Reprogramming Labor In Tech

17:22 minutes

a glass building with the google sign and logo
At Google, more than 800 employees have recently joined the Alphabet Workers Union. Credit: Shutterstock

More than 6,000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama are midway through voting on whether they should unionize. If the ‘yes’ votes win, it would be unprecedented for the company: The last time a unionization vote was held by Amazon’s United States employees, back in 2014, a group of 30 technicians ultimately voted not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers.

Meanwhile, at Google, a group of more than 800 have recently joined the Alphabet Workers Union, which was formed in early January. The AWU is a minority union, a kind of union that cannot negotiate contracts. But, the union has said, they will still be able  to advocate for workers who would be excluded from a traditional union, like the temporary workers, contractors, and vendors who make up more than half of Google’s global workforce.

And in the world of app-based gig workers, a debate has been raging for years about whether Uber and Instacart workers are full employees with rights to overtime and collective bargaining—or contractors, which have neither. In California, state law has changed twice in the last year to try to answer this question.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to legal scholar Veena Dubal, and historian Margaret O’Mara, about this rise in union activity, and the way tech companies have impacted our lives—not just for their customers, but also for their workers.

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Segment Guests

Veena Dubal

Veena Dubal is a legal anthropologist and a professor of Law at the University of California-Hastings in Hastings, California.

Margaret O’Mara

Margaret O’Mara is a professor of History at the University of Washington and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remarking of America.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. These days especially we are utterly reliant on the work of tech companies. We store our photos on Google Drive, right? An Amazon delivery person drops stuff off at our house. And while I haven’t sat in an Uber in quite a few months, it would be my preferred way to get anywhere late at night.

So when Producer Christie Taylor came to me wanting to talk on a science show like ours about recent labor news at these companies, I was intrigued. But I’ll bring her in to tell you about that. Hey, Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey there, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Now, what do you mean when you say labor news, first of all?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So I’m talking about labor union organizing events specifically. For example, right now thousands of workers in an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama are currently in the process of taking a vote about whether they should unionize. If they succeed, that would be a first for warehouse employees in the US at Amazon.

IRA FLATOW: So is it just Amazon then that we’re talking about?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So we’re talking about other companies, too, like there’s a group of white collar Google employees who formed this unusual kind of union called a minority union, specifically to pressure Google to make better ethical choices. And all over the country, app-based gig employees, like Uber drivers, are arguing that they’re full employees with the right to band together to demand higher wages and health insurance. Places like California and Seattle have even passed laws addressing this question in the last few years.

IRA FLATOW: You know, Christie, I was a bit skeptical about this story. We do talk technology here, and not usually labor disputes. But I can see how the future of technology depends on the people working there. So please, take it away.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It really does. We talk a lot on this show about how tech as a product is affecting our lives, like the way social media could be undermining our very democracy. And I feel like if we’re going to talk about how tech is affecting the people who consume it, we also really have to talk about the people who make or enable it. And that includes Amazon warehouse workers.

So I wanted to get a better understanding of how tech as an industry is shaping the lives of its workers, and whether these companies are actually that different from other jobs. I talked to Veena Dubal, a legal anthropologist and professor of law at the University of California in Hastings, and I talked to Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, and she’s also author of the book The Code, Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. I started by asking Veena about whether she saw anything connecting these stories together in this particular moment in time.

VEENA DUBAL: I think that in many ways all of these workers are facing sort of extreme political and economic insecurity in this moment of the coronavirus. And what is remarkable is that they have all overcome the ways in which law has inhibited the rights of workers to collectively organize to better their working conditions.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: To frame this question slightly differently, Margaret, I think we’ll have listeners whose response is, well, why would tech need unions? And then some other listeners who might see all these other professions with unions– teachers, sanitation, the Screen Actors Guild– and they’re going to wonder why tech wouldn’t be unionized. Margaret, what do you say to either of those questions?

MARGARET O’MARA: Well, I think when we think that the mental image of a tech worker is often a highly paid, highly educated engineer, a techie sitting in a comfy campus with lots of amenities and free food. But actually, the reality of tech work has long been– I liken it to a submerged iceberg. There have been the white collar workers that you see above the surface, but tech always has relied on a large blue collar workforce that has often been made invisible and been economically marginalized. And that workforce has always– this is a six or seven decade history here– it’s been disproportionately female and workers of color. And that is one reason that they have been so invisible and so marginalized.


VEENA DUBAL: I would build on that just to say that more recently there is a recognition in amongst the workers themselves that they can imagine themselves as a sector in the same way that auto workers imagine themselves as a sector. Just over the last four years you’ve seen really amazing alliances being built between the people who do things in Silicon Valley in the tech sector, like secure the buildings and serve the food, alliances between those workers and the workers who do engineering work as temp workers at Google, at Facebook, really interesting cross-class alliances that I think is hard for your listeners maybe to sort of have imagined or maybe they didn’t imagine.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I mentioned unionization efforts at Google and Amazon in the last few years. Is there something special about now as a time where all this is happening?

VEENA DUBAL: Yeah. The reality is that these workers have come to understand that their companies are having impacts, social, political, and economic impacts in the world that do not sit well with them. When we first saw a rise in protests in the tech industry just two years ago, the protests were not just about working conditions. Although, they did relate to sexual harassment on the job at Google, to the existence of nondisclosure agreements, to the reality that many of the workers were classified as contractors via temp agencies.

But they were also really focused on what the companies were doing on the defense contracts, on the alleged role of some of these companies in detaining children at the border, in the role of these companies in furthering climate change. Workers started to see their labor conditions and their role at work as being really intertwined with the problems that they saw with the world. And they wanted to have a say in that.

MARGARET O’MARA: That’s a great point. And of course, the things that workers have often organized for– an eight-hour day, fair wages, basic safety protocols on the factory floor– that’s not something that, say, the Alphabet union is organizing for. They’re well-paid. They have good benefits. They have economic security.

What they are using this– in a way, it’s more akin to consumer activism where you have boycotts of products or companies, where you’re using your power as a buyer to persuade a corporation to behave differently. And the same thing goes for these workers who are– look, they’re the most important asset a company like Google has. It’s all about recruitment, retention, getting the best people, building the best tech.

And so if you are creating a public relations problem that is a human relations problem, a problem that is going to create a chill and dissuade future Googlers from coming to Google, or people thinking that company X is a good place to work, then that has a tremendous amount of influence and pressure. And that clearly is part of the calculation here.

VEENA DUBAL: Yeah. I would just say, however, that one of the things that really brings them to the table is what they’ve described as a caste system at Google. So Google, similar to Uber and Lyft, and all of these tech companies, they all use temp agencies. So many of the people– in fact, the majority of the people that Google hires every year, they hire indirectly through temp agencies.

And those workers, while they certainly are making more than the minimum wage, actually live quite precariously in Silicon Valley. And those workers and the full-time employees describe a really unequal system of worker benefits, of worker rights, and of treatment in the workplace between those contract workers, those temp workers, and the full-time employees, even though oftentimes they’re doing the exact same thing. And so I just want to emphasize that even in that instance, it actually is for some people labor conditions that bring them to the table.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. The big story this month has been that upcoming vote on Amazon’s warehouse. But there’s also this new union at Google, the Alphabet Workers Union. And as I said before, it’s a minority union. It doesn’t represent all the workers. They can’t force the company to make a contract. What else is new or different about that choice on the part of the Google workers?

VEENA DUBAL: Yeah. So I think what’s really unique about the Alphabet Union is that you have these workers who are willing to not just organize, but to call themselves a union. In fact, reintroduce the language of minority unionism into the culture of labor in the United States. In the US, a majority of people have to vote to join a bargaining unit before the company is forced to recognize that union and bargain with them.

And in this particular instance, I think the workers have recognized two things. One, that it will be nearly impossible to have a majority bargaining unit in a behemoth company like Google that spans different sectors, different industries, and has so many workers all over the world. Two, I think that there is a real recognition that they don’t necessarily need to bargain directly with the company to exert power, that they can grow their power and the workforce through a minority union and exert power in the way that workers have traditionally done since the beginning of capitalism, through work stoppages, through protests, through other forms of direct action. What’s fascinating is that these workers are addressing them internally using worker power to draw attention to their concerns, and to force the employer to address those things.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What are the companies themselves saying? Why would they not want their workers to unionize, for example, if they’ve positioned themselves, as we see so often in Silicon Valley, as these progressive, open-minded workplaces.

MARGARET O’MARA: One of the reasons that Silicon Valley companies have so fiercely resisted unionization since day one has not only been philosophical about, we’re a different kind of company. If we have a union, that shows that we’re not a family. And that’s what old economy companies do.

But it also has to do with being agile, being able to scale up production really quickly, and downsize really quickly, to meet the market. Go back to the days when the Valley was a hardware manufacturing zone of chips and making electronic devices. And you had to be early to market, and move fast, and be able to get the next generation product out. And having a unionized manufacturing workforce got right in the way of that.

And it’s no surprise that these companies were among the very first to offshore work to East Asia in the ’60s, very early movers. Not to mention moving labor from California to right-to-work states in the South and Southwest. So this has been baked into the business model.

And it also has to do with– look, the tech sector has grown large in an era when unions have lost their political power and their membership, and at a time when Washington, DC has been dismantling the protections that workers and unions once had.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Staying with the tech companies, Veena, Silicon Valley has been this place, especially recently with the language as we’re here to disrupt insert industry here, the Uber for insert industry here. Is there something there where they’re also disrupting what it means to be a workplace? Like maybe they’re right. a standard union doesn’t fit them.

VEENA DUBAL: So I think that we can understand, particularly in the low wage sector, looking at the so-called gig economy. We can understand the business model really as a form of union busting in and of itself. There’s nothing about the Uber app that prevents the company from providing unemployment insurance, providing a minimum wage, providing overtime. But they have baked the idea that being able to offload workers very quickly, on board workers very quickly, and not having to provide these sort of basic things at the speed that their business model necessitates somehow is incompatible with basic rights and protections, including the right to unionize.

And so rather than thinking of unions as being not the appropriate sort of representative body of this workforce, I think that this workforce is formulated in a particular way so as to prevent unionization. If you rely on a workforce that is casual, many people are doing this to supplement another job. If you rely on a workforce that is atomized and dispersed that doesn’t have a place to gather in the way that gig workers don’t have a place to gather, then you’re going to be able to convince workers that there’s not a way for any one union to really represent your interests because your interests are not the same as your co-workers’ interests.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a quick reminder that I’m Christie Taylor, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Margaret, one of the most interesting things I’ve read that you’ve written lately was about the history of the automobile, and how the automobile industry of 100 years ago has these parallels to today’s tech industry. Even this idea that the automobile industry was its own tech sector 100 years ago, the Apple or Google of 100 years ago shouldn’t have blown my mind, but it did. So is there something here that we can learn from this history?

MARGARET O’MARA: Yeah. I think we can learn a lot, that Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the 1910s, the 1920s. It was the most innovative place in the world. It was a home to all new forms of production, as well as labor management relations, first on the terms of people like Henry Ford, who as a tactic to retain workers and keep them from jumping ship to his competition, doubled the effective salary to $5 a day in the 1910s.

Workers in the auto industry as it grew and became incredibly influential very quickly had tried doggedly to unionize, and had been pushed back by very fiercely anti-union executives. And really, the tide turns in the 1930s. First, there is the Great Depression, an economic realignment, a crisis. But most importantly, the Roosevelt administration is staffed with labor activists and reformers who for decades had been trying to advance the cause of worker rights in various forms at the state and local level.

And under the Roosevelt administration, organized labor gains new rights, new powers, gets the right to organize blessed by the federal government. And after that, it’s a three-Legged stool with management, unions, and the government working together to build a stronger unionized manufacturing complex. And it’s upward mobility, the true generational upward mobility, where a union job for people with a less than a high school education becomes a path to economic security and stability, and for creation of generational wealth.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. And looking forward, we have a president who has talked about the value of good union jobs. He’s determined to create them, including in the tech sector, and things like transitioning the country to renewable energy, and reducing our carbon emissions. As the legal person in the room, Veena, what would need to happen at the federal level for that to actually come to pass?

VEENA DUBAL: So I think the most important thing that this administration can accomplish is to pass the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which would amend some of our old labor laws that have really given employers power over workers, undermined their ability to organize, and to form unions, and give workers more power during disputes at work, really give teeth to laws that protect workers from retaliation. And for me, most excitedly, excitingly really expand, make clear that the right to organize is a right borne by all workers. So right now, workers who are misclassified, like Uber and Lyft drivers, risk being accused of violating antitrust laws for trying to raise wages.

If the PRO Act passes and includes a version of the ABC test, extending collective organizing and bargaining rights to all of these workers, I think it would really disincentivize the kinds of working conditions you see both at the top at Google with their contract workers, with their temp workers, as well as in the blue collar workforce, the technologically-enabled blue collar workforce, like Instacart shoppers, like Uber drivers, who are really, really struggling even to get funding because of these risks to do the organizing work that they need to do.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: This was all so fascinating. Thank you both so much for joining me today.

VEENA DUBAL: It was really fun and an honor.

MARGARET O’MARA: It was great to be here.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Veena Dubal is a legal anthropologist and professor of law at the University of California in Hastings, and Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington and author of the book The Code. For Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.

IRA FLATOW: Yep, Christie, an important story, and we will keep an eye on it.

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