27 Apr 2023
Workers are building a union at Code for America, a nonprofit started in 2009 that now calls itself a company with a CEO. And two years after leadership slowly voluntarily recognized the union, CfA leadership is now also dragging its feet at the bargaining table. Senior software engineer Jacky Alciné tells us how he aligned his passions with his work, and how anti-union activity works in civic tech.
The Worker’s Perspective
by Jacky Alciné
I live in the politically hot and messy state of Florida, so working on services for people who are routinely overlooked rings another bell in my chest. I joined Code for America during the pandemic in a time where people needed (and still do need) support from their governments to make ends meet. The organization’s work around fighting poverty, giving formerly incarcerated folks a better chance at life, and improving financial stability through tax benefits and e-filing hit right at home for me as the kind of work I want to be doing in these times. After reading Cyd Harrell’s insightful book about civic tech engagement, and after years of working in the private sector, it convinced me that this organization, when working with government, could be a lever of change.
Days after receiving my offer, I was greeted by a representative of the union - something I wasn’t fully aware that Code for America had when I applied. As an organization working under a representative democracy and given the history of labor’s ability to enact change, having a democratic structure internally clicked very easily for me. But I’ve also come to see how worker power doesn’t quite click the same way for CfA’s leadership.
It’s clear how much people here find passion in what they do. The people working on GetCalFresh, a service allowing people to apply for food stamps quickly, are incredible and I enjoy seeing their presentations about the delivery, research and impact they provide. It’s fulfilling to see how these multiple disciplines overlap to provide high-quality services that interface with government in a way that works for both citizens and the state. California isn’t the only place this type of work is happening! The ability to work with government to build out these tools for the public requires a particular kind of empathy that I think contributes to why workers at Code for America are quick to understand why a union - a democratic form of control of your work - is important and needed.
I was excited to see my first bargaining session unfold as I figured that such an organization wouldn’t have an issue coming to a contract. The act of bargaining for improving the livelihoods of workers was something that I expected leadership at Code for America to grasp. As the session went on, I was then disappointed to see how that eager energy for balanced proposals from the bargaining committee was not reflected back to them from management. After that session, I found found out that management had formally hired Jackson Lewis, a law firm known for union busting. It wasn’t enough to keep my head down and work on impactful projects - I had to stand with the workers I’m building these services with and I joined the bargaining committee.
So far, we have managed to come to agreement with management on nine proposals. These include no invasive monitoring systems (that are extremely harmful at scale) on our machines, leading by example and changing how we hire people with complicated backgrounds (combating the harm of how our industrial prison system operates), and recognition of the union itself! We are still fighting for breaking the inequitable nature of geographic pay bands and enacting systems that would account for inflation changes to our pay. We consider these proposals very important - especially in a country where rising inflation is one of our leading metrics. It has been frustrating to hear leadership push back against these changes that, if we were in the Senate, would be hailed as change towards the benefit of the American public.
Two days ago, we published an open letter about the bargaining process and immediately, tensions with leadership piled up. Even though they are expressing they want to move in good faith, in reality, Code for America has continued to refuse to do so - to a point now where they’ve halted bargaining altogether in response to our actions and demands. They have been denying terminated employees representation, shrinking the number of eligible members and going as far as blaming the presence of a unionized environment for a reduction in benefits. This kind of behavior, punishing bargaining unit members for organizing by reducing benefits for those within, is a textbook example of intimidation intended to dissuade people from organizing.
So, we’ve sent complaints to leadership about how their representatives acts to intimidate or belittle the unit members. Leadership has run meetings during working hours to hold update meetings about union activity in a place where union representatives have no space to provide information or respond to claims made in those sessions - resulting in more worker confusion and conversation about what had just happened. Leadership is also targeting three of the four committee members by denying them union representation, despite them being on the voluntary union recognition agreement list of workers. It’s getting clear that a worker democracy is something Code for America is fighting against.
The NLRB defines this behavior by CfA leadership as bad faith bargaining and there’s a lot of overlap with what Code for America’s leadership is doing. We’ve filed multiple charges with the National Labor Relations Board in hopes of holding Code for America accountable to the laws around labor organizing. All of this behavior runs counter to their recent response to us going public. There’s mention of pride in providing the best in the industry but with the internal pushback against things like flexible working weeks which other groups have implemented in a unionized environment, it’s clear where the effort is being directed - it’s not at the bargaining table, since those meetings have been canceled!
But the NRLB won’t build our union for us. The way people who’ve been here longer than me (and even not as long!) are so eager to rally behind these causes, fighting this fear of talking about how work is done at work, what rights and benefits we’re eligible to under the law, and the needs of the unit. My coworkers standing up to leadership, in spite of these setbacks, is something that continues to motivate me today, especially in our landscape where workers are fighting injustices. I’m encouraged that some of Code for America’s bad faith actions have encouraged more of my coworkers to attend bargaining sessions due to the frustration that they’ve heard from peers (as we exercise our right to unionize).
After nearly two years of voluntary recognition, we’re eager to win a contract. If you want to show your support and stay connected, please sign our anti-union busting petition. You can also check out our ally toolkit to send messages via emails and social media to Code for America, demanding that they address our demands.
Follow our organizing online at Twitter @CfAWorkers. Thank you Sunny R and Danny S for the ongoing conversation, and to everyone in Tech Workers Coalition for real solidarity with fellow workers.