Over the past half century, workers' wages have stagnated, their rights have been eroded, and whistleblowers have faced frequent retaliation for calling attention to the problems.
But in the tech industry, a new alliance of workers from warehouses to cubicles — bolstered by the pandemic and anti-racism protests — is speaking with a louder and more unified voice than ever.
They're demanding everything from better pay and workplace protections to a bigger say over how the products they build are designed and put to use.
Business Insider spoke to 14 tech organizers and labor experts about what obstacles the movement faces as well as the changes they'd like to see in American workplaces to empower workers once again.
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All is not well for workers in Silicon Valley.
Amid a devastating pandemic that has left millions of Americans jobless, the four largest US tech companies blew past Wall Street's expectations, reporting quarterly earnings that pushed their combined net worth past $5 trillion and boosted their CEOs' personal fortunes by billions.
But as the tech industry soared to unprecedented heights, many of the workers fueling its rise have seen their wages and benefits stagnate, grueling job environments have become more dangerous, and efforts to call attention to workplace inequities have been met with retaliation.
Despite this, the tide is shifting. Last week, the top executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google faced a grilling from lawmakers that focused on their companies' outsized power.
Over the past few years, the experiences of rank-and-file employees have become increasingly at odds with those of the wealthy executives at the top — both on the job and in how they see their employers' impact on society. Bolstered by the pandemic and sweeping protests against systemic racism, tech workers from warehouses to corporate office buildings have been speaking up with a unified voice for the first time.
Their demands: Better pay, benefits, and working conditions. But there's a broader agenda in place. They want to shift the balance of power at their organizations so they can have more control over how their work gets done, how products are built, and who their companies do business with.
And now they're inspiring others across the country to do the same at their own workplaces.
Business Insider spoke with 14 tech organizers and labor experts who said the industry has reached an inflection point and that things aren't going back to the way they were before. Here are their thoughts on how to empower workers once again and the obstacles that still lie ahead.
Chris Smalls — organizer and former Amazon warehouse worker
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: Smalls said Amazon and other companies' self-interest and antagonism toward workers continues to jeopardize their safety. “Everything [Amazon's] doing doesn't benefit the employees, everything they're doing benefits the company and the company only,” he said adding that companies like Amazon “smear the lower class people, they intimidate the working class people.”
How can we improve American workplaces: Amazon needs to be taxed and workers need better pay, Smalls said. “You're telling me at $25 an hour I'm working for the richest man in the world and I'm capped out,” he said, referring to the salary limit he hit after five years with the company.
What organizers should focus on now: “What we need is for the families who actually lost somebody [to COVID-19] to actually come out to the public,” Smalls said. Concerns about coronavirus exposure were raised as early as March and he said Amazon's response fell short. “This could have been prevented … somebody needs to be held accountable.”
Oriana Leckert — former Kickstarter outreach team member and organizer for the Kickstarter United employee union
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: “There's a strain of individualism that runs through tech for sure, Leckert said. Convincing workers who have good jobs now to organize on behalf of their coworkers — and their future selves — can be challenging at times, she said.
How can we improve American workplaces: Leckert said companies should start “listening to workers and giving the people who are doing the work some more influence over how and when and why the work gets done.” Executives should trust their employees to have good ideas instead of dictating everything via “opaque, top-down hierarchical management,” she said.
What organizers should focus on now: “Talk to everybody in your workplace, talk to everybody outside of your workplace. Get advice from other folks,” Leckert said. “There are lots of people who are having a struggle at the same time and who have done it before,” she said, and people looking to organize at their workplaces can learn from others' efforts.
Grace Reckers — organizer at the Office and Professional Employees International Union
What's the biggest obstacle workers face: “The lack of hardened geographic bounds is an important component of the tech organizing movement, and it mirrors the structures of the tech companies themselves,” Reckers said. “Unlike nurse unions that represent RNs in a few distinct hospitals, typically in one region or city, organizers in the tech industry have to take into account the growing number of remote workers, international employees, contract workers, and vendors that are all affiliated with their companies.”
How can we improve American workplaces: “The biggest change I would like to see is for workers to have unobstructed rights to form unions at their workplaces,” she said. “Employers need to be swiftly disciplined and employees need to be reinstated when organizers are fired in retaliation for their union activity. I also believe that the amount of money companies spend on anti-union consultants and ‘union avoidance' law firms should be publicized, called out, and eventually redistributed to workers' paychecks.”
What organizers should focus on now: “Going forward, I imagine that the remnants of these fears around job security will remain for a lot of workers in the tech industry. My hope is that employees will continue to organize around these issues and recognize that as long as you are an at-will employee, you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all—without any guarantee of severance pay or continued healthcare coverage. It's only with a union contract that workers have the right to negotiate terminations and the safety nets that come with them.”
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