Tech’s new labor movement is harnessing lessons learned a century ago


The rise of the tech worker

Even in the early 1990s, when Lerner went to war with Apple as an organizer of the Justice for Janitors campaign and won union rights for subcontracted cleaning workers across the tech sector, the question of “Who is a tech worker?” loomed large. Through those successful campaigns, Lerner helped extend the definition of a tech worker to virtually anyone who makes a tech company run. Cori Crider, an attorney with Foxglove, a firm that aims to challenge the power of Big Tech, has been working with subcontracted content moderators—real humans who sift through posts with violence and racism and graphic sex every day, trying to determine what violates a constantly shifting set of rules. 

Those workers are often bound by nondisclosure agreements that keep them from speaking publicly about their working conditions. That allows companies like Facebook to deny they exist—an assertion the company stuck with last year even after reports emerged that moderators working for the outsourcing firm Accenture were being pushed back into the office during the pandemic. 

Tech workers outside the normal definition of “employees” are still finding ways to organize and protect themselves., a campaign platform for labor organizing, is using donations from well-off tech workers to build a “solidarity fund” distributed to workers on the other side of the tech supply chain. Gig workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform are using the site Turkopticon to come together and fight for better terms. 

A wave of rebellions within the unions and wildcat strikes challenged the idea that automation was making their jobs easier. 

At the other end of the tech-worker spectrum are those building electric cars at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California. Before Elon Musk’s company bought the Fremont facility, it was known as New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc., or NUMMI, a collaboration between General Motors and Toyota where Japanese “lean production” was brought to America. NUMMI didn’t survive GM’s bankruptcy in 2008, and Tesla snatched it up. 

Cooperating with the United Auto Workers was one of NUMMI’s big innovations, but Tesla’s gone another way. Recently, an administrative judge at the NLRB ruled that several of the company’s actions in response to worker organizing were illegal—including a couple of Musk’s tweets as well as harassment of workers passing out union pamphlets, banning of pro-union T-shirts and buttons, and the interrogation of organizers and firing of one. The NLRB’s penalties amount to little more than a finger-wag—Musk must read a statement telling workers that they have the right to unionize, and rehire the fired worker. He’s appealed the decision anyway.

The workers at the plant, even the union supporters, are enthusiastic about producing electric vehicles, but they note that the technical sophistication of the plant does not prevent a lot of backbreaking manual labor—or injuries. Jose Moran, one of the leaders of the union drive and a former NUMMI worker, wrote a blog post about the things he wanted to improve, including the grueling pace of the work and some badly designed machinery. 

Autoworkers have struggled with machinery since the days of Henry Ford. But Tesla workers’ stories echo the complaints of autoworkers in the 1960s who battled “speed-up”—the way management would use new technology to ratchet up the pace of work—in places like Lordstown, Ohio, and Detroit. A wave of rebellions within the unions and wildcat strikes challenged the idea that automation was making their jobs easier. 

As machines sped up the manufacturing process, workers had to hustle faster to keep up. The autoworkers at Tesla, far from representing a labor aristocracy among autoworkers, say they make less than unionized workers at GM and Ford. As Moran wrote, “I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past.” 

The long game

In the Amazon warehouses, too, everything old is new again. “The auto industry tried to do lots of automation back in the ’80s, ’70s, whatever, and they basically plateaued out where they couldn’t do it anymore. And Tesla basically tried to do the same thing,” says Tyler Hamilton, an Amazon warehouse worker from Minneapolis. “It’s the same thing with Amazon. There’s only so much you can do with automation.” 

Mohamed Mire, a coworker of Hamilton’s, explains that most of Amazon’s vaunted technology goes to tracking the workers rather than making the work efficient. Scanners that the workers use to scan packages also keep track of their so-called “time off task,” and they get written up if their productivity rate falls. Robots that Hamilton likens to “giant Roombas” carry merchandise around the warehouse but malfunction often—lately his job has included setting the robots right when they stop working. Data from Amazon shows that injury rates are higher at facilities with robots than without them.