Tech workers, platform workers, and workers’ inquiry

On March 6th, members of the Tech Workers Coalition will be participating in “Log Out! Worker Resistance Within and Against the Platform Economy”, a symposium at the University of Toronto that will examine labor unrest and organizing in the modern, tech-centered economy. This blog post is a modified version of the extended abstract submitted by TWC and accepted to the symposium. Registration to attend the symposium is free — come hang out if you are in the area!

Much of cyberspace today is dominated by different kinds of platforms. The most visible platforms are perhaps social media sites like Facebook; but just as important, if not more so, are the platforms that are restructuring the nature of labor, like Uber, Amazon, and TaskRabbit. The ongoing restructuring of the labor market by the gig economy is having wide-scale and adverse effects on employment trends and economic inequality. At the same time, these platforms are inviting plenty of dissent and unrest by the workers who depend on them, especially in Europe, whether its Deliveroo in the United Kingdom, or Amazon in Germany.

As these tech platforms take over more and more of the economy, labor struggles will grow as well. This begs the question: what is the role in all this of the tech workers who are building, maintaining, deploying the platforms?

At first glance, those of us working in tech have little in common with platform workers. We seem to be offered higher salaries, many perks, and relative levels of autonomy. Tech workers may seem to be at best ignorant and at worst in opposition to the struggles of platform laborers.

However, there has been a growing trend — of which TWC has been a part of — in tech workers politicizing and even radicalizing toward worker-centered ideas. More and more tech workers are unifying and organizing around a shared disillusionment with the entrepreneurial and libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley elites, and the realization that their interests are not the same as their bosses. This trend includes tech workers across the industry and across a spectrum of occupations, sub-sectors, contract types, and backgrounds in the San Francisco Bay Area and other centers of the tech economy.

There is enormous potential in organizing with our fellow tech workers to energize class struggle within and against platform labor. Connecting the struggles of the workers who build and maintain platforms with the workers who labor through platforms would create a powerful labor movement. Coordination between tech and platform workers would make strikes, stoppages, and slow-downs exponentially more disruptive, as well as pave the way for the construction of cooperative and worker-controlled alternatives to contemporary tech platforms.

Imagine if Amazon engineers teamed up with Amazon warehouse workers to demand better benefits and working conditions; or if Uber programmers and Uber drivers decided to create a separate cooperative platform app that was democratically owned by workers and users; or if industrial control technicians coordinated with assembly line workers to develop automation systems that assist rather than displace workers.

If tech workers are to be united with their various counterparts in other segments of the supply chain, those of us who have already been politicized/radicalized need to start from square one, and actually figure out how to start organizing ourselves as a sub-section of the working class. This means, first and foremost, simply talking with one another and reflecting on the specific nature of our work in the tech industry.

TWC is experimenting with various forms of a practice known as “workers’ inquiry” as an organizing strategy, designed to help us understand each other’s positions in capitalism, and to get more of our fellow workers to actually think of themselves as workers in the first place (rather than as temporarily embarrassed CEOS and founders). Our interest in workers’ inquiry is inspired by the work of other groups who have deployed the strategy, both historically and presently, including the efforts by radical Italian labor organizers in the 1960s and 1970s and and recent ideas and practices put forward by groups like Viewpoint Magazine and Angry Workers of the World, who are currently engaging with various groups of platform workers.

The general form of the inquiry sessions so far has been a combination of small-group discussions facilitated by a short questionnaire, and larger unstructured group discussions. Facilitation questions inquire into different aspects of tech work, ranging from the details on specific occupations and the commodities produced and/or services provided, to general grievances that individual workers have or have seen expressed by fellow workers. We use workers’ inquiry as both a method of research and a strategy for organizing and agitating. Inquiry sessions give us deeper insights into the wide spectrum of skilled labor that is central to the functional operations of the tech industry, as well as how enmeshed and entrenched tech has become with the rest of the economy.

The key grievances that continually come up include: racism and sexism in the workplace, long and strenuous working hours, unethical products, and reactionary corporate politics. It is noteworthy that much of the observed unrest in the tech industry is more about political and ethical issues than about traditional economic grievances. Issues of racism and sexism are potent flashpoints — we saw this in 2017 with numerous viral stories about workplace harassment, and when workers at IGN staged a walkout over issues of sexual harassment, and in 2018 we may very well see even more workplace actions as the #MeToo continues grow. Rank-and-file conversations on ways to address workplace oppression is spreading, presenting an open door for wider workplace organizing campaigns — campaigns that can easily connect with parallel and overlapping campaigns among platform workers.

Our ongoing series of workers’ inquiry sessions, coupled with our broader organizing efforts, has shown us that there is a large level of dissent and agitation among our fellow workers in Silicon Valley, and palpable appetite for progressive if not radical changes to society. This unrest has great potential to merge the tech industry’s skilled strata of workers with those who are laboring under its platforms and facilitate a powerful working-class movement, if the necessary work in agitation, organizing, and mobilizing is done — which we have every intention of doing!

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