“We must think about a tech workers’ strike”: An interview with the Infoproletários

Meet the radical Brazilians organising tech workers


October 1, 2018

The past few years have seen an explosion in organising among tech workers, with organisations like the Tech Workers Coalition making a strong showing after the election of Trump in 2016. Yet so far most of the attention for this organising went to Silicon Valley, and more broadly Western countries. Tech and IT workers are, however, a worldwide phenomenon, and dropping our Western focus in regards to tech work is key in building inclusive counter-power against tech companies.

Here we interview Infoproletários, a radical Brazilian group organising tech and IT workers. We talk about unions for tech workers, Brazil’s position in the world and why tech workers should start a strike.


FHCould you shortly explain what Infoproletários is?

IWe are a Brazilian social movement composed of tech, or IT, workers united with the objective to denounce and fight exploitation and abuses suffered by our group and the working class as a whole.

FHHow and when did you get started? What is some of the backstory behind Infoproletários?

IThere’s not much of a story behind Infoproletários, more so because everything is so new. For us it was even a surprise that interest in what we do has increased recently. We formed our movement at the beginning of 2017 after debates between a group of IT workers that had more leftist political views, and who have felt for years the need to organize themselves and their fellow workers. We always heard the narrative that IT workers, as well as call-center workers and those in service professions that suffer from a high turnover, were not organizable. We fight to prove that narrative wrong.

FHWhat are some of the important issues facing tech and IT workers in Brazil? Are Brazilian IT workers also a privileged layer of workers like in many Western countries?

IWell, we can only enumerate on some issues because the list of worker grievances is quite large and most of them are not exclusive to tech workers.

But first and foremost there surely is a lack of class consciousness among tech workers, or, in less militant terms, Brazilian workers lack an awareness about the exploitation they suffer. Workers in software development, or in other IT areas, often have illusions about the position they occupy in the production cycle. Liberal propaganda is very strong in the media, and makes a lot of promises about the world of work. A lot of our peers, not having access to other points of view, increasingly self-identify as ‘partners’, ‘collaborators’ or even ‘self-entrepreneurs’ instead of as workers. They often have the illusion they are powerful enough to just individually negotiate with the bosses. Which obviously is false. Research, our analysis and our personal experience all show that the reality is quite different. We face low wages for our jobs, long and stressful work shifts, high work pressure and even moral and sexual assault.

Also, the technology sector, since its relatively recent beginning, operates as a laboratory where experiments with new types of work organization are organised. Recently new work laws were introduced in Brazil, which significantly weakened labor rights, but some of these changes were already common practice in IT and tech before them becoming law. Arrangements that force workers to be self-employed for example are common (in which the worker starts an individual business and works as a private service provider with no right to any benefits like paid vacations). Today, there’s a hybrid modality known as CLT Cotas that’s also used by some businesses to pay their workers by worked hours. Other practices aim to give work shifts even greater flexibility - usually not to the worker’s benefit of course - sometimes arbitrarily extending work shifts. In all these cases, entrepreneurial start-up discourse is used to disguise this super-exploitation.

On the financial front, IT workers do earn more than the average Brazilian worker. Nonetheless, this difference is due to the lack of qualified professionals and the high cost of professional training, but this picture has been changing in the last few years with the spread of fast graduation courses and the mentioned reforms. These actions overpopulate the market with less-prepared workers and level the wages of tech workers. Also, our salaries are relatively high, but are accompanied by a heavy physical and emotional stress. A lot of workers retire early and change work areas because of that.

FHWhat is the state of unionisation in IT in Brazil?

IThe situation is pretty delicate. Social rights are being attacked from all sides after years of sacrifice and intense worker mobilizations. The whole Brazilian working class still couldn’t even elaborate an adequate response to the intensified attacks under the government of Michel Temer. The Brazilian trade union movement is hostage to a few, but huge central unions which are cooperating with the ongoing labor ‘reform’.

In IT the situation is the same; it might actually be worse as seen from an organizing perspective. Official unions lack contact with their own base, and they don’t have much support, and when they do they are seen more as service providers than as combative organisations.

Tech workers, who generally don’t believe in these unions, are isolated in their workplaces, victims to narratives promoting individualism and seeing yourself as an ‘entrepreneur’. There’s little consciousness about how they could solve their own problems, and they don’t see what lies at the base of their everyday suffering.

Under the government of the PT, workers forgot how to fight for their rights and class interests. Today, we need to re-learn these things and reorganize ourselves.

FHCould you explain some of the things you did since founding Infoproletários? What are some of the campaigns you ran? What has the reaction been from people in tech and IT?

IInitially we mainly focused on the theoretical education of our members, reading and discussing material related to capitalism, political economy, syndicalism, gender issues and labor relations. We also host periodic workshops that might be of interest to tech workers on subjects like mental health and technical skills.

Usually we prefer subjects that encourage self-organizing and expose the nature of the labor relations, although we don’t limit ourselves in this. We are still discussing whether participating in large conferences and IT events would be appropriate because many of them are sponsored by big companies. We are, after all, an autonomous, crowdfunded, workers’ movement that questions the practices of exactly those companies.

We want to join IT and tech workers in their everyday life, keep contact with their demands, discuss with them in a class-based way and, together, think of alternatives to the status quo.

For now, the reactions have been positive. The people who support us generally already have left-wing politics and are happy to know that there is a struggle ongoing for better working conditions in tech which is allied with a project to overcome capitalism. Our challenge now is to attract the other, bigger, part of the professionals who don’t know Infoproletários and who still don’t see themselves as workers.

FHCan you name some examples of actions you organised?

IWell, until now we did some editions of our workshop about mental health and work in IT and started a podcast; we are trying to make it a regular thing and debate themes of importance to our class. Since we cannot act openly in our own workplaces due to possible retaliation, we did pamphleteering campaigns on International Women’s Day at help desk companies and we are planning to repeat them in the near future.

During some general strikes in the past few years, we campaigned about the importance of those strikes and what was at stake. Also, we host periodical talks with anyone who wants to know the movement better or become a member. We were present as well at the Cryptorave in São Paulo last year, discussing the registration of workers’ personal data and its use by governments. We still don’t know exactly how many people we reached thanks to our campaigning and podcasts, but the workshops and other events got around a hundred enrollments on average until now.

FHDo you think organising IT workers requires techniques different from normal worker organising? In the US, Slack has, for example, proven a useful tool for organising tech workers.

IDue the very nature of the job, scheduling local meetings certainly is more difficult. We use a lot of tools to manage our tasks like forums, videoconferences and voting tools. But we don’t choose to highlight specific ones.

In the beginning, we used to think that IT workers were a special category and that would require new organizing models. But we found out IT workers aren’t so exceptional after all.

Of course, each group of workers has its own specific characteristics which should be considered from a tactical angle, but we tech workers aren’t so different that we can just ignore classical organizing tactics.

After all, a strike is a strike and it can still stop production and circulation in tech, in the same fashion it does in other sectors. In a sector like ours, the impact of a strike would be felt in the whole economy. So, we believe that the old practices must be considered in the light of a new scientific organization of work that wasn’t imagined before, and we should adapt the old tactics to the new reality of IT.

In sum, we must think about how IT and tech workers can strike.

FHWhat is your opinion about startup culture, and how does it relate to working conditions in IT?

IThere is an innovation aura that enwraps startup culture, as if this model is the pinnacle of productivity and business acceleration. But nothing is farther from the truth. We used to joke that, besides a 19th century British factory, there isn’t anything older and antiquated than a startup when managing production.

The robbery of life and the product of our own labor is more systematic in startups. The work shifts tend to be longer and more intense than in more conventional companies, the work regimen is much more precarious. Usually they use illegal hiring formats and there is a mutual contamination between leisure and working hours.

You don’t have to look far to see that behind the colourful and innovative facade of startups, their managing practices are extremely harmful to workers. The IT sector, at least here in Brazil, is a laboratory for new practices and models of working, and in our view startup culture is part of this, to the workers’ detriment.

FHWhat are some of the politics behind Infoproletários? You mentioned that many of you are left-wing activists.

IWe are a left-wing movement that doesn’t belong to any specific party and among our members we have people from social movements, parties and some independents. We are predominantly Marxists and we analyse the reality around us through this prism. We understand that even with the higher salaries and all the advantages tech presents us, at the end of the day we are still workers like all others. We are also located in a peripheral dependent capitalist country without any project of national development; this is central to the movement and puts us necessarily in an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist position.

FHYou mentioned in one interview you were inspired by US groups like the Tech Workers Coalition. What have you learned from them? But also: how does your situation differ from theirs?

IThe TWC already exists longer than Infoproletários, but the debates about organizing IT workers are old. When we heard of TWC and other autonomous initiatives around the world, our movement was already consolidated in São Paulo. All these initiatives showed the analysis we were making was correct and reinforced the trust we had in our objectives.

Although we live in different places with really different socio-historical backgrounds, we are all a response to a worldwide conjuncture that includes a crisis in political representation (which involves the traditional unions) and an economical crisis, this time the result of the exhaustion of neoliberal capitalism.

Because we are, still, a small group, our focus has been on the tech workers in the great urban centers, where we are concentrated. We try to reach everyone who works directly or indirectly in small, medium and big companies, from the help desk and IT infrastructure support jobs to software engineers. TWC and Infoproletários have very similar goals, which of course have to be adapted to our specific local situations.

FHDo you think technology can be made more emancipatory? And if yes, how?

ITechnology is never neutral and its content always reflects a class perspective. In general, it is employed according to the interest of the ruling classes. In capitalism the workers are not the ruling class, the bourgeoisie is. In such a context it is not possible that technology is emancipatory; under capitalism, it is designed to strengthen the status quo.

Most of the products we build every day at work are directed to create new ways of monitoring the work of others. How to better control production, how to see exactly what the employees are doing at work, how to better track the duration of tasks and how to better milk that last drop of production out of everyone. Somehow that also gets imprinted in our minds that it becomes a block to creative thinking and keeps us from thinking about different solutions for different problems.

But even if we think about the solutions that look revolutionary and emancipatory, the way we create them and use them can make them do exactly the opposite, which happens all the time. Suppose someone creates a new type of coin that can be used to transfer money from without going through large financial institutions. That would be really emancipatory right? Except it isn’t. Because as soon as such technologies gain traction, they are appropriated by corporations and the market.

Technology doesn’t assure a revolution - understood as the total and necessary rupture with the current order of things for the guarantee of decent living conditions and true emancipation for all workers. It isn’t. What technology can do is change the way we do things and with that change the concrete relationships that perpetuate our way of life. 3D printers and big data don’t make the revolution just as railways and the Internet didn’t do it in the past. People make revolutions.


author

Felix Holtwell

In real life, Felix is a tech journalist. After dark, however, he edits the Fully Automated Luxury Communism newsletter, a newsletter about the interactions between technology and the left. You can follow him on Twitter at @AutomatedFully.

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