Pluralistic: How tech changed global labor struggles for better and worse (02 Dec 2022)

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An altered version of J.C. Leyendecker's Labor Day 1946 cover illustration for Hearst's 'American Weekly' magazine. The original features a muscular worker in dungarees sitting atop a banner-draped globe, holding a sledgehammer. In this version, his head has been replaced with a faceless hacker-in-a-hoodie, and his sledgehammer has been filled with Matrix code-waterfall characters. Leyendecker's signature has been replaced with an IWW graphic depicting workers with upraised fists all joining together to form a gigantic fist.

How tech changed global labor struggles for better and worse (permalink)

The original sin of both tech boosterism and tech criticism is to focus unduly on what a given technology does, without regard to who it does it to and who it does it for. When it comes to technology's effect on our daily lives, the social arrangements matter much more than the feature-sets.

This is the premise behind my idea of the "shitty technology adoption curve": if you want to do something horrible to people with technology, you must first inflict it on people without social power and then work your way slowly up the privilege gradient, smoothing the tech's rough edges by sanding them against the human bodies of people who can't fight back.

Thus we see the rise of all disciplinary technology, especially bossware, which started off monitoring forced prison labor, then blue-collar workers, then pink collar workers (like the largely female, largely Black work-from-home customer service reps who work for Arise):

The pandemic saw the spread of bossware to affluent, "high-skilled" white-collar workers, from doctors to teachers to IT workers, as the idea of being monitored continuously in your own home, from camera to keystrokes, was normalized by the lockdown:

And yet, what matters about bossware isn't what it does – a keylogger that you control is just called "undo" – but who it does it to. When gig workers "seize the means of computation" and hack the apps that boss them around, they can turn the tables. That's what's happening in Indonesia, where Tuyul apps are produced by worker co-ops and small software vendors to give drivers direct control over their working conditions:

This is true disruption, where tech isn't just used for regulatory arbitrage (as when gig-work apps are used to avoid labor laws by misclassifying workers as contractors):

That's what makes Rida Qadri's research so exciting: the premise that if workers can hack their employers back, bossware can become laborware:

In the USA, companies like Para are creating apps that sit on top of the gig work dispatch apps, monitoring all the offers from all the different apps and auto-declining offers that are too low, forcing the algorithm to bid up the labor share of the companies' income:

Writing for IT for Change's outstanding inaugural "State of Big Tech" issue, the Vidhi Centre For Legal Policy's Jai Vipra presents "Changing Dynamics of Labor and Capital," a deep, essential look at the way that tech affects labor struggles around the world:

Vipra's report is fascinating not just for the eye-watering new ways that capital uses tech to inflict pain on labor, but for the ingenious, effective mechanisms that workers use tech to answer power with countervailing power.

For example, when workers delivering for the Swiggy app were unable to get the company to respond to the ways that the app was driving them into unsustainable and dangerous working schedules, they staged a "log-out strike" and collectively withheld their labor from the app, triggering a crisis that management couldn't ignore.

Likewise, drivers for Ola began mass-cancelling rides to protest the company's policy of not showing drivers their destinations and pay until they accepted a job – the resulting chaos forced the company to let drivers see all the details of an offer of work before accepting it.

These direct actions are driven in part by the platforms' relentless pursuit of a reduced wage-bill, which sees them laying off swathes of back-office workers who once stepped in to mediate between gig workers and their algorithmic managers. When you can't get anyone on the phone or a livechat to complain that your app wants you to drive off a pier and into the deep blue sea, collective digital power swings into action.

The Shitty Tech Adoption Curve means that we find the tactics of gig drivers working their way up the privilege gradient to white-collar workers, and sure enough, in Mar 2021, Goldman Sachs bankers coordinated a threat of mass resignation over the bossware monitoring them in their homes 24/7, complaining of 105 hour (!!) work-weeks:

But ad-hoc coordination has its limits. Spinning up a new organizing group to counter each new bossware fuckery exacts a terrible price from already overstretched, precarious workers. That's where unions come in. On the face of it, unionizing gig workers presents an insurmountable challenge: they are atomized, geographically dispersed and lack even a break room.

But tech taketh away and tech giveth back. When Uber Eats bait-and-switched drivers into signing up in 2016 and then slashed their wages, organizers connected with other workers by placing small food orders with Uber Eats and then had organizing conversations with the drivers who delivered the orders:

Bosses push back. They've convinced gutless labor regulators to ban the use of work email addresses for union organizing; they send infiltrators to monitor private Facebook conversations, they plant spyware on phones and laptops to crack open Whatsapp group-chats. Location-aware ID badges let bosses follow workers around and target potential union organizers for retaliatory firings.

The same monitoring tools let bosses nickel-and-dime their workers, clocking them off while they're "unproductive" (peeing, driving to pick up their next passenger or delivery, or only paying retail workers while a customer is in the shop).

It's a mixed bag: in China, independent workers' rights centers work almost exclusively through social media,
"for both direct consultations and mass dissemination of information, and this use is contributing to the organizing of labor as well."

And ironically, monopoly helps labor organizers: the rollup plays that have seen most CloudKitchens gathered into the hands of a few firms means that their workers are more likely to be physically proximate and able to organize labor resistance to their monopolist bosses.

A common labor complaint in the age of digitalization is that their bosses monitor and discipline them for their off-hours activities: think of Deutsche Welle and the AP firing journalists who used their personal social media accounts to express support for Palestinians' struggle for justice.

Bossware vendors boast that they can monitor workers' personal online activity "to help them stay focused" – something 72% of workers object to. It's easy to see how this can become a focus of labor activism, especially as employers announce that they will fire any worker who refuses to supply a full list of their social media accounts for monitoring:

The next level of personal surveillance comes from "voluntary" health monitoring in which employees are required to wear Fitbits or other biometric tracking tools, or face increases to their health care premiums and other penalties. This is bad enough, but these biometric companies are choice acquisition targets for the biggest surveillance companies in the world, which means that you might one day wake up and find out that the data from your employer-mandated tracking cuff is now in Google's hands:

Neoliberalism got us into this mess, and tech was its willing accomplice. But Vipra makes a good case that tech can "increase the negotiating power of labor over capital." For Vipra, this starts with access to data: in India, "analog" workers have the legal right to know their employers' profit margins, which is key for collective bargaining. But digital workers don't have this right:

Giving gig workers the right to their own performance data would help those workers secure competitive bids for their labor – denying workers access to this data is anti-competitive:

This same data can be used to make the case for regulation and unionization: when it's your word against your boss's, it might be hard to interest public officials in protecting your working conditions. But when the data shows that gig workers are putting in 12-18 hour days without overtime, the case is harder to ignore:

Modern employers collect vast amount of data about their workers, but share almost none of it. Again, the important thing isn't what the tech is doing, but who it's doing it for and who it's doing it to.

Vipra also singles out the one-sided nature of the platforms' use of payment technologies. Modern payment systems mean that gig work platforms collect their customers' money in near-realtime, but despite this, gig companies are the most delay-prone employers, paying workers after totally unjustifiable delays that give bosses free cash flow and force workers into precarity.

After this critique, Vipra proposes "a substantive agenda for labor" in five areas: algorithmic regulation, data sharing, remote work rights, financial rights, and "emancipatory automation."

Algorithmic regulation: Algorithms should have "a minimum level of explainability"; "minimum performance levels" (error rates, transparency, etc); and "human involvement in decision making" must be mandatory (so you can get prompt and effective redress when the algorithm misfires).

Data sharing: Don't just "data minimize" – "reorient it towards goals that are worker- and society-friendly." Collect and share data on labor safety, and mandate that companies "collect, analyze, and share big data to protect workers’ rights."

Remote work rights: The right to disconnect from work; the right to be paid for work equipment, including chairs, internet access, etc (I would add here, the right to have those devices configured to block employer monitoring).

Financial rights: The state should mandate financial interoperability and use account aggregators and open banking to "minimize[] the information asymmetry in favor of people for whom information is collateral." Force platforms to disclose the commissions, fees, incentives, etc they offer to workers. Provide source-code for these systems to regulators.

Emancipatory automation: "Automation should mean less drudgery and fewer working hours overall." This is what I'm getting at when I call for technologists to become full-stack Luddites:

Overall, Vipra presents a bracing, challenging view of the way that tech can serve both labor and capital, depending on how it is configured and used. I don't agree with everything she says (the privacy section in data rights could use its own article of equal depth and critical analysis), but reading this made the hair on the back on my neck stand up (in a good way).

This is more or less what I had in mind back in 2009 when I was writing For the Win, about how multiplayer games could serve as organizing platforms for an international labor vanguard (the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, or Webblies):

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Britain’s Data Chernobyl: more lost CDs full of thousands of personal records;jsessionid=NR12Q0CT3XVTLQFIQMGSFFOAVCBQWIV0?xml=/news/2007/12/02/nbenefit102.xml

#5yrsago Tim O’Reilly’s WTF? A book that tells us how to keep the technology baby and throw out the Big Tech bathwater

#1yrago Massive Predpol leak confirms that it drives racist policing

Colophon (permalink)

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