The Future of Work(ers): Building Collective Power in the Era of Remote Work

For years, tech companies have advertised the “future of work” as one that is remote, driven by a geographically disparate workforce. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this transition into an increasingly distributed workforce. Now more than ever, traditional offices have given way to remote work. And why not? Executives, founders, and venture capitalists have provided countless articles, interviews, and podcasts about this remote and distributed workforce becoming the very future of work itself. 

These modern-day robber barons often paint a picture of a utopian, futuristic workplace. Workers can work when, where, and however they want. They can be with their families, travel, work from coffee shops, decide to work mornings or nights, weekdays, or weekends — it’s the ultimate freedom. Employers, no longer in need of a centralized office, can cut out traditional expenses, such as rent and utilities. They can hire workers from anywhere in the world. Skills, expertise and talent are not bound by arbitrary borders on a map. Remote companies are free to hire “the best of the best” from anywhere in the world — so long as they have access and means to afford reliable internet.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, this move to remote work has been accelerated. At the height of the pandemic, companies forced jobs from traditional on-site offices to our kitchen tables and couches. While we see some companies currently implementing “return to office” policies, as real estate leases expire and the bosses realize they can outsource and deskill traditionally white-collar office jobs, we will continue to see more and more of the working class working from home. On its surface, this move to remote work seems like a change from which both workers and employers will benefit. However, what’s often left out of these “future of work” conversations and even more crucial for the vast majority of us is the ​future of​ the ​workers themselves.

Even the most progressive companies are not immune from traditional workplace antagonisms. At the end of the day, no matter how lofty a company’s mission statement may be, the bosses and investors are driven by profit. This motive directly conflicts with the workers’ rightful desire for fair compensation, dignity, and a voice in the workplace. As the dust settles and power dynamics between employer and employee are reestablished, this future in which remote and hybrid work is the norm will be​ ripe for exploitation by the bosses of the workers bound by its constraints.

Remote Work and Organizing in Isolation

Organizing a workplace is hindered the moment that the workforce goes remote. Workers lose conversations around the water cooler, on the loading dock, or in the break room. While they may have social meetings over Zoom, they no longer have the in-person happy hour after work to engage in conversation with their colleagues or the coffee break to vent, commiserate, and let off steam.

These may seem like trivial things — and some of us won’t particularly miss happy hours after work — but removing these organic interactions with coworkers also removes opportunities for workers to candidly share how they feel about work, their boss, their workplace, or their industry in general.

Early socialists, workers, and union organizers in the labor movement met at taverns and pubs to discuss working conditions. These conversations laid the foundation for organized labor. These informal and often impromptu discussions are a necessary step in any attempts of worker organizing. Yet most, if not all, of these worker-to-worker interactions in a traditional workplace are removed as soon as a company goes remote.

Many managers and executives pride themselves on having an “open door policy” in which employees are encouraged to share their thoughts with management. Yet even when management is willing to listen, they can — and often will — push public conversations into private, one-to-one conversations. And just in doing that, the workers’ biggest strength — their solidarity in numbers — is gone and fledgling talks of worker organization are easily dismissed well before they can acquire momentum to reach the majority of workers. There’s a reason those early activists met at the tavern without the boss.

More recently, tools like employee engagement surveys have become popular with companies to request feedback from workers in an attempt to quantify employee sentiment. In theory, these surveys allow workers to collectively share their candid and honest feedback about the workplace. On its surface, this may seem like a good thing. And it ​could​ be.

But the intent and usage of tools like employee engagement surveys may be far more insidious than appears at first glance. Using the data acquired through these surveys, companies can find which areas, demographics, or departments of the workforce are most dissatisfied. And they can then stamp out attempts to organize.​ ​In fact, some companies are already doing just that​.

By enforcing usage of company-provided communication platforms and devices, employers are further able to shift the balance of power in their favor. On company platforms, where conversations can be easily monitored and controlled, employees can have their access cut at a moment’s notice. And just like that, they’re disconnected and cut off from their co-workers.

The World Wide Workplace

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels talked of the reserve army of labor. This term refers to the unemployed and under-employed members of a capitalist society. This reserve army is not an unfortunate side effect of capitalism — its existence is by design. So long as there are job-seekers, employers can leverage the threat of termination and replacement to bring their employees to heel.

When we expand the pool of labor beyond the commutable radius of a workplace through remote work, we exponentially multiply this reserve army of labor. No longer are we pitted against fellow workers in just our local job market, but we’re pitted against each other in a worldwide reserve army of labor. With a finite number of jobs to fill and a rapidly growing pool of labor to pull from, the competition within the job market will grow.

Now that bosses are pulling from a global pool of labor, this will not only affect workers on a local level but increase exploitation worldwide. Hiring practices, potentially under the guise of diversity and inclusion, will be optimized to draw candidates from lower cost-of-living areas through increasingly precarious employment terms. Sites like Upwork and FlexJobs are already trying to become the Uber and Lyft of traditionally “white collar” jobs by replacing good paying, full-time jobs with contract and temporary work. This is the digital equivalent of off-shoring and outsourcing manufacturing jobs.

Employers are already benefiting from and exploiting workers in this distributed workplace. The Bloomberg 2020 presidential campaign hired a firm called ProCom, which ​used prison labor to make campaign phone calls​. ​Corporations in the United States exploit deportees in the Global South​ for their “American-sounding” voices in call centers. How do we ensure employers don’t further exploit those who are most vulnerable in the name of cutting costs?

Automation, Productivity, and Justifying our Existence

This future of work that bosses are selling to us comes with a full benefits package, including the promise of increased productivity. We live in a time in which workers are more productive than ever. Through the advancement of technology and innovation, we have the means to produce basic necessities for every single person on the planet. Yet we don’t. We instead search endlessly for the latest “simple trick” or “workflow hack” to increase our individual productivity. For what purpose?

We need to stop asking how to be more productive and start asking who benefits from our productivity and why. Instead of chasing productivity hacks to justify our individual existence among the reserve army of labor, we need to focus our collective strength on building a future of work that provides for all.

Further, as bosses reduce us to simple metrics, the very tasks those metrics represent may soon become automated or deskilled themselves. And for every task that bosses automate, the less they need for our labor. This should be celebrated. We could all work fewer hours. We could share the burden of providing basic human needs and extend basic necessities to everyone. ​We could free ourselves of the 40-hour workweek.​ We could use this newly found freedom to pursue passions, spend time with family, and contribute to our communities.

Decreased demand for labor ​could​ allow for all workers to remain gainfully employed while working fewer hours. But that will not happen within our current system. This fierce competition for a shrinking number of jobs will be exploited by the bosses to the detriment of the workers. Instead of collectively sharing in the benefits of automation, the deskilling of work will pressure us to work harder and longer hours to meet ever-increasing expectations of output and productivity.

Without a deliberate and collective approach to organizing in this workplace of the future, we will instead be forced to justify our “privilege” to overwork in order to be underpaid by a handful of CEOs. Inequality will continue to increase and all but the venture capitalists, C-level executives, and shareholders will feel the devastating effects of this ever-increasing divide.

Company Cult(ure)

Companies often promote a strong company ​culture that includes a mission statement or list of values that are supposed to guide their decisions. More often, these mission statements are instead used to justify company decisions that are made to the detriment of the worker. If a worker asks for material improvement in their day-to-day job, those demands can be dismissed with a reference to a nebulous mission statement.

Don’t be fooled. Your workplace is not your family. You are expendable to your boss. The employee-employer dynamic has more in common with an abusive relationship than a family. The next time your boss references a company mission statement, ask yourself if the intent is genuine — or if they are trying to dismiss your concerns and guilt you into complacency.

This culture within the tech industry is driven by an idolization of CEOs, “visionaries,” and even the venture capitalists who simply got lucky when they funded the latest shiny app. This idolization is dangerous. It allows individuals to make decisions that impact not only their employees but also the people who use and rely on the products and services they create. This lionization of unelected and unaccountable individuals gives unmitigated power to people who are often not best-suited to make decisions in the best interest of others.

How can a CEO truly know what’s in the best interest of the workers? Or the users of their service? How many “thought leaders” in the tech world were simply in the right place at the right time? How many simply had the privilege and safety net to invest in an idea? An idea that may not have even been theirs to begin with?

Such great power into so few hands directly conflicts with any sense of democracy in the workplace. The CEOs, venture capitalists, and board members reign supreme over the workers. Workers fight amongst themselves for the “right” to work for their glorified oppressors.

“Be wary of great leaders. Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

—Pete Seeger

We need to stop this idolization and instead start holding these CEOs and venture capitalists accountable for their decisions. ​We need to bring democracy into the workplace through rank-and-file organizing.

Labor Movement 2.0

The future of work is one that could be bright for all of us. We don’t need to accept the dystopian workplace of the future ruled by the bosses. Rather, we must relentlessly reject the status quo handed to us from the top down and harness the unrealized potential we have amongst ourselves. ​We can win the future of work.

We can all work fewer hours while ensuring we all have our basic human needs met. We can free ourselves to pursue life beyond the confines of the workplace as we know it. We can work towards a fair and just workplace that works for all people, everywhere. But in order to get there, and in order to prevent the alternate, darker timeline, we need to organize together and build collective power. Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn, nor can a single line of code be written. ​At the end of the day, we don’t need CEOs. They need us.

It starts small. It starts by talking with your co-workers. It starts with the realization that our strength is in our collective voice and action. It starts with questioning the status quo. It starts with potentially uncomfortable conversations. ​It starts with all of us​. ​We all need to become workplace organizers.

“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”

—Eugene V. Debs

We must reject any “future of work” that does not include an equally comprehensive future of workers’ rights and organized labor. This future of work must be driven and democratically decided by us, the workers. All of us are stronger than any of us. But only if we are organized.

Tech Workers Are Fighting Back

No one is coming to save us. We have to do it ourselves. We all have a role to play in this resurgent labor movement. And across the country and around the world, workers are coming to do just that, by organizing for a greater say in their workplace. Workers at Google are building collective power through the Alphabet Workers Union. Tech Workers Union 1010 is supporting campaigns in many workplaces across the country. Here at EWOC, we’re supporting workers in tech and across every industry. And for the first time, Labor Notes will be holding a Tech Organizing Conference in New York City in October.

We’re up against some giants with almost as much money as they have arrogance. But just as the landscape of work itself is changing, so too will the landscape of worker organizing. Across workplaces and across industries, we can learn from and stand with each other. Let’s come together and build a future of work that works for all of us. We have a world to win.

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