Ethan Marcotte’s new book, “You Deserve a Tech Union,” is a compelling and galvanizing read — not just for tech workers, but for anyone who is union-curious (or even union-skeptical).
The book provides a mix of practical guidelines and steps that one can take to form a union, along with inspiring stories from present-day unionization efforts that capture the imagination about what’s possible. There’s also a historical perspective through stories from the past that demonstrate some of the wins that unions have already brought us.
One of those stories is the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, also known as the Bread and Roses Strike:
“One group of women was said to have carried a sign bearing words from the suffrage activist Helen Todd: “We want bread, and roses too.” Their slogan was a call not just for basic subsistence, but for a life of dignity.”Ethan Marcotte
Ethan Marcotte is a veteran web designer, writer, consultant, and all-around thoughtful human being, known for coining the term “responsive web design” in 2010. His unique perspective on the state of tech organizing today is the result of work in the tech industry for over two decades, where he has lacked the protections he now advocates. “I’ve been self-employed for most of my career, so I’ve never been in a union,” he says. ”But organized labor is something I’ve always cared deeply about.”
The book describes an evolution in consciousness that mirrors that of many other tech-worker organizers. After the 2016 presidential election, the tech industry saw a surge of activism when workers began to recognize the work they had produced could potentially be abused to harm people. “Those harms had always been there, of course,” he says. “But I think 2016 brought those harms into sharp relief for a lot of people, and a lot of worker-led organizing and activism followed over the next couple of years.”
Ethan vividly recalls the 2018 Google walkouts as a moment when he started seriously thinking about documenting this tectonic shift in the industry. “I’ve never seen anything like that before: 20,000 tech workers taking to the streets to demand systemic change at work,” he says. “It was inspiring.”
The book includes material drawn from interviewing workers from across the tech industry at every level of union formation, discussing why they unionized, how they structured their campaigns, and what challenges they faced. Several workers mentioned they felt overwhelmed at first and that they weren’t sure how to get started.
“That’s something I want this book to help with: to make the process more clear to others, while shining a light on the people who have unionized their workplaces,” he says. “My hope is that these two things will help readers see ‘forming a union’ as something that’s possible for them, while giving them some resources and materials to get them started on their way… I wanted to write this book because the worker organizing we’re seeing right now has been the single most hopeful thing I’ve seen come out of the tech industry. Tech workers are actually seeing their status as workers. What’s more, they’re recognizing there’s power in that status, and moving together to make change: not just in their workplaces, but also in the industry at large.”
The book is not a detailed organizing manual, and it’s not a how-to guide. “You Deserve a Tech Union” does have practical lessons and resources in it, and the longest chapter is about how to form a union in the United States. But generally, Ethan says, “I was trying to focus more on the why.” There’s a real momentum building, and we’re so excited this book has come out now, as more tech workers are becoming comfortable recognizing that unionizing is a path that’s available to them.
The following is our edited interview with Ethan.
EWOC: I’m really curious about your interest in labor organizing as someone who’s self-employed and doesn’t have co-workers or a boss in the traditional sense. Did it stem from your general interest and research into the tech industry?
Ethan: Oh, well, I’ve been employed full-time before, here and there: I worked in Higher Ed for a time, had a fair bit of agency experience, and so on. But unions were a big part of my life, growing up: I didn’t have a union family, but I was taught by union members, and I received medical care from union members. Maybe most importantly, I had a teacher and mentor who was a big influence on me, and he was firmly pro-union. I saw my first ever Wobbly poster on the halls of his house, before I even really knew what it was. So I guess union stories and histories were something that I was raised on, even if I didn’t understand the politics all that much.
But getting back to your first question, asking why I wrote this book? It’s really been led by the simple fact that there is this wave of organizing in tech. I mean, unions were something I always cared about — but it’s not about me. It’s about workers at companies like Kickstarter and Glitch and Nava and more, who decided that a union needed to exist at their workplaces.
In other words, these workers felt this is a direction that the industry needed to move in. At the end of the day, this book is documenting something that is already happening in the tech industry — and from where I’m sitting, it’s a movement that only seems to be gaining steam. That’s why I decided to write the book.
EWOC: There’s a narrative in places like Google, where an abundance of personal amenities are provided for employees like laundry services, meals, coffee, bean bag chairs etc., a narrative of “We want to provide for you, and we’re a family, and whatever grievances you have can be solved internally between you and your manager.” This narrative also pervades the nonprofit and higher education sectors and serves to make certain people wary of unions, especially if they’re relatively happy in their workplace or have strong relationships with their supervisors and co-workers.
Ethan: My book is primarily geared towards folks who are at least curious about the idea of unions. But for tech workers who might be skeptical of why they’d need to unionize, I do hope there’s some material in there that’s useful to them. Because for me, it really comes back down to these two questions that I ask early on in the book: “What do you like about your job? What would you change about it if you could?”
Once you’ve answered those questions, there are some more that follow on from that: “How would you keep the things you like from changing? And if there are things you wish were different, how would you change them?” It can be helpful to put aside some of the benefits you mention — the free laundry services, the easy access to free food, and so on — and take an inventory of what’s actually guaranteed to you at work. And maybe to start thinking about what should be guaranteed to you.
For some workers, those questions can be a useful first step toward organizing and to building power collectively.
EWOC: I found it interesting how you connected technology all the way back to industrialization and other forms of advancements that have been introduced to the workplace and threatened labor in all industries, not just tech workers. In your book, you reference the work of Ursula Franklin, a research physicist who often spoke about the potential negative effects of technology. Here’s a quote of hers from your book.
“[Once] a technology achieves institutionalized status, it reshapes people’s labor — and people’s lives — on a dramatic, industrial scale. A technology may promise liberation at first — but inevitably, people are captured by it. Exploited.”Ursula Franklin
Ethan: Yeah, absolutely.
I mean, across all the interviews I had for the book, very few people I spoke with grew up with a direct connection to organized labor. Most of the tech workers I spoke with felt they’d always been supportive of unions but didn’t connect them to the tech industry, that tech workers didn’t “need” unions. After all, we’re generally paid well, we often receive good benefits, and we weren’t working in physically dangerous working conditions.
Generally, I think there’s a preconception that tech, as an industry, is somehow different from all the other industries that have ever come before it. Stepping into that history of recognizing that we are workers, and as such, we can be exploited as workers was important for me, and I hope it’s useful for others, too.
EWOC: We’re seeing this profoundly across many industries: the UAW fighting for a just transition to EV technology or the threat of AI for WGA and SAG-AFTRA members. You recently published an op-ed about AI and its effects on labor, and you discuss this in your book as well.
Beyond the threat of technology on white-collar and blue-collar workers alike, there’s a tendency to exclude creative types — writers, actors, intellectuals, etc. — from the working class, and to see them as having an elite status of employment. There’s a tendency to view tech workers and their struggles in the same way.
Ethan: It’s easy for folks to look at the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, and think, “Oh, why are they picketing? It’s Hollywood: they’re all pulling down JJ Abrams’ or Brad Pitt’s salaries.” But that’s not true, not by a long shot. 87% of SAG-AFTRA members make less than $26,000 a year.
I think the same bias applies to the tech industry, too: when some people hear “tech worker,” they might think of software engineers making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at a massive corporation. But not every tech worker is an engineer, and not everybody works at Google. Folks who work in trust and safety, or in content moderation, somebody who works at a small digital agency, whose clients are exclusively small businesses, they’re all tech workers.
There are definitely layers of privilege in tech work — absolutely. But at the end of the day, all tech workers deserve a union.
EWOC: I’d like to expand on this idea about deserving the protections of a union. Your book is called, “You Deserve a Tech Union.” Organizers often find themselves having to sell these basic tenets to workers that we deserve a decent salary, we deserve a workplace that respects us, we deserve healthcare, we deserve to retire at a reasonable amount of time before we die, as if we have to give ourselves permission to join a union and be in this fight. There’s a passage in the book where you discuss the ideals of a meritocracy and individualism within the tech industry and how that can be antithetical to the ideals of a collective.
“I realize that for some tech workers, this idea of solidarity can feel like a difficult concept to accept. And I get it, truly. For me, I wonder if some of that difficulty lies in the fact that the idea runs counter to the stories the tech industry tells itself about “meritocracy”: about the brilliant self-starters who struck out alone, and who achieved dizzying successes simply and solely because they were so brilliant and talented and motivated, all without help from anyone else. We’ve bought into this idea of the talented individualist so thoroughly that our stories tend to brush away all the privileges they enjoyed, or the assistance they received: the family that supported them, the wealth they inherited, the educational institutions they had access to. Somehow, our fables focus solely on the child, rather than on the village that raised them.”Ethan Marcotte
Additionally, corporations have further alienated their employees by hiring a majority workforce of part-time or contract employees, which reinforces this impression that they can abdicate their responsibilities of providing adequate benefits, a safe workplace, and job security. Do you think that this alienation makes it challenging for contract employees at these large tech companies to participate in a union?
Ethan: One of the cornerstones, and frankly original sins of the tech industry, is its reliance on contract work. This applies to contracted knowledge workers, of course. But the so-called “gig economy” is deeply, deeply intertwined with the successes of the tech industry today. Because we can’t really talk about the people who drive for Lyft or Uber as being somehow distinct from the corporate profits of Lyft or Uber. That’s why I wanted to end the book on dramatically expanding the definition of “tech worker”: these contract workers are tech workers, just as much as the engineers and designers who build those platforms.
However, there are very few legal protections available to these contract workers; that is one of those many areas where American labor laws are stacked against us. That’s why I’ve been so inspired by the push — and I know EWOC has been a big part of this too — to use pre-majority unions as a platform for helping connect contract workers with the means to unionize themselves. At Alphabet and Apple, their pre-majority unions work to provide an avenue to unionization for more marginalized tech workers at those companies. That’s been great to see.
EWOC: We also know that creating a two-tiered employee system is another way for employers to breed resentment and divide us. Another powerful excerpt from the book explains
“A union’s power isn’t derived from its individual members, from its size, or even from its goals—or rather, its power isn’t only derived from those things. By establishing a union, you and your fellow workers acknowledge that the well-being of every union member is bound up in the well-being of every single other union member. And that acknowledgment is the heart of a union in a very real, practical sense. A union is powerful precisely because of that interconnectedness between workers—that solidarity.”Ethan Marcotte
I wholeheartedly agree with this understanding of solidarity. We’ve seen where large majority unions, who are not fighting for the most vulnerable members in the group with that same “we’re all in this together” attitude, can start seeing weaknesses in the campaign.
Ethan: Absolutely. Solidarity isn’t just a buzzword: there’s a real power to be held there.
That’s why it’s important to note that some of these contracting firms and services have been organizing for quite some time, longer than “traditional” tech workers have been. Whether it’s shuttle bus drivers at Google or contract cafeteria workers, there are tech workers who’ve been fighting for contracts for years. There’s a history there that we can draw from, and learn from — if we’re willing to listen to the workers who’ve led the way.
EWOC: A common practice for white-collar workers to make any improvements in their working conditions is to find another job and use it as leverage for their current job; but more often than not, most workers, if they have the means, just find another job and quit. At EWOC, one of our mottos is “Don’t quit, organize!” It’s a concept that’s been repeated by notable labor organizers, but it’s a concept that’s anathema to today’s working professionals. You also reinforce that idea in your book.
“A union gives you options beyond simply leaving your job, or hoping it gets better; instead, it puts a mechanism in your hands that allows you and your fellow workers to help shape your job into something better. It’s a mechanism through which you and your coworkers can collectively—and quite literally—build power.” Ethan Marcotte
Ethan: While I was researching the book, the conversations I had with tech workers really underlined for me just how much unacknowledged precarity there is in tech work — that there aren’t a lot of guarantees. That’s especially true after the past year, where literally hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. That this isn’t an industry where your work is guaranteed to be there next month, much less next year. And frankly, I think folks are tired of that.
They want some guarantees.
They want some stability.
They want work that is going to treat them with dignity and respect.
And for some people, that absolutely does mean better pay because many people are dramatically underpaid in this industry. But it doesn’t stop there. I’m reminded of Kickstarters’ new contract, which has just-cause protections. And that’s a huge milestone for workers in the tech industry. What’s more, it makes me excited to see what kind of contracts come down the road in the future.
You can find out more about Ethan or connect with him at ethanmarcotte.com
Get your own copy of Ethan’s book using the discount code EWOC15, which will get you 15% off.
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