The tech fightback: an interview with United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW)

Liam Kennedy speaks to John Chadfield and Eran Cohen of the new United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) branch about their plans for the sector, democratic workplaces and big tech’s pollution problem

March 2, 2022 · 7 min read
Credit: Phil Wrigglesworth

Liam Kennedy: Could you tell me a bit about how the UTAW branch came to be? Why the Communications Workers Union (CWU), for instance?

John Chadfield: The idea for UTAW, or a tech worker union led by tech workers, started in 2019 and eventually came from a working group of Tech Workers’ Coalition London. It was clear that none of the unions were focused on organising in the sector and that we had a very clear (and broad) definition of what the definition of tech work should be, and it became obvious as time went on that tech workers that came along to TWC meetings shared these ideas.

We spoke to a number of unions, and it was obvious from the first call – which [CWU general secretary] Dave Ward jumped on – that the CWU had not only the aligned vision but also the kind of ‘campaigning union’ status that matched our own zeal for worker collectivism. The CWU NEC liked our proposal for a national branch with its own identity, and here we are a year later.

LK: And how is it going? I see from your website that you are currently surveying people on their experience of surveillance in the workplace – why this particular campaign or issue?

Eran Cohen: It’s going great. As a brand-new branch of workers largely inexperienced with traditional trade unionism, we’ve focused on building up our core capacities: to do casework, to organise and to carry out the democratic process. This has necessarily meant an inward focus to get people trained up and confident, and to build our internal lines of communication. We are now at the exciting point where we are putting our energies into targeted organising and recruitment.

As for the employee surveillance campaign, we identified it early on as an area where conditions are worsening and where tech workers could potentially intervene successfully.

LK: I also noticed from your website that UTAW will ‘fight for worker control’. This indicates, obviously, a much more radical approach to worker organising than many mainstream unions would probably advocate. Could you explain the motive for such a goal? Why is worker control so important for UTAW and why are you not just focusing on, for example, above-inflation pay rises? And what are the kind of key steps or challenges on the road to ‘worker control’?

EC: One peculiarity of the tech sector, especially where the big five are concerned, is that profit comes from two primary directions: ownership of user-generated data, and ownership of the means of analysis, as it were. For example, Google’s search engine is powered by decades of cumulative search histories and some clever algorithms. Amazon grew its market share from users submitting reviews for free and pricing vendors aggressively low. So we have user-generated ‘value’ and worker-generated value coming together in the business model.

Between just-in-time delivery, agile working and highly technical infrastructure, most tech workers are so indispensable that their industrial action potential is very easily realised

Schemes such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are a good start for limiting the exploitation of users, but there is no effort at protecting workers on the other side of this equation. The astronomical profits made by these companies mean that substantial pay rises for tech workers barely make a dent. As an extreme example, we’ve seen a dev [software developer] get a £200k bonus for work that generated their company over £20 million. At the same time, such massive compensation is used to justify obscene levels of exploitation at all levels of the tech workforce, including for those who don’t make good money. So I see worker control as key to tipping the scale on working conditions across the sector, from the highly-paid devs to the ultra-exploited warehouse pickers.

LK: Many companies in the tech sector are subsidiaries of large multinationals. I know, for instance, that one of the potential sites for UTAW organising is ultimately owned by SoftBank Group, one of the largest conglomerates in the world. What does organising look like in this context, where companies can often be backed with seemingly infinite supplies of international capital?

EC: We are already looking at ways to incorporate international teams into coherent union branches. But beyond the changes we’re seeing with remote working, which can include teams or departments that were national becoming transnational, I don’t believe we’re facing a wholly new organising challenge.

Workers have long organised in the face of multinational giants wielding endless capital, so we’re not worried by this. If anything, between just-in-time delivery, agile working and highly technical infrastructure, most tech workers are so indispensable that their industrial action potential is very easily realised. Case in point, Facebook’s recent system failure that took out a good portion of the world’s internet for six hours was essentially down to a badly configured border gateway protocol.

JC: Adding to what Eran said, we organise a lot of software engineers, and last time I checked, there was a shortage of 200,000 in this trade alone in the US, so really, while these big multinationals have limitless cash and no qualms hiring union-busting consultants, the labour market dynamics speak for themselves.

LK: Are there any examples or recent campaigns from which UTAW has drawn inspiration, either in the UK or abroad?

EC: There have been some great campaigns led by tech workers recently. Personally, I am inspired by Dr Timnit Gebru, formerly of Google. Tech is often not the first thing people go to when talking about big polluters, but it should be. Less than a year ago, Dr Gebru was fired from Google for putting forward a research paper on AI ethics where, among other things, she highlighted the environmental impact of large machine learning projects. And on the hardware side, microchip manufacture uses a large amount of raw inputs, including fossil fuel energy and minerals whose mining creates further pollution, not to mention neo-colonial extraction in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Challenging the tech sector on its environmental impact should be a high priority for tech workers, many of whom are working in jobs that otherwise could play a positive role in climate mitigation/adaptation. This is the greatest challenge that human society has ever faced, and unions have arguably been the greatest progressive force in recent history, so I hope to see us fighting on this front very soon.

JC: In the UK, we draw inspiration from the Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union (CAIWU), who ceaselessly organise increasingly precarious workers at Facebook and Google. Independent Workers union of Great Britain (IWGB) and their work with Game Workers UK, as well as platform-based workers, like riders for Deliveroo, JustEat, etc. We’d love not only to see some radical new approaches from around the world – like anti-fascist delivery co-ops gaining traction in Brazil – be tried here, but for us to play a part with our members’ skill base in enabling them.

John Chadfield is the branch secretary of UTAW and Eran Cohen is the chair. UTAW is a national branch of the CWU

This article first appeared in issue #234, ‘Technocapitalism’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media

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