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“Recoding Power: Tactics for Mobilizing Tech Workers” author, Williams professor explores novel labor responses to tumultuous sector

Oxford University Press

It’s Cyber Monday, a flagship day for major tech corporations battling for consumer dollars in the run-up to the holiday season. It comes during a bleak year for the sector, with layoffs in the tens of thousands at companies ranging from Amazon to Facebook parent company Meta. Amazon employees protested across the globe on Black Friday to demand better wages and improved working conditions. Williams College Assistant Professor of Political Science Sid Rothstein is the author of the new book “Recoding Power: Tactics for Mobilizing Tech Workers.” It explores how tech workers have created new ways of asserting power amid the ebbs and flows of a volatile, precarious industry. He spoke with WAMC.

ROTHSTEIN: The premises is really twofold. And one of them is the observation that tech workers are extremely precarious, which is something that we wouldn't expect among a workforce that generally earn high wages and receives generous benefits. And the other side of this, in addition to being precarious, is that tech workers, like all other workers, can actually build power to protect their jobs against the threat of mass layoffs. And in the book, I traced four cases of tech workers in the United States and in Germany as they respond to mass layoffs and show what it took for them to build power in some cases and defend their jobs.

WAMC: Well, let's dig into both sides of that. First, the precarity itself- What makes tech workers so vulnerable despite the assumptions you mentioned earlier about what might, at least superficially, give them power in the workforce?

Yeah, that's a good question. And to some extent, I'm not sure if I really know the why. But I know about the how, and part of the how of how tech workers are so precarious has to do with the orientation of the tech sector to finance. And a lot of firms are very focused on their financial performance, and when the stock price sinks, there's a sense that the firm isn't doing very well. And there's been a tradition in tech, although it's spread in the meantime to many other sectors, that when the stock price goes down, there's a sort of response, which is, oh, we're not doing well, we need to cut costs, and the fastest way to cut costs is to cut jobs. And so, in the tech sector, you see just massive job loss when there are fluctuations in stock price, as we saw in the early 2000s. So, in that period, when the first dotcom crash came through, tech workers lost their jobs. There were 100,000 job losses in Silicon Valley alone between 2000 to 2008. And a lot of that has to do with management's belief that cutting jobs will improve the stock price, which is not clear, and that improving the stock price is somehow an indication of the firm's actual performance.

The other side of that is how tech workers can build that power to create bulwarks against that precarity. Talk to us about that- How are tech workers mobilizing to protect themselves in a vulnerable position?

Yeah, to some extent, what it takes for tech workers to build power is the same as what it takes for workers in every other sector to build power, which means collective organization and finding some way to exercise economic leverage against their employers. Classically, that form was the strike, withholding labor power. The difficult thing about layoffs is that it's managers who want to withhold labor power, managers who want to actually cut jobs. So, threatening to strike when you've been laid off is not an effective way to threaten managers’ material interests. But what is an effective way is, in the United States, even where there are no legal protections for employment protection, there are some laws that regulate when and where and how managers can fire workers. And when workers organize and bring collective legal cases that often have monetary sanctions against employers, they can use those to exercise economic leverage. So, what I show in the cases in the book is that tech workers can use, for instance, in the United States anti-discrimination law in order to threaten employers with the possibility of paying relatively massive sanctions when they do these mass layoffs. If they have to pay back pay and legal fees and damages for every single worker they've laid off, you're looking at a lot of money. But what it takes to get there is a little bit more complicated in the tech sector, because we're talking about collective action, and collective action in tech is a little bit more complicated for a number of reasons. One of them is just the widespread sense that tech workers are different, which is actually ironically, relatively standard in many other sectors, especially white-collar work, where workers believe that unions are from another era, that unions are for blue-collar workers in manufacturing. And so, it takes a different set of tactics to get tech workers to believe that they can be effective in organizing collectively. In a book, I show that one of the best ways for tech workers to organize is actually to use management's own discourse, to use management's business discourse and business analysis, to illustrate that the case that management makes that layoffs are inevitable and a result of market forces, that's actually wrong. And that if managers were to consider alternative business strategies, they'd be able to move forward without laying off workers. And the thinking there is, if we just put enough pressure on the managers, they'll see that they don't actually have to lay us off, they can take a different path, which is actually cheaper for the firm because they don't have to pay all these legal fees, and they can keep the firm afloat. And so, it gets into some tricky tactics about how do tech workers illustrate to each other that collective action could be effective in a discourse that they actually find credible. So not using the old school normative discourse, discourses around justice or fairness, but instead, like, these layoffs, are impractical. They're not strategic, there's a better way to do this.

Now of the four examples you explore in the book, tell us about a couple of them. What led you to pick some of these case studies to best illustrate some of these dynamics?

So, I went to Germany to do field work in 2016. And what I was really interested in was different forms of organization in the tech sector, not necessarily around layoffs, and not even necessarily around unions. And as I was talking to tech workers in Munich, I came across a case where managers at one division of Siemens, their information and communication technologies division, which was ICN, telecommunications division, which was full of computer programmers and what we generally call tech workers. In 2002, they threatened the workers there with 2,600 layoffs at a facility that had about 6,000 workers, and the workers there actually mobilized and they prevented all of those layoffs from happening. And they did that not just through collective action and not just through legal cases, but what I found really interesting was that they did that by re-analyzing management's own business case, and re-analyzing the justification that management had put forward for the layoffs, where management said, hey, there's no other way we can do this. You know, the stock price is down, the division is not performing well, the only way that we can move forward is by cutting jobs. And the workers dug into the numbers, and they said, hey, that's not true. Look at this other division, this other project that we can invest in. They did all the business analysis and showed that actually, this would be profitable in a year two if there was investment instead of cutting jobs. And that led to a tremendous amount of support among the workforce, and it was that support that enabled them to bring hundreds of legal cases contesting their dismissals, and they actually stopped the layoffs. And what was fascinating about that case, is that there was another case, at a very similar firm kilometers away, very similar workers, very similar conditions. And their management also threatened layoffs, and the workers didn't mobilize. They accepted management's position, they accepted management's justification that layoffs were inevitable, and they didn't mobilize, and 900 workers were fired. So, I set about trying to explain what it was that enabled the workers at Siemens to build power to defend their jobs. And then I returned to United States and investigated two cases in the United States in two different settings, but both at IBM, where IBM was doing massive job cuts in the early 2000s. In fact, over the past 30 years, they've been doing massive job cuts, and workers at their facility in Burlington, Vermont, mobilized against the job cuts and succeeded in building some power and pushing back on the job cuts. Whereas workers at the facility in San Jose, again, they didn't mobilize and so I was curious to explain why. And what I found in each of these cases is that it really came down to whether workers were able to make the case that management’s justification for dismissals was wrong. And so, they rarely made the case in normative discourse, but instead, did their own business analysis and showed that there was actually a better way for the firm to be managed. And then they found ways to build power so that management has no choice but to listen to them.

Given that we're talking in the wake of Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter, I would be remiss not to ask you if you have any observations about this very public and rather chaotic series of events happening at one of the tech world’s flagship institutions, that of Twitter. Any observations amidst this chaos about what that what this means for the tech industry and the workers within it?

Yeah, it's a fascinating case, especially because we can just watch it in real time as happening. I think there's two things that stand out to me. The first is that, especially with Elon Musk's managerial style, this is a case that really illustrates how every situation where management proposes layoffs- This is a situation of management's failure. It's a failure of creativity, it's a failure of business sense, and it's a failure to make good use of the resources that the firm has invested in- Namely, all of these very talented and intelligent workers. So that's one side. I think that Elon Musk doesn't cut corners and he doesn't spend a lot of energy on trying to be polite, which I think really emphasizes his management failures. Because when managers are smoother, sometimes it's more difficult to see where they make mistakes. But here, it's very clear. The second observation, and this goes back to being able to watch what's happening in real time on, of all platforms, Twitter, but a lot of these engineers are identifying the mistakes that Elon Musk is making and the mistakes that many of the senior executives are making in business strategy. They're not just saying that doing layoffs is evil or wrong or unjust, they’re also saying, this is bad for the business. There's other ways that we could be running this business that would be more effective. And that's really fascinating to me, and I'm waiting to see if there's movement or momentum that builds around a coherent idea of what an alternative direction for Twitter could be. And I wouldn't be surprised if there's some kind of mutiny among the engineers at Twitter, because there's no way that the company can run without those engineers. It is directly dependent on them. And they clearly know how to run the company. Or I should say, not clearly, but seemingly, they know how to run the company better than Elon Musk does. So, I'm curious to see if there's some movement in that direction.

There's been all this reporting about a lot of cuts happening across the tech sector right now, and certainly, with the absolutely massive growth of that industry over the last several decades, hearing that Meta and Amazon and of course, as we just discussed, Twitter, are now considering these reductions- What's your perception of that? What is going on within that world, and has anything you've learned along the way researching for this book given you the ability to offer advice to folks caught up in this convulsion to defend themselves as this industry goes through whatever episode this is?

Yeah, I think I would probably go back just to the two main headlines, the two main upshots that I see from the book. And one of them is just emphasizing precarity. So, the workers who are at these firms, they may not have felt this before, this may be very surprising. And I'm not sure if they – some certainly do, but maybe not all – truly appreciate just how precarious they are. The last 20 years, if you're a tech worker and you were under 40, it may have been relatively easy to find another job somewhere. But that was not the case in early 2000s, and in fact, if we look at the data over the past 20 years, the duration, the average duration of unemployment in the tech sector is actually higher than it is in all the other sectors in United States. We're looking at from 2002 to 2020. In tech, the average duration of unemployment is more than 28 weeks, and then the rest of the other sectors, it's about 24 weeks. This is a long time to be unemployed. And of course, it's the average, so, there's people at either end of that. But what this means is, it might take a long time to find another job. And we know that there's a lot of age discrimination in the tech sector. So, people who are over 40, maybe even people who are over 30, it's going to be hard for them to find another job. So, I think that's one thing to highlight, is that this might be very bad for pretty large number of people who may or may not know how desperate the situation actually is. The other side of that is, things looked very, very dark in 2001, 2002 in the dotcom crash, and nonetheless, workers were still able to build power then, and I don't see any reason why they wouldn't be able to build power now. And so, I think it's worthwhile to think through, you know, what are management's justifications for these layoffs? And what have they gotten wrong? Is there another way forward? So that's one side. And the other side is, I think I would just encourage everybody who's working in the tech sector now to talk to your friends and be in close contact with everybody that you work with, have communication devices that are not connected to work, have channels to communicate with your coworkers that don't run through the boss's channel, to have independent ways of communicating, because as I saw in my case studies, it's really important that workers are able to share information, to share data about what's happening at their firms, and to share their opinions and experiences so that they know that they're not the only ones who are going through this, that they're not alone when they get that layoff letter. That's one of the things I think that we're seeing now that we have Twitter and other forms of social media. It is much clearer, I think, to workers who are facing the threat of layoffs that this is not due to something that they did, this is due to their manager making a decision, so that they can actually band together with other folks who are facing similar threats and potentially find some way of exercising economic leverage of threatening the material interests, the economic interests of their firm to push back on these measures.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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