Issue 10: Civis' pro-labor, pro-union claims should apply to workers

01 Apr 2021

Special feature today: the worker’s perspective from 11 data scientists fired while organizing a union. Their employer? It emerged from the 2012 Obama campaign, and some of its best clients are unions. But as fired worker Sunny Rao said in this Intelligencer story also out today, “I’m starting to hate the word progressive, because it feels so meaningless now.” In their statement, seven of the workers say the company’s pro-labor, pro-union claims should start in-house.

An illustration of seven fists raised up, each holding a kind of tech peripheral or cord or plug

If tech worker solidarity wasn't necessary, we wouldn’t keep getting fired for it

The Worker’s Perspective

By @CivisSeven

We are seven data scientists who joined Civis Analytics wanting to make a difference in the world. In the fall of 2020, we began organizing in our workplace and took the first steps towards unionization. While we were at Civis, we advocated for what we wanted to see in a progressive workplace: pay transparency and equity, investments in diversity and inclusion initiatives, fair terms for workers on temporary contracts, and access to protected sick and bereavement leave.

On October 30, 2020, Civis leadership fired us in retaliation.

Civis presents itself as a progressive data company, and all of us joined Civis eager to use our technical skills for good. We were drawn to Civis by the values stated on its website – “We tell the truth” and “We do the right thing, even when it costs us.” We believed that Civis would be a place where our principles and integrity would be valued. But when we spoke up about problematic workplace policies, management consistently dismissed our concerns.

On multiple occasions, colleagues were told to work extra hours in order to take bereavement leave after a loved one had passed away – despite Civis boasting about its unlimited PTO and generous bereavement leave. Workers on temporary contracts were asked to work long hours – often working 70+ hour weeks – while receiving contradictory information about their conversion to permanent status. Leadership refused to address concerns about pay equity even after salary spreadsheets indicated potential disparities in pay based on gender. Repeated requests for anti-racism training and meaningful investments to make Civis more inclusive were met with token gestures or outright dismissal.

As we spoke with our colleagues, we realized that many of us were facing the same issues, noticing the same problems, and asking for the same solutions. So, we started organizing collectively. We drafted an open letter, discussed ways to raise our collective grievances during meetings with leadership, and began taking steps towards unionization. We didn’t expect management to immediately warm to the issues we raised. However, we also didn’t expect management to respond by suddenly retaliating and firing all of us one morning.

On December 7, 2020, we filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the NLRB in response to our illegal termination. We expected this case to be cut and dry. We had the receipts of our organizing, testimonials about our stellar job performance from co-workers and clients, and Civis’ ever-changing story about our firing. But Civis hired a notoriously anti-union law firm and now Electroluxa Trump-era ruling overturning decades of NLRB precedent – is allowing Civis to claim “layoffs” as a pretextual reason for our firing. This is despite the mountain of evidence in our favor, including Civis putting out a hiring call for our jobs immediately after firing us and repeatedly telling all employees that the decision was not financially driven. Civis touts its work for unions and pro-labor clients like SEIU, but firing us for organizing made it clear that their commitment to the labor movement is just about attracting progressive clients. Hiding behind the anti-union decisions of the Trump-era NLRB reinforces the superficiality of their commitment to the labor movement. We are appealing the dismissal of our charge and hope that the Acting General Counsel sees reason to take another look.

We are filing this appeal because we believe in the importance of labor rights — the right to collectively raise concerns with company policies, the right to discuss unionization, and the right to advocate for a more equitable and inclusive workplace. We want our remaining friends and colleagues at Civis to be able to advocate for a better workplace culture without fear of retaliation, and we want companies considering following Civis’s playbook to think twice about the repercussions of their actions. Above all, we are deeply concerned that if the NLRB can’t issue a complaint in a situation as clear cut as ours, workers will face a huge barrier when trying to advocate for change in their own workplaces.

Being fired in this way has been deeply traumatic, but we are also fortunate. We have the support of each other, and the solidarity of the organizing community. As Tech workers pulling in larger incomes and as young people with good health and without dependents, we are privileged enough to be able to spend time and money to continue this fight — a luxury most workers don’t have. Our story is getting attention due to the notoriety of Civis Analytics and connections afforded to us by privilege, while other more egregious labor violations escape accountability.

We believe it is critical for tech workers to stand in solidarity across class and racial lines and to fight for responsible technology and equitable workplaces. We hope that legislation like the PRO Act will help protect workers from employer retaliation and intimidation. We stand in solidarity with all workers advocating for better working conditions, and we hope that our story inspires others to share their stories as well.

Thank you to everyone standing in solidarity with us, especially to the Coworker Solidarity Fund that is helping fund our legal battle and the TWC newsletter collective that is helping us tell our story – please share your workplace organizing stories with TWC. You can find us on Twitter @CivisSeven.