2021 was a year with unprecedented levels of collective actions, especially unionization, in the tech field. Wynnie Chan spoke with Toy Vano, one of the organizers of Kickstarter United about the state of organizing in tech, 2 years after its historic vote to unionize. She is currently a Tech Organizer at OPEIU Local 1010.
WC: Who do you think should be organizing in tech?
TV: My short answer is everyone. A longer answer would be that the majority of tech companies are made up of a variety of disciplines and departments and skill sets of people who work together towards building a single product. Likewise, the strongest movements are built on cross departmental solidarity, specifically ones that center the voices of people who are the most marginalized workers. And I’m not talking just about product teams of engineers or product managers, designers, business analysts, people like that. I mean, everyone. From entry level customer service reps to data entry, to your most privileged senior engineer.
The more cross departmental solidarity that you can build in tech, the stronger the movement itself will be, which is one of the reasons why the New York Times Tech Guild’s recent NLRB hearings were so important, because the NLRB ruled in favor of all of these different departments and titles being included under one unit.
WC: How do you think we can best create that cross departmental solidarity?
TV: Talking to people and sharing experiences. And I know that it can be challenging for folks who don’t necessarily work with each other, day to day, or interact in those types of environments, but I think making extra effort to understand each and every person or colleagues’ like experience at work really helps build empathy.
You have to make a conscious effort to do it. It’s not going to come organically, and that’s the hard part about organizing. People are like, “This feels so forced.” But it is. It’s work. You have to put effort into making these types of things, building these types of communities. Just having one-on-one conversations with people, asking them how their work is going, and listening to what they say. Oftentimes, people forget that organizing is conversation, but one-on-ones are the most important part of organizing, and that is something that you cannot take for granted. An email to a group of people is going to have way less effect than you going and talking to a person face to face, and just being like, “Hey, this is what’s going on.”
WC: With the pandemic, it’s harder to have these face-to-face conversations, because many people are working from home. So, how can union organizers bridge this gap and still maintain solidarity and communication?
TV: I’m not gonna say that it hasn’t been really tough. However, we’ve still seen an uptick in organizing during the pandemic. So, it’s not impossible. People have Zoom fatigue, but the process of the invite is very much the same. The more organic conversations that you would have over a Happy Hour after work probably won’t happen as often, but you just have to be a lot more intentional, and be like, “Hey, you got five minutes to chat after work? Can I call you?” And you just have to be a lot more explicit about those types of things. It’s hit or miss. What a lot of people are finding is that besides the intentional department siloing thing that companies do, for folks who have switched jobs during the pandemic, it’s been especially hard because it’s like, “Hey, I don’t actually know anybody that I work with, because I see the same seven people, and maybe when we have an all hands, there’s a bunch of faces on the screen but I have no idea who these people are.”
WC: What should they be organizing around?
TV: What shouldn’t they be organizing around? I think the tech industry is so unchecked in its power, and it has gone unchecked for a long time. Now, we’re starting to really see what that looks like, with unconscionable amounts of wealth being very concentrated to a handful of people, while their workers need food assistance and things like that. That alone should make you want to flip a table.
The most immediate and personal issues are probably around inequity within the workplace. Now that I’m an organizer with OPEIU, I get to work with a lot of different campaigns. Something we’ve seen only exacerbated by the conditions surrounding the pandemic is the return-to-office policies disproportionately affecting parents and caregivers, disabled workers, or other workers who have a hard time or traditionally have a harder time with the expense, or the logistics of coming into an office every day. So I think those inequities are kind of on blast right now, with regards to the pandemic having really amplified that.
There’s also a massive elephant in the room of tech companies perpetuating white supremacy culture and not being willing to actually reckon with that fact. So, what they do instead is kind of gloss over it with these employee powered ERGs, and I specifically use the word powered because typically these are unpaid people doing the emotional labor of work to educate often white and privileged colleagues about what this means. But these ERGs– and I am not dissing on them at all– but my point is that they, more often than not, don’t actually have the power, or they’re restricted from making or taking action on decisions that result in any legitimate or lasting change at their companies. And those changes would specifically benefit BIPOC and LGBTQI communities at those companies. So I think that is a huge thing to be organizing around specifically.
The labor workforce in tech is really in a great, unique position of power right now to finally check the ethical decision making of companies whose decisions affect everyone globally. This is in regards to personal privacy, human rights, and climate change. And tech is so ingrained in every single thing we do. So, if we continue to allow these tech giants and companies in power to operate ethically unchecked, we’re just going to continue to see a snowball of detrimental effects of that power that will continue to build up across the board.
When I started organizing at Kickstarter, the idea of a union in a tech company was just really exciting to me. I’ve worked in tech for a decade, but now that I’ve worked in tech from an organizing perspective as well, I don’t think that the traditional view of tech workers is necessarily true, that tech workers are typically well paid. It’s only one part of the tech industry that’s actually well-paid and privileged, when in reality it’s a very tiered system.
There’s just a lot of potential for folks to stand up and actually use that power. I mean, we’re seeing labor shortages. That is power. We have the upper hand right now. Companies are hemorrhaging positions and turnover rates are super high, and that’s expensive for them. By bonding together and collectively moving as a unit, that is so powerful. Our labor is our most valuable bargaining chip, and I think that’s really what we should be working towards, to make sure that everyone realizes that.
Now, I know that everything I said is very idealistic, and that not every single person that works in tech would be moved by those types of things. Because I see that every day. Privilege does breed apathy oftentimes, and so the questions that I always want to ask those folks are like, what do you like about your job that you don’t want to lose? And how much power do you alone have to protect what you don’t want to lose? Those types of questions help frame it. And collective action doesn’t have to be against a negative. It can be to protect the positives, but it’s also done together. You probably can’t do this by yourself. If you or any one person asks for this, it’s less likely to happen then if all of us stand up together for it.
WC: What can labor win in tech?
TV: The sky’s the limit right now. We’re only just getting started. I don’t think we actually know where the ceiling is for this and personally, I don’t want to limit us to something, but we’re already seeing 4 day work weeks and percentage of representation on the board and those types of things.
We could really accomplish a lot by using collective power to put pressure on upper management and these companies. And similar to what I mentioned, what do we think we can do based on diversity? How much can we actually achieve when we start to think about checking the ethics of tech? Where can we go, because you see workers already banding together against the types of contracts that they get at their companies. These are huge. That in itself is like, “We’re all already going to work,” and thinking, “Ugh, just another day at work.” But, when you’re going to work and you know that what you’re working towards is detrimental to society as a whole, you can take a stand and say, “We can change this. That’s what we can change.” Labor can change what we work on. We have the power to withhold our labor, and it’s so beautiful to see when workers figure out or come together to organize around these issues that are just racist and capitalist, most of the time.
What really draws me to this movement is that I genuinely see labor as being able to solve a lot of the issues that we have.
Our workplaces and our work can really blur lines in a way that politics never really did before. It’s diversely unifying as well. We have so much more in common when we really think about the types of ways that our labor is exploited or used, and that’s one of the most beautiful parts of the labor movement, especially in tech. I’m starting to see a shift in the way the workers are thinking about their work. And it’s not just like, “Oh, I’m just gonna go work on the thing!” Oh no, I’m going to really think about things that are happening in the workplace.
Every year, we see new things as possible. We just have to realize our power. One of my colleagues who works with me at Local 1010 was also a colleague of mine at Kickstarter. Their name is RV, and I specifically remember the moment that RV and I were on a one-on-one. I was already involved. They were checking in on me, because that’s important too in these types of communities, taking care of each other. And then at some point, RV turned to me and said, ‘When did you realize your power?’ And, and I’m like, “What??” But it’s true, and that is the thing, we each have power and collectively, it is so strong, and I’ve never forgotten that moment. I know exactly where I was when they said that to me, and I kind of wanted to turn to them. “It’s like, now??”
I think that that’s really beautiful. Part of this is reminding each other that we have power. That’s the center of it all.
Transcript has been edited for clarity and length.