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On Solidarity, part 1 of 3 million
Or: be sure to tell your UPS driver that you support the union!
tl;dr: Solidarity is cool. Collective power is pretty damn powerful. Workers are workers. Say supportive things to your UPS driver. The NLRB has made some interesting rulings about severance agreements recently. Follow Jorts. Subscribe now.
Okay, here we go.
One of the many reasons I quit my job was because the word solidarity kept following me around, like a stray dog, or a dream, or a haunting.
Build collective power. Seek and create situations in which I can experience solidarity, rather than those which give me individual power only.
This means I’m no longer seeking a seat at the table1. I got my seat at the table, but my heart is not in sitting at the table anymore, because when I was sitting at the table I could not experience solidarity. I could not have joined a union. There were only 3 other humans at work with whom I could even bitch about my boss, as we all must do sometimes. I was an Executive and I spoke for Capital.
I looked at business metrics. My responsibilities were to move the metrics. Get my team to move faster and better, to be more productive. To execute.
Execute. Execute. Execute.
The world is burning, they’re coming for my children and yours, they’re taking away our birth control and our health care, and our privacy, the billionaires are burning up the world, but a tech VPE should not whisper the word union, should not imagine the word solidarity, should not dream of anything other than electric sheep, going up and to the right forever.
So I quit.
Now I’m focusing on collective power, and one kind of collective power is worker power, and so today I’m going to tell you some things about workers.
1: R U EXTREMELY HARDCORE? R U IN IT TO WIN IT?
When corporate CEOs are raking it in and publicly held businesses are profitable, but they’re still doing layoffs and refusing to give their remaining employees raises, that’s not because “the macroeconomic environment” is forcing these actions upon them. It’s because they like the profits and because they can get away with it. And telling them they should behave better is not effective. You know what is effective, though? Collective action. Companies need workers. Even “AI” needs human workers, loads of them.2
So many of these massive, ill-planned, seemingly random, cruelly executed layoffs, or Reductions in Force, or “more aggressive Performance Management systems” aren’t being done to save businesses from failure. They’re being done for two other reasons: first, to make more profit and second, to put tech workers in their place.
Let’s talk about the second reason.
A whole bunch of super rich owners decided tech workers were uppity and demanding and lazy and that sociopathic business leadership is back in, baby, and there’s nothing like fear and uncertainty to motivate people to shut the fuck up about their healthcare premiums, their parental leave, their work from home days and all the rest. What we are seeing now is not, I believe, primarily a tech recession. It’s an assault upon the tech workforce.
(Oh, but if you actually do fuck yourself, that’s hardcore but not in a cool, profit-producing hypermasculine way, so get that shit off the internet, because surely images of giving yourself pleasure are more dangerous to the world than the message that our only value as humans is to produce profit, most likely for other people, most of whom already have more than enough.)
2: UNIONS ARE A WAY WORKERS BUILD AND WIELD COLLECTIVE POWER.
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT UPS.
Union drives and strikes are sweeping the nation. Strikes alone were up 50% in 2022, and more workers than ever are considering whether unions are right for them.
Everyone knows screenwriters are on strike, since that affects our favorite shows. But just in the last several months, we’ve seen strikes at major universities and entire state university systems, union drives at Starbucks, at Amazon, and elsewhere.
Most excitingly, the Teamsters are currently negotiating their new contract with UPS. If you’re old like I am, you might remember with fondness the successful UPS strike during the summer of 1997. I worked at a bookstore then and boy did our shelves get bare, but the union won a great contract. Unfortunately, in 2018, they went on strike again, got fucked over by their leadership, including one James Hoffa ( yes, that is indeed the son of Jimmy Hoffa), and ended up with a shitty contract. But now, here we are, in 2023, and UPS and the Teamsters are in the middle of contract negotiations. The Teamsters are gearing up for a summer strike.
This is huge because 340,000 people are covered by the UPS contract, which means a potential for 340,000 people to be out on strike all at once, and if the Teamsters can hold their own against UPS, that will make it easier for folks like Chris Smalls, who founded Amazon’s union, to make greater strides in unionizing Amazon workers. And, actually, it’ll just make it easier across the board for workers in every industry to unionize, even in industries and among workers that haven’t traditionally thought of themselves as workers, rather than ‘individuals who have individual careers’.
Yes, if UPS goes out on strike, your packages across all carriers will likely be late. Maybe make some plans for that, but ALSO, you can help right now by doing one really simple thing: every time you see someone in a UPS uniform, go ahead and say “Hi, I support the union!” to them.
UPS workers need to know we have their backs come strike time. That’s what solidarity means, and honestly, even if you are a manager or an executive and you can’t quite scream UNIONIZE in a crowded zoom room like I did once as a joke (do not do that, by the way, if you still want your job), you can still quietly say “union” to your UPS driver. I swear you can. I won’t report you.
For more on the UPS strike, see this Jacobin article, from which I gleaned much of the information I offered above.
3: A STORY ABOUT ABUSE, ALCOHOL, and NDAs
Not too long ago I attended a workshop about the power of storytelling in organizing. One person there talked about the referendum that legalized abortion in Ireland, how it really came through on the power of stories and speakouts. Other people talked about organizing hospitality workers and university workers, about abusive bosses, about struggles with patriarchy and misogyny in the labor movement itself.
We talked about the solidarity we build simply by truly sharing our personal stories with each other.
Here’s the story I told:
I was Management for, approximately the last 10 years of my career, I said. So, a Boss. And so it was a little weird for me, I continued, to now find myself sitting in a vacant lot in a part of town I’d hardly been before with a lot of people who saw themselves as Workers in opposition to Bosses.
But, I went on, one time I worked at a company that hired two abusive men into senior leadership positions, men who were abusive to all the directors (the middle management bosses, in other words) in my organization, particularly the women, who tortured us individually and as a group, who lied, who harassed, and who made us each feel powerless and alone, and who drove us all quite literally to drink.3
For at least a year, maybe longer, we directors would ditch the office at 4pm, at least once or twice a week, at peak, sneaking out the back stairwell down the street to the bar at the back of the ramen place, where we drank our rieslings and our tequila shots and our craft beers and Japanese whiskies hand over fist until we stumbled home wasted at 9pm, drowning our misery in booze we’d charge to the company, because we were “having a meeting.”
During that time I began to wonder if I was maybe an alcoholic. On at least a few occasions we got so wasted we forgot to pay the bill, and one of us would have to sheepishly return to the bar in the harsh light of lunchtime the next day, credit card in hand. On one of those evenings I blacked out entirely, something I have done neither before or since. I suppose this is a story for another day, but when our founder decided that soda was bad for us and made us begin to pay for our Dr. Peppers, he did not at the same time instruct our office manager to stop stocking the office with hard liquor. Soda, apparently, was an employee indulgence, a bad habit, evidence of our moral turpitude, even, but alcohol was integral to the functioning of the business.
Every few months I would find a bottle of Laphroaig on my desk, in fact, which I’d store in the bottom drawer, where it was sort of mine but sort of there for any engineer who needed it, like an emergency situation requiring a glass of scotch during the day was just a normal thing to stock up for. Which it was. That was the Laphroaig I drank neat some afternoons after a one-on-one with one of those men. What were all the reasons other engineers came for the bottle, I don’t know, but I know all of them were ultimately about some work-induced pain.
Why did my founder hire those terrible men, and why did he let them stay? Because he believed that they would be his salvation, that they would help him win. They promised him business success and if some of us were traumatized in that process, well, we were oversensitive anyways, we were prejudiced against old white men, they were going to help him win, or perhaps more importantly, not to lose or to fail.
What, pray tell, does it even mean to win in such circumstances? A business is not a basketball game, at the end of which one team has scored more points than the other. And anyways, to score fewer points in a game does not even mean failure. Please congratulate me on my ability to offer you this Milwaukee Bucks' basketball player’s perspective on this matter4:
We absorbed all that trauma into ourselves and we drank it down until we left, one by one, some of us fired, or forced out, and some of us having at last had enough, and some of us under NDA and some of us not, but none of us saying, of course, because you aren’t supposed to talk about that.
I myself had an NDA because I demanded severance when I left, and I demanded severance because I had been sexually harassed and because it was a hostile workplace and I wanted some severance, if nothing else to give my liver a rest. I wouldn’t have gone to court over it, because if I had gone to court the jury would have been informed that I was “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,’” which in my case was not, strictly speaking, even untrue, and I would not have won that case, and I would not have gotten another job afterwards.
I did get severance however, and I had to sign an NDA to get it. And I hated that and was haunted by it for years.
By the way, in case you’ve signed an NDA under similar circumstances, it is important to know now that the NLRB has ruled that nondisparagement clauses in severance agreements cannot be enforced, and that this rule applies retroactively to NDAs signed before the rule, such as the one that I signed several years ago when I left that place. You’re allowed to say the truth of your experience — how you were harassed, or targeted, or just what exactly happened, why you found yourself gone, whether you left in disgust or were slowly pushed out or were simply discarded. While I will remind you that I am not a lawyer, I will say that I personally have felt much more comfortable speaking up about my own experiences as a worker since that ruling came out.
Please note that for the NLRB ruling, you have a California law to thank, and for the law you have a Black woman to thank. Her name is Ifeoma Ozoma, and she was pushed out of Pinterest for speaking up about racism there and she broke her NDA to keep speaking and she kept breaking it all the way to the California legislature which passed a law making it illegal to silence employees who have experienced discrimination or harassment at work by adding overly broad non disclosure and nondisparagement clauses to their severance agreements.
Not that any of us have ever signed severance agreements, of course. The first rule of severance agreements is that you do not talk about the severance agreements.
I am personally not very good at following rules. Your mileage may vary.
4: ARE YOU LABOR, OR ARE YOU TALENT?
Tech isn’t an industry that is welcoming to unions. Okay, no industries are welcoming to unions, but mostly I know about tech, so here we are.
Tech workers are encouraged to see ourselves as high-value individuals, go-getters, with hustle. We treasure our individualism and we climb our career ladders and we try not to notice that many tech companies have large numbers of contractors who are second class citizens, doing the same software or design jobs as full-time employees but on contingence. For workforce elasticity. So as not to lay off Employees. We try not to notice the classes of people who serve in our cafeterias or the overseas teams who answer support tickets. This is capitalism, this is just how capitalism works, it cannot be stopped, it is everywhere and benevolent, it is our best hope for freeing ourselves from want, to become wealthy ourselves, the American Dream.
We don’t want to think of ourselves as Labor. We aren’t Labor, we’re Talent. We aren’t Workers, we’re Employees. Or [insert-cutesy-cult-name-here]-ers. WE HAVE CAREERS. We are in charge of our careers! Work is liberatory. Bosses are badass! Your contribution to profit, however much you share or don’t share in it, is directly correlated with your worth as a human, your personal virtue. Slowly dying inside of slack and zoom is just good business. LET’S FUCKING GO!
Tech workers think we are different from other kinds of workers. But, when we start to tell our own stories, they aren’t very different from the stories other workers tell. My story, the one I told above, was not so very different from the stories of some of the other folks at that organizing workshop. They nodded as I spoke. They related.
After all, for what industry are any of these stories truly unique to that industry? Is there any class of workers who are immune to these problems?
“My boss was abusive,” *** “they kept wanting more productivity with fewer people,” *** “I never had any warning, one day it was just goodbye.” *** “we drank to feel better” ***“they started talking about cheaper labor markets” *** “I was on a contract and they kept saying a full-time role might open up any day and when they laid everyone off I didn’t get severance because I wasn’t an employee.” *** “I just wanted a promotion but it kept getting denied, while less-qualified men got the roles.” *** “The health care premiums got too high.” *** “They said we had to come back to the office, but I couldn’t find childcare.” *** “The commute was 2 hours because even with a good salary the rent in the city was too high.” *** “They laid off all the people who knew how to work x, and now x is always breaking, and we’re always trying to make it work again, and they’re always mad when we can’t.”
I was an Executive. I was a Boss. I made a lot of money and I added a lot of value but it was never going to be enough money to protect me from our society’s lack of a safety net, and it was never going to be enough value that I could ever feel like I was doing enough. While I tried to be a good boss, that only goes so far. A boss may wish to be a good boss, a boss may try to create opportunity for others, to make space, but in the end a boss is limited as a boss. A good boss tries to remain accountable to their team, because that is what inspires the team to place their trust in them, but ultimately, the boss is even more accountable to their employer, and the cognitive dissonance there can itself drive a woman to drink, or in my case, ultimately, to suicidal despair.
5: IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT LABOR, ASK
How can you learn more about labor rights and unions?
First, follow jortsthecat. Jorts tweets almost exclusively about worker activism, and recently did a great interview with In These Times on worker organizing, and has also made some zines, including this one on disability justice. Plus when questioned you can just say you like Jorts because Jorts is an adorable little cat, the content is irrelevant, obviously, which is after all just the flip side to the Playboy defense which is that you read it for the articles.
If you’re a tech worker who’s curious about organizing, or labor, or unions, or if you have a question about your severance or your employee rights or you think your employer is down to some dirty deeds or you’re classed as an independent contractor but it sure doesn’t feel like you’re independent, check out the tech workers coalition and go see the resources the tech workers handbook has.
Remember, you’re just asking questions. Everyone has a right to ask questions about fundamental aspects of their lives such as their relationship to their employment, that thing they spend precious hours of their days doing in order to provide for themselves and their families.
Probably ask those questions on a computer your company didn’t pay for, though. Don’t forget, you have one of those in your pocket or, oh, it’s probably in your hand right now, in fact, a computer your company almost certainly didn’t pay for but that your company constantly demands your attention through anyways.
In solidarity, Amy
PS if you want something else to read about this I like Anne Helen Peterson’s “The Wages of Overwork.”
If you like it why don’t you put a ring on it, or at least five bucks a month?
If you liked it quite a bit you could forward it to a friend or share it on social or you could:
If you think I’m cool and want career or leadership advice from me (look I can still play capitalism’s games, and my psychopharmacologist is not cheap), consider my engineering career and leadership coaching, which you can read more about here. I’ll note I recently received a powerful endorsement for my engineering leadership when I was told "You're a shitty tech bro”. That was and is certainly true, I have always been shitty at being a tech bro, but I was actually very good at my job leading engineers and I can still help you do that job and/or help you figure out what to do with your engineering career that won't drive you to drink or despair.
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for the moment, anyways. I don’t claim to predict the future. Circumstances change.
some of those workers are even unionizing! https://time.com/6275995/chatgpt-facebook-african-workers-union/
In fact one of them was always exhorting me to DRINK MORE, berated me at dinners when I stated that in fact I was trying to drink LESS. Was he being merely manipulative or was he hoping he’d have the luck to end up offering to get me home safely after that kind of drinking, which would, of course, not have ended with me home safely at all. Both, I suspect, based on some of the other things that man did and said while I worked in the department he led.
In case it’s not clear, I want to be congratulated bc I’m not a sportsball person but I could still offer you this sportsball quote.