Can these coders bring unions to Silicon Valley?

Can these coders bring unions to Silicon Valley?

Dozens of tech workers rallied in San Francisco, California on 2 March 2018 to protest the firing of 14 software engineers at the US start-up company Lanetix.

(Labor Video Project)

At the beginning of March, protesters gathered in front of the offices of Lanetix, a San Francisco-based transport and logistics company, for allegedly firing 14 workers that had tried to start a union. Signs called Lanetix CEO John Golob a “crook” and “serial failpreneur” while a boombox blasted out songs to rally the crowd.

This might seem to be a regular case of union organising, were it not for the people doing it. Lanetix is a software start-up, and the people it fired are programmers, a group of workers that have eluded trade unions for decades now. The high pay, legendary workplace perks and high job mobility of such tech industry jobs has worked against the organising efforts of trade unions. That Lanetix programmers decided to unionise is a big step, and could signify that Silicon Valley is finally ready for a union presence.

“This case is bigger than just these programmers. If we prevail it could have repercussions across the sector,” says Cet Parks of the Washington-Baltimore branch of NewsGuild-CWA (Communications Workers of America), the union Lanetix programmers decided to join. “It could show how programmers can organise, too,” thus inspiring similar collective action elsewhere in the industry.

The stakes are high: of the top 10 US companies by market capitalisation in 2017, six were tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook; yet few of them have a union presence. Lanetix itself is not an insignificant company. It builds logistics software and to date has raised over US$9 million dollars in venture funding.

The Lanetix case started with the firing of a female programmer who had been especially vocal in raising workers’ concerns about management practises, especially around their ability to take paid time-off.

“By all indications, Jane [not her real name] was performing well. She was in good standing. She actually had just been made a team lead and was given more responsibility”, says Will, the pseudonym given to one of the fired coders, in an interview with Jacobin Magazine.

Jane’s firing prompted the rest of the software engineering team to start organising. After some back and forth between the disaffected workers and management, the programmers got disinvited from the yearly company retreat and it was announced that a new office in a yet-to-be-named country in eastern Europe would be opened, which was taken as a threat to outsource.

“Management didn’t have a plan,” says Björn Westergard, another Lanetix programmer who was interviewed by Jacobin. “They just wanted to intimidate us. But it backfired, because that’s when the majority decided to unionize. We had overwhelming support. On January 16, 2018, we sent a letter to management outlining our grievances and announcing our intention to unionize with NewsGuild-CWA. We also filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).” The group also uploaded the original letter on Github, a platform where programmers can share their code with one another.

However, the attempt to unionise did not go down well with management. “Ten days later, Lanetix management fired the entire engineering staff,” explains Westergard. A total of 14 jobs were lost. NewsGuild-CWA then filed a complaint at the NLRB, demanding the reinstatement of the workers with back pay. That is where the case rests until now.

A reluctance to organise

Traditionally programmers working in software and tech companies, whether at global corporations like Facebook or at smaller startups, have been reluctant to form unions. They earn much more than the average worker and often receive stock-options. In addition, tech firms are famous for offering their workers all kinds of perks from ping-pong tables to free meals, paid sabbaticals and paid leisure days off, and tech workers can easily change jobs when they are dissatisfied.

According to a survey conducted by Stack Overflow, a popular platform for programmers, the average annual wage for a US-based full-stack developer (someone with a full range of front- and back-end software skills) is around US$100,000. By comparison, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual average salary in the US is almost half that amount at US$50,620 dollars. In 2017 only 4.9 per cent of US workers in the category “computer and mathematical occupations” were represented by unions, compared to 11.9 per cent of all workers.

So far, organising at tech companies has mainly been limited to sub-contractors and lower-paid staff such as caterers, cleaners and security guards.

Community groups in Silicon Valley, the area of San Francisco where most of these companies are located, have protested against increasing gentrification and the pressure that high wages at companies like Google and Facebook have put on rental prices.

Yet the Lanetix case presents a different view. Although programmers in the US are well-paid, they are still vulnerable to overbearing management and exploitative working conditions, such as excessively long work days. Also, not all programmers earn such high salaries, with workers stratified based on experience. In the wake of the election of President Donald Trump, an increasing number of tech workers have also become politically engaged in left-wing causes. Last month, for example, more than 3000 Google employees called for the company to abandon a Pentagon research initiative to improve military surveillance technology.

Helping the Lanetix workers at their protest were labour groups such as the Tech Workers Coalition, which describes itself as a “a coalition of workers in and around the tech industry, labor organizers, community organizers, and friends.” The San-Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, also supported the laid-off workers. This “tech-left” has already made some waves, for example, by having programmers support a union for catering staff at the Facebook campus, or by organising protests against Palantir, a data-analysis firm co-founded by the right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel, for the work it did in support of Trump’s immigration policy.

The Lanetix case also shows how digital tools allow for new ways of organising.

For example, the programmers made their call to join a union public through Github, a platform popular amongst coders. They also extensively used Slack, a chat service popular with tech companies, to communicate.

“This campaign would not have happened without Slack,” according to Westergard .“Upwards of 90 per cent of the activity was happening on Slack. It couldn’t have happened any other way because the company [Lanetix] had two different offices: San Francisco and Arlington, Virginia.”

Slack also allowed Lanetix workers to communicate in an open-plan office without management interference, although management soon demanded that the workers shut down the external Slack channel they later created. “Slack became both an organizing tool and a grievance,” Westergard says. “People were incensed not only that Jane was fired, but that they couldn’t use their own Slack where management wasn’t allowed. Bosses are the best organizers, as they say.”

For now Lanetix has not reinstated the 14 programmers. It remains to be seen what the NLRB will decide, but the case has already made an impact. “It remains our priority now to get these workers justice,” concludes Parks of NewsGuild-CWA. But whatever the outcome, Lanetix workers have already made a significant step towards a bigger union presence in Silicon Valley and beyond.