Collective bargaining for ethical technology
Can labour organising be used to shape and govern ethical technical production?
In January, 280 workers at Alphabet launched a union.
As of this writing, they have already grown to more than 800. This is a result of years of hard work — I'm happy for people in the libertarian hellscape of the technology industry. More explicit, enforceable protection and power is important.
The Alphabet Union was launched on the heels of a very public dispute about the treatment of high profile researchers at Google who focus on ethics. And that was on the heels of years of debate about the societal expectations of companies who are building versatile technologies. Technology can accelerate growing inequity; replicate and intensify inequality and discrimination; and be weaponsied by despots.
These two causes — labour protections of technology company employees (and contractors!) and ethical development and sale of technology — are often coupled. Many of the staff in companies that are calling for labour protections are the very people calling for companies to make ethical choices about their role in a changing society. And many of them are also very well placed to make suggestions for how technology can be pro-social.
But are these two causes related? And if workers are unionised, will that have an effect on the ethical trajectory of the technology industry?
Ben Tarnoff writes on tech organising, and describes three levels of working organising in any industry:
"The first involves what might be considered bread-and-butter issues: wages, benefits, and working conditions. The second centers on the demand for safe and equitable workplaces, free from sexism, racism, and other kinds of oppression—the Google walkout is a good example. The third is motivated by concerns about the social harms inflicted by particular products, contracts, or technologies."
Ben Tarnoff, Logic Magazine
It is exciting to see the moral force of tech-worker organising. And I for one am happy that workers in technology companies feel a unique sense of ownership in their company mission and decision-making. (For more on the origins of that phenomenon, I highly recommend Venture Labor by Gina Neff.)
The stakes couldn't be higher, as outlined in this recent piece by Marietje Schaake (paywalled!): technology companies are burrowing their way into every aspect of our society and we have allowed for corporate decision-making to supplant democratic control. We now rely on deeply undemocratic institutions to make hugely consequential choices for our politics, states, and social systems.
However, I'm not confident that this new wave of organising — even if wildly successful — will necessarily lead to the right types of governance or representation we want to manage the power of these companies. Meredith Whitaker and Nantina Vgontsaz's recent piece on the possibility of a militant progressive vision for technology is an interesting exploration of another approach to controlling these systems and decisions entirely.
To better understand how this third-level organising works, I asked on Twitter, and reached out to a few friends for examples of when unions and organised labour used their collective power to accomplish something beyond improved conditions for workers.
A few examples that I thought were worth sharing:
Staff at Polaroid in the 1970s — specifically those in the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM): "...modelled a form of workplace organising that sought democratic control over their firm’s conduct and operations." This workplace organising was used to halt Polaroid's participation in the digital ID scheme of the South African apartheid regime. More about this in Dissent Magazine (h/t to Dr. Ruha Benjamin).
A group of workers at a Rolls-Royce factory in East Kilbride, Scotland, who refused to work on Chilean Air Force parts from 1974-78 due to the atrocities carried out in Chile by the Pinochet dictatorship. (Thank you Anne Lee Steele for this example — this description is cribbed directly from the documentary film Nae Pasaran!)
In 1862, textile workers in Manchester, UK refused to handle cotton from the American South, in solidarity with enslaved peoples and the anti-slavery effort. They did this despite the likelihood that this was directly against the personal interests of the workers themselves.
In January 2021, Amazon workers called for the cancellation of Amazon Web Services contract with the social media platform Parler. And they were successful.
As we see growing calls for collective bargaining and organising of labour in the technology industry, I would love to hear other examples or thinking on how unionisation and union power has — or can be — leveraged to influence decisions of companies beyond the way they treat their workers. For inspiration and context. Further to that, I would love to learn more about how governance experts see the role of labour in pressuring for the development of new, more democratic, systems for tech-related decision-making.
Are organisations that are likely to be terrible employers also likely to make unethical decisions (ahem, Github)? Is labour power a stopgap for longer term design of meaningful democratic governance of socio-technical systems currently under corporate control? And if we zoom out, what are we really fighting for?