New tech labor movement builds on lessons learned a century ago

The rise of the tech worker

Even in the early 1990s, when Lerner went to war with Apple as the organizer of the Justice for Janitors campaign and won union rights for contract cleaning workers in the tech industry, the question ” Who is a tech worker? »Occupied an important place. Through these successful campaigns, Lerner has helped expand the definition of a tech worker to virtually anyone who runs a tech company. Cori Crider, lawyer with Foxglove, a company that aims to challenge the power of Big Tech, has worked with outsourced content moderators – real humans who sift through posts containing violence, racism and graphic sex every day, trying to determine which violates an ever-changing set of rules.

These workers are often bound by confidentiality agreements that prevent them from speaking publicly about their working conditions. This allows companies like Facebook to deny their existence – a claim the company stuck with last year even after reports were published that moderators working for outsourcing firm Accenture were being pushed back into the office during the pandemic. .

Tech workers outside the normal definition of “employee” still find ways to organize and protect themselves., a campaign platform for labor organizing, uses donations from affluent tech workers to build a “solidarity fund” distributed to workers across the tech supply chain. Gig workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform use site Turkopticon come together and fight for better conditions.

A wave of rebellions within unions and wildcat strikes challenged the idea that automation made their work easier.

On the other end of the spectrum of tech workers are those who build electric cars at the Tesla factory 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 manufacturing” was introduced to America. NUMMI did not survive GM’s bankruptcy in 2008, and Tesla grabbed it.

Cooperating with United Auto Workers was one of NUMMI’s great innovations, but Tesla took another route. Recently, an NLRB administrative judge ruled that several of the company’s actions in response to the workers’ organization were illegal, including a few tweets from Musk as well as the harassment of workers distributing union leaflets, banning t- pro-union shirts and buttons. , and the questioning of the organizers and the dismissal of one of them. The penalties imposed by the NLRB are little more than a finger-swipe away – Musk is to read a statement telling workers they have the right to unionize and rehire the fired worker. He appealed the decision anyway.

Workers at the factory, even union supporters, are enthusiastic about producing electric vehicles, but note that the factory’s technical sophistication does not prevent much back-breaking manual labor or injury. Jose Moran, one of the union campaign leaders and former NUMMI worker, wrote a blog post about the things he wanted to improve, including the exhausting pace of work and some poorly designed machines.

Auto workers have struggled with machines since the days of Henry Ford. But the stories of Tesla workers echo complaints from autoworkers in the 1960s battling “acceleration” – how management would use new technology to speed up the pace of work – in places like Lordstown, Ohio and Detroit. A wave of union rebellions and wildcat strikes challenged the idea that automation made their jobs easier.

As machines speeded up the manufacturing process, workers had to hurry faster to keep pace. Tesla autoworkers, far from representing a labor aristocracy among autoworkers, say they earn less than unionized workers at GM and Ford. As Moran wrote, “I often feel like I’m working for a company of the future under the working conditions of the past.

The long game

In Amazon warehouses, too, everything that is old becomes new again. “The auto industry tried to do a lot of automation in the ’80s,’ 70s, whatever, and they basically hit a plateau where they couldn’t do it anymore. And Tesla basically tried to do the same, ”says Tyler Hamilton, an Amazon warehouse worker in Minneapolis. “It’s the same with Amazon. There’s not much you can do with automation.

Mohamed Mire, a colleague from Hamilton, explains that most of Amazon’s vaunted technologies are used to track workers rather than making work efficient. The scanners that workers use to scan packages also keep track of their so-called “Leave task”, and they are written if their productivity rate falls. The robots Hamilton compares to “giant roombas” carry goods through the warehouse but often malfunction. Lately, his job has been to tune the robots correctly when they stop working. Amazon data shows that injury rates are higher in facilities equipped with robots than without them.

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