Inside DC tech's rising interest in labor unions - Technical.ly DC

Software Development

May 7, 2020 2:25 pm

Inside DC tech’s rising interest in labor unions

Fair pay, ethical use of technology and less crunch time: Here's why technologists and game designers in the DMV region and beyond are organizing in solidarity.
The lack of protections for many American workers is a narrative not lost in D.C., the city known for organizing, protests and the home of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This is especially true now, a time when inequities have been thrown into sharp relief as the less protected and lesser paid are forced to work the front lines of a pandemic. But even in a world of $70,000 starting salaries, ping-pong tables and beer on tap at the office, there’s a rising awareness of the lived differences between those building cloud infrastructure, and those tasked with delivering the goods ordered from a website built on that infrastructure, when it comes to job security, safe working conditions and breaks.

For over a century, many industries have turned to unions for a chance at industry disruption. Unions ballooned back in the 1880s during the Industrial Revolution, when the country was flooded with new workers who needed negotiations for higher salaries and safety in the workplace. (Yes, these are the folks who died for the right to a weekend.) Union workers can legally represent employees in official negotiations in the fight for more pay, better working conditions and better hours for a work-life balance. In 2018, around 14.7 million Americans belonged to unions, or 10.5% of the workforce — the lowest rate recorded by BLS, representing a decades-long decline.

In tech, there are a number of leaders who are reaching heights of wealth and power who might be compared to the industrial giants that the labor movement sparred with more than a century ago. It would seem that the workers who build and maintain the apps and platforms at the heart of that influence have been slower to organize than their historical counterparts.

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Yet at any given tech conglomerate, there are the high-salaried developers and game designers — well off in many ways, although they’re often forced to work unpaid overtime, stuck in unlimited PTO agreements (not always as a good a deal as they seem) or unable to control what the technology they create is used for. And you have the lower-level quality assurance workers or even the people who serve food at companies with dining halls and oftentimes work for much lower pay and worse benefits. Contract workers, including freelance developers, might not know if they’re going to be paid the next month or could get blacklisted, and there’s an exhausting and ongoing fight for equal pay among women and minorities.

In some of these unbalanced workplaces, the seeds of a labor movement for the tech era are being planted.

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In January, the giant Communication Workers of America (CWA) labor union, based in D.C.’s Penn Quarter neighborhood, launched the national Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE) for workers in the tech and gaming industries. Led by the cofounder of Game Workers Unite on the West Coast and a leader in the Fight for 15 organizing campaign on the East Coast, CODE plans to tackle both workplace conditions and how tech can better impact society.

CWA President Chris Shelton said the organization wanted to help expose “the reality behind the rhetoric.”

“Companies in the technology and game industries have gotten away with avoiding accountability for far too long,” he said in a statement. “This initiative will help tech and game workers reach the next level in their efforts to exercise their right to join together and demand change.”

The initiative aims to be a curtain-opener, and is only one role in regional and national efforts to tackle labor exploitation among tech companies. In addition to the oft-noted lack of diversity and wage gaps, DMV-based tech and video game workers describe a world where they’re forced to fend for themselves to avoid layoffs and being overworked.

One local data engineer who planned before the pandemic to begin attending meetings of the advocacy group DC Tech Workers Coalition noted that the many small tech startups often require long hours and lack HR departments to hold employers accountable, leaving plenty of room for labor exploitation.

“Tech is a pretty professionalized job. It’s certainly nice — I have a much better lifestyle than you would think of someone who’s working where the original labor union came in for, which is coal miners and such. But it’s still a nasty place; it’s still a pretty cutthroat place. There’s not a lot of protections for you,” said the engineer, Brendan Freehart, noting the lack of job security and overtime pay as well as oftentimes poor healthcare plans.

And then there’s the “crunch,” which is the extended periods of overtime that can last for weeks or longer when technologists are up against impossible deadlines. They’re common in the game design industry, mostly involuntary, and frequently not paid, according to industry organizers Technical.ly spoke to. It’s something to watch out for in game companies of all sizes — large ones that lack accountability and can fire people for not complying, and small ones that fall victim to a too-intense startup grind mentality. Freehart added that collective bargaining, or negotiations by employees, can create a safer workplace because one person is not the target of potential blowback from leadership.

For the most part, though, D.C. tech workers who want to organize must join non-tech specific unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, or participate in non-union interest and advocacy groups such as the DC Tech Workers Coalition or Game Workers Unite (GWU). These groups primarily provide talking spaces or education, but lack the official power to represent employees in a union and thus make widespread organizational change. (DC Tech Workers Coalition declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Plus, officially organizing can be difficult due to the stark contrast of high-paying jobs in tech and gaming that overpower lower-paying ones. A GWU rep who asked to remain anonymous said that the designers and contractors are so physically separated, often working on different floors, that designers can be unaware of the conditions of the quality assurance testers.

“Game designers are like, ‘This is great. I get paid well, I get treated really well.’ They’re like minor celebrities in their company culture,” they said. “Meanwhile, three stories below them in the basement maybe, are the QA contractors and there’s hundreds of them and they don’t know if they’re going to have a job next month.”

Meanwhile, bigger companies have the manpower — and money — to dissuade organizing. Google employees organized a 20,000-person walkout in 2018 to change the company’s response to sexual harassment allegations, yet the tech giant fired four employees in November involved in labor protesting (that is, the former staffers said they were fired for organizing — which is technically illegal — but Google claims it was due to repeated security breaches). Amazon, with its second headquarters in Crystal City breaking ground later this year, was under fire in 2018 after a training video for Whole Foods managers was leaked that stated the company did not believe unions were in its best interest. Pro-union organizers in New York did have a success story in February when Kickstarter workers banded with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. But it’s only one city, and a company with only 85 or so employees eligible to vote.

(One recent example of solidarity between different-ranking tech employees: Last week, frontline workers at Amazon, Whole Foods and Instacart organized a mass strike to protest of a lack of adequate safety precautions amid COVID-19. When some of them were fired, a high-level Amazon engineer in Vancouver quit — and lost out on an estimated $1 million in pay and unvested stocks — in support.)

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, links some of the working condition issues to the clout of tech. He said some issues come from the leverage the tech industry has, given its massive contributions from the past few decades — think iPhones.

Tech companies “are extremely powerful, they have often a fairly libertarian political culture, they are very influential,” Muro said. “Governments have been hesitant to manage them or supervise them. … They have been able to call their shots for a long time.”

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GWU is a grassroots volunteer organization with chapters worldwide, some of which are formally unionized (though D.C.’s is not). Its members can be anyone middle-management status and below, including, say, the kitchen staff at a game studio. The main criteria for joining is job status: GWU strays away from hiring managers and those with the ability to hire or fire employees because it can put other members at risk.

The GWU spokesperson said their organization helps educate D.C. tech and game workers on problem solving some of the main issues in the industry, including blacklisting, inadequate salaries, waiver brokering, leaving someone’s name off a game credit and incorrect job classification. Because a large portion of the 30-person D.C. chapter are students, GWU DC also tackles issues in the pipeline of school to studio such as outdated curriculums and incorrect salary expectations.

Most GWU DC meetings are about education and providing a safe space to discuss problems, as it’s not an official union. But, if someone wants to organize, GWU can provide resources, training and tools so they can start the conversation with their employers.

“People are exploited for their passion,” the GWU rep said, and the tech and game industries “are very new, not just new. There are no standardizations for what to expect on the labor level.”

A 2018 International Game Developers Association (IGDA) report found that 53% of workers said crunch time was expected at the workplace. Of those, 37% worked between 50 to 59 hours a week, 29% worked 60 to 69 hours, and 14% said they worked more than 70 hours a week during crunch time. A study from mental health organization Take This found that crunch could lead to added stress, physical and mental health issues, burnout, and decreased productivity. Plus, it said game quality suffered with more software defects and worse Metacritic scores.

Renee Gittins, executive director of the Toronto-based IGDA, said that crunch is normal in game development because of the extra “fun factor” required in gaming. Workers need to be creative in development which can be difficult with the pressure to meet firm publisher and funding deadlines that don’t change even when glitches are found in testing.

“Game development is software development with creativity that has to be fun, which is just a lot of complicated factors,” Gittins said. “Almost anyone who works in a technical industry will occasionally find themselves working extra to meet previous set deadlines because of unexpected technical complications.”

As a nonprofit, IGDA can assist workers in organizing campaigns and generally works to support game developers (including on coronavirus-related issues), but it can’t directly participate in collective bargaining. Gittins added that in addition to preventing crunch overload, unions can offer a personalized approach to labor problems. A tech worker could join a union based on their industry, ideals or for a specific company.

“Unions provide the ability to negotiate with more consistency. However there’s so many different types of unions and implementations of them that can have ranging effects,” Gittins said. “You can unionize a single company and have a union for a particular development studio, or you can have a national union or political union. There’s many different approaches that have their own benefits and detriments.”

Some — including many Republicans and wealthy conservatives who can lend a louder voice to lobbying efforts via funding — question whether unions are good for the overall economy. Investopedia notes that they can interrupt supply and demand by forcing a company to raise product prices to pay increased wages, or the extra money required could also come at the expense of non-union workers.

Furthermore, a union represents everyone at a company whether the worker asked for it or not (though the 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME decided that public employees can choose to not pay union fees for collective bargaining, a stance supported by right-wing lobbyists). In 2012, The Atlantic asked readers whether or not unions were necessary for the wealth of American families, and one U.S. worker wrote in to say that, in their view, younger workers don’t believe unions provide enough support to be worth the cost.

“They recognize — correctly — that unions harm the hard-working and productive for the benefit of the idle and unambitious, and want no part of it,” they wrote. “We can even recognize that unions did provide valuable results in the past … without buying the idea that they are due plaudits in perpetuity for pulling kids out of mills a hundred and fifty years ago.”

Still, most Americans view labor unions favorably, found Pew Research Center, and “Blacks, young adults and people with advanced degrees were most likely to view declining union representation negatively.”

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With the arrival of HQ2 in the DMV region, it seems inevitable that labor conversations will grow given the tech giants’ working condition reputation which includes 60-hour weeks, ambulance calls and urinating in trashcans for warehouse employees during the holiday rush: Already, after Amazon warehouse and Whole Foods workers began walking off the job over the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, unions are being brought into the discussion. (In the case of one Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, JFK8, a walkout organizer was fired in March; since then, dozens of workers have fallen ill and, in at least one case, died.) For its part, CWA has a COVID-19 resource page for workers on its site and hosted a related town hall at the end of March.

Brookings’ Munro thinks there’s space for a unique outcome in the industry’s unionization efforts, as many tech workers have certain advantages that their workplaces can’t control. Most can be found in hub cities, where it’s easy to job hop if one company’s working conditions aren’t ideal, and the growth of the market makes it easy to find others to organize and make changes. Plus, they can use the influence of the industry when organizing.

“It’s actually in the big clusters where tech workers have inordinate leverage over the companies,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable and a healthy development for workers to seek and have a voice in management and decisions made by their company.”

And while many unions are for blue-collar workers, tech workers tend to have a higher level of education and income level that could tell a new tale in the fight for better working conditions.

“There’s no doubt it will have a different story of workers as organization proceeds,” Munro said. “It simply makes it very different.”

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