White-collar workers don’t unionize. So goes the common wisdom, also applied to hoodie-wearing software engineers. But while they might not face such rough working conditions as, say, farm laborers, techies do have legitimate grievances–such as grueling schedules, ill-defined projects, and unequal pay.
“A well-respected coworker who had become the spokesperson for the engineers was fired,” says programmer Björn Westergard, formerly employed at Lanetix, a CRM software maker for the shipping and logistics industries. “This led to the engineers getting organized, and then we were all in turn fired for having organized.”
Beginning in late 2017 and still ongoing, the Lanetix conflict may mark the beginning of a tech worker labor movement. If so, it’s off to a good start. The U.S. government’s National Labor Relations Board, which protects the rights of workers to organize, opened an investigation and is seeking an injunction for Lanetix to reinstate the 15 fired employees, with back pay. It may be too late, though: Nearly all of the programmers eventually found new jobs.
Westergard is modest about his role in the dispute. But he’s the one who proposed the initial letter to management in November 2017 asking that the fired engineer (called “Jane”) be reinstated and the staff not be antagonized, as he describes it, for discussing work conditions on an external Slack channel, linking its San Francisco and Virginia staff. (Lanetix didn’t respond to Fast Company‘s inquiries.)
“Maybe three [employees] within a week of the Jane’s firing were saying, ‘Yeah, we should think about unionizing,'” says Westergard. “But at that time it was very abstract. It was almost half joking, not sure of oneself.”
Management responded with both threats of offshoring jobs and offers of more stock options to senior, male engineers, according to Westergard. “They seemed to be trying to play a sort of divide and conquer game,” he says. Instead, management strengthened employee resolve to join the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America–a union election preempted by the firings in January 2018. (The NewsGuild brought the NLRB suit.)
Worker organizing was already a familiar topic to the 29-year-old Westergard. “My interest in the labor movement really began in high school when I did an internship with a defense contractor,” he says. “Up until that point I had been led to believe that you should pursue a technical occupation because it contributed to the common welfare in some sense.” He didn’t feel that way about the defense industry, and thus began connecting employee organizing with political activism, long before strife at Google over a Pentagon deal or at Microsoft over a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Related: How tech workers became activists
Westergard is also comfortable speaking out, tweeting liberally about labor and socialism (along with engineering) and contributing to publications like the socialist-oriented magazine Jacobin. But Westergard doesn’t expect a socialist wave to sweep the tech community. “They’re as [politically] diverse as white-collar office workers are generally,” he says.
— Björn Westergard (@bjornwestergard) March 2, 2018
Westergard understands why other workers aren’t so outspoken. “I think every time tech workers take action, you’re going to see another step toward a collective employer response to that, which could eventually culminate in blacklisting [people from hiring],” he says.
But he also recognizes the power of tech workers in a tight marketplace. Westergard has proposed harnessing that power with what he provisionally calls a Hiring Hall, modeled after associations like the Screen Actors Guild. As a de facto collective bargaining agent, the Hall could set minimum pay and working conditions for employing members, says Westergard. It could also train and certify members in new skills.
Westergard accepts that his continued outspoken role may close off opportunities with many companies. “There are definitely certain kinds of jobs that I just know I will never get now,” he says. “That’s fine.”