Issue 6: Tech Work Under the Pandemic

10 Mar 2021

Yesterday, Turker and AI worker Sherry Stanley wrote about pushing Amazon and task requesters for fair pay and recognition. She and other Turkers are now requesting tech worker support for their worker-led organizing. Building on that, today we’re introducing a new series in collaboration with Data & Society. Over the coming weeks, we’ll feature interviews with people who build and work with tech, who are organizing in unique, context-specific ways to build worker power in the tech industry. And if you want to share your story, start here.

A classic computer icon surrounded by quote marks

We need to talk to each other. / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

By TWC and Data & Society

“We need people to listen to us.”

From December 2020 through February 2021, we heard this over and over: Tech Workers Coalition and Data & Society partnered to interview tech workers about how their work might have changed as a result of the pandemic. Our goal in these interviews was to push the boundaries of who we consider “tech workers.” Through these conversations, we drew out power dynamics and hierarchies that have been exacerbated during this time and found different models of worker solidarity.

We talked with a Wi-Fi network engineer who traverses all parts of a hospital to ensure their Internet connection is sound; a materials engineer at one of the Big Five who would normally be in a laboratory if she didn’t happen to hear it was legally “optional”; a software engineer on an H-1B visa who is navigating anxiety about immigration status and leery colleagues; and a home cleaner who co-owns a web platform with coworkers, and spent the early days of COVID-19 lockdown adapting their service to a new reality.

We hope that this interview series reintroduces the archetypal “tech worker” to spotlight people who build, maintain, and use tech day-to-day. And beyond the stories, we hope this series showcases strategies for organizing in and across workplaces, as well as what worker solidarity can look like.

Workers talking with workers

The stakes for workers are high. Speaking out can result in retaliation, or for some, losing their immigration status. But talking with peers is a vital part of a powerful labor movement, the value of which is almost impossible to estimate.

We determined who to interview by setting clear parameters for ourselves. We made sure to consider what value this interview might bring to the person speaking with us. We also knew we needed to break out of the cliches defining who counts as a “tech worker.”

Through personal relationships, direct outreach, and one interviewee approaching us with their story, we compiled these four, diverse perspectives on work under the pandemic. So much of interviewing, especially about topics like workplace concerns, requires building trust and rapport with the interviewee.

We designed our interviews to learn about each person and how they identify themselves, their work before the pandemic, how their work has changed, and what modes of organizing and solidarity they’ve employed during this time. Conducting interviews can be a difficult task, especially under a pandemic when it’s nearly impossible to meet in person. Our conversations began with a consent to record, an explanation of how we would use that recording, and an agreement that the interviewee had the power to guide the discussion; they didn’t have to answer anything they didn’t want to.

Each interview was more of a conversation with questions tailored to the worker’s specific context. We also made sure to conduct interviews in the language that the interviewee felt comfortable speaking (for instance, the interview with the co-owner of the Up & Go cooperative and platform, was conducted in Spanish). When relevant, we shared our own anecdotes to build a mutual exchange of information. By the end of the conversation, and as we reviewed the transcripts, we followed up with workers to ask about labor organizing advice based on their experience.

We need to talk more

These interviews paint a picture of the highly contextual nature of workplace conflicts, as well as the various, sometimes contradictory, strategies workers might need to resolve them.

The Wi-Fi engineer working in a hospital secured ample PPE not by organizing his own colleagues, but by building trusted relationships with nurses, doctors, and maintenance staff. The software engineer with an H-1B visa found information and aid in online forums about immigration, especially as working from home foreclosed the office chat where he might have found others with shared anxieties. The materials engineer accepted her own precarity and let it fuel her organizing. While her fellow colleagues trekked into the lab, she elected to remain home (well within her rights) and dove headfirst into connecting colleagues who surfaced the company’s attempt to dodge labor laws by changing their employment status from contractor to vendor. The co-owner and worker from Up & Go, told a very different story – she described support, care, and interdependence made possible by organizing and structures established long before the pandemic began. She and her coworkers knew they’d take care of one another.

Our first interview in the series comes out next week. We see conversations and relationships as two sides of a coin, and will write a reflection at the end of the series about organizing strategies and insights. We hope to partner with additional groups to coordinate more peer interviews across race and class, workplaces and national border lines, and all the way up and down supply chains, helping people learn how to talk with each other, until it becomes normal and easy, and workers have the power to control their productivity and determine their fates.