Theses on organising contractors in tech

January 3, 2019 (1588 words) :: Some inchoate thoughts on organising Silicon Valley's shadow workforce and why it matters.

This blog post is part of a personal challenge to write something every day in 2019. See the other fragments.


  1. The upper echelons of the tech industry are drenched with the idea that tech is unlike other industries. Investors, executives, and well-paid workers love to characterise the tech industry as somehow morally better than the old world: it’s about efficiency, and modernity, and progress; it’s about actually making the world a better place. The tech industry is a place where you can become massively wealthy while also feeling smug about the moral justification of that wealth.

  2. This self-serving belief - like a fog that has descended upon the Bay Area - is wholly unfounded. Sometimes it comes from a place of naivety and wishful thinking; some founders do genuinely think that the best way to change the world is through private entreprise, because that’s what they were taught at Stanford. Sometimes it’s a deliberate shield wielded by the cynical in order to obfuscate their true intentions. Either way, it is a belief we should be deeply skeptical about on empirical grounds: when the world’s richest man is worth $100 billion even as the workers who ultimately create his wealth endure disgraceful workig conditions, it takes an extreme amount of cognitive dissonance to justify the current system. To anyone who claims that tech is really making the world a better place, the response should be: better for whom?

  3. Underneath this do-good veneer, the tech industry is essentially just another industry. Of course, it has its own peculiarities; by virtue of its newness, it’s been able to experiment with different employment and development practices, some of which are genuinely innovative and should be lauded. But at the end of the day, it’s still just an industry: its goal is to make profits by producing products. Just like, say, BP, or Coca-Cola, or the ill-fated Lehman Brothers. The tech industry is currently venerated partly because of its novelty, and partly because of its dynamism at a time when the rest of the economy is sluggish, but we shouldn’t mistake that for benevolence. The companies that make up the industry are, ultimately, vehicles designed solely to facilitate the accumulation of capital, and that imperative will not always align with making the world a better place for everyone.

  4. One crucial way in which tech is just like any other industry is in its employment practices. When you think of a “tech worker”, you tend to think of an over-coddled software engineer - someone whose job is characterised by autonomy, and great benefits, and unlimited opportunities for career advancement. But this image relies on a particular historical moment in the labour market, where demand outpaces perceived supply. The latter, of course, is shaped by a peculiar beief in “meritocracy”, one that is especially potent within the tech industry but present really everywhere else. In reality, this meritocratic self-image - always conceptually flawed - is at least several years out of date. In recent years, big tech companies have made use of the same two-tier employment system that has become so pervasive in other industries - primarily as a means of cutting costs, by disempowering labour. This is a pattern that we’ve seen popping up in basically every other industry - read any halfway critical study of labour organising and it becomes evident that these innovative tech companies are making use of a very old playbook.

  5. Tech companies will come up with any number of justifications for maintaining this two-tier employment system rather than bringing their contractors in-house. Contractors prefer the flexibility, they claim ~ as if flexibility can be analysed independent of power; as if anyone would prefer to live in precarity. Or they’ll hide behind the excuse that staffing agencies are used to complement their core competencies - as if they couldn’t just acquire the staffing agency, if they really wanted to have the “expertise” in-house. Why won’t they just buy up the companies they contract work out to? Wouldn’t it save money in the long run? Well, no - not if your goal is to shift liability.

  6. In a sense, tech companies are correct to do this. There’s nothing irrational about what they’re doing - they’re merely maximising their expected return according to the possibilities available within the current system. But that doesn’t mean what they’re doing is morally right. Corporations do not have souls; they are vehicles designed solely for the purpose of maximising profit, no matter what the negative externalities for the rest of us. Sure, there is some leeway as to how they maximise profit, depending on the circumstances and moral scruples of the individuals who run these corporations. But the scope of their agency is limited, and we should not put our faith in the possibility of a few “ethical” entrepreneurs when the industry itself deliberately selects for those with a marked dearth of ethics.

  7. The tech industry is currently characterised by an imbalance of power, where those on top - the investors, the founders, the executives - have enormous structural power. Once this is identified as a problem, the correct response is not to try and push more “good” people to the top, as if those currently on top are there by happenstance, and can be expected to relinquish their power in due course. The correct response is to build structural ballast. That means amassing power from below, to combat the excess of power from above. That means deliberately rejecting the neoliberal dream that class antagonism has faded away, and instead resurrecting the possibility of collective organising to achieve a desired end: a world where tech workers have a real say in their own employment conditions as well as the fruits of their labour.

  8. This isn’t going to be easy. The tech workers who have the most leverage in production tend to work under enviable material conditions - high salaries, stock, free food, etc - and so are often thought of as unorganisable, simply because they have little material impetus to organise. But material conditions are never the whole story. Discrimination is a major problem in the industry, as is alienation from the product of their labour. Plus, when half of your colleagues are unhappy with their conditions as contract workers, but are afraid to speak up due to fear of retaliation, that affects you, too. You start thinking about the difference between you and them, and whether you have more in common than your circumstances might imply. You start to wonder if you have a common enemy.

  9. The problem of contract workers in the tech industry is not a minor side issue. On the contrary, it gets to the heart of the problem with how technology is developed today. The rise of contingent staff is a microcosm of a wider inefficiency with the way technology is developed under capitalism - according to the imperatives of for-profit corporations who are concerned more with the optics of their quarterly reports than with actually making the world a better place. The workers who contribute to the value of these corporations are either lavished with enough material rewards that they prioritise the company’s needs over those of their class, or are treated as disposable if the company can get away with it. As a result, the case for organising around contract workers is a moral one, but it is not driven purely by moral considerations: it is also strategic. Contract workers are, if only for material reasons, less likely to fall for the techno-optimist bullshit peddled by the tech billionaires, and achieving more stable employment conditions could empower them to make more radical demands.

  10. None of this is to say that tech worker organising is inherently good, or that it will magically bring about the revolution. Whether this nascent tech worker movement achieves progressive ends, and not merely reactionary ones, is not a foregone conclusion. Tech workers occupy a liminal spot under capitalism - they often have real financial reasons to ally with capital as opposed to labour - and it’s possible that many of them will always prioritise their loyalty to their employer over their identity as workers. My hope is that the conditions of contract workers in the industry serves as a wake-up call, indicating to full-time employees that they should be wary of their employer. What’s happening to contract workers could happen to them too, eventually; their employer has no reason to value them for anything other than their perceived surplus value. Tech workers have a choice: they can choose to help maintain the current system of hierarchy and hyper-exploitation because they’re comfortable with their current position within it, or they can direct the industry’s ethos of disruption towards the social relations of the industry itself. Tech workers of the world, unite; there’s a lot to lose, but there’s so much more to gain.

Acknowledgements

This post would not have been possible without Jason Prado. Earlier this year, Jason wrote (initially anonymously) an article for Notes From Below - which I had the privilege of editing - suggesting that tech worker organising should start by focusing on contingent workers. Before Jason’s article, I knew basically nothing about efforts to organise the tech industry; now, though, I’m convinced that this is the next big frontier. So thank you Jason for teaching me everything I know about tech worker organising, and also for giving me a place to stay while I write these blog posts.


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