Towards an Organized Tech Industry—Part One. It’s co-hosted by the Tech Workers Coalition, which is an organisation trying to build worker power in the tech industry, and Notes From Below, which is a socialist journal focused on class composition analysis. I’m Wendy Liu and I’ll be chairing this panel. I’m a software developer and former tech entrepreneur who discovered “the left” after being completely disillusioned by my time in the startup world. These days, I’m an economics editor at New Socialist, and I spend most of my time writing about the economics of the tech industry and how the left should approach it.

A little backstory on how this panel came about: Left Forum hasn’t traditionally had much technology presence, in the sense of platforming people who work in the tech sector, and whilst it’s important to have critical perspectives from outside, I think it’s also important to understand whats going on inside the tech industry, and hearing from people who have been trying to organise and raise class consciousness within the industry. One of the things that frustrates me about a lot of the discourse around tech on the left is that there’s often this gap in terms of technical understanding. People tend to talk about tech as if it’s this thing they don’t understand and can never understand. As if it’s a black box. That’s a problem - we need to see inside the black box.

So we need people who understand the technical aspects of the industry, but at the same time, we also need people who understand the critiques from a theoretical perspective. Back in March, I guest-edited an issue of Notes From Below called Technology and the Worker, where we featured contributions from members of Tech Workers Coalition on class composition and technology. This panel is an attempt to build on that conversation, as well as a way to get everyone on the same page, whether they’re more comfortable with the technical aspects, or with the political/theoretical aspects. Ultimately, technology is taking over more and more of the world, and creating this corporate hellscape in the process, and we on the left need to figure out how to deal with that.

Panelists

AAlex Press, an assistant editor at Jacobin and freelance writer based in NYC. She recently wrote an article for N+1 magazine on worker organising in the tech sector.

JJason Prado has been a software engineer at several of the largest tech companies for the past ten years. Since 2016, Jason has also been an organiser with the Tech Workers Coalition, where he has organised support for service worker unions on tech campuses.

MMohina Dutta is a transmedia designer and an organiser for Game Workers Unite, which aims to build worker power within the games development industry.

DDanny Spitzberg is a sociologist who works with a software development cooperative. He believes in worker-led organising and returning all wealth to the commons.

The history of worker organising in tech

WAlex, could you talk about your piece in n+1?

AUnlike the others, I have no experience in the tech industry, but I do write about worker organising and have a background in labour union organising. I wrote that piece - a reported piece - partly as an excuse to spend time going to Tech Action meetings, which is a group in New York of socialist techies that started about when I began the article, almost 2 years ago. I would go to these meetings and get to know people in Tech Workers Coalition and Tech Solidarity. In the wake of Trump’s election, which seems to have particularly polarised the tech industry, all of these groups sprang up. (Tech Workers Coalition already existed, but saw an influx of membership.)

The article is an extended summary of those interviews, and the point is that the way tech is seen from the outside obscures the way it’s similar to any other industry. What drives tech workers to start organising is the same as what drives anyone else to start workplace organising, and if anything, there’s this added sense of urgency due to how much power this industry has. The article goes over the history of this post-Trump moment, which starts when Trump gets elected and the tech industry starts having these political conversations, asking, “What are our products going to be used for?” There were mass protests starting, like the rally against Palantir, which was going to contribute its products to Trump’s “Muslim Ban”.

I go over the history of the tech industry in the US, why it settled in Silicon Valley, what the ideas of the early founders were. These were always political; the founders essentially escaped the East Coast and settled in Silicon Valley, in part to escape union structures. And ever since, they’ve built on this; Silicon Valley continues to rely on hyper-exploitation of workers – the expectation that people are going to work all the time and always be on call. At the same time, you have incredible discrimination: women, people of colour, anyone with a family is a second-tier worker.

What’s significant is that these discussions started to become explicit – people were starting to realise that even if they didn’t talk about politics in the workplace, they were still doing political work, whether it went towards surveillance or military uses. Even if it’s early steps, that’s how you start to organise an industry – talking around the underlying structures that are in place within the tech industry, particularly around political uses that people’s work is going towards, and also their own role in that and being exploited.

This relates to the broader unionisation going on in the US of white-collar professionals. These are people who, for the past several decades, have denied that they would have any use for a union, [insisting] that it would be below them, and that they’re professionals and not workers. That ideology is really strong in the US. What came out in this piece was people who felt they never would’ve needed a union later realising that they needed these structures. People were getting in touch with union organisers and worker centers, and realising that the problems they were having were really the problems of any worker, and maybe they should think more traditionally about what it means to work in this industry.

Tech versus other industries

WCould you talk about the difference between tech and other industries? There’s a popular conception that those who work in tech are never going to care about collective organising, because of the ideology rooted in the way Silicon Valley works: that it’s a meritocracy where the best rise to the top.

AThe people I spoke to told me about talking to coworkers about issues going on, like discrimination in the workplace or Trump’s election, and the feeling that they have to take some sort of stand – to say that they didn’t want their work going to uses that they felt were unacceptable, even in a class-blind, socially-liberal sense. So that ideology does exist.

White-collar workers within tech are very lucky right now: they’re often paid well, and the ideology of meritocracy is particularly convincing when it’s true for you. But part of what motivated the article is pushing back against this idea that no one in tech cares about their colleagues, or the planet, or everyone else that their products are having an impact on. I think it’s important to highlight that in all of the major tech companies, and even the horrific startup sector, there are people pushing to make some sort of change.

The unfortunate reality of how tech has been covered for several decades by the tech media, is they’ll interview a CEO, and certainly a CEO is going to reflect this meritocratic capitalist ideology that says “we are different” because that story helps them. I think we need to hear from the people – what do we expect to get when we ask Mark Zuckerberg about tech? There’s an entire group of people who drive the industry, and without whom these billionaires wouldn’t have any money, and they often have a very different story to tell. So I think it might be overhyped that no one cares about this stuff in tech.

Temporarily embarrassed millionaires

WSpeaking of CEOs and startup founders more generally, there is this really interesting ideology, that because startups are so glorified, a lot of people in the tech industry have this idea that they’re going to quit their job and found a startup (basically what I did). It’s very convincing – other people are raising 30 million dollars just because they went to Stanford; I could do that, too. I could start a company and then rise to the top. Therefore, my status as a worker is temporary. There’s no reason to organise because I’m going to be a millionaire soon.

ANone of the people I spoke to signed up to that view, but stories from their colleagues really did speak to that idea. You know the famous quote that everyone in America thinks they’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires. There is that idea in tech, for sure, but if you actually dig into the numbers, the odds that you’re going to become a millionaire founder are very slim. Not all of you can become rich; you need workers, and the majority of people are going to forever remain workers. Often well-paid, but certainly not directly exploiting other people through land prices or through the workplace – most people are just going to be workers. The ideal is that they can have better working conditions as is.

That’s why groups like Tech Action and Tech Workers Coalition are important – to show that there’s nothing wrong about asking for better conditions, even if you become rich someday. And the process of organising with your colleagues – as far as labour history goes – is transformative. You don’t have to convince someone at the start of [your entire] ideology; you convince them around the fact that their colleague got fired for having a baby, and from there you start to see what your position is within this industry. That is the way to go. Never lead with “You’re never going to be rich” – that’s not a very appealing conversation to have with someone – but when they start to see how their industry operates, how it treats their colleagues, that’s the place to start.

Tech Workers Coalition

WLet’s talk more about Tech Workers Coalition. Jason, do you want to talk about the history of it, what its goals are, what is a tech worker (since it’s a very contentious term), and what does TWC want to do?

JIt started around 2016, by a software engineer and a union organiser, so it’s always had a focus on labour, and we’ve met at a Unite Here office in SF so there’s been crossover with the established labour movement from the start. The first major projects that TWC took on were what we called the “invisible workforce” in the tech industry. You might think of a tech worker as someone who is a software engineer and highly paid, but for every large tech campus there are tons of security officers, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers – people who come from industries that are traditionally organised by organised labour. These people, working in service jobs, aren’t enjoying the benefits of the growth of the tech industry in the Bay Area – instead, they’re being displaced from their homes because of rising real estate prices just because tech is in such a boom right now. So TWC was started partly to bring awareness to this.

A lot of us joined right after the 2016 election, thinking something went very wrong, and that I as a tech worker have some role to play and even some blame in this, working at these tech companies that were used by Trump in the election. It took a while for TWC to find its focus, with this influx of people who were like what I was then: a good liberal.

One of the first things I did at TWC was this protest at Palantir, which is Peter Thiel’s surveillance company that works with the military and police to build the deportation machine amongst other shady things. I had a personal hatred of Palantir because I attended Stanford, and I don’t know if people realise this but Stanford’s computer science programme is essentially a feeder school for Palantir – other companies sometimes don’t even bother recruiting from Stanford anymore – so I saw my classmates go there, and I was especially disappointed with news of the Muslim ban. So TWC organised a protest outside the Palantir office and got 60-70 people there. Most software engineers have never been to a protest before, and also software engineers have disproportionate influence in society and the media loves talking about them, so we had established press there and got a whole bunch of media attention.

This got more people interested in TWC, so we tried more projects like that. We even tried, “hey, we’re all tech workers, can we maybe lend technical support to projects like community organising”, but it didn’t really stick.

The one project which has worked out is actually labour: trying to raise consciousness that we are in fact workers, and make up for decades of misinformation about worker status inside the tech industry. That’s where we sit now, and one of our biggest projects, which I’m involved in, is lending support and solidarity to labour struggles on large tech campuses. Service worker jobs are traditionally unionised, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy – there’s still a contract fight, a union fight every time.

With tech workers having disproportionate influence, [it’s powerful to tell] a service worker whose boss has maybe told them that if you ask for more wages, the software engineers who work here – who maybe avoid eye contact with you because we’re very segregated – will resent you for asking for too much. Just walking up to a service worker and explaining, “I think you deserve better – better wages, better healthcare. I support your struggle, and if it comes down to you walking out on strike, you’ll have my support,” that’s gone a long way. That’s one of the things TWC’s been doing, and building up from there to raise consciousness inside the tech industry that most of us are actually workers.

Contractor organising

WDo you want to talk about the distinction between contractors and non-contractors? That’s something TWC has been focusing on as well, right?

JDefinitely. Tech labour is not homogenous. You might think of a tech worker as a well-paid 20-something, no-family, software engineer making good money in the Bay Area, but that’s not everyone. Even starting from the top, you might have junior front-end developers coming straight out of coding bootcamps getting paid 60k a year, which in the Bay Area means you’re struggling to get by and your job is less prestigious. Moving down the prestige ladder, there are other roles: QA testers; content strategists; armies and armies of people hired to filter content (when you hit “report abuse” on a website that goes first to an algorithm, then to a human whose job is to train the algorithm and then replace themselves). These “contingent staff” are usually hired on a contract and work for a staffing agency, which means they don’t get the benefits (healthcare, pension, etc) available to people who have full-time jobs at these tech companies.

Their work is also precarious. As a contract worker, you’re meant to be hired for a specific purpose for a limited period of time – like we have a conference coming up and we need people to write for it or something – but in practice, that’s not how it works. It’s happened slowly over the past few years, so people may not realise that 50% of the staff at these large companies are actually contingent workers now. Microsoft has 90,000 full-time employees and 90,000 contract workers. You can only work on contract for two years [in California] because, legally, you should then be considered a full-time employee, but they have all kinds of accounting tricks to get around that so that you’re permanently a contractor and they don’t have to pay your benefits. You’re not even invited to the company holiday party – which is just an infringement on people’s dignity – because they have to have some separation between full-time and contractors.

The worst part is the implicit offer: if you do a really good job, if you work really hard, if you do overtime without us paying you for overtime, we’ll give you a full-time offer and you’ll get that more secure job you’ve been wanting. Large tech companies will dangle that over people’s heads for years, which cracks people’s mental health and is vastly unfair. So contract workers have become a permanent underclass for the tech industry.

Golden handcuffs

WDo you want to talk about compensation? One of the interesting things about working in tech is that a lot of the time you’re rewarded in stock as well as salary: stock options at a startup, maybe restricted stock units (RSUs) at a company like Google. Whereas contractors wouldn’t get those. At the same time, for those who are rewarded in stock, there’s a vesting schedule which results in “golden handcuffs”. When I got my offer from Google, it was $150,000 of stock over 4 years with a one-year cliff. So each year, a quarter of that would vest; if I stay less than a year I’m not going to get any of it; and only if I stay 4 years do I get all of it. But then, after a year, they were going to give me a refresh, which means more stock, but I have to stay another 4 years to get all of it.

That just locks you in in perpetuity – you feel like you can never leave, because if you leave, you’re losing out on a lot of money. Which makes people feel like they’re part of the company – not just workers, but they’re benefiting from its success in a very real way, which is linked to the company’s stock price.

JYeah. At a large company, a large proportion of your compensation will come in stock grants. It feels like a lot to you, but to the company, it’s tiny; you won’t have any meaningful ownership stake with your 0.0001% of the company. It’s a cheap way for the company to make you psychologically invested in identifying with the company and management, to separate you from other kinds of workers there (like contingent workers, who definitely are not getting stock grants, or service workers). So the company is getting your allegiance for a discount.

It’s even worse at startups, where we’re all “temporarily embarrassed capitalists” – [when really] your stock options at a startup are worth nothing. No one becomes big. Even if the company becomes successful, the way investment deals are structured, there’s this concept of liquidation preferences: if a company sells, the investors make all their money back, then the founders make all their money back, and then whatever’s left gets spread amongst the employees. So if you’re the 10th employee at the startup, you get .1% if the CEO is generous, less if you’re not a software engineer. That’s a meaningless stake in a company if it’s not successful enough. It costs the company nothing, and you’re mentally incentivised to see the company through.

The worst part is that for most places, when you leave the company you have 90 days to exercise your stock options. Say you’re granted options at 10 cents a share, and the company has done better in the three years you’ve been there, so when you exercise it, you pay a little bit and you get something that’s more valuable, and you have the tax liability right then. You might end up owing the IRS $300,000 for shares in your not-yet-successful startup, and you get a bunch of shares you can’t sell because your company is not public yet. So you can’t leave, even if the company is toxic. This has a negative effect on employee culture. [Uber is a famous example] – if you’re working at Uber between year 2 and year 6 of the company, it is a hostile, toxic work environment, but if you leave you’re going to lose 10 million dollars, so you [will put up with] an abusive workplace.

The games development industry

WSpeaking of abusive workplaces, let’s talk about the games development industry - [characterised by] really long hours, [and especially] “crunch mode” where because you have a deadline to finish a title everyone needs to work 14 hour days. So you have more reasons to organise, because the conditions are so toxic. With Game Workers Unite, it sounds like you guys are ahead of the rest of the tech industry. Mohini, can you talk about that?

MGames get put into the same box as tech, but they’re actually somewhere between tech and the film industry. In the entertainment industry, there’s a history of unionised workforces in certain technical disciplines, but not in others, so we end up with this hodge-podge of different groups who are maybe empathetic to the idea of solidarity but not across the whole industry.

Game Workers Unite started out of a Twitter conversation two weeks before our first direct action, which was this March at the Game Developers Conference in SF. For context, since the games industry often feels like a black box: people in it are in it to win it. The reason for that is the games industry uses a lot of fanservice-style exploitation techniques, where they’ll bring in people who are fans of games, who will do the extra work because they’re fans, not workers.

So there’s this additional level of making people feel like they’re not workers: they’re either creators or their fans. And there’s no space for discourse on solidarity around that, as a general sentiment. The other thing is that the workforce within games is very young, because the turnover rate is pretty intense – workers usually burn out between 5-6 years in the games industry. Because of that, there’s no visibility about what it’s like to be in your 40s and be in games. People either go to work in entertainment or in tech, which they see as a better option than games.

So games have become this weird space where a lot of us feel privileged to work in something that we are passionate about. The discourse [around unions], in the US at least, has been about unions stopping creativity, adding bureaucratic red tape to the creative process, which is a blatant lie. Our goal was to change the conversation around what a union means. More importantly, we don’t really know what a union means in games. We’re working with established union organisations to figure out what that would mean as an industry, to move games out of this insular formation where there’s technical artists, 3D modellers, programmers who have their different groups and have solidarity around their technical skills, but it doesn’t really move out of their individual groups.

The other big challenge is that the ecosystem for games is different city-to-city. The reason for this is LA and SF have more of a focus on big studio, big budget games; New York, Pittsburgh, Portland, they have more of a focus on smaller, independent games. The exploitation models are very similar in every city; just because you’re friends with your boss, doesn’t mean your boss won’t exploit you.

A large part of our direct action involved making zines and [trying to] share our experiences of working in games as an industry, to see how your co-workers are living in this consistent state of precarity. Similarly to tech, there’s this idea we [might be] workers today, but tomorrow we launch our own successful app. Independent games apps make a lot of money for the industry [collectively], but individually they don’t, and studios are constantly in this state of almost shutting down. There needs to be a conversation around changing that.

Passion versus exploitation

WYou make an interesting point about passion, and you also framed it in terms of exploitation. [It sounds like] people see it as an individual choice, where it’s okay if you work long hours, or you’re not paid well, or the conditions aren’t great, because you’re passionate about it, and that’s just the choice you make. Can you talk about that way of looking at it, compared to the perspective of labour exploitation?

M[One thing which] hurts the labour movement in games: the only organisation looking at worker welfare is this group called Independent Games Developers Association (IGDA). They are not a union (this is mentioned several times in their FAQs), and they are anti-union, because it’s mostly a networking group representing bosses. But the way it’s represented to the industry and fans is that they are the people looking out for us, that we don’t need a union because we have the IGDA. And the IGDA’s position is that you have a choice, you are doing what you love and you are getting paid, isn’t that a bonus?

Which is why I can’t tackle the idea of passion without talking about exploitation in the same thread. The idea of passion is tied to the identity of the brand, and the economic value of the brand versus the way fans see it.

From a labour point of view, passion is often dangled in front of workers as a way to keep them working more and more, and because there isn’t a guarantee for a game to be successful at the beginning, a lot of the time these bonuses are based on sales of a game, and for smaller games they usually won’t hit those profit margins, or they won’t hit them without even worse exploitation.

Workers’ inquiry

WLet’s take a step back and talk about the idea of the workers’ inquiry, which is something that Marx talked about [and which Notes From Below prioritises]. The idea is that we should be looking at the actual working conditions in an industry, which the tech industry has been immune to [for the most part]. Danny, can you talk about that?

DYou could call it a clever interview with workers, by workers. It comes from something that happened around the industrial peak in France – the idea was to talk with workers and ask them, “How’s it going?”, “What’s your team like?”, “What’s your supervision like?”, “When’s the last time you had an accident?”, “Do you remember anyone having been mistreated?” and this sort of provocative interview. It’s a method of data collection, and the outcome was to provoke and have people continue to ask these questions themselves.

TWC (which is all volunteer- and worker-led, totally unincorporated; it’s a network) is trying to simply hold space for these critical conversations. We do these things called learning clubs, where we just picked topics like authoritarianism in the workplace. So we’d been using these workers clubs, and then this worker’s inquiry, to restart these conversations.

We’d been testing out a short version of what was originally 72 questions. One approach that didn’t work was: “How are you managed in your workplace, and what would you like to change about that?”, which only got people [saying] “It’s too flexible”, “Sometimes feedback is not useful”, “I wish I had more structure” and maybe some dawning comprehension of “It’s shitty, thank you”. Another approach we tested was, “Who benefits from the income we make and the profits we’re swimming in, and what do we do to reflect on that?”

Another one which is almost uncomfortably precise was an approach saying, “I agree with the following statement: I am a member of the working class”, and then, “I agree with the following statement: I am part of an employee resource group, or some affinity group in my workplace where we talk about immigrant visa status or accessibility concerns”. The idea here is, if you agree that you’re a member of the working class, and you are not part of one of these groups, what are you doing? So all the different approaches to revive this centuries-old workers inquiry have helped us.

WWhat is the primary goal of this workers’ inquiry idea? Is it to get people to think about their working conditions and what kind of control they have (and lack), and imagine alternative possibilities?

DThe goal is probably a combination, because it is sort of a moving target. Part of the goal is to reinforce the openness for this loose network – we do not know what the analysis we need is, for this industry. I think another part of the goal is to change the narrative around the tech industry: to say “I am a member of the working class, I am a white collar working-class tech professional”, and also to build solidarity through this network. So the goal of this inquiry is to do that, and be ready to question ourselves.

Constant surveillance

WOne of the benefits of the questions is that they force you to examine your working conditions with fresh eyes, because if you’ve been working in a certain job for a long time you get used to it. For example, [you get used to] constant surveillance – if you work at Google, [for instance,] they have access to all your emails.

When I was at Google [in 2013], someone got fired because this person had apparently leaked to the press. It was a really minor thing, but that person was publicly fired at one of these TGIFs [weekly town-hall-style all-company events] where Larry and Sergey got up on stage and announced that they fired someone, and Sergey kept saying “terminated”, and Larry had to correct him to say “fired”. It was a surreal experience. They made it sound like he had betrayed the company. And because they surveil everyone, if you do something to get on their bad side, they can do whatever they want – there is very little employee protection. It was a strange experience. It made me realise that this isn’t that utopia that Google is presented as, where you get to be creative and you’re your own boss. No, you’re not; you have a boss. That’s something you don’t really realise until something bad happens.

The radicalisation process

WTo the whole panel: how did you get “radicalised”, as it were.

AWhen I was a teenager I got involved with social movements – helping start a feminist organisation, doing anti-police brutality work, helping organise a labour union. Now I’m at Jacobin, so fully committed to the struggle in the sense of my real livelihood.

JI’m an example of what Alex described as meritocracy being easy to believe in when it works for you. I was raised in a conservative Trump-voting family in Texas, I went to Stanford, and all I knew about unions until three years ago is that they’re bad? And that was reinforced at Stanford, where it’s a neoliberal training ground basically. I’ve only been on the left for less than three years, and the things that drove me there were my experiences in the workplace, as well as the 2016 election.

I’d been involved in diversity efforts at tech companies for the last 5-10 years – mentoring programmes trying to fix gender and racial diversity problems – and I became a bit cynical about that. Because tech companies solve monstrously hard problems all the time, and yet they can’t solve this problem. Do I really believe they want a more diverse workforce, or do I believe they want better press for a more diverse workforce? So years of grinding at that had started to turn me.

There’s also the famous case of Google, Adobe, Intel [and others], from about 5-8 years ago colluding with a no-poaching agreement, saying they’re not going hire each other’s workers [in order to] suppress everyone’s wages. They ended up paying a 4 million dollar settlement for that, which means they probably made about 4 billion dollars by cutting my wages. The courts are very friendly to these large companies.

The 2016 election was kind of the trigger moment. I woke up the day after and Googled “democratic socialism” [because of Bernie Sanders] and found the DSA and joined it. I’ve been trying to learn about unions and share whatever knowledge I found with the rest of the tech industry as fast as possible.

MThere was something in games that was horrible called Gamergate, that some of you may remember. During that period I had to deport myself back to India, because the government shut down a week before I got my immigration papers. I’m not American, I’m Indian, I came here for school in 2010, so after working and having a career here within this wonderful, independent games part of the games industry, which is seen as the antidote to this sort of large, big corporation, worker-exploitation model – it’s not, but it likes to think it is; and because I was part of this New York scene, I was friends with a lot of independent game devs. I saw the space as very welcoming, very open, very generous, very diverse, which it is in some ways, but it also gate-keeps everyone outside of this geographic location.

Moving to India, I found a lot of devs in India were aligned with Gamergate – although they didn’t believe in the things Gamergate did – because they were welcome in this space. One of the byproducts of that was this huge debate around IP, and that is really how I found myself in here. Because a game doesn’t belong to the one game designer who designed it – it belongs to the entire labour force that built it, including the ones who gave their effort for QA, for testing, etc. And I also teach, so talking about this stuff with my students, about what is the emotional labour of working in games, of being a games worker.

And then earlier this year – I volunteer with DSA, and we were all kind of trying to figure out where games fit into this larger discussion around tech and solidarity movements. How can games do their part? And direct action around GDC came up, and that’s the main moment when a lot of us started saying the same things across games Twitter, and everyone came together and started organising really fast. So GWU has come out of this haphazard discussion and fear of IDGA pushing back against unions.

We’re not even really an organisation, more of a group that’s kind of local-directed. Everyone is welcome but only those who identify as workers make the decisions for it. Since GWU has formed we’ve been formalising our politics more and organising at a larger scale. These little bits all came together at GDC.

DMy politicisation, if you will, was good timing – I was in graduate school studying the aerospace industry. A different kind of “tech industry” with huge hurdles for finance and hardware. There was a group I was looking at who wanted to go back to the moon and send a robot to drive around, and it was for prize money. The ideology behind it, in terms of the prize rules, was that it had to be at least 90% private funding. Which is to say, go to hell NASA; we’re doing this our way, Silicon Valley-style.

Meanwhile, I was in Wisconsin, and the right-wing upheaval to rollback collective bargaining was happening (this was 2010ish), so I was looking at the heroism in this wannabe Elon Musk world, and looking at boiler pipe-fitter union members going down to Madison to stay in the Capitol building for weeks on end. Seeing that really solidified my politics in a pro-worker way.

Getting to Tech Worker Coalition – I work with a tech cooperative, so my politics are sort of normalised, sort of operationalised on a daily basis. Where do we make these decisions, what’s going on with our finances right now. So it’s necessarily open. I think I wouldn’t have joined this cooperative as emphatically as I did, if it hadn’t been for these earlier moments and the contrast [with the Elon Musk myth].

Elon Musk

WThe whole Elon Musk thing is fascinating. There is a reason that he captures people’s imagination. I remember when this biography of Elon Musk came out – Inventing the Future – and it was a really nice biography with very little criticism. I remember reading it and thinking, “This is so cool, I want to be like Elon Musk; I want to buy a Tesla”. It really appeals to people who haven’t been exposed to any other narratives, because it’s this mythical entrepreneurship, this Ayn Rand-style, “Great Man” theory of history, where it’s just one man who manages to overcome all these obstacles and build something wonderful that’s going to last.

And these are the people we should celebrate, right? It’s just them, it’s never looking at what other people contributed. Every time Elon Musk posts something on Twitter, you always see these replies, of people being like, “Elon Musk, you’re so great!” There’s that video of him where he talks about how he slept on a couch, and it sounded like he was kind of like making shit up, but people crowdfunded a couch for him … It’s so weird, this worship of him.

Coding bootcamps

WSwitching contexts a bit, let’s talk about the larger economic context of the tech industry – why the tech industry is so glorified, and why so many people are trying to join it. What we’re seeing in a lot of advanced economies is that there’s this hollowing out of other types of jobs. As a result, people are thinking: I’ll just learn to code, move to Silicon Valley and start a company, or work at a tech company, and I’ll be fine, right?

We’ve seen a proliferation of coding bootcamps, and other learn-to-code type schemes, which investors in the Bay Area especially are keen to push. Because then they can say, “Oh, if you’re not able to make ends meet, all you have to do is learn to code, and then you can just get a job in Silicon Valley”. And this, of course, reinforces this idea of meritocracy, and reinforces this entire neoliberal fantasy that it’s all about you, completely disregarding these structural factors – not everyone can learn to code and get a job in Silicon Valley. Could you talk about the rise of coding bootcamps, and what does that mean for the possibilities of organising labour in the tech industry?

New ways to exploit labour

AWhat’s so funny is there’s the story the tech industry presents about itself, and when you start looking at how it’s actually structured, there’s any other labour story. Jason brought up this lawsuit about collusion to lower wages, which is a classic tactic – there’s nothing new and innovative about lowering people’s wages through illegal deals in the backrooms of bars and mansions.

It’s the same thing with coding. There’s the story which is presented publicly: with a bit of self-investment and improvement, you can become solidly middle class, you can get a great job. The reality is, this is about lowering wages.

The tech industry – the white-collar, well-paid workers have found this kind of gold rush. These companies were founded, made huge amounts of money and have continued to colonise every other industry, the planet, everything; there really was money for people to be compensated well. Tech CEOs are very uncomfortable with the fact that they’re giving out too much money for their workers. Now, they’re still exploiting them; the amount you’re actually producing, value-wise, is still far more than you’re getting paid, even if you’re getting paid six figures.

But, as always, bosses want to lower wages. A coding camp is a great way to ensure that 10 years from now, software engineer jobs are not going to be great pay, because you’re going to have a ton of people who’ve gained this skill. All of a sudden, you have a labour market flooded with people who are willing to work for cheap because they had no other options.

What the tech industry is really innovative about is new ways to exploit labour, and present it as valuable. But often, they’re doing exactly the same thing that industrial factory owners in France and England 200 years ago were doing. We’re now seeing this happen across sectors in the US, where people who were resistant to doing this organising are, now. It’s only because their conditions have become so bad that people are wanting to take action on this front.

My personal view is that it’s really important that groups like TWC exist right now, because you’re going to see working conditions get much worse, in say, 10 years in your industry. So if you already have an organisation in place equipped to deal with what is going to be a real crisis situation for a lot of people, [that’s great] because the structures do tell the story usually.

The race to build platforms

JAn interesting new way that tech is exploiting labour is [seen in] the race to build platforms. A platform is something you build, then other people come to build on top of it. The iPhone [only] really took off when you had an app store, and the app store is a platform – anyone can build an app, and submit.

A lot of big tech companies are trying to platformise their work, and the reason is because platforms are a labour-saving device – if you build one, other people are going to build on top of it, and you’re going to take a cut and exploit their labour. In iOS, there’s millions of apps on the app store that Apple didn’t have to write, but Apple gets 30% of the revenue. You might be a small app development shop or an indie developer, but are you really your own boss when Apple takes a 30% cut of whatever you build? So at the end of the day, the idea of a platform is that you need less staff and lower wages.

WThat’s kind of the same with the gig economy. It’s all about finding new ways of exploiting labour and dressing it up in the language of innovation.

Games coding bootcamps

MSo games had their moment of coding bootcamps as well. I was a part of one, but ours were dressed differently. The discourse in games was that the technology aspect of games is really hard for more marginalised people to get into, so the coding bootcamp format was a way of democratising the tools of games.

The downside to is what you were just talking about, Jason – okay cool, you make a product, where do you put it up? You put it up in the app store, and the app store, especially the Apple app store – well, they censor a lot of games about very specific political issues. Specifically, anything to do with Israel. Several of my friends who have made more political games have not been able to present them in the app store. What do you do when you have a queer, or disabled, or people of colour population getting into games through this independent games element, especially now since the technology for making games are getting accessible? There’s more of an interest in joining the conversation, but the accessibility is limited by large companies.

That’s often not discussed in these bootcamp scenarios. I feel like tech presents bootcamps as this magic pill. You have to keep pushing people in there. Coming from film, I saw a similar thing happen for post-production artists, so VFX artists – there was this huge influx of VFX artists, there were tiny schools popping up everywhere that taught you the techniques, but then the industry just couldn’t sustain it – there’s so many VFX workers who just don’t have jobs right now, especially in LA. If you all remember Life of Pi, the entire VFX studio that made it was broke and shutting down as Life of Pi got the Oscar, so the perception of how much work is available and the job security, is much larger than in actuality.

Platform cooperatives

DFor the economic conditions that we’re in, if you think of platforms as infrastructure then you can think of other forms of infrastructure that tech is trying to direct and capture. Platforms themselves are a good example. Twitter is arguably a social media utility – if you’re in an airport lounge, and you see a news report or some news anchors reading a tweet, then you have to acknowledge that Twitter is some form of a news wire, like the Associated Press. It’s infrastructural. But Twitter is a privately owned tech company. I was involved in a campaign a year ago to try and take Twitter off the stock market, at least partly, and form some kind of cooperative to share ownership of it.

I work with a platform for home cleaning services. It’s called Up & Go, and it’s a handful of cooperative cleaning services which own this platform, so you can find bookings for your home cleaning. With this model, the mostly women, mostly Latinx cleaning professionals, they run the show – they take 95% of the earnings, and that last 5% goes to the platform that they then run. And they meet every month, and they set policy.

Many platforms are a way to do marketing, to discover clients or jobs. These women using this platform, they are dealing with economic conditions where they cannot find well-paid cleaning jobs, but with this they set their own wages, they earn so much more – a living wage. And they don’t have to flyer their neighbourhoods to say “Hire this cleaning group”, they have a website that does it for them. It’s a nice moment to remind ourselves what a website is doing – it’s not that different from a business card, and as you’re trying to go through the working world, you have to demystify what a platform does for you. And the question of what are the economic conditions in which these tools help us, is a helpful way to keep ourselves in check.

WThat’s the logical culmination of viewing tech workers as broader than just software engineers, right? For example, the people who use the platforms – they’re also workers, and they should have some say in their working conditions, how the platforms run, and how the distribution of wealth works. What we’ve seen with a lot of these tech platforms, like Uber and Deliveroo, is that the people in the best position to capture wealth are the ones who do so. Not because there is some inherent reason why they should – they do it because they can. It’s all about power.

As we’ve seen with most of these cleaning services, it’s the ones who are well-paid who get good conditions, who get to choose what they do and choose how much money they make. Software engineers and founders – those who are at the top, those who are directly involved in building the product. Whereas those doing the cleaning are treated as disposable, because they don’t have power. When you talk about making a co-op, that’s the natural solution, trying to unify tech workers.

DAnd the users, and the owners, who often are not overlapping, but with cooperatives you could ostensibly have overlapping users, owners and workers, as similar entities.

WIt’s really just about questioning the current distribution of power, and wealth, and seeing it as something not necessarily inherent and natural and justifiable.

Audience questions

The questions have been summarised, and the answers re-grouped by question.

Co-ops and market forces

(On co-ops being subjected to market forces)

DIt’s an excellent question: how are we going to get our material needs met with our ideological commitments? In a cooperative, it’s important to think of different degrees of purity. [There’s a] spectrum between collaboration and just working together to get anything done, then all the way to some kind of cooperative, beyond that to some kind of utopia where we’re not working anymore. It helps to think about what it takes to structure those situations. Competitiveness, for cooperatives, usually happens in situations where the market hasn’t served [needs]. The history of co-ops, in the US at least, there was a lack of service for say a grocery store, and so people pooled resources to get their needs met.

Tech cooperatives, in particular, are a hard case to make. For my cooperative, we have benefited from investing in ourselves for a long time. There’s a robotics company for example, in Wisconsin, and they were one of the few robotics companies who made it through the recession, because they were just large enough – 50-70 employees – [they] adjusted their wages, deferred payment and did the hard work to be adaptable. It’s not a great argument for competitiveness; another good argument in happier times is to differentiate – my favorite example is a group (not even yet a cooperative, but they have excellent bylaws) [that is able to] shift and borrow from labour when they need to amongst their collective, and their bylaws protect them.

Lastly, in terms of investment, I think this is a huge area for us to learn about. I think if the tech sector is one thing, it’s a vehicle for building wealth for the finance industry, which is not necessarily disruptive. There are ways to have caps, for example on returns, that I’ve seen some work around, like preferred ownership shares where there’s a healthy incentive, that’s bounded. Cooperatives need investment too – they need loans, they need equity – and there are ways to structure that which are supportive of the democracy that a cooperative wants to aspire towards. Let’s not write off finance as something that’s poisonous, because we all handle it in some form.

MIn the US, GWU is working with IATSE which is the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, to set up cooperative models for industries like ours. They’ve been fantastic allies, because it comes from a technical workforce, but they have smaller unions around technical skills, like programmers and 3D artists. It’s film-oriented, but they’re trying to figure out what an alliance with games would mean.

Games have been exploring what a cooperative model would mean for them. I know of at least three games cooperatives right now – I can’t really speak to how much profit they make, but they seem to have existed for at least 2-3 years so far, so there have to be certain considerations made about scale and scope, when setting up something like this. But I think these resources are available, they’re just not consolidated very well. That’s one of the goals of GWU, to set up as a space where people can start looking at these models.

Office geography

(On the challenges/advantages presented by differing geographies in the tech industry: dispersed in New York, versus concentrated in large tech campuses in the West Coast)

JBeing in the same place really helps. This year, in the Bay Area, I’m pretty sure we’ll hit the point where a majority of cafeteria workers and tech companies are unionised. (When you cross 50%, that means most of them will have good union contracts and everyone’s wages will go up.) So it’s easier there. On the East Coast, I think there’s some roles that are more traditionally unionised here that the West Coast is lagging behind. Another benefit of smaller offices is more closely-knit communities – I don’t know the vast majority of my co-workers on a large campus, but here at remote offices everyone knows each other.

I want to talk about a particular campaign that TWC has been involved in, and how remote offices were involved here. Backing up even further, why do high-prestige, high-wage tech workers want to unionise? Why would software engineers care about organising, besides just lending support to other people who need organised labour more?

Even as senior software engineer at a large company, the thing you’re lacking the most in your job is actually decision-making power. You’re still implementing goals set by a board or CEO that get percolated down the hierarchy into more specific goals, that drive key metrics and ultimately revenue.

This leads to software engineers and other tech workers having to make decisions that are obvious compromises – that you could call user-hostile – in the interest of making more profit. You might open an app on your phone and there are little notification badges on new features, to mentally trick you into using it. Everyone knows that’s bad and we’re all just embarrassed that we built this, but the metrics go up and the revenue goes up and it’s really hard to argue against that.

[There’s a link between] the trifling unethical behaviour there all the way up to much larger-scale things. The example that’s in the news this week is Google’s Project Maven. So Google’s taken a contract with the Department of Defense to make computer vision software and AI to understand images from surveillance drones, but it’s a short leap from there to people being killed by war drones abroad. And this is a lucrative contract – hundreds of millions of dollars a year, potentially, from the DoD. You can imagine most Google workers, being Silicon Valley progressives, aren’t happy that their work is being used for this.

There’s been an organising effort at Google for several months now, leading to ~4,000 Googlers signing a petition against Project Maven. A dozen Google software engineers walked out of the job two weeks ago. Everyone at Google hates this and is organising in different ways, to the point that small offices have come up with their own petitions – I don’t want to give too much away on internal organising efforts, but they’ve had to innovate and find ways they can contribute. Especially foreign offices, because if you’re a foreign office at Google you really don’t love America’s war machine that Google is now part of. The smaller communities have come up with engaging ways to ignite the debate inside Google.

The big news Friday was that we won – Google is not going to renew this contract. And this is not because of public backlash. It wasn’t user backlash, it was worker backlash – organised workers fighting and getting it shut down. We don’t usually win like this, so it feels good to have actually won this battle.

WJust to pick up on something Jason mentioned about ethics – I’ve seen backlash to the Project Maven thing saying, “It’s so silly Google dropped it, someone else is just going to do it anyway”. Which, if you think about it, is a strong argument for collective action across the industry, right? If you don’t want another company to do this, you need to have some way of organising collectively.

Overseas organising

(On whether TWC has an overseas chapter, particularly in light of the exploitative nature of contract work in India)

JI alluded to it earlier, [with the] cost-saving hierarchy of how automated operations are done at a big tech company. Suppose you find something offensive in a Google search result, and you click “report abuse”. The first thing that happens is it goes to an AI, that will try and automatically decide; the next thing is a human in Hyderabad will evaluate it based on some metrics. If it’s ambiguous or gets appealed, that will get kicked to a contractor in America or Ireland or somewhere in the developed world; that contractor will make a decision with another rubric. If it’s [still] ambiguous or gets appealed, it will go to, finally, a full-time employee.

In each of these, humans are training the AI along the way to try and deprecate themselves. So what can we do as TWC? We don’t have a ton of ties to places like Bangalore and Hyderabad. I think the thing we could do best is advocate for efforts there, in the same way TWC works with labour unions who are doing all the real work of organising service workers on our campuses. As TWC, we can lend support and solidarity to them, and we can do the same with efforts abroad.

AJust to bring the perspective of other industries – whatever industries you’re talking about, as soon as there’s real coordination across borders, amongst workers in the same industry, that is a huge threat to companies. The one company that there’s been a lot of conversation about recently is Amazon. As far as this stuff goes, Amazon basically operates like a shadow government, globally – there are warehouses across the world, there’s outsourcing. Something really interesting that’s now going on, that I saw at a labour conference last month – there were workers in the room who were software engineers at Amazon in Seattle, there were workers in the warehouses in Seattle and Chicago and Poland and Italy. All in the same room, having a conversation.

As much as a company tries to outsource people, to keep people removed [from each other] – these companies put a lot of effort into segregating workforces even on the same campus – when you get people in the same room … The unfortunate reality of that is no matter what a company does, everyone remains connected by these structures - everyone’s being exploited by these same forces, whether it’s someone in a country that is experiencing US imperialism and warfare, and yet they’re also employed by Google and they know that they’re linked in these ways – to the structures that are ruining their lives– there’s a powerful thing in that.

I remember the first Tech Action meeting that I went to: they opened the discussion with an article about Indian engineers and their efforts to improve working conditions, and it was very explicitly a way for people in the room to think about how in our industry, and in our company specifically, [bosses] are in conversation with bosses abroad, so why are we not in conversation with workers abroad? There were people in the room who either were from India, or had connections there, [who] immediately wanted to talk about what could they do in the US to actually build on what, in countries like India, is a more profound and militant labour movement than we have here.

It’s great that there’s ties being built across white and blue collar divides, but also internationally. It’s the inevitable step that would make sense to be taking since the companies are building those relationships anyway.

(On TWC’s relationship with the investor community, given that investors typically have board seats and theoretically wield a lot of power – for example, ousting CEOs – but traditionally only have ties to executives, not workers)

J(I’ve also invested in tech startups.) The relationship between TWC and investors is kind of hostile right now; we have called out investors for speaking for tech workers, and that continues to be a problem. What I want from the investment community is to not try and speak for tech workers.

The most egregious version of that was right after the 2016 election, when this boy wonder venture capitalist decided to host a “Tech Workers’ Values forum”, and invite a list of like 50 people, somewhat selected at random, somewhat handpicked of press-friendly people, and determine what are the values that tech workers share. This man’s a billionaire; the people he works with are millionaires and wannabe millionaires; and they want to come up with a press release and pledge that that tech CEOs would sign that says we’re not going to build a Muslim registry. I believe that as far as I can throw him – will a shareholder really say no when there’s a hundred-million-dollar contract for it? I don’t think that’s the logic of shareholders, or institutional shareholders at least.

What we want from the investor community and the CEO community is to realise that our interests overlap, but they’re not fully aligned. So when it comes time to ask what’s happening in tech, tech workers are the people who need to be answering that question.

Building cross-movement solidarity

(On how to bridge the divides between struggles for labour rights in tech and other struggles - like around housing - and build cross-movement solidarity)

JWhat would be very problematic would be if we as tech workers showed up and were like, “Tech workers are the working class, I read Jacobin”. That’s not going to get us credit – tech workers actually have all the work to do here. It’s tech companies, venture capitalists, and landlords who put so much money into the Bay Area, driving so many people out, but tech workers have also moved there and gentrified areas and are the labour that’s powering this capital. It’s on us to show that we are actually standing in solidarity with the rest of the working class.

[As an illustration of how things have changed:] there was a protest against Google buses this past week, where anti-gentrification protestors threw a bunch of these scooters (that startups have littered all over SF) in front of a Google bus, and set off smoke bombs, and had signs. [Several years ago], I was on a bus to my employer that was accosted by a group of protestors – our tires were slashed and we had to get off. What was different about the protest this last week is the sign said “fuck Google”. They didn’t say “fuck Googlers”, or “die techie scum”, which are things we’ve seen in the past. I think the conversation is gradually changing.

I’ve been involved in these cafeteria organising campaigns, and these cafeteria workers aren’t like, “Are you really working class?”. They’re like, “Thanks for helping, glad you’re here”. Solidarity is built in struggle.

On global value chains

(On global value chains, and the fact that technology still has to be built in manufacturing centres – often in early stages of industrialisation – and minerals have to be mined. Capital has organised massive commodity chains and lines of production spanning the entire globe. What is the long-term vision for worker organising on a global scale – including, say, workers at Foxconn?)

APart of what TWC does really well [is defining] tech workers as anyone who’s touched by this structure, whether it’s a security guard at Facebook, or [software engineers] in the Bay Area, or anyone along these supply chains. The international element would be a part of that. TWC is very new, so there aren’t strong networks to talk about what this would look like on a global level, to actually be organising in solidarity and combating the bosses who exploit people. What came out in talking to people who see organising this industry as part and parcel of something (whether it’s organising blue-collar work or improving working conditions abroad) – part of the argument for organising people like software engineers is that it’s not a zero-sum game. If they’re unionising, that helps unions in general, and that money is going to go to organising efforts. It also normalises the rise in unionisation rates in this country, because all of a sudden, people who have a bullshit status in society based on this idea that they’re better in this meritocratic sense – they do creative work, they’re white collar employees – [are now] in unions too. That helps everyone.

The unfortunate case right now is the only way out is through. If we want a world that does not rely upon hyper-exploitation abroad – there is no inevitability about improving the economy in China. This would be a first stage of industrialisation: you’re going to be hyper-exploited for pennies to make products. There are bad health conditions for workers there who are creating iPhones so that all of us in this room can have them. What I want is a very different world than that, and I think one way to get there is [for tech workers] to have a seat at the table, and start having an institutional way to change what models these companies are relying upon.

What’s interesting about this moment is people are finally getting a chance to talk about a vision of an alternative tech industry, and also world. [On Danny’s point about co-ops:] if we want co-ops which are not reliant on the worst of VC funding, well, that’s going to take a whole lot of political work as well. But this is a good first step.

MI want to talk about international solidarity, because GWC was built on support by the international community around games, and the union movement around game workers in Montreal and France (the French games union is currently striking). Often, the discourse [focuses on] the labour movement in the US, [giving the impression] that it doesn’t exist anywhere else.

India actually has a very militant movement around labour, led by students. There’s an organisation called NASSCOM, which is the National Association of Software and Services Companies, that is supposed to look after the concerns of workers in software-style products, but they’re invested in speaking to owners and investors primarily.

What ends up happening is there’s a lot of talk and very little action, [especially over] concerns of contract work [and waged] workers. But that is something that can be fixed – the work that’s being done here is not that different from the work being done there. One of the accidental good things to come out of globalisation is the corporate environment is identical, so the systems you use in one place can be replicated as easily as the companies.

I don’t see that big of a difference between being a worker in tech or in games specifically, and being a steelworker, because [either way] you make a tiny part of a large product. You really have no agency or artistic input in the final product. Historically, games have set themselves up as this kind of grand artistic gesture, when really you’re a machine churning out products. We’re a commodity-oriented industry. For the conversation [around worker organising] to begin, you have to give up this identity of being these creative-only environments, and accept we are part of the worker chain.


author

Wendy Liu (@dellsystem)

Wendy Liu is a software developer and (reformed) startup founder who built the website you’re on right now. She is an economics editor for New Socialist.