The Basecamp story’s been a difficult one for me to follow. It’s a story about employees volunteering time to improve their workplace; it’s a story about racism and white supremacy in that workplace; it’s a story about company leaders mishandling a delicate situation, and to such an extent that a third of their employees left en masse.
I’d like to suggest it’s also a story about power.
I don’t want to rehash the entire situation, as the coverage is worth reading in full.1 But to paint a quick recap with a wildly broad brush: a number of Basecamp employees spent months discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives to make their workplace safer and, well, more inclusive. A few months into that work, some employees started asking how Basecamp should hold itself accountable for a racist list of “funny-sounding” customer names, an internal document that had existed for over a decade.
In response to those discussions, Basecamp management introduced a policy banning “political discussions” at work. At the same time, they also discontinued a number of employee benefits, and ceased 360-degree performance reviews. They also summarily dissolved all employee committees — including the fledgling DE&I committee. In other words, Basecamp’s CEO and CTO made significant, sweeping changes to their employees’ workplace. They were able to make these decisions unilaterally, without consulting the affected employees, simply because they had the power to do so.
Tech workers, we have to unionize. And it’s precisely because of power imbalances like this.
It’s worth noting that tech workers have been unionizing. Product teams at Kickstarter, Glitch, and NPR have formed unions, as have UK-based employees of Microsoft and Amazon. Even an upstart little company called Google has a union of tech workers.2 If you’ve been thinking your workplace needs a union, you’ll be in great company.
But maybe you’re not quite there yet. Heck, maybe you’re wondering what a union even is. As Jane McAlevey says in her latest book, a union’s a mechanism: no more, no less. A union is a democratically-elected body, one that’s built by and for its workers. Once formed, a union works to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, a legal contract between union members and the company. The agreement governs various workplace-related matters — pay, benefits, workplace safety, and so on.
We’re starting to see examples of how this can work in our industry. Last year, Kickstarter’s union reached an agreement in which management would provide a generous severance package to laid-off workers. NPR’s digital media union was only recently recognized, but their negotiating priorities include equal pay, hiring practices that ensure a diverse pool of applicants, and transparent promotion practices. The agreement won by Glitch’s workers granted them “just cause” protections, while also enshrining their existing benefits in the contract.
I was thinking of these unions — and their workers — as I read the letter by Basecamp’s CEO. He made sweeping changes to his employees’ compensation and working environment because he had that power. But unions are forming in our industry because they provide a counterbalance: to provide power to workers. Through our unions, we can collectively bargain for better pay, for safer working environments, for better hours — for contracts that protect us, and codify what we need from our workplaces. As Nozlee Samadzadeh recently said,
Unionizing is the only way to introduce a democratic process in your workplace, to kind of get a seat at the table with people in charge. That’s a beautiful point, expertly put. After all, our labor — yours and mine — built this industry. We should have a seat at that table.
And we’re not the only ones who should be seated there. I’ve spoken before about the need to recognize that our industry’s successes were built upon the exploitation of workers. Rideshare operators, social media content moderators, delivery drivers, and contractors feeding training data into machine learning algorithms — these are all tech workers performing stressful, traumatic jobs, and with very little security. The failed union vote at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer? That was the result of a grueling anti-union campaign waged by Amazon upon the tech workers employed there.
So, yes: tech workers need to unionize to build power, which will allow us to protect our benefits, our workplaces, and ourselves. But we need to unionize because it’s a path to power we can use for all workers in our industry, especially those that haven’t been historically thought of as “tech workers.” Unions can, at the best moments in their history, stand in solidarity with each other. It’s time we do just that.
My thanks to Karen McGrane, Mike Gintz, and Mandy Brown, who kindly reviewed an earlier draft of this post.
I can recommend The Verge’s coverage, if you haven’t already read it. I thought both their article on the initial policy changes and their article on the all-hands meeting that led to 30% of the employees quitting were extensively reported, and handled well. ↩
I should mention the Alphabet Workers’ Union is what’s known as a minority union. Wikipedia’s definition is pretty good, as is this primer from Clarissa Redwine. I can also recommend Caroline O’Donovan’s article on alternative forms of labor organizing, and why they’re growing in popularity. ↩