Book Review: Power to the Tech Workers
Many of us have tried to follow the recent kerfuffle involving Sam Altman’s leadership of the company he founded, OpenAI. In mid-November 2023 he was abruptly fired, then returned to power just five days later. The business press highlighted the implications of this power struggle for the rapid deployment of artificial intelligence and the future influence of investors like Microsoft.
It appears, however, that the pivotal moment in the power struggle came when 738 out of OpenAI’s estimated 770 workers said they would resign if Altman remained ousted. Even if it only resulted in putting a CEO back in power (and to a company that represents a real threat to the labor movement), the revolt by OpenAI workers was nevertheless "one of the most successful collective actions taken to date in the tech industry," writes Ethan Marcotte, and a reminder to tech workers of the power they have at work.
This story unfolded just as I was finishing up Marcotte's excellent new book, You Deserve a Tech Union. Though Marcotte admits he is a self-employed web designer who has never been in or organized a union, he has consulted with some of the best and the brightest in union and tech-worker organizing to fashion a wonderful back-pocket book, perfect for any tech worker interested in powering up and getting a union. At around 150 pages it is full of clear advice on organizing, as well as some captivating history of technology.
Marcotte references the work of the scientist Ursula Franklin who presents a fascinating story of the evolving discourse that surrounded the invention of the sewing machine. When it was introduced to the general public in the middle of the 19th century the machine was welcomed as a device that would “banish ragged and unclad humanity.” The authors of an early manual promised that the “sewing machine would end poverty.”
Fast forward to a manual from top sewing-machine manufacturer Singer in 1910 where the emphasis is all on efficiency and speed. “Inside of five short decades, the sewing machine is no longer discussed as a technology that will liberate its users,” Marcotte writes. “Instead, it delivers productivity.” Marcotte sees a similar trend at work with more recent technology, such as the promise of the Internet to “connect humanity and reduce both poverty and armed conflict.” Yet the biggest web and tech firms have become major defense contractors.
A SHIFT TO FORMING UNIONS
Marcotte's book is a forceful argument that if workers in tech want to improve their conditions, they can only do so collectively—and that means forming a union. He says that this is dawning on more tech workers in the last few years, but that it's been given an added impetus by recent mass layoffs in the industry, with more than 160,000 tech workers losing their jobs in 2022.
The shift to forming unions represents a significant change from tech workers' usual strategy of seeking out better pay or conditions by "voting with their feet." By and large, Marcotte writes, "workers in the tech industry have come to expect that a bad job can only be fixed by getting a better job somewhere else." But that's changing—a change that is long past due, since employers have also come to expect that rather than improving conditions, they will always be able to find new workers.
Marcotte acknowledges that many tech workers are paid better than other workers and often receive better benefits. That’s especially the case at the biggest companies like Meta (Facebook) and Alphabet (Google), which also offer lavish cafeteria meals, company gymnasiums, and health clubs.
But there are plenty of other issues that motivate workers in the industry: ever-increasing workloads; being paid less than peers; harassment and discrimination; a lack of opportunities for career growth; and worries about layoffs and severance pay.
Marcotte also stresses that organization is necessary to combat the unethical and destructive use of tech. He highlights the 2018 protest by thousands of Google employees over the company’s contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense. Similarly, Amazon tech employees organized a walkout over climate justice in Seattle headquarters.
Marcotte is careful to include in the community of tech workers such jobs as “content moderators,” who often work in remote offices for limited salaries sometimes even in far-off lands like India and Kenya. These workers must do the often traumatic work of spotting disturbing violent and offensive sexual postings that need to be policed and removed from websites. These are jobs that can lead to serious psychological trauma, and workers that do them are fighting for desperately needed representation.
He also emphasizes the many others who should rightly be considered tech workers, from Amazon warehouse workers to drivers for Uber, GrubHub, and Lyft. He notes that other tech workers can learn from the organizing by the Teamsters among Bay Area shuttle bus drivers for Meta and Alphabet and by UNITE HERE among contracted cafeteria workers at big tech firms.
BUT HOW TO GET A CONTRACT?
Chapters 4 and 5 are the heart and soul of Marcotte’s narrative. He explains what a union is and the process through which, under present U.S. labor law and practice, workers can form one. While many union activists may be familiar with these processes, 94 percent of workers in the private sector do not have unions, so this is necessary education for tech workers, among others. He relies on the teachings of veteran organizers to highlight the obstacles to organizing and the methods needed to overcome them.
As someone who has organized many groups of workers into unions over the years, from machinists to bookstore workers to dockworkers, I found this section illuminating, but a little lacking on the question of power relations, particularly with regards to getting a first contract. That's why I found the Sam Altman saga so illustrative, because it appears to me that the key to reversing his ouster was the revolt by the bulk of OpenAI employees.
My experience over the years in bargaining for first contracts for newly organized workers who have voted for the union is that without a powerful exercise of worker (such as strikes or other job actions) or consumer power (like boycotts), no employer will just wrap up a first agreement just because the majority of workers voted in a union. To get a strong union and a worthy first contract, there needs to be the exercise of power that those OpenAI workers engaged in. In fact that kind of exercise of power could result in an employer willingly recognizing a union (without an election) and accepting a good first contract all in one fell swoop.
In 2022 in the Port of Tacoma, Washington, a group of chassis mechanics organized with the Longshore Workers (ILWU) and went on strike. They won the union and the first contract all within the space of a few days because the marine terminal had come to a halt. Mechanics won an average immediate wage increase of 29 percent, an improved medical plan, and, for the first time, a pension plan.
We need such an analysis of chokepoints in tech so that workers can consider skipping the bureaucracy of the National Labor Relations Board (the federal agency charged with enforcing labor law and conducting elections to determine whether workers want a union) and exercise power to lead directly to a union. Or even if workers go through the formal NLRB-election route, such analysis might be essential in helping win a first contract. (See the book Labor Power and Strategy by John Womack, Jr., which I co-edited, for more discussion of choke points and power analysis.)
That means a concrete analysis of concrete conditions:
- Who are the most skilled or essential workers whose work cannot be easily or swiftly replaced?
- Where in the process of “production” is the employer most vulnerable?
- Are there seasons of production and deadlines when delivery times give us greater power with production interruptions?
Maybe as more experience is accumulated in the tech industry Marcotte will deliver such a volume for us, but in the meantime this is a very useful tool and stimulating read for any tech worker contemplating improving their workplace and enhancing their power over their work life and the products they are fabricating.
The whole labor movement needs the solidarity and organization of these tech workers. Imagine tech workers acting in solidarity with warehouse or production workers dependent on their algorithms! What an awesome transformative power!
Pick up You Deserve a Tech Union at abookapart.com and organize for power.
Peter Olney is retired organizing director of the Longshore Workers (ILWU) and a co-editor, with Glenn Perusek, of Labor Power and Strategy.