Hyatt Dirbas spoke with Shay Culpepper, senior software engineer and member of the Times Tech Guild about unionizing the workplace within tech. On March 3rd, the Guild won their NLRB election with an 80% majority.
HD: Who should be organizing in tech?
SC: Everyone should be organizing in tech. It’s easy to look at big famous companies and think tech workers are treated well, but many tech workers are not. They’re consultants in less-than-ideal situations. Even tech workers like Kickstarter, [who are at] B-corps, or ones that want to make a difference are getting paid less because they are going to feel good about working at that company. At The [New York] Times, it’s lovingly referred to as the “mission discount”. It’s not unattractive and there are a lot of people who’ve been willing to accept less. However, they are for-profit companies, so why should you have to accept less because it makes you feel good? You also have people working at startups, where it’s exploitative a lot of times too. People are having to work 70-80 hours a week and they’re getting paid in RSUs (Restricted Stock Unit) that may or may not ever materialize because it’s a startup and who knows what value that is going to show up.
HD: What’s an RSU (Restricted Stock Unit)?
SC: Restricted stock unit. It’s similar to equity in the company. A lot of tech jobs include some kind of equity. It’s good if you’re contributing so much and if the value of the company is going up because you want to take a share in that when you’ve worked in it.
HD: Do you think that RSUs are worth it?
SC: Well, with startups, it’s a gamble every single time because you have very little long-term security if you’re working for a startup. For example, I know a lot of start-ups shuttered when the pandemic hit. What protections do those workers in start-ups have whereas if you had protections in a contract beforehand? In larger companies, the company can prepare in case something like that happens. With startups, there’s just no preparation.
HD: What should they be organizing around?
SC: This is dependent on the place. I don’t think this is true at The New York Times, but there are lots of tech companies doing sketchy things. That’s when there are great opportunities for workers to say I don’t have to work on something that I’m ethically opposed to and put it in your contract. The Google Union (Alphabet Workers Union) is centered a lot around this including people getting fired for unethical or disturbing reasons. In 2018, before the union effort for them started, they had a walkout with thousands of people because of an executive [Andy Rubin] that got a golden parachute and lots of money [$90 million] on the way out after a sexual harassment claim. As you can see, it is a little different for every place, but ultimately, it’s the same. It’s equity amongst workers. It’s about diversity and making it a welcoming place for people. It’s about fair salaries and being paid what you’re worth. It’s about fair protections. It’s about having health care that will take care of you at the moment that you need it. All things accessibility are important. That’s one thing that there’s a lot of opportunity for and where it gets so much bigger than just our unions in a single workplace. It’s for the benefit of the world if tech workers don’t want to work on a particular technology because it’s sketchy or unethical.
HD: How can these people organize?
SC: The most important thing is talking to your coworkers. These collective actions seem like somebody yelled out “let’s strike!” and then everybody came because they all believed in it. In reality, this happens through close relationships between coworkers. You must build those relationships and spaces where people can talk to one another. Once you start talking to one another, you start to see systemic problems because you only know the problems on your team and maybe the org above. Usually, the only way you start to know stuff that’s happening elsewhere is when you start talking to people that are in totally different parts of the organization and how policies are affecting them differently than they’re affecting you and how managers are treating people differently between those two places and things like that. So, those relationships are vital. Our organizing committee is 10% of the unit. At any given time, there are anywhere between 45 and 60 people on the organizing committee. The main job when you sign up for the organizing committee is having one-on-ones with people. Like you’re a point person for someone. You meet every two weeks to figure out what’s going on, have the feel about things, keep them in the loop and build a relationship. I usually do 20 minutes of talking about what we want and then I’ll do like a 10-minute union conversation. All of a sudden you have spaces where if somebody wants to advance or ask for a raise, they can talk to somebody about that. The community propels the movement because when you say, we have strength among us, we can move this forward. It’s important to have that trust and trust in your coworkers. So that’s huge. Those relationships are everything that’s how you’re going to get there.
HD: That is a big starting point.
SC: Yeah. Developing those spaces is important. We have a Slack space that is completely separate from our company Slack. Everybody uses personal email addresses. The company has no insight into it. We asked people not to open it on their work computers so that there is no way they can spy on that space. People can say if they got a raise and how much it was or if they got a promotion and what they are making now. It allows us to know what to expect If we’re getting a raise, or what to ask for if you’re getting underpaid because you’ll know what other people are making.
HD: Sharing your salaries– I think that’s huge because nobody knows.
SC: Yeah, it’s a great space and what that did for us is even for people that don’t want a union, this effort has been positive and has had a positive impact in our workplace. So, they’re not resentful of the movement itself and that solidarity is still there. That’s how you do it. You do it by having conversations with each other, helping each other in your careers. You know looking out for each other in the workplace. Relationships are community.
HD: I want to circle back, you said there’s no resentment between those who want a union and those who don’t in the workplace?
SC: I know of a couple of people who do not want an actual union with full-on rights and everything. They are colleagues that we respect and people we love whom we spend lots of time and have good relationships with. Things like the salary sharing channel, in particular, they have cited as a good thing in our workplace, that we have this community space. It brings goodwill when you’re able to create those spaces where people are supporting each other, even if somebody doesn’t want a full union.
HD: So, even if you can’t create a full union, even by doing these steps, getting to know each other and talking to your co-workers it’s still beneficial?
SC: Absolutely. Yes, you can start making changes now before you have a majority. We’ve been able to have things change before we had a majority supporting the union because we’re talking to each other. The other thing is if it’s born of community and not just like rabble-rousing, you’re more likely to have good relationships with skeptical people. This is important because when you get into bargaining you are bargaining for them too. You want their interests represented and you don’t want them to be so resentful towards the union.
Kickstarter had a good example of this. I’ve been told this multiple times, by people from Kickstarter that there was somebody who was very anti-union during that campaign who ended up being like one of the best people on the bargaining committee and contributing all the time. I love that story.
HD: What can labor win in tech?
SC: Some individuals at the New York Times have gotten raises. Another thing that’s happened and it was a long time coming was bringing down the level at which you could qualify for RSUs. So, we were suddenly given RSUs, which we had never had before for a lower-level employees. Last summer our newsroom also won a generous parental policy leave that got rolled out to the whole company.
They also started having conversations about on-call pay once we went public. That was one of the things we cited as a reason for unionizing because we don’t have any on-call pay but everyone’s sort of expected to be on-call at different times. There’s not even a policy where if you were on-call last night and something happened that you could take tomorrow off. You still must work your full 35 hours on top of whatever you did.
We really won because we proved that you need to have the union to get them to move on these things at all. Even if we don’t have a union, there’s a lot that’s going to come quickly that the company already wants to fix because they know it’s something we want, and they don’t want to give us any more fodder. It’s really powerful. We have 600 people in our unit so we are building a lot of relationships to make that work.
Transcript has been edited for clarity and length.