Class, capitalism and the tech industry

Over at SocialistWorker.org, a contributor to SDK has collaborated in breaking down some of the class relationships and conflicts in the tech industry. Here’s an excerpt on the position of software developers:

Programmers typically have more control over their working lives than workers on an assembly line or at a checkout counter. Nobody has yet figured out how to Taylorize software development. The task of writing a working program has yet to be broken down into subtasks that can be performed without specialized knowledge and some grasp of the whole system. Individual output is hard to measure effectively, especially in the short term, which makes it difficult for employers to control the pace of work or use carrots and sticks to make up for a lack of internal motivation on the part of employees.

For these reasons, programmers are often thought of as “professionals,” like doctors or lawyers, and not part of the “working class.” But this is misleading…

Despite the most celebrated tech companies’ aversion to explicit hierarchy, their widespread use of stock options as compensation, and other corporate techniques to convince workers that every member of “the team” is on the same side, it’s clear that the people at the top are know that wages come at the expense of profits.

Thus, Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe, Intuit and Pixar have not yet disentangled themselves from antitrust and class action lawsuits resulting from an agreement–initiated by Google and Apple, and eventually involving dozens more companies, with more than a million employees in total–to cap wages by refusing to compete for each others’ employees.

This cartel resulted in several billion dollars in lost wages, which went straight to corporate profits. But this transfer, which the law might recognize as theft, is in fact only the tip of the iceberg. It represents a deviation from the ideal of a competitive market, which itself offers no guarantee to workers that they’ll receive value equivalent to what they provide.

Across the whole U.S. economy, hourly productivity grew by 80 percent in the last 40 years, while hourly income for the median worker grew only 10 percent. In the software industry, measured productivity has grown 12 percent a year for the last 25 years–meaning that it doubles about every six years. Wages have increased in tech, but not that fast.

Software developers often buy into the idea of advancement by individual merit–either through a liberal lens in which meritocracy is an ideal we still need to work toward, or a libertarian one in which everyone is already where they deserve to be, top or bottom.

This is partly a trickle-down illusion, based on an aspiration to have more in common with Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg than a bank teller or barista. But it also has a basis in the following reality: Most programmers personally know a lot more colleagues who became unhappy at some workplace and quit for a better job than who achieved something through any kind of collective organizing. In this context, it’s easy for those who believe they are being mistreated to feel isolated and even personally inadequate, rather than seeking solidarity from co-workers.

But it gets more optimistic than that! Read the whole thing for discussions of organizing possibilities, manufacturing workers, Internet companies and the logistics industry, the emotional labor of user support and content moderation, the structural subordination and exclusion of women and people of color, the big fish and the small fry among the owning class, the transformation or maybe obsolescence of work, and more.

Show me what solidarity looks like

If tech workers were to organize in real numbers, what might they fight for?

Gawker is a digital media company built on grabbing people’s attention, but workers there have just now managed to find a brand-new way to do so: by voting to form a union. Here’s Hamilton Nolan explaining why:

Though our company is relatively well run, pays relatively competitive salaries, and treats its employees relatively well, there are still certain issues… We would like to ensure everyone receives a salary that is fair for their time at the company and the work they do. We would like to ensure that things like pay and raises are set in a fair, transparent, and unbiased way. We would like to have some basic mechanism for giving employees a voice in the decisions that affect all of us here.

More people were watching this vote than the number of employees involved might normally warrant just because of where it’s happening. A union is a novelty for an Internet company, and a union victory at Gawker is hard to explain away as the product of super-exploited blue collar labor or some kind of sclerotic old-economy culture. But it’s also interesting because of the particular issues Nolan raises, which connect with the recent #talkpay conversation about pay and inequality in tech. To me, as a software developer, Nolan’s argument hits closer to home than a lot of rhetoric around unions, even though Gawker isn’t quite a tech company.

Pay, transparency, and class

Software developers—who are by no means the only kind of tech worker, but more on that below—aren’t, as a whole, hurting for money. Last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, software developers and programmers in the U.S. earned a median of $91,320, while the average worker took home a meager $35,540. Nevertheless, questions about transparency and fairness seem to have a wide resonance even among those of us who are treated, in Nolan’s words, “relatively well.”

Why? Well, for one thing, discrepancies in pay and raises aren’t just individual. Women are paid less, very often—in fact, this was Lauren Voswinkel’s impetus for initiating #talkpay. People of color are paid less.

Fortunately, sharing your salary information with your coworkers is one of those convenient forms of solidarity that is simultaneously immediate self-interest, even for the white men who make up a disproportionate number of software developers. More information can only give workers more leverage.

Employers already know the going market rate for most types of employee, including software developers, and they certainly know what they’re paying their current employees. If workers don’t have the same information, they might underestimate or overestimate what they could achieve just through negotiation. If you overestimate, your boss can just say no. If you underestimate, your boss will happily keep the money for the company. On the other hand, if you know what your coworkers make, you can refuse to settle for less.

In other words, transparency is a class issue, benefitting workers at the expense of bosses. Software developers don’t usually like to think of ourselves as workers with distinct class interests that conflict with those of our employers, but at a certain point it becomes hard to avoid.

To see how hard to avoid, let’s turn to Patrick McKenzie, CEO of Starfighter, a startup trying to help companies hire programmers. In an interesting piece, McKenzie writes that while #talkpay “is rather Marxist in character… this capitalist encourages you to look beyond that.” But he doesn’t manage to look very far beyond. He has to admit that, as a capitalist, his openness about salary depends on the fact that “these days I’m a) CEO of a company I co-own, b) have no investors to keep happy, and c) have no reasonable prospect of ever having a [consulting] client again.” (And he might have added: it’s good marketing for the job-seekers his startup needs to attract.) On the other hand, he writes, “everyone who works for a salary” shares “general interests” in “understand[ing] what the market is like”—that is, in pay transparency.

When the capitalists are explaining how workers and employers have opposing interests, what’s left for the “Marxists” to do? Perhaps, to prompt us to consider what we might do about it.

Organizing as workers

Let’s imagine, for a moment, what it might look like if programmers were to organize as workers—in unions or otherwise—and demand a collective voice in decisions that affect us.

We might talk about hours, and taking work home, and ask for reasonable schedules, and accommodations that work for people with families. We might want rights to contribute to open source projects or veto the release of insecure, privacy-violating, or otherwise unprofessional code. And of course we would probably talk about pay.

What’s new, though? After all, we negotiate pay and to a certain extent working conditions now. And at least as long as this boom or bubble lasts, many of us have a significant amount of market leverage.

But when people get together, it’s not just the leverage but also the focus that tends to change. It’s easy for companies right now to design pay and benefits packages pitched at attracting “brogrammers” with no dependents, and keeping people in the office as long as possible with dual-purpose perks like free food. When workers organize, however, each person has the opportunity to get the support of others for far-reaching demands that only directly benefit a minority—with the expectation of reciprocity. This is a constitutive part of building solidarity, in a way that doesn’t have an analogy in a market. It’s hard for an individual (non-CEO) to negotiate for company childcare, but workers collectively can. The same goes for fair hiring, pay, raises and promotions regardless of gender, sexuality or race. Or an end to two-tier employment systems involving precarity for contractors or immigrants on an H1B—or for “non-technical” workers.

The tech industry is filled with people whose labor, though essential, is devalued by the market: people who clean, plan events, handle logistics, interface with individual users or design digital user interfaces. (Or, sometimes at smaller companies, do all of the above.) It’s not inevitable that these positions tend to pay poorly. But whether the leverage of those who do this work correlates with the necessity of their labor, or with the number of substitutes available on the market, depends on whether they are negotiating collectively or as individuals.

From here to there

It might very well be the case that software developers won’t organize in large numbers or with other workers until the industry changes dramatically (as they tend to do, eventually). It’s certainly not easy to plot out a path from unionized janitors and bus drivers, small voluntary organizations with ugly websites, and unexpected breakthroughs at loosely-analogous places like Gawker Media, to mass programmer organization. But if you’re not satisfied with the way things are—if you’re not ok with pay inequality, with life-consuming hours, with widespread sexual harassment, with arbitrary management authority—then there is something you can do about it. And it can start as simply as talking to your coworkers about what you get paid.

Women Flipping Tables

Tech’s “woman problem” is a power structure problem — and the solution is for the workers to organize.

Meet the new boss

Recent trending hashtag #tableflip2015 is styled as a movement. It has its own website, tableflip.club, which is a manifesto that looks square into the eyes of the tech industry and calls it a sexist asshat.

There’s a “leaky pipeline” problem in tech over which many hands are wrung and much tech columnist ink is spilled, wondering why women are trickling out of tech midway through their careers, and how to stop the attrition. The Tableflip Manifesto makes a damning diagnosis: “Women are leaving your tech company because you don’t deserve to keep us around.” It explicitly calls for the unfairly-branded “non-technical” women in marketing, HR, and QA to join up with the supposedly “hard-core” programmer types. It immediately follows that up with the widespread grievances of double standards in hiring, promotion, pay, resources, criticism, and unfair termination. It builds in intensity with each paragraph. “Finally!” thinks the female, tech-industry-weary reader (aka me), “People are getting it! I’m not alone anymore! We can find our collective power, we can…”

And then the last paragraph totally loses me. A manifesto ostensibly about “flipping tables” lays out its agenda, and that is… more tables. There are some vague nods to “organizing” without describing what that means. The specific action clearly described is, “… incorporating and fundraising for our own companies, and angel investing in other women who are building amazing things.”

…same as the old boss?

A clearly broken and unfair system needs to be torn down by… reproducing it with women in charge of more of the VC? I’ll forgive these frustrated women their optimism about companies with female founders necessarily being better, because there are so pathetically few that most of us have never worked for one. It’s easy to imagine that if only more women were in positions of power, things would be different and unfairness (or at least sexism) would be reduced if not gone.

In my experience, people who start companies because they were unhappy with their old ones tend to reproduce the toxic dynamics of their old workplace, but with themselves in charge this time. I don’t know if it’s because power corrupts or because people tend to fall back on what they know, but many founders seem unwilling or unable to break out of the norms and expectations of the industry — an industry that thoroughly and systemically devalues the work and expertise of managing and mentoring human beings.

A much more table-flipping notion is that of collective worker power. Tech is an industry where “job security” consists of how fast you can get another job if something happens to the one you have now, and where the solution presented to every worker is “go found your own company”. If every unhappy person founded their own company, there would be no one to work in all those newly-minted clone companies even if their founders were somehow able to avoid reproducing exactly the same dynamic they were trying to escape. The solutions presented to us at every turn, the same ones being dusted off and offered again by tableflip.club, are not adequate. They do not address the pervasive breadth and depth of the injustices that the tech industry not only creates, but financially benefits from. They do not scale.

A scalable solution

An industry-wide movement for worker organizing and collective action, led by and centered on the most vulnerable workers, is a real alternative. Women are in a unique position in the tech industry to lead worker organizing by turning those hollow “women’s networks” into genuine workplace justice organizations. The tableflip movement acknowledges that going to management with requests for workplace fairness is often fruitless at best, and can backfire spectacularly. We need to stop appealing to the very people who benefit the most from undervaluing us and exploiting our ideas, and instead appeal directly to our fellow workers.

So-called “casual” work environments, which prevail in tech at the moment, are hostile in their own ways to individuals challenging the status quo and therefore the image of the “cool, laid-back place that’s great to work at.” Effecting any kind of meaningful change in such an environment, whether it’s greater pay fairness or clearer job descriptions and promotion pathways, is going to have a much better chance of success if the workers come together to agree on requests, and present them as a unified group. A self-proclaimed “casual, friendly” boss can maintain the charade while ignoring or belittling demands from a few employees piecemeal, but the facade of a “chill” atmosphere becomes impossible to maintain while disregarding or rationalizing away the demands of the mass of the workers in a workplace. Management can no longer use the “not a team player” label on those agitating for improved compensation, greater transparency, or fair promotions when the team itself is united in those demands.

All of us together

This kind of organizing is hard work that requires a lot more patience than declaring “take this job and shove it” on your way out the door of the boys’ club, and patience is running low for women who have already been harassed, underestimated, underpaid, and underpromoted, who have seen prominent stories of women in other companies being fired, assaulted and smeared on social media for speaking up, all while the men they were hired alongside glide right by them on the glass escalator.

Any woman with the resources and inclination to exit the table where she’s not being served to set up a table of her own, has my encouragement and blessing. But that cannot be the end of it. Flipping the table for real means putting the bottom at the top. It means giving power to the workers: designers and developers, coders and architects, receptionists and marketers, copywriters and librarians, office staff and project coordinators, all together.