Issue 3: Unions or Busting?

22 Jan 2021

New year, new format! We’re focusing more on news and history, and making the worker’s perspective its own feature. In the news, it’s been a hectic few weeks but unions, union busting, and tracking extremism stood out. We revisit Carnegie’s philanthropy legacy, and share a new track about labor struggles by Riderz With Attitude, an Italian bike courier group.

Amazon worker appearing in front of warehouse speaking about employer retaliation.

I work in an Amazon warehouse. My coworkers have been fired for speaking up about unsafe working conditions. COVID's rapid spread has made it unsafe for me to take care of my grandma, who’s been recovering from cancer. Joe Biden promised to stand up for workers like me. —Tyler Hamilton / Source

A new series for 2021

Last month we announced a new series in collaboration with Data & Society featuring people who work in tech, or with tech, and are experiencing work in a new way since the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re particularly interested in stories from those who aren’t typically considered tech workers – wifi technicians, cafeteria workers, “gig” workers, and so on – but are open to hearing from a range of experiences. Ask yourself: under the pandemic, have new power dynamics and relationships revealed themselves you? Has your work changed, or are you approaching it differently? Are you subject to new digital monitoring tools for contract tracing, or because of remote work? Reach out if you have a perspective to share, or if you would like to connect us with someone you know. We’re especially interested in underestimated, underrepresented stories from around the world.

Email ideas to with the subject line “New Series.”

In the News

Why Unions?

In Bessemer, Alabama, workers at an Amazon warehouse are voting on a union. Amazon put up a website with gross, condescending claims about union dues being better put towards video game consoles. Delta Airlines pushed the exact same talking point last year. In response, volunteers in TWC launched, a website highlighting the advantages of unions for worker power, better pay and working conditions, and more.

Not to leave any doubt, Instacart announced the layoffs of 1,877 positions, including all 10 of its unionized workers in what it is terming a shift to a new operating model.

It’s been a few weeks since Raksha Muthukumar wrote her perspective on organizing a minority union and already the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) is using its voice. This week, while Google’s wrongful firing AI researcher Timnit Gebru remains unresolved, AWU issued a statement in response to apparent retaliation against AI researcher Margaret Mitchell. And last week, after the siege on the Capitol, AWU issued a statement calling out YouTube’s lackluster response to stopping the spread of extremism. As the month draws to a close, the union has already tripled in size to 700+ members asking recently acquired Fit Bit employees to join.

Across the big tech pond, Github (owned by Microsoft) reversed course and apologized for the firing of a Jewish employee for speaking plainly about Nazi linkages in the Capitol Hill attack. The reversal was likely prompted by 200 Github employees organizing an open letter asking the company to take a firmer stance on anti-Semitism and white supremacy while creating a safer workplace.

Which makes you wonder if employee standards are as inscrutable as their employer’s algorithms. Jeff Dean, the Google AI research manager at the center of Timnit Gebru’s firing, claimed her paper did not meet Google’s standards — and went on to cite four of Gebru’s papers in his 2020 year in review.

The Internet Doesn’t Kill People, Platforms Kill People

It’s amazing what’s possible when tech companies look passed the advertising revenue and the golden eggs of populists. Research firm Zignal Labs charted a 73% decline in misinformation on Twitter following actions against the former president. Turns out that if you build for misinformation and abuse, it will come but if you ban them, they will leave.

Several efforts to track extremism have entered the discourse and it’s being argued, ‘The internet is a crime scene in the specific sense that its major platforms were used to connect, organize, and coordinate #StopTheSteal.’ The work to hold platforms accountable is only just beginning with the shuttering of Parler and the deplatforming of the former President. The new White House has pledged to convene a task force on online harassment and abuse while researchers demand social media companies to preserve user archives for disinformation and extremism forensics.

Odds and Ends

Managers! Can’t live with ‘em. Former Uber engineer Eddy Hernandez noticed that a senior manager at Uber publicly shamed workers organizing at Google, which likely constitutes an illegal threat to non-management, rank-and-file workers. A day later, legal beagle Matt Breunig filed a labor violation against the manager with the NRLB. It’s called accountability.

In History

A cartoon of Andrew Carnegie as a two-bodied serpent-man, one half taking wages from a worker and the other giving donations to charity

Forty-Millionaire Carnegie in his Great Double Role: As the tight-fisted employer he reduced wages that he may play philanthropist and give away libraries, etc.

The steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie is known as the godfather of modern large-scale philanthropy. He even laid out his philosophy of giving in an article called “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he claimed the rich should use their wealth to improve society. In the coming years, Carnegie used his extreme wealth to fund libraries, schools, and concert halls alike.

But just how did Carnegie get rich and stay rich? While he publicly showed his “largesse” with his donations, he was also crushing labor movements and reducing wages for the workers at his steel company. Why wouldn’t Carnegie just pay his workers more? He believed that workers were not to be trusted with their own money and that he could allocate it better through his philanthropy.

In fact, he believed that his philanthropic efforts justified even lower wages for his workers and more wealth for him: he wrote that “it becomes the duty of the millionaire to increase his revenues. The struggle for more is completely freed from selfish or ambitious taint and becomes a noble pursuit… The more he makes, the more the public gets.” Somehow he conveniently forgot that his workers were part of the public.

When his workers went on strike for 143 days in 1892, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Carnegie’s associate hired thousands of strikebreakers and Pinkertons to guard them. The Pinkertons brought violence with them, and ultimately seven strikers and three Pinkertons were killed. (Incidentally, the Pinkertons are hiring a UX designer in Miami, Florida.)

Today, we have the Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Omidyar Network. We have the Giving Pledge and Mackenzie Scott. But why should they get to determine how their billions will change society? What justifies their extreme wealth? And what were workers denied along the way? As William Jewett Tucker, a contemporary and critic of Carnegie’s, wrote at the time, “I can conceive of no greater mistake… than that of trying to make charity do the work of justice.”

In Song

RWA - Cavalier Dansant

Riderz With Attitude, a group of militant bike couriers in Torino, Italy, released a new track about union struggles.

Contro i padroni, i crumiri e le spie (Italian: Against the masters, the scabs and the spies)
Prendiamoci i viali, binari e corsie (Let’s take the driveways, the tracks and the lanes)
Oli stous dromous (Greek: Everybody in the street)
Oli stis platies! (Everybody in the squares!)

Bug nel tuo sistema (Bug in your system)
Il padrone trema (The master shakes/shivers)
Venti cavalieri ma sembriamo un fiume in piena (Twenty riders/knights but we look like a river in flood)
Cavalier dansant! Cavalkier dansant! (French: Dancing rider! Dancing rider!)