A group of workers have launched the UK’s first union branch dedicated exclusively to the tech sector to tackle issues ranging from working conditions to racial injustice and the climate crisis. The United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW), a branch of the Communications Workers Union, plans to recruit tech and digital workers, as well as non-tech workers employed by tech companies.
“The need for trade union organising is as acute in tech as anywhere else. Workers have seen through the bubble of ping pong tables, free t-shirts and desk beers,” says John Chadfield, one of the founding members of the branch. He expects the branch to recruit at least one hundred members in the first two months. A spokesperson for the branch says that workers from companies including Google, Microsoft, ASOS, Monzo and Deliveroo are planning to join.
The tech sector is rapidly growing in the UK and now represents nine per cent of the national workforce (2.93 million jobs), but there is virtually no union participation. While there have been some forays by unions into the tech sector, mostly focused on the gig economy and the video games sector, UTAW will be the first branch that will be open to all tech workers throughout the UK.
This is in contrast to the United States, where there has been much more sustained activism by tech workers. In the last few months Facebook’s US employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s failure to moderate president Donald Trump’s comments advocating racial violence, while Amazon warehouses have been riddled with walk-outs and protests.
Chadfield says that part of the reason why UK tech workers have been slower to organise is that London is secondary to Silicon Valley, which is where most of the decision making takes place. “London is a satellite city like New York or Boston. We have more in common with those cities than Silicon Valley,” he says.
The challenges to unionising aren’t unique to the tech sector. Trade union membership in the UK has been declining with younger workers shunning the union movement. More than 40 per cent of union members in the UK are aged 50 or over. But Chadfield thinks that UTAW could buck this trend. “Whenever I’ve done union stuff I was always the youngest, even in my late 20s. Now I am 35 and at UTAW meetings I am the oldest. That is what makes me happy,” he says.
Many of the prospective UTAW members are being attracted by the prospect of having their rights and jobs protected in an increasingly precarious environment – recently Monzo laid off 120 workers at its London office. Others see this as an opportunity to organise around broader political issues and support the more vulnerable workers within tech companies, such as Deliveroo couriers or office cleaners.
UTAW’s genesis started two years ago with the Google walkouts, where workers from the London office participated in the global campaign demanding an end to sexual harassment, discrimination and systemic racism. This was one of the first walkouts UK developers were involved in, and shortly after a group of workers launched the London branch of the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC), an informal grouping of tech worker activists.
Ash*, 28, one of the software developers who is planning to sign up to the union when it launches, first heard about the TWC through their involvement in environmental groups like the global climate strike. “It boils down to the fact that tech has a climate impact and many things which also have a climate impact rely on tech,” they say. “As tech workers we are in a unique position. We have a lot of leverage and a lot of complicity. We are often quite close to the systems we are protesting against.”
In November the TWC supported a union campaign to get two cleaners and union activists at Google’s London headquarters reinstated for alleged unfair suspension. TWC members joined CAIWU, the cleaners’ union, at pickets outside Google’s offices and started tweeting in support of the cleaners, a week later, one of them was reinstated. “Seeing how things turned out at Google with the cleaners was a massive realisation of how solidarity between tech workers can bring results,” says Kara Stubbs, the interim chair of UTAW.
The coronavirus pandemic and the recession that it will trigger has brought an added urgency. “With the 2008 financial crisis what we saw was a major through route for tech for the reorganisation of the economy. We saw gig work explode. You see these companies that try and get around the rules and labour practices. It has massive repercussions,” she says.
But the consequences now could be even broader than those of the last recession. Companies have stated either overtly or in their private communications that they see the Covid-19 crisis as a way to increase the role of private business in the public sector. A leaked email from the CEO of Serco, the outsourcing firm responsible for the botched roll-out of the NHS test and trace system, claimed that the scheme would help cement “the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain”. Meanwhile, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella argued the pandemic called for an “unprecedented alliance between business and government”.
Already the five most capitalised companies on the US stock market are tech companies and during the pandemic Amazon managed to double its profits. The day after the four biggest tech companies – Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google – attended a US congressional hearing into how they have consolidated their power, three of those companies announced bumper profits.
“If you are in a tech company and you have a problem, whatever that is, either you don’t agree on the direction the company is taking or you have a dispute with your employer, currently your only recourse is to leave the company and find another,” says Stubbs. “It’s currently viable, but it is not really a way to live your life. What I would really like to see is workers fighting or making their voices heard rather than moving on.”
*Name has been changed
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