Dear Designer

Dear Designer: The Union Organizer’s Guide to Tech People

To support the coming wave of organized labor in tech, unions need to modernize and learn to communicate with this vast workforce

Mike Monteiro
Oct 30, 2019 · 8 min read
Illustration: Eugenia Mello

Dear Mike,

I’m a union organizer. In the last few months we’ve started getting a lot of calls from workers in the tech industry looking to unionize. We don’t have a lot of experience talking to tech people. A few of them said they were contacting us because of an article you wrote about how to form a union, so we were wondering if maybe you could help us get the lay of the land.

Dear Union Organizer,

Thanks for reaching out. Happy to help as much as I can. As long as we agree that I’ll be painting with a broad brush and making some big generalizations. Once you get in front of real people and start talking about their real problems, anything they tell you should supersede anything you’re reading here. K? Let’s roll.

Why now?

First off we should probably discuss why this is happening at this particular moment in time. To do that, we’re gonna have to use the word “betrayal,” which I realize sounds really dramatic. I don’t use it lightly, but I think it’s apt.

Internet mythology from way back in the day was about building a utopia. We were building a haven for creativity, radical thinking, innovation, and liberation. We were going to make sure everyone had a voice. We were going to give you a way to talk directly to your favorite artists, athletes, and celebrities. Workers were recruited to jobs by being told they were changing the world. (Turns out that was true, btw. We just didn’t ask in which direction.) At the same time there was a lot of talk about how companies had flat hierarchies. (A lie.) How the CEO wasn’t your boss, but your friend. (A lie.) How tech was a meritocracy. (The biggest lie.) We built workplaces that were more like college campuses than workplaces, which hijacked workers’ sense of community. They were told their companies weren’t just a workplace, but their true communities. (A lie.) But most importantly, we pepper-sprayed kids with stock options and told them they’d all be millionaires before they hit thirty. (A lie.) The (possibly apocryphal) quote from John Steinbeck about all Americans believing they were “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” never applied more.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you can see that none of these things really panned out. Tech workers are watching inept CEOs get rich while workers get laid off, they’re seeing their labor being used to augment hate speech, they’re watching their stock options turn to shit, and they’re realizing they work in toxic environments where no one is on their side. In short, they’ve been betrayed. And they’re angry.

Which is where you come in. These people need your help. And because they have no history of unionizing, and you have no history of talking to tech workers, you’re gonna have to learn how to talk to one another. It’s in everyone’s best interest. They need you to show them how to organize, which means you need to learn to talk to a vast workforce that’s unlike any you’ve organized in a while.

Is everyone going to be open to your message? Nope. There are still many, many workers who believe the dream, either because they’re just terrible people who are still drinking the Libertarian Kool-Aid, or because the alternative is having to deal with the fact that they’ve benefited from some of the terrible things in tech. My suggestion is to focus on the ones who are ready, and the ones who might just need a little convincing. They’ll have good questions for you. I hope you have good answers for them.

Aren’t all tech people paid really well?

Oh, no. Not at all. There’s a tier that’s paid very well, and we’ll get to them in a second. But for every highly paid engineer working in Silicon Valley there’s a hundred warehouse workers laboring under terrible conditions and getting paid close to minimum wage. Think Amazon warehouse workers, 23 and Me lab workers, Apple factory workers (some of which are in the U.S.), even the people keeping the server farms running. Those are probably going to be the most like the workers you’re used to organizing, so while I can’t say it will be easy, I believe it’s definitely within your wheelhouse.

After that, you’ve got the people doing the hardest jobs in tech: The customer service people, the people who look at all the content that gets flagged across the various social networks, everyone behind a “Contact Us” button. Those people get a lot of shit all day long, and I’ve talked to a few who describe symptoms of PTSD from looking at horrible imagery and reading hate speech all day. Those people are not paid enough. They need better working conditions. They need breaks. They need better working hours. They need better healthcare packages, including mental health care. These people do a very hard job for very little acknowledgment. They need your help. Again, all of this is in your wheelhouse.

Then you’ve got tech workers that companies don’t even acknowledge as being theirs. Uber drivers, for example, are all independent contractors. They have no benefits and no job security, and Uber fucks with their take-home pay any time they need to fluff a quarterly report. Most sharing economy workers fall into this bucket: the Caviar drivers, the Task Rabbits, the Rinse delivery drivers, the Instacart shoppers. Basically, all the services that do shit your mom used to do for you when you were 12. (Spoiled white boys in tech spend a lot of time and money recreating the mom experience. It’s very sad.) This might be the toughest nut to crack. It’s a complex nut. Made all the more complex by the State of California deciding this all had to stop. So if I were you I’d be talking to the State of California and working on a game plan together because I think Cali is ahead of the game on this.

The office tech workers

Okay, because I am a privileged asshole who’s only ever had an office tech job (I’m a designer) I know a lot more about these folks, so I’ve broken them off into their own section. But please don’t ignore the people in the last section.

These people get paid better than the people in the previous section, but there’s still a lot of disparity. First off, some roles get paid better than others. Making generalizations, remember? By and large, engineers get paid really well and kind of run the place. They tend to get over-excited about whether they can build a particular feature or product, and sometimes they need to be pulled back a bit to think of the ramifications.

Designers are a hotbed of emotional garbage filled with mommy and daddy issues as well as imposter syndrome. They just want to be loved. Compliment them and they’ll sign anything. (I can say this because I’m a designer. Also because I’m not wrong.) Look, I’m kidding, but that sentence was really fun to write. Good designers are actually pretty well-tuned to how their work is affecting people, and many are beginning to realize their power in the workplace. A lot of them do already. Pro tip: When you talk to them, do not ask them if they’re the people who make things pretty. You will lose them forever.

Product managers are workers who think they’re in management. They may be the toughest group to reach, but they are, in fact, workers. And getting them on board will have a radiating effect on the rest of the workers, as they set the stage for a lot of things.

Strategists can be found in a lot of different areas of an organization, like content, business, etc. They tend to be big-picture people who are thinking a few months or even years ahead. They’re invested in how their work is affecting people. Or at least they should be. They can see what’s coming, and they may be very good allies.

A subset of the tech workers in the office have been independent contractors for years. And they value that idea of independence. One particular challenge of organizing tech workers will be learning to respect that. People in tech move from job to job more frequently than in other industries. They value the ability to jump around from interesting problem to interesting problem. And figuring out how to protect tech workers’ ability to do that is one key to organizing them.

I’m sure there are groups I forgot, but it’s not out of disrespect. Also, many companies will have weird funny names for all these positions. There’s one place that calls their designers “happiness officers.” Do not laugh when they say it. You’re gonna have to learn how to roll with it.

The best way to reach all these folks is obviously to listen to what they have to say, but it’s probably not money that’s sending them your way. (You will hear salaries that will make you want to slap people. Again, learn how to roll with it.) Most likely, they feel like they have no voice and no backup. People are being asked to do a lot of shady shit these days. They need to know that if they stand up to management someone has their back. So if I were you, that’s the message I’d lead with. “Be brave. We got you.”

Let’s talk about privilege

Tech has a sexism problem, as well as a race problem. The majority of the people you will meet (at least at the office level) are young white men. Some of them might even be very well-meaning young white men, but they will have still benefited from the sexist, racist culture of tech. Unionization is a core systematic shift. So I encourage you to talk to the people who’ve been hurt the most by the current system. They’ll know where the biggest problems are because they’ve suffered through them. They’ll also be encouraged that someone is finally listening. So make it a point to actually listen to them, please.

Side note: Take a look at your own team. If people are coming to you for help because they’re being mistreated by their bosses, who are all white boys, and your own team is made up of white boys, they’re not going to take you seriously. And they shouldn’t.

The future of labor

I honestly believe that we’re headed into a new era of organized labor. And I’m looking forward to it. For it to work, though, both sides — workers and organizers — are gonna go through some growing pains. Unionization is gonna give the workforce the backbone it needs to stand up to management, but in return tech workers are gonna have to get used to speaking in a united voice. That’ll be difficult for people who are used to disrupting and innovating all over the workplace. But you can see where that’s gotten us, right?

From the unions’ side, you’re gonna have to get used to some people who are very different from your usual members. And that’s good too! They’re young. They’ll pay union dues forever. They’ll also help you modernize, which let’s face it… it’s a long time coming. Oh, and we’re gonna have to stop calling everything “united brotherhood” this and “united brotherhood” that. But that’s been a long time coming as well. And “united workers” sounds even better.

Hey! Go return those calls. Workers need you.

If you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know the answer anyway).

Modus

Helping designers thrive.

Mike Monteiro

Written by

English is my second language. You were my first.

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Mike Monteiro

Written by

English is my second language. You were my first.

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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