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Why the balance of power in tech is shifting toward workers

According to Collective Action in Tech, a project that monitors industry planning efforts, more workers are seen speaking out after a walkout each year. The image of big tech companies as friendly giants was ruined. Part of the legacy of the walkout, Stapleton says, was helping people see the difference between how companies present themselves and how they run a business and what a capitalist machine is and does.

In 2021, the number of mass actions decreased sharply. But that’s because the nature of those actions has changed, says JS Tan and Natalia Nedzvetskaya, who help run Collective Action in the Tech Archive.

“Compared to 2018, I think there’s a lot more reality about what organizing activists mean and what comes with it,” says Nedzvetskaya, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. “One of the reasons why we’re looking at this base building is that people understand that it’s difficult to do this individually.”

Last year, instead of writing open letters (which could be a fairly quick process), workers began pushing for unification, which was an infamous long ordeal. But creating unions – even those “solidarity unions” with fewer legal protections – is an investment in the future. Twelve tech-worker unions were formed in 2021, according to Collective Action in Tech’s analysis, more than in any previous year. Tan, who originally envisioned the archive, says most of these unions are at smaller outlets where there are fewer barriers to organization. But workers from large companies are also coming into action.

“The goal is to hold these big tech companies accountable,” says Tan, a former tech worker who helped organize at Microsoft. “

The fight against “digital slavery”

Nader Awad knows where to find Uber drivers with spare time. They approach them as they wait for customers in a parking lot outside London’s bustling airport. Awad gives him a leaflet and talks to him about joining the union, patiently listening to him and making the same complaints he has heard throughout the industry.

Gig drivers are not white-collar software developers that you can portray when you think of tech workers, but they make up a large and growing group of tech workers. Over the past year, they’ve become increasingly vocal about the many basic demands: a better pay, increased security, a way to seek refuge if they’re unfairly excluded from a company’s application. Drivers in the UK and South Africa have taken Uber to court. In the U.S., DoorDash drivers went on an unprecedented, nationwide strike over sinking salaries. In Hong Kong and mainland China, food delivery workers staged strikes for better pay and safety. In Croatia, Uber drivers held a press conference and went on strike, saying their payments were late. “We feel like digital slaves,” said one union member.

Uber drivers strike
In October 2021, Awaad helped organize a demonstration among drivers to protest the termination without a chance to appeal.

Victor Zimanovis / Nurphoto via AP

Avade started driving for Uber in 2019 after retiring from his previous job as a senior manager. He immediately experienced the problems of the industry. “It reminds me of reading Charles Dickens,” he says. “Level of exploitation. Level of deprivation. I said, ‘I can’t believe it. I sympathized with another driver I met at Heathrow. He is now the elected president.

His local membership of 900 or more drivers echoes those global problems, and has helped organize pickets and strikes, but he says companies are refusing to engage in open dialogue. Avad says drivers have to stay on the road for 12 or 14 hours a day to earn enough.

In a landmark case last February, the UK Supreme Court ruled that drivers are entitled to leave, a pension and a minimum wage. Some unions say Uber has avoided those new responsibilities, but the European Commission has also noted the problem. It issued a directive in December to “improve working conditions in the platform work”, meaning the new rules would be followed.

Nadar Awad
Nader Awad joined United Private Hire Drivers in 2019, a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. He is now the elected president.

Photo courtesy

Then there is the problem of algorithmic discrimination. Companies use algorithms to verify that drivers are what they say they are, but face-recognition technology is worse on non-white faces than white ones. In London, most of the drivers are people of color, and some are removed from the platform because of the distance.

Termination without a chance to appeal was the main motive for the strike, which was helped by Awad to organize in October. About 100 drivers rallied in the fast air of London, carrying a large black banner with the words “End unjust termination, stop ruining life” written in white. In the background, protesters placed signs with photos of the drivers saying “Restore Deborah,” one of them said. “Restore Amadou,” said another.

During that rally, United Private Hire drivers filed a complaint of discrimination based on facial recognition errors. “We expect the court to weigh heavily on Uber as it happens not only in our country, but in other countries as well,” says Awad.

“At first I didn’t think I understood how big this moment would be,” says Field. By noon, big-name celebrities were raising their voices in support.

Drivers who get a job face other risks. Covid exposure is a constant concern. The attack is similar-Awade has spoken to drivers whose cars were attacked and whose cars were looted. It plans to hold protests in front of the UK Parliament to demand safety measures, and reaches out to other unions representing drivers, hoping to form a coalition and take action against the companies.

“We have two drivers killed in Nigeria. We have a driver who died in London on 17th February. We have, on a daily basis, attacks on drivers, “says Awad.” It’s not something that has to do with London alone. That’s the decent thing to do, and it should end there. “

Union Busters busted

In September, Imperfect Foods workers who voted for the union saw that their employer was ready to play the role of a union buster. The same thing happened in November at HaloFresh, another grocery delivery service, whose workers in Aurora, Colorado, reported bullying and intimidation from management. When workers at Amazon Warehouse in Alabama voted on whether to unionize in April, the company intervened so extensively that the U.S. National Labor Relations Board ordered a do-over. (In a separate settlement, the agency said Amazon should allow its workers to organize unions freely.)

According to Jonathan Miller, a volunteer with the Berlin chapter of the Tech Workers Coalition, such tactics are spreading. “Germany has a strong tradition of social reconciliation and social participation, where companies are not hostile or hostile,” says Miller. “This is something you see imported from the US – this kind of US-style union-busting industry.”

Jonathan Miller
Jonathan Miller is a member of the Tech Workers Coalition, a grassroots, volunteer-led organization with 21 chapters globally.

Yuli Kaufman

The Tech Workers Coalition is a 21-chapter global grassroots volunteer-led organization. Miller joined in 2019 and still remembers the first meeting in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, attended by about 40 tech workers. “Most of us, as they say in Germany, were newcomers. And some of us were from Arab or Muslim backgrounds, “he says. But most were from Latin America, Eastern Europe, or other parts of Europe.

The idea behind the coalition is to help find a global solution to the global problem, and in the two years of the Berlin chapter, it has achieved tremendous results. He helped the organizers of the grocery app Gorillas, Germany’s first unicorn company, fight hard against the Workers ‘Council, a union-like organization in a company that negotiates workers’ rights. She also helped raise funds for an Amazon warehouse worker in Poland, which the coalition says her union activity was retaliated against. While HaloFresh workers were trying to form a union, the coalition in Berlin staged a protest in front of the company headquarters in solidarity. Whenever there is a need or desire, the coalition comes to provide training, advice or support, much of it “happening more sensibly behind the scenes,” Miller says.

In his view, these efforts are bringing the tech industry closer to the standards of other industries. Their labor planning is as much inspired by the activity of teachers and health workers as it is by the Google Walkout. This inability to blend in with other workers is one reason the epidemic has been so frustrating – it cuts off access to bars and gatherings where complaints turn into ideas and, finally, actions at the moment when the industry began to accept the need. For labor planning. “We won the moral argument,” Miller says, “but we couldn’t flex it.”

Tech, with honesty

The dust of Francis Hagen’s testimony had not yet settled in October when two former Facebook activists made the announcement. Sahar Masachi and Jeff Allen were starting the Integrity Institute, a non-profit organization that aims to publish independent research and help set standards for integrity professionals working to prevent harm to social platforms. Masachi and Allen have been thinking about this for a while. They worked to clean up the platform as part of Facebook’s integrity team; Some of Allen’s research was included in documents leaked to Hughes. Now they wanted to answer the big question: What does the act of honesty look like as a discipline? What does it mean to build Internet platforms responsibly?

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