Tech Workers' Inquiry at The World Transformed
by Wendy Liu (@dellsystem) on October 30, 2018



The tech industry is crucial to contemporary capitalism in multiple ways. Through its entwinement with the financial sector, it’s become the servant of capital - a mere outlet for speculative investment seeking returns. At the same time, it’s helping to build the tools to disempower workers in general, through digital surveillance and automation.

Yet the tech industry has its own workers - the work of automating away jobs has not itself been automated away (yet). Some of these workers are starting to realise their identity as workers, and are asserting the interests of their class over capital’s need to make a return. As the tech industry is becoming increasingly key in propping up our highly unbalanced economic system, any efforts to disrupt the status quo could be a huge blow to global capital. Unfortunately, there has been very little success in building worker power to date.

What follows is a conversation about why organising efforts in the tech industry have been so limited so far, and what can be done about it. It’s an abridged transcript of a session on tech worker organising held at The World Transformed in Liverpool last month, featuring myself, Joe Corcoran, and Jason Prado. This transcript is quite long, so I’ve included links to the rough sections below.


JPJason Prado has been a software engineer with various large tech companies over the past decade. He’s also a volunteer organiser with the Tech Workers Coalition, which is an organisation of tech workers trying to build worker power in the tech industry.

JCJoe Corcoran is also a software developer of many years, originally from England but currently working in Germany. He’s a member of the New Socialist editorial collective.

WWendy Liu is an editor at New Socialist and Notes From Below who used to work in the tech industry. She now spends most of her time writing critically about the political economy of tech.

Jason on TWC and workers’ inquiry

JPTWC’s goal is to build worker power in the tech industry. That means all workers in the tech industry, not just software engineers. Most people who work in tech are not software engineers - they’re writing content, interfacing with customers, doing sales. In fact, most people who work at Google don’t actually work for Google - 120,000 of them are contingent staff, or TVCs (temps, vendors and contractors), hired from staffing agencies with poor benefits and at-will employment. Google only has 90,000 full-time employees.

Worker power in the tech industry is, to a large degree, like worker power in any other industry. At large tech campuses, there are thousands of people employed just to keep things running: security officers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers. Over the past few years, as a response to skyrocketing costs of living in the Bay Area (and anywhere else that tech has gone), there has been a wave of unionisation of service workers on tech campuses in the US. That has not yet bled over to the highly-paid roles, but that’s what we’re trying to get started.

In these union drives, TWC has played a small part. We’re mostly white-collar workers, and we can help by standing in solidarity with other kinds of workers in the tech industry. As an example, a union organiser cannot come to my campus and survey workers about workplace conditions. But as a full-time employee, with a badge that lets me go wherever I want, I can. I can hand out surveys and make clear that I, as a full-time employee, support their labour struggles.

That’s important because there are invisible walls between different kinds of workers. A janitor and a software engineer on a tech campus won’t make eye contact, much less talk to each other. So one of our main goals at TWC is to tear down these walls because we don’t believe they should exist.

At the other end of the spectrum, TWC advocates for high-tech workers around the kind of work we do and how it’s used. The most public example of this recently is Google’s Project Maven, a contract with the US Department of Defense to build computer vision software for military drones. When it became public, a lot of workers at Google - both in the US and abroad, where many of their workers are - were angry that they were part of the US imperial military machine without being consulted.

This was big. Tech companies are usually experts at managing bad publicity. Usually, when they get bad press, they eat the flak and soon everyone forgets about it. But what we haven’t seen before is sustained employee backlash. I worked at Google when they implemented their real names policy and did other questionable things, and there’s a formula that plays out when employees get pissed off: they ask questions at the company all-hands meeting which get quashed, and then they move on. Nothing significant has changed based on worker dissent before, in my experience.

What was different here is that the workers got organised. Thousands of workers came together to sign a petition saying they don’t want their work used by the US military, with support from academics who signed a similar petition. A dozen software engineers quit on the same day, and a few high-profile engineers refused to write code that was going to be used for this. So it was a patchwork of different efforts. At one remote office, outside the US, they decided the most leverage they had was through making memes on the internal social networks. So the internal meme board was flooded with memes critical of Project Maven.

As a result, Google backtracked. They announced that they would not renew their contract with the DoD. I haven’t seen anything like this before, so it’s a big deal. TWC was not the only thing at work there, but we did help.

So how do we work inside TWC, and why is this called a worker’s inquiry session? One problem that we face, almost as a prerequisite for talking about organising the tech industry, is building consciousness among tech workers that we’re actually workers. As tech workers, we’re encouraged to identify with our companies. Tech company offices often have propaganda on the walls, you’re given stock in the company … you’re imbued with a deep feeling of being invested in the success and failure of the company.

Still, there are times when you realise that your interests run up against the boss’s. This might be about equal pay across gender and race lines; anytime you interface with human resources; or deciding how your work ultimately gets used.

This is where workers’ inquiry comes in. Workers’ inquiry is an organising tool based on the idea that the people who best understand the work process are workers themselves. We treat it as an informal interview about a worker’s relationship to their workplace. The goal is to help the worker locate themselves - first in their team or their organisation, then in the industry, and eventually on the level of the system of global capitalism - but always rooted in workplace conditions. Through this process, we hope that workers come to realise that their gripes are systemic - it’s not that their boss is an asshole; it’s that bosses are assholes - and that their interests are aligned with other workers, not their companies’.

Questions range from the mundane, like, what tools do you use to get your job done? Who decides what kinds of tools are available to you? Who do you interact with at work, and what’s the difference between their role and yours? How is work assigned and scheduled on your team? Then you ask why, and you keep asking why until you get to the real answer, which is always “to build shareholder value”.

At big companies, they have these things called ERGs: employee resource groups. These groups, approved by the company, are meant for workers to come together and build communities within the context of the company. These are often built around identities (like immigrant status or ethnicity), but can also be built around hobbies (eg board games). So we ask, is being a worker part of your identity? What would an ERG for your identity as a worker look like?

Some of the realizations that come out of inquiry are obvious, but it’s still helpful to state them. Maybe they give us free food and do my laundry because they want me to work longer hours. Maybe the cultish orientation process is designed to make me identify with the company instead of as a worker. Or, our wages are paid by advertising - which sounds obvious, but at Google, for example, there’s a massive wall between the advertising department and everyone else, meant to insulate 90 percent of the company from ever realising that the company has to make money.

Some of the realisations are more profound. Say I work with someone in a role that was full-time, but it’s one of the many roles that are being shifted from full-time to contingent. Why has that happened? What force might be driving this?

Joe on why white-collar tech workers aren’t unionised

JCThe question that preoccupies me is the question of why white-collar tech workers are not unionised. I’m going to try and run through some of the reasons.

One issue is remote culture - the idea that we can work from anywhere, and maybe the company doesn’t have an office at all. That’s not to say I don’t like remote culture, but once that spans national borders, that becomes a problem for organising workers. Even if you do want to join a union, you’re in a different one to your colleagues. Unions don’t speak to each other across borders, usually.

Another issue is self-perception. White-collar tech workers often talk about themselves as if they were doctors or lawyers or other professionals, which blocks them from seeing the need to organise.

Another is high pay, which clashes with people’s typical ideas of what unions are for - we avoid any need for pay struggles by having artificially inflated salaries.

Another is employee churn. People leave companies so quickly that there’s no time for a cluster of workers to organise. That’s happened throughout my entire career - I’ve been a developer for 12 years and worked 6 different jobs. My current 2.5 year employment is the longest one.

We also tend to have shares in the company, which are more of a mechanism against organising than anything else - they keep you invested in the company, and the profit that it makes, giving you a reason to not rock the boat.

Plus there’s the thread of libertarianism that runs through software development. People see themselves as rugged individuals and potential entrepreneurs, even at the lowest levels of the company. They look at the rich owners and think, one day, that will be me.

The other thing is that the big unions don’t reach out to us. They look at the factors I just listed and conclude that it’s not worth the effort to unionise workers at small startups compared to winning pay rises for workers at big companies.

Wendy on the ideology of Silicon Valley

WI want to talk about the ideology of the tech industry and why it’s important that tech workers organise.

I think it’s useful to see the tech industry as a concentrated microcosm of capitalism, both in terms of where the money is - where capital is making returns - and where capitalist ideology is so potent.

One of the ways that manifests is through the dream of being an entrepreneur. I have so many friends who are bored of their day jobs, and hope to eventually quit to do a startup. That’s basically what drove me. It’s easy to see startups as an escape. But startups are the essence of capitalist ideology, in the form of entrepreneurial spirit - they’re the worst bits of capitalism. You put yourself through misery for a few years in the hope that you get rich and it was all worth it, but it rarely is.1

There’s a really toxic, individualistic culture that tells you if you’re not getting job offers or getting promoted, then it’s your fault; you just need to be a better coder. And of course this rhetoric is used to disempower women and minorities, to prevent them from demanding systemic changes. Tech is seen as a true meritocracy, as if there’s something special about knowing how to write code that sets it apart from the history of labour.

Luckily, this is starting to change. People are realising that tech doesn’t exist on a cloud floating above everything else, and that the money that tech accrues comes at the expense of other people elsewhere in the world.

I’ll close with an analogy based on the concept of “refactoring”, from programming. Let’s say you’re brought in to work on a codebase. You’re only supposed to change a small part of it, but you spend enough time working on it to realise that it needs to be changed completely. There are fundamental problems with the way it’s designed, or the times have changed, and you’ve found a way to make it more efficient.

And I think that’s a useful way of seeing the world - not as something that just is the way it is, and you can only make small tweaks. Instead, as a subpar system that was constructed by other people and so can be changed.

Audience contributions

On supporting startups

Audience question on idealistic startup founders who have no intention of selling to a large company, but end up ideologically destroyed when they have to exit on less-than-ideal terms after several years of difficult work conditions. How do we support startup founders who are doing it because they love the tech (not just for the money) and get them to see that their conditions could be better?

WI started my company because I thought the tech was cool, not because I thought it was useful. The only way to make money turned out to be in advertising technology: selling data. It was disappointing, but we accepted it because that’s what the landscape was.

The problem you’re describing can’t be solved on an individual scale - it’s structural, based on how venture capital works. For most tech companies, the most profitable exit is selling to a big tech company, often in a talent acquisition (where the product gets essentially canned). You can’t change this without larger structural transformations2.

In that vein, the Labour Party’s recent proposals for a National Investment Bank are promising. The goal is to shift entrepreneurship into being a public service, so that founders start companies for the right reasons: to work on socially-useful tech, not just to line their own pockets.

JCVenture capital is not a sustainable way to fund startups, and I’m not just saying that because my current employer has never taken VC funding. It’s nightmarish to be in that position when all your competitors have taken VC, though; you’re constantly looking at the bottom line while your competitors are spending money all over the place. There has to be something else.

VC funding has an impact on tech salaries too, which are artificially high. I wouldn’t be paid what I am if the industry at large hadn’t agreed on these salaries, which stems from most companies having some outside funding.

JPIn addition to structural economic factors, there are cultural factors. I grew up in conservative household in Texas, where the only things I learned about unions were that they’re bad, and they’re gone. At Stanford, that message was reinforced; it’s the most anti-labour institution you can imagine. You’re told that the only way to change the world is through the profit motive. You have to idolise Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and replicate their success by making billion-dollar companies. There’s no alternative to that presented.

Maybe the nonprofit-industrial complex is another option, but the idea that you’re going to the enter workforce as a labourer to sell your labour-power to a capitalist - these terms are not used. And that’s at an institution where everyone gets basic liberal arts training. Many people in tech never have to take humanities courses, so they’re not taught to critically question the industry at structural level.

On whether tech workers are actually well-paid

Audience point on tech worker pay being high in some areas, but in others, worse compared to previous generations based on the costs of housing, pensions, etc. We’re not on high pay; other people are on slave wages, and we only feel like we’re well-paid in comparison.

Another audience point: a better way to think about pay is to look at the company’s profits then divide by the number of workers. At Apple, for example, it’s $400,000 per employee. You may think you’re well-paid, but shareholders are better paid.

WThat’s a good rallying point for organising your workplace.

On managerial feudalism

Audience question on the concept of “managerial feudalism”, from David Graeber’s recent book Bullshit Jobs. In medieval times, kings didn’t hoard all the wealth; they needed others (e.g., knights) slightly further down the hierarchy to protect the system. That’s the role of tech workers today: to protect the system.

WGreat point. I highly recommend Boots Riley’s recent film Sorry to Bother You, which is the best dramatisation of class struggle that I’ve ever seen. It’s set at a call centre, and the main character is someone who works his way up to the top, who then becomes a token whose rise from the bottom is used to appease everyone else. The point is that it’s a scam - the ability to rise to the top is deliberately only granted to a small number of people, to ensure they protect the structure that exists instead of questioning the hierarchy altogether.

On the Lucas plan and moral codes

Audience question on the Lucas aerospace workers, who established a moral code similar to that of doctors. Civil engineers have a code of ethics; software engineers don’t have an equivalent, even something as extreme as “let’s not kill people”. Could a moral code be useful as an organising tool?

JCI love the Lucas Plan, and the idea of having a moral code. I’ve seen some attempts from software developers to establish “red lines” (of things they won’t build). Unfortunately, most people who’ve attempted it so far don’t have a structural criticism of capitalism. They’re trying to do the right thing, and they’re good people, but until we address the underlying conditions, moral codes will just be niceties that don’t result in anything.

Some background on the Lucas Plan: Lucas Aerospace was an aerospace manufacturing company that faced huge redundancies in the early 80s. As a result, the workers came up with a plan to rescue the jobs while also transforming the company into something else - leaving behind defense manufacturing in order to manufacture more socially useful products, like heating for pensioners, public transport vehicles, etc. The board squashed it in the end, because the workers had no power to control what a private company does, but it was inspirational.

JPI agree on the limitations of moral codes. The closest analogy is a Hippocratic code for engineers. But it doesn’t actually work in practice - unlike lawyers or doctors, we don’t work alone, and we don’t have individual relationships with customers. We’re not professionals in the same way. I’m a labourer; I work on a team with 30 other engineers. If I choose to adopt an ethical code on my own, but the rest of my team doesn’t, that doesn’t have any power. What we really need to do is organise and adopt one together. I think a moral code would be downstream of organising, rather than a point to rally around.

On organising across borders

Audience question on how to organise with colleagues in similar positions but in different jurisdictions.

JCWe’re more connected now than ever communications-wise, but we don’t have equivalent legal protections in every country. My American colleagues have different struggles - 401k contributions, health insurance, etc. It’s tough to organise across borders - we don’t have lawyers on either side who can hash out (legal) common ground.

On organising despite high turnover and isolation

Audience question on organising despite high turnover due to tough conditions. In the last few decades, we’ve seen organisation among workers who were previously seen as impossible to organise - women, mass production workers, migrant labour. Before, people would have dismissed teachers, doctors, and nurses as impossible to unionise because they’re “professionals”, but now these are some of the most militant professions. Isolation isn’t necessarily a blocker either - social media helps here. The case of Ryanair pilots striking is a good example.

WAgreed. Here, I think software engineers can learn a lot from the other side of the platform economy: Deliveroo riders, Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse workers. Notes From Below recently published piece called A Union at Amazon?, which concluded that because of how the industry works, you can’t just organise the shop. You have to organise logistics workers as a class.

The same applies to software engineers. Because there’s so much turnover - we don’t see ourselves as tied to one company for life - it doesn’t make sense to aim solely at the level of the company. It makes some sense at the largest tech companies, but even there, people move between them all the time. What we have to do instead is instill a recognition that we’re part of this general class of workers, not tied to one company - the company is where we happen to be right now, that’s all.

On the omission of free software

Audience question on free software not being mentioned so far. Free software began as a political project that improved employees’ ability to change jobs: instead of being stuck with a proprietary software stack that’s specific to the company, more people are now working with open source components. As a result, their skills are more transferable they can switch jobs more easily. In the last few years, this has completely changed how software is developed, so we’ve broken free in some ways.

WI’ve actually recently written an article on the failures of the free software movement for Logic Magazine, in a piece called Freedom Isn’t Free. I agree that free software is useful as a political rallying point. As it is now, though, it doesn’t present a challenge to capital.

If we want to reclaim the radical roots of the free software movement, there needs to be a larger political project mobilising around what free software originally meant and extending that to challenge the dominance of the tech giants. It’s not easy, but there is value in the ideas behind free software. I first came across the movement when I was really young and I loved it - like, “yeah, intellectual property sucks!” The challenge is getting people who feel that way to to understand why intellectual property exists in the first place - how capitalism works, and why it needs intellectual property. From there, you have a bridge to a more radical politics.

JCI see free software as one of the reasons we should unionise. I recently gave a talk at a Ruby conference on the Lucas Plan, which was well-received - everyone liked the idea of producing socially useful things. But then I shot myself in the foot by saying that the MIT license3 needs to die, which didn’t go over well. If you use a license like that to release software, you have no control over how your software is used. You can have all the moral codes you want, but then it’s being used 10 companies down the line by someone you don’t like.

I don’t think the solution is draconian control over software, as free software ideology is embedded in the industry. The solution is organising.

On using tech meetups to organise

Audience point about the proliferation of tech meetups and conferences. Can we co-opt these, using them as a excuse to get people in one place talking about solidarity?

JCProgramming meetups could be a great touchpoint for organising. The starting point, though, is to get them to not take corporate sponsorship - right now, they’re mostly held at corporate offices, which means it’s almost anathema to talk about unionising; you won’t be welcomed back.

On organising at small startups

Audience point on how to organise at small startups, who may become the tech giants of tomorrow. They often have different problems than big companies - there’s less of an issue with contingent staff - but they still have issues. One issue that’s worked as a rallying point at this person’s company (a small startup) was that of pay disparity - getting engineers to realise how little people in other roles are paid, which resulted in them lobbying the CEO to raise wages. If we manage to build solidarity across these small companies, we have the ability to effectively control key junctures of the economy - not quite the means of production per se, but at least the means of communication.

On the German style of unionising

Audience question on the different styles of unionisation in different countries. In Germany, for example, sector-based organising has the most traction.

JCI’m a member of ver.di (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft – the United Services Union), which is sort of the German equivalent of Unite. It’s an amalgamation of many smaller, more focused unions. They’ve made inroads in big tech companies, but the issues there are different.

For many of the traditional unions, their understanding of organising around technology is limited to digitalisation - digital systems imposed on companies that used to do things on paper but now use to Microsoft Word or something. These are real issues, but they’re so far away from the issues we’re discussing today. On the other hand, forming new unions and ignoring the existing ones is costly. There needs to be a middle ground.

At my company, we have worker representation on the board of directors. This isn’t legally defined, but I’m at all the board meetings and I can put workers’ views across. But worker representation on boards has been common in Germany for decades and it hasn’t necessarily solved the problems it seeks to solve. Volkswagen has worker representation on its board, but that didn’t stop the emissions scandal, for example.

In Germany, people are very comfortable with unionisation. Unions may be part of the culture - people are used to going to their union branch meetings or works councils - but the large unions are not radical at all; they don’t tend to bring results outside of the typical pay and pension disputes. Countries without this union culture may have a chance to be more radical because they’re starting from scratch.

On red-pilling and intersectional imperialism

Audience question from someone who works in digital transformation, which often results in firing people. Tech lacks the cultural understanding of social impact compared to, say, the oil & gas industry. How do you make people understand the impact of their work? How do you red-pill them? Especially when it comes to the topic of diversity & inclusion within the industry? Current approaches centre “equality of opportunity” in a very liberal way, which is essentially intersectional imperialism - putting a woman on the board won’t improve the lives of working women in India.

WI love “intersectional imperialism”. As a personal anecdote about red-pilling: you all know the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, right? Well, read Lean Out by Dawn Foster. I read that last year and it honestly changed my life - it connected my concerns with Sandberg’s approach to a systemic critique of capitalism.

On red-pilling other people: I was recently on a podcast called Techish, about people of colour in tech. It’s great, though not very radical - I think I was invited as the token radical person. But over the course of the show, things got more radical. I talked about how tech companies pay enormous amounts to full-time employees, but then hire contract workers with much worse conditions. Someone without a traditional 4-year degree, or who went to a coding bootcamp, is more likely to get hired for less pay on a temporary contract, and told that if they do really well, they’ll become full-time. Which happens more to women and people of colour.

This resonated with the hosts - they knew people in that boat at companies like Google. So they got what I was saying on a personal level.

More generally, I try to talk about the hiring process as a site of class struggle. That framing opens up other possibilities. You realise the corporation is not your friend - not a benevolent institution that give you handouts for which you should be grateful - but an enemy. You may have a strategic alliance right now, but when you stop being useful to them, they won’t be on your side.

JPWhen it comes to squaring the impact your company has on society with you having to go work there every day - big tech companies actually make this easy for you by having massive internal PR departments. Their job is to motivate employees to work hard. People who work at these companies are often motivated reasoners, who want to believe that they’re having a positive impact in the world. They don’t need need a good reason, they just need a reason.

At my company, sometimes I’ll come into work and there’s an internal statement responding to the latest round of bad press about us. It’ll say, they got the facts wrong, don’t worry; we’re still the good guys. Everyone’s like, phew, great. There are people who are paid lots of money to make us feel that; who are we to resist?

On Game Workers Unite and the utility of workers inquiry

Point from Jamie Woodcock of Notes From Below: workers’ inquiry is a tool for producing knowledge, but it’s also a vehicle for beginning to organise, potentially along radically different lines than the past. For example, Game Workers Unite, a new group that’s forming in the video games industry, has had a huge burst of interest in unionisation lately. These are people who want to unionise, but don’t necessarily have a traditional model to fall back on, so they can develop their own model of trade unionism based on what their work is like.

JPTWC is very new to organising, and we don’t have good answers. Few people have backgrounds in labour organising. We’re trying to learn as quickly as possible, but there aren’t that many resources. Although we have relationships with unions that represent service workers, they aren’t usually able to expand their scope, which means that (unionised) cafeteria workers at some tech companies have better healthcare than content strategists do. Unions in the US don’t have the resources to take a big risk by venturing into greenfield territory.

What is useful is trying to find comparisons to other industries. What’s happening in academia is similar, with full-time tenured positions switched to adjunct roles. The games industry is interesting because it’s halfway between Hollywood and tech - it works on a hits-driven model like Hollywood, with a boom-bust cycle where studios bring on lots of people then lay them off.

Through the inquiry process, we uncover workers’ connections to investors and the larger system of capitalism. Then we can ask, who else has had a similar relationship, and how have they organised in the past?

On the importance of political parties

Audience point on unions in continental Europe, where they’re part of the social fabric and are able to help workers get a better lifestyle. There, they’re strong enough to influence political parties, but don’t always have that much input into policy, even in social democratic parties.

JCA pattern I’ve noticed with the big, established unions, is that they’re good at protecting good conditions for people who have them and don’t want to lose them. They’re less good at improving working conditions for people who never got to that point. There’s an imaginary red line. In many sectors, you have two layers of employees, especially in the government. With teachers in Germany, for example, there are people over 40 who got in when conditions were still good. Then there was a decade of no recruiting. Everyone around the age of 30 is experiencing terrible conditions by comparison, and they’re not seeing solidarity from their older colleagues. Unions still have a positive role to play, but something needs to change to avoid that duality inside the union membership.

In terms of political parties: my pet peeve about technology is when it’s siloed from rest of society. Pretending that the problems with tech are different from other industries is only going to benefit the people who are currently benefiting - the founders, and funders. One thing you can do to change that is to start talking about your work in your political party, and make it sound standard – compare your problems to those in other industries.

On wanting to work without worrying about politics

Audience point about the apathetic mentality in tech being the result of seeing capitalism as inevitable. People internalise that there is no alternative, and so focus on solving technical problems, maybe with the ultimate of making the world a better place through slightly nicer code. They want to just come into work and do a good job without having to think about complicated social problems. We have to create a different material reality, a structure under which we develop good technology and benefit the world - to prove that there’s a feasible alternative to the capitalist way of developing technology. Red-pilling isn’t necessarily enough; the author of Chaos Monkeys is a great example - he recognises the amorality of capitalism, but he still wants to succeed as an entrepreneur. He may have taken the red pill, but he still wants to be a hero.

WI recently got into a Twitter fight with someone over that exact issue. When ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in the US) was revealed to be using GitHub for hosting, I tweeted about it, saying, I know some GitHub employees follow me; why don’t you guys organise and take it up with management? And some libertarian guy replied complaining about SJW activists in tech trying to make it a political issue. We had a long back and forth, and what it came down to was that, he just wanted to go to work and not have to worry about moral issues. And I was like, dude, don’t we all. But we have to organise to get there. Otherwise we’re just sweeping the moral issues under the rug.

On the Wetherspoons strike

Point from Callum Cant of Notes From Below, who was handing out a bulletin about the upcoming Wetherspoons strike, featuring service workers in very bad conditions with very little leverage. Tech workers - with the leverage and skills they have - could do even more.


  1. That’s not to claim that everyone who starts a startup is driven solely by financial motives. Lots of people do startups because they actually do think it’s the best way to make a positive difference in the world. This is something we discuss more in the section on supporting startups, and also something I discuss in this interview for Notes From Below

  2. I’ve heard someone suggest banning acquisitions as a way to fix this problem. It’s an intriguing thought, though I suspect it would face huge backlash from capital, and in any case I’m not entirely sure how it would be implemented. Through stricter competition law, perhaps, but enforcing it would require massive regulatory oversight and probably a high degree of international cooperation as well. 

  3. The MIT license is an open source software license with very few restrictions on what end users can do with it. Often presented in comparison to more restrictive licenses like the GPL, which requires that if the code being used is modified and distributed (usually as part of a larger project), then the source code for the new project must be released under a similar license. The MIT license, on the other hand, lets anyone - hobbyists, nonprofits, corporations - do pretty much whatever they want with the code. Like liberalism more generally, it’s one of those things that sounds like a good idea in theory - preserving end user freedom, right? - but utterly fails to account for how things work in practice. Specifically, it fails to reckon with the already unequal relation between hobbyists and huge corporations. Freedom may be a good principle, but attempts at unadorned “freedom” on a terrain defined by unequal power relations will merely entrench them. True freedom can only be achieved by challenging the power relations that exist. 


author

Wendy Liu (@dellsystem)

Wendy is an editor for the economics section. She is a former startup founder who now writes about the political economy of the tech industry and why tech workers need to unionise. She goes by @dellsystem for fairly prosaic reasons.

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