A few dozen people gathered at an art studio on a mid-November night in North Beach. They were, for the most part, tech workers, and they were there to meet a union organizer.
The event had been organized by Mike Monteiro, a former tech worker and current design guru and activist, and was designed to help bridge the gap between techies and organized labor. Over the course of a few hours, as both the tech workers and union representatives spoke, a common thread arose from the tech worker side: We aren’t sure exactly what to do, but something needs to be done.
Organized labor in the United States is commonly associated with blue collar professions — coal miners, carpenters, stevedores — and jobs essential to civic infrastructure like nurses, teachers, and police. Relative to those jobs, tech vocations like computer engineers have been around for the blink of an eye. A lot of the tech industry has its beginnings in startups, companies made up of just a handful of people. Collective action and collective bargaining aren’t things most companies consider when the entire employee roster isn’t big enough to get a reservation at Cheesecake Factory. However, now that many of those companies have grown into world-changing behemoths like Google and Facebook, more workers have started to speak out against their employers.
Just before Thanksgiving, four Google workers were fired. The fired workers published a letter on Dec. 3 alleging that despite Google’s claims, they were in fact fired as part of an effort on Google’s part to stop workers organizing, and that charges will be filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Instacart workers have periodically rebelled over their low pay.
In New York City, two Kickstarter employees were fired in September. The workers say it’s because they were involved in union organizing efforts (the company denies this). One of them, Clarissa Redwine, has decided to fight back poetically: by launching a Kickstarter campaign around a pro-labor union-busting pamphlet.
“A year ago, I did not know anything about organizing or, frankly, much about unions,” Redwine tells SF Weekly. Her formative, pro-union moment came via a Kickstarter campaign for a tongue-in-cheek comic book about punching Nazis. Right-wing hate website Breitbart kicked up a fuss. Kickstarter decision makers felt the guide encouraged violence and decided to take it down. An employee rebellion ensued, and the campaign remained up.
While the collective action from the staff resulted in a short-term victory, Redwine says the long-term results included a variety of reprisals from management, which made it clear to her that employees needed some kind of legal structure in place to protect them in the future.
Redwine joined other employees a few months later in trying to form a union at Kickstarter. She and others thought the company would be excited to be one of the first tech companies to unionize. They were extremely wrong.
“The company immediately had a very negative reaction to organizing,” she says.
Since then Kickstarter CEO Aziz Hasan has even issued a memo against unions.
“It shocked us, it surprised us,” Redwine says. “A lot of us joined because we believed in Kickstarter’s mission: bringing art and culture into the world. When people join Kickstarter and believe in the mission, you also believe everyone is working toward a similar goal of a more supportive world. We thought solidarity would be a given. [Kickstarter] is literally a platform of collective action.”
After getting fired from Kickstarter, Redwine started a Kickstarter campaign of her own, a “Solidarity Onboarding” kit designed to educate workers about modern anti-union talking points. While union busting has been around as long as unions, the words used to do so have changed in important ways.
“The problem in tech is that the language is slightly different,” she says. “It’s very much rooted in mission-based language. The anti-union busting materials needed an update.”
The campaign has far exceeded Redwine’s initial goal of raising $1,000; over $16,500 had been raised as of press time with over 400 backers. More importantly, workers have been getting in touch.
“Quite a few people have reached out, either through the campaign or through Twitter,” Redwine says. “Some work at really big companies in the Bay Area and are very excited about this project.”
Employees at companies both big and small have been more prone to organize in some form or another over the past year. A GitHub project has been tracking instances of collective action in tech (excluding adjacent industries like gaming) and has documented 92 such instances in 2019, up from 37 in 2018 and 11 in 2017.
Yonah Camacho Diamond is a district organizing coordinator for the Communications Workers of America, a union with over 700,000 members in fields like telecommunications, IT, and news media. He’s been involved with the union for over 20 years and says there’s definitely more organizing going on in the tech industry.
“There’s more stuff happening, period,” he tells SF Weekly. “Depending on whether you’re a glass half-full or a glass half-empty kind of person, things are either so bad that people are trying to do something about them, or people are feeling hopeful about doing things. There’s a big rise in people’s activity and interest in collective action and in unions.”
Redwine says when she tried organizing at Kickstarter, she ran into a union-busting argument from the company that the workers were so well-cared for — from their relatively high salaries to the kombucha on tap — that they had no reason to organize (the company denies that this argument was made).
Camacho Diamond says that the tech workers he’s spoken to about organizing have been consistent in wanting to help everyone in their respective organizations.
“One of the things that’s most exciting in tech… is that there’s a strong sense of solidarity with contractors, with temps, with admin staff,” he says. “There’s some acknowledgment that yes, they may have some privilege, but they want to move on. Tech workers get each other’s backs.”
The potential benefits of tech workers organizing are numerous. Bringing pay for workers like Uber drivers and Instacart shoppers up to fair levels and salaries for women and people of color up to that of their male colleagues could be one benefit of increased worker organizing. Other concerns include issues like workday length and ethical decisions made by companies.
This is a key point brought up by the workers recently fired by Google.
“Google fails to understand that workers are the ones who built the company and its most successful products,” the letter reads. “And that we can stop building them. No company — tech giant or otherwise — should be able to interfere with workers’ rights to organize for better working conditions, including ethical business practices.”
Google’s firing of the four organizers over Thanksgiving week came shortly after it came to light that the tech giant had retained the services of an anti-union consulting firm, as first reported by The New York Times. Google employees have, in recent memory, protested the company’s treatment of sexual harassment complaints, its work with China’s human-rights-optional government, and its lack of a climate plan.
The four employees who authored the Dec. 3 letter — Laurence Berland, Paul Duke, Rebecca Rivers, and Sophia Waldman — say they will keep fighting. That spirit isn’t contained to just them.
“The idea is that we’re trying to change the culture,” Camacho Diamond says. “One little spark of inspiration, there’s no saying what that can do.”
Richard Procter is the Editor in Chief of SF Weekly. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.