Tech workers are organising – and asking what technology is actually for

Unionisation and other forms of organisation are addressing both working conditions and bigger questions.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Much has been made of the technology industry’s moral awakening over the last two years, given the outsize influence it has on world affairs and our daily lives. It has been accompanied, and to some extent driven, by the growth of a workers movement in the technology industry, one that asks what technology should be used for.

Workers at tech giants including Facebook, Google and Microsoft have created petitions, walked out and held demonstrations over the policies and priorities that they found unconscionable. Those issues range from Amazon selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement, to Google collaborating with the Chinese government on a censored search engine. “There was a real sense of introspection from these workers about what they were building,” says Jamie Woodcock, who researches the gig economy and the intersection of labour and technology at the Oxford Internet Institute.

In the UK, organised labour from employees of the tech industry has taken different forms, building on nascent movements that have gained prominence outside large tech companies. Many of the workers who have been organising around issues in the tech industry in the UK are gig economy workers – such as Deliveroo and Ubereats couriers.

“What political experience there is amongst platform workers comes primarily from the wave of anti-austerity movements that ran from 2010-2015 and trade unionism in countries like Brazil and India,” says Callum Cant, a Deliveroo rider and academic who is writing a book on working as a Deliveroo courier. “Transnational communication amongst tech workers is strong. Across borders, all platform workers have a common enemy – the algorithmic manager which drives down wages and forces them into poverty.”

When Deliveroo couriers went on strike in November of 2018, they timed their action to happen at the same time as striking fast food workers at chains like TGI Fridays and Wetherspoons, highlighting the necessity of worker solidarity across industries. “In the UK, workers are getting organised across a much wider area, and there’s no central laboratory of struggle,” explains Cant. “Almost every corner of the UK seems to be experiencing some kind of platform worker unionisation.” That includes places as small as Horsham and as big as London. As these movements are often so decentralised, supporters often find out about strikes a few months down the line.

This is also partially possible because those tech workers built on successful campaigns in other industries, often using the same organisations to band together. “The IWGB [Independent Workers of Great Britain] had successes organising with bicycle couriers beforehand, and so it made sense that these platform workers saw a group of workers that they could relate to – they shared the same roads,” says Woodcock. From there, the leap to a labour movement, even if it wasn’t immediately formalised, was possible through the structures that already existed.

Massive corporations, such as IBM, have always been hostile to workers becoming organised, fostering an individualistic company culture across every level of employment.

In the UK since the 1970s, managers at specific IBM plants engaged in anti-union tactics, such as timing changes in working conditions and wages to coincide with organising efforts, and promoting individuals within specific trade groups at IBM, so their seniority would make union membership less relevant. IBM still does not recognise unions in the UK, and the US union outpost shut down in 2016. Those early efforts had a profound effect on the often libertarian bent of Silicon Valley, whether explicitly or not.

Crucially, white collar workers in the UK – such as software developers – are likely to have more luck finding a traditional trade union, through umbrella organisation the Trades Union Congress.

In 2018, software developers at Fujitsu staged a strike after the chair of their Unite union was dismissed. That this kind of action, endorsed by a union, isn’t currently possible on a wide scale in the US has also given organisations such as Tech Workers Coalition a space to politicise and pull workers who want to organise together, along with the involvement of activists.  

“Many of the UK branches of these tech companies are kind of treated as outposts, and I have gotten the impression from speaking to tech workers at these companies that they’re enacting decisions to be carried out elsewhere,” says Woodcock. “You have a group of workers, who are comparatively well paid, and who have good conditions to some extent – but what they don’t have any say over is what they do at work, and so it actually returns back to that classic question of worker control.”

This has also meant that the waves of activism and worker uprising that have occured in the US haven’t caught on in the same way in the UK – even if workers based here are broadly supportive of those actions. This may also be due to a fear of retaliation. For example, even though Google stated in November that the company supported the 20,000 employees who walked out to protest a culture of harassment and abuse, two of the organisers have since stated that they’ve been demoted or warned to drop concerns about ethics.

In other parts of the tech industry, tech workers who are often ignored have formally unionised, which makes them a rarity. One such group are game workers.“I’ve been in the industry for 12 years and not a lot has significantly changed, and game workers have been self-organising to improve the industry for quite a while,” says Austin Kelmore, the chair of Game Workers Unite UK. “We receive lower pay across the board, relative to the wider tech industry, and our entry level positions’ pay is often at or approaching minimum wage.”

In December, GWU UK became the first official union to emerge from a global Game Workers Unite movement. While GWU UK, which is a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, has been working with some advocacy groups around larger, more political aims – such as improving the overall conditions of the industry around overwork – it has focused its attention on tangibly improving workplaces for its members.

“This kind of organising – it’s been going on for two to three years now,” says Woodcock. “Even within the gig economy, if you compare the organising by Uber Eats couriers with IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] to the Deliveroo riders, to the American counterparts like Gig Worker Rising, it’s not quite clear which models work best, so that’s what we’ll see develop.”  

As Jason Prado details in Notes from Below’s issue on tech worker organisation, tech workers are not a homogenous mass, and so the variety of roles across the industry is another opportunity to get workers organised.  Connecting up workers – from drivers to engineers to designers – opens up new opportunities to build solidarity. After a recent Uber driver strike in LA, an anonymous Uber engineer posted an open letter on Medium asserting how much drivers and engineers could benefit from standing with each other in demanding better working conditions and pay.

Past the actions of large tech companies, platform cooperativism, a term from Trebor Scholz of the New School, can be used to describe the rise of apps where workers themselves write and own the code, giving them close to full autonomy. Fundamentally, what workers are organising for – better pay and working conditions, employment stability, transparency – goes beyond borders. “The details of what we’re fighting for vary slightly due to the differences in law, but the general ideas are the same,” says Kelmore. “We [Game Workers Unite UK] may have been the first to have sorted out our legal status as a union, but we won’t be the last.”