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Taking on Big Tech

Taj Ali

From metric-driven management to workplace surveillance, workers are turning to trade unionism to fight back against tech behemoth exploitation.

In Victorian London, King’s Cross was a crucial industrial hub. At one point, the former coal depot along Regent’s Canal handled 1,000 tons of coal a day. But, like many parts of the country, the area was hit hard by deindustrialisation. Warehouses handling coal and goods that were once transported by trains from the North lay empty and abandoned for years.

In the last decade, this former industrial wasteland has been transformed. Coal Drops Yard is now an enormous shopping complex with a vast array of eateries, a frequent haunt for the thousands of tech workers in the area. King’s Cross is home to London’s biggest tech hub, boasting global giants like Google, Meta, and Huawei, as well as smaller tech start-ups.

This trend is replicated nationally, with the tech sector becoming increasingly important to the British economy. Between 2010 and 2020, the sector grew by 1,000 percent. The UK’s digital sector now accounts for over 1.8 million jobs or 5.5 percent of all jobs. In March 2023, the economic output of the digital sector was 12 percent above the level of February 2020, in contrast to the economic output of the whole economy, which had barely grown over the same period — just 0.1 percent higher in March 2023 than in February 2020. Politicians from across the spectrum are heralding this change by falling over themselves to proclaim the crucial role of tech in economic growth in the years to come.

However, for those who form the backbone of this industry — the tech workers themselves — the recent years are a tale of mixed fortunes. Last year in particular saw a trend of tech layoffs, with big firms like Google, Meta, and Microsoft cutting tens of thousands of jobs.

When I started at Google, it was the coolest place I could imagine working at. I considered it an honour. Today, the layoffs mark a drastic shift in my perception. Google failed miserably to live up to its ‘don’t be evil’ mantra. It is still an industry leader; only now it somehow manages to set the worst of examples. I’m thoroughly disappointed.

This was one of several anonymous testimonies read out at a loud and angry demonstration outside Google’s Pancras Square HQ in April. The demonstration, attended by hundreds of Google workers and trade union allies, protested against the ‘appalling treatment and union busting’. Months earlier, Google had announced it would be making around 10,000 workers redundant across its global operations. In the UK, hundreds of workers were facing the chop.

‘This is not the way to treat workers who have given the best part of their lives to help the business grow,’ a Unite union rep told Tribune at the demonstration. The rep maintained that Google was ignoring most of the concerns put to it by union reps and closing the collective consultation process on redundancy plans. According to the rep, the company then began holding one-to-one consultations with workers, refusing to allow union representatives to be present.

‘We’ve had people on maternity leave finding on return to work that their job no longer exists,’ another worker said. Google, he continued, went so far as to refuse to hear grievances on the redundancy process put forward by individuals. The tech giant also reportedly attempted to limit legal representation for workers, who had to sign a settlement agreement to receive a redundancy package.

When approached for comment, a Google spokesperson said that after announcing this year’s redundancies, the company ‘constructively engaged and listened to [its] employees through numerous meetings, and worked hard to bring them clarity and share updates as soon as [it could] in adherence with all UK processes and legal requirements.’

‘It’s now very hard to become a full-time employee at Google,’ says John Chadfield, a union organiser at the United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW), a branch of the Communication Workers Union (CWU).

[Google uses] subcontractors from what are known in the industry as body shops — firms like Capgemini or Accenture or some [other] third party who will provide software engineers for a fixed fee. As soon as Google [is] done with the project or [is] unhappy with the project, [it] will pull the plug. Google [is] moving down that route.

Google has lofty ambitions, literally, in the form of its new UK HQ, a skyscraper standing between, and towering over, King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. Upon completion in 2024, the eleven-storey building will encompass 1 million square feet of space and be taller than the 310-metre Shard. The tech giant boasts of the landscaped terraces, rooftop garden, and swimming pool that will be available to its workers. But, as the latest round of redundancies shows, such amenities are no substitute for a unionised workplace. Ultimately, it is pay and conditions that are the greatest indicators of worker well-being — and by these metrics, Google’s employment practices leave much to be desired.

Getting Organised

It is often at moments like these that workers turn to trade unions. Whether it’s a disciplinary, dismissal, or redundancy, trade unions act as a last line of defence and, in many cases, have proved to be an effective one. George, a worker at an Apple store, saw this first-hand years ago. His colleague faced a disciplinary and ended up losing his job, but he wasn’t prepared to go down without a fight — and alongside his trade union, he fought his dismissal and won.

‘That was the first time I was made aware of what unions were and what support they could offer,’ remembers George. ‘It opened my eyes.’ When UTAW began organising at Apple in 2020, George was one of the first to get stuck in.

Apple says that it does not recognise unions, instead highlighting its ‘employee representative team’ where issues can be raised. George maintains this team is anything but representative. ‘They shut down any discussions on pay, working hours, or schedules, deeming them out of scope.’

Instead, George is encouraging colleagues to join the union in order to build leverage power to put these issues on the agenda. ‘It’s not just about myself,’ he says.

I have colleagues who have faced disciplinary action due to sickness, who weren’t listened to throughout the investigation process. One of them raised the fact that they had a hidden disability and it was brushed off. Joining a union can offer protection against things like this.

When Tribune approached Apple for comment, a spokesperson said:

Accessibility is one of our values and a fundamental human right. To make sure that all of our team members have the support they need, Apple’s own best-in-class accessibility features are in use across the company by team members with disabilities, to remove barriers and enable them to be more productive and successful.

Chris has worked as a technician at an Apple store in London for a decade. In the past few years, he says, things have taken a turn for the worse.

The workplace culture has become more authoritarian. It’s management by data points. There’s a lot more tracking of numbers, particularly [the time taken to do] things: how long it takes someone from the stockroom to get a product from the shelf to a customer on the shop floor, or how long it takes someone to repair your phone. Every second is counted. Everything is tracked.

According to Chris, this surveillance, which plays a fundamental role in both assessing performance and determining pay, is not transparent; nor does it take into account inflation. ‘There’s a lack of humanity in decision-making processes,’ he says.

The metric-driven management and punitive disciplinary cultures that workers describe indicate that the challenges of unionisation persist despite, rather than in the absence of, workers’ grievances. And those challenges are plenty: the domination of the sector by a younger workforce lacking familiarity with trade unionism for one thing, and the increasing atomisation of workers, for another.

Both these have been factors in the experience of Chloe, a worker at the app-based bank Monzo, who’s spent the last two years trying to build a union presence. ‘It is a remote-first workplace, which obviously comes with its benefits for employees,’ she says. ‘But it has downsides in that you’re not just passing people and having a natural conversation when you may be in break rooms and things like that, in an office, or sitting beside them.’

In these circumstances, Chloe says, Monzo workers rely heavily on digital communication, primarily conducted on work systems over which the management has control. ‘[It]can see comments and restrict them,’ she says, ‘which can obviously influence whether people may wish to engage with us as well.’

When Tribune approached Monzo for comment, a spokesperson said:

We want all our employees to be able to communicate openly and freely at work about all relevant matters and have an open channel specifically for chats about unions. Restrictions are only ever applied if content breaches our clear policies and code of conduct.

To push back, Monzo workers have set up their own private discord server. ‘It’s a safe space to discuss issues, including anonymously,’ Chloe explains. ‘We get a lot of good quality conversations and ideas [coming] from that.’ The challenge now, Chloe says, is growing their membership and reaching those in the workforce who might not even know a discord server exists.

Internet Internationalism

Others are also learning to make the most of organising in the internet age and the opportunities it creates. For Apple workers, for example, the pandemic shift to home working actually led to an increase in unionisation. ‘We were a very online union, existing on forums,’ recalls Chris. ‘All of a sudden, we became really accessible. Even though people weren’t spending as much time at a workplace with their colleagues, they suddenly had access to a union.’

On top of that, the global workforce of multinational companies like Apple is in increasing communication with itself, enabling workers across borders to share experiences and tactics. ‘Every other Apple store in the world did the same thing,’ Chris says.

So, we were suddenly very connected to all of our colleagues internationally. After Amazon warehouses started unionising in the United States, so did Apple stores in the UK. We’ve been working closely with the Communication Workers of America and the Machinists Union.

Apple workers internationally came together in a group called ‘Apple Together,’ explains George.

We just started talking about work in a way that we’d never been able to before. Apple retail stores in France and Spain are all unionised. They obviously have a completely different system, but we realised that, actually, we have a lot of the same rights and access to unions as they do there. And our colleagues in Australia have done amazing things taking up those rights.

George agrees — he feels the issues in his workplace are ‘pretty universal’.

We were able to compare what unions were able to achieve for people, whether it was related to pay or workers in France being able to get small things like food and transport paid for by their company. We found that unions have been able to make these things happen and we could be doing the same thing.

Three years on, the progress, resulting in part from that international inspiration, is becoming evident. In February this year, unionised staff at Glasgow’s Apple store were the first to gain formal recognition from the tech giant: a vote to unionise months earlier persuaded Apple management to sign a collective bargaining agreement recognising GMB Scotland. In September, staff at the Southampton Apple store sought to follow suit, submitting a formal request for union recognition.

At Monzo, too, unionisation is progressing. ‘We’ve grown from nothing last year to hundreds of members,’ explains Chloe. On the Monzo Slack channel, used for internal communications, union members are increasingly highlighting issues around pay and conditions, Chloe adds — even as management pushes back.

At a Crossroads

A lot of tech workers cite management antagonism as a barrier in their unionisation efforts. At Apple, staff report the institution of a new uniform policy, preventing workers from wearing anything featuring a union logo on it. UTAW has responded by developing union socks.

At both Google and Apple, workers say that the management seeks to curb the influence of trade unions by encouraging workers into silos. ‘If you’re a worker on the Google Maps Android team, you are kept away from me as much as possible if I’m working on voice chat,’ explains John. ‘All these things are cohesive to keeping it a union-free environment.’ He adds that Google even hires the infamous union-busting firm Pinkerton to conduct investigations.

In the face of this tension, John continues, the most vulnerable and scared workers are international workers on visas sponsored by Google, Meta, and Twitter.

There’s always been an anti-union culture. Look at Timnit Gebru in the [United] States. Her job was to work on AI ethics. As soon as she started saying things that Google [wasn’t] happy with, and organising, there were reprisals. And that’s what they’re genuinely scared of here.

Still, instead of being cowed, John says tech workers are organising more and more, and on issues that reach beyond their own pay and conditions, citing in particular members at Google working on climate action and Palestine solidarity. In 2021, Google and Amazon Web Services were selected by the Israeli government and its military to provide cloud computing and machine learning tools as part of a controversial $1.2 billion contract. The move was met by objections from tech workers on the grounds that the project would lead to further surveillance and human rights abuses against Palestinians. Many tech workers joined the campaign No Tech for Apartheid and continue to fight for the issue.

‘Lots of workers in Google are trying to hold the company to account over its support for an apartheid state,’ says John. ‘What these workers are learning is collectivisation works, and actually having the union to help is really key. The only thing that moves these companies and gets them to change things is bad PR and worker activism.’

Indeed, the history of the last decade shows that the forces of reaction and repression are increasingly confident in using big tech for their own ends. Trade unionism is one vehicle with which we can push back — but the slow, hard work of organisation must come first, pursued by a movement capable of adapting to a changing work environment and capitalising on the new opportunities it represents.

The grievances of workers in this industry are only growing. As big tech extends its reach further into our politics, our workplaces, and our private lives, it matters to all of us that those grievances are acted upon. Ultimately, the response of trade unions to the rise of big tech will determine their relevance in the years to come.