Ethan Marcotte is here to talk about his new book, You Deserve a Tech Union, and discusses topics such as why we need unions in tech, who gets to be in the union, how unions can help deal with the AI question, union busting, and some arguments against unions.
Time Jump Links
- 01:19 Introducing Ethan Marcotte
- 03:53 Why you deserve a tech union?
- 10:27 Questions to consider about your job
- 13:40 Who gets to be in the union?
- 17:08 Walkouts and strike action
- 22:54 Are we always going to need unions?
- 23:59 Is AI deskilling us?
- 31:41 Other benefits to having a union
- 37:23 Union busting
- 44:50 Bandcamp and Glitch unions
- 48:02 Arguments against unions
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Dave Rupert: Hey there, Shop-o-maniacs. You're listening to another episode of the ShopTalk Show. I'm Dave--top hat and monocle--Rupert, and with me is Chris--pair of overalls and a really nice red bandana--Coyier. Hey, Chris. How are you doing?
Chris Coyier: [Laughter] Good. I've been working in the mines, you know, just trying to get mine.
Dave: Oh, that sounds wonderful. I've been drinking absinthe in my tower.
Dave: My colossal mansion. Yes. It's been wonderful.
Chris: That's too bad. I'm actually wondering if you could install bathrooms down in the mine somewhere.
Dave: No! No, I have 17 up here. How could I possibly afford another one?
Chris: Yeah. Not funny.
Dave: Well... [Laughter]
Dave: Yep. Hey, Chris. What's going on today?
Chris: Well, we have a guest, and the topic of the day is going to be talking about unions, tech unions, and specific where we can. And we have a perfect person to talk with us about that, Ethan Marcotte, a friend of the show. How are you doing, Ethan?
Ethan Marcotte: Chris, I'm good. I'm good. Good to see you. Good to be here. Yeah, it's been a minute.
Chris: Right. You, in your own words, have become kind of an unlikely person to be talking about this and telling this story - in a way - right?
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, it's a question I get a lot is, "Aren't you the responsive design person? Why tech unions? Why is this happening?" But yeah, it does feel like a bit of a shift for me, but I think it's a good one and one that makes sense, I hope. Yeah.
Chris: Yeah. Pivot. Pivot for Ethan. It's good.
Ethan: Pivot. Why not? Why not, man?
Chris: Yeah, why not? Right. Somebody has got to do it. And also, that both Dave and I come from very... I've never even been a union member, and I don't know what to say about that.
All this to say that I don't have loads of hands-on experience to be talking about unions, but we're going to do it anyway because - do your own research.
Chris: Or whatever... But the research I have done is I read the book, of course. It's called You Deserve a Tech Union, published by A Book Apart - for real this time. I know we joke about that sometimes on this show.
Chris: But this was actually published by A Book Apart. Yeah. [Laughter]
And I have a little bit of family experience. I don't know if y'all knew this. My dad only ever had one job. He graduated high school, started working for the school district in Madison, Wisconsin, which had a union, so he just became a part of it and then never left until he retired.
Ethan: That's great.
Chris: But was union the entire time and liked it. And I would think... Not to be weird about my dad, but I don't think of him as the most philosophical guy other than with this. For some reason, the union is really... He felt really strongly. He's like, "I always thought if I'm going to get up and do work all day that I should have a say in what I do," and stuff. He always spoke about it philosophically, almost, in a way. Ended his career as the president of the AFSCME Local 60.
Ethan: No kidding?
Chris: He really took that seriously. Met the vice president and was doing... He was a big guy about it and liked it, even with... Occasionally, he'd be conflicted about it. I don't want to open with some of that stuff. Not about the union, but about some of the tasks, occasionally.
But anyway, just a shout-out to my dad. A big union guy, and he was very proud of that work, and I'm proud of him.
Ethan: That's awesome.
Chris: You Deserve a Tech Union is a hell of a title, too. I think you really mean that. Maybe we should start there before we even define it. I guess you could help define what it is while you're doing that, perhaps.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, I can give it a shot. Chris, I can't think of a better opening for the show because one of the threads that I had... I spent two years, about, talking to tech workers who had formed unions or were in the process of forming a union.
And one of the things pretty much all of them said was they didn't have a direct connection to anybody in a union. They didn't grow up in union households. They had kind of like a vague sense that unions were good but maybe not something that belonged in tech. Tech work is different.
Yeah, the title itself is basically just a riff on this old labor saying that every worker deserves a union. And one of the things that I kind of wanted to do with the book was make this idea accessible to people that they can form unions, that this is something that does belong in the tech industry. And, in fact, has been happening in the tech industry for a while.
That's the thing that, I think, for me at least, is really significant that, for the last few years, people have been forming unions at companies like Kickstarter, at Glitch, at Nava, even Apple and Alphabet have kind of union in them already. So, this isn't a nice theoretical exercise. There's literally a labor movement in the tech industry right now. I think that's cool and worth talking about. I guess I just wanted to boost the concept and try to make it accessible to more folks.
Chris: In a way, it's no different in its behavior and purpose than in any other industry, right? It's like we should ban together, people.
Ethan: Yeah. I think one of the things that I heard from a lot of folks I spoke with is that getting tech workers to realize that they are workers can be challenging because I think there's a perception (both inside and outside the industry) that tech work is somehow different.
On average, we tend to be pretty well compensated. Our benefits are pretty good. We work indoors. That sounds like a simple thing, but that's a big shift from a lot of other industries.
What kind of protections do we need? Why do we need a union when we've got those things going for us?
Dave: That's my question. If I come out of this show, my goal is to not come out of this show sounding like Joe Rogan or Ted Cruz because I didn't grow up in a union family.
Dave: I didn't grow up in... I've mostly grown up in "right to work" states and stuff like that, and so it's interesting to me because I associate unions with miners. Right?
Ethan: Totally. Sure.
Dave: I think you use the loom workers, cotton workers, textile workers.
Ethan: Textile workers, yeah. Yeah.
Dave: Yeah. People's hands getting chopped off. Need a union, for sure. Let's get one. Let's get some stuff established.
Then I'm like, well, you know, I sit at a computer. But then you look at teachers. Well, teachers have to deal with high school kids. Yeah, get a union in there.
But it is interesting for tech. And do you think... Is it our sense of exceptionalism because a lot of tech is built on meritocracy and these sort of pseudo-foundations? Why do you think tech just doesn't or didn't start with it?
Ethan: That's a great question. I think there are a bunch of things. We probably need more than an hour to get into a decent discussion about it, but I do think that idea of a meritocracy is pretty important.
We tend to think that if we're well paid, we're well compensated, that we tend to think, "I have achieved this." Like, "I've gotten to a certain point," like I've passed a threshold and have won.
But it's harder sometimes to take a broader look at maybe I as a fairly well-paid designer or engineer. I'm getting significantly better compensated than my colleagues in research or in trust and safety or even working the front desk at my company.
There's a broader system at play that doesn't necessarily benefit everybody. But kind of across the board, though, I think, especially after the last year, I think it's important to know, too, that there aren't a lot of guarantees in tech work. Most of us work at will, which means we can be dismissed at any time for any reason.
The benefits that we receive after leaving a company are kind of determined by the company's leadership. There are these two examples I mention in the book.
I started writing the book right before Twitter's layoffs, so the tenor of the opening of the book changed immediately because that kicked off this horrible wave of layoffs that we're still kind of in the middle of a year later. Twitter employees were treated horribly, leaving the company just full stop.
Shortly thereafter, Stripe did a round of layoffs and wrote this incredibly eloquent letter about how they were going to treat their employees right. Listed out all the benefits they were going to have.
That's night and day between those two different scenarios about how to treat your workers at your company. But the common thread between those is leadership set the direction for how those folks are going to get treated.
A union is basically a response to that that basically says, okay, as workers, we're actually building this company that we have power if we work together. Shouldn't we have a say in how we're treated if we have to leave the company or what our benefits are or what our paths to promotion are?
Historically speaking, our solution to a lot of those things was to leave, to get another job. There's not necessarily a guarantee that the next thing is going to be materially better than what you currently have.
Ethan: So, a union is, at the end of the day, a bunch of workers banding together to say, "Hey, we have a better idea about how work could be structured, and we want to have a say in defining that."
Chris: That's one thing that a union can do. It's a fun list to build, but that's one of them that says, "Hey, I don't want to think about it. But when you fire us, this is how you're going to do it."
Chris: And you're agreeing to it because we're sitting at the table together, and we agree to it. Yeah, that's good.
Dave: Well, even down to... I think it's outlawed now, but you had to sign an NDA or a non-disparaging agreement when you left a company in California. That was the standard - or something. Even though they fired you in the most callous way possible, they were like, "Well, if you want severance..." I don't know. Yeah, it's interesting.
Ethan: Yeah. It is. It is. I liked introducing the concept in the book of these two questions. What do you like about your job, and what do you wish for different?
Then the follow-on questions from that is, like, okay, well the things that you like about your job, how can you guarantee that they're going to stay that way? Then the things you don't like, well, how would you go about changing them?
I think we don't have a lot of options in terms of instrumenting change at work. Again, outside of leaving. At a union, at least as I'm writing about it in the book, provides a lot of those options because it's a path to a contract, like actually writing down in plain legalese, "Here are the things we're guaranteed. Here are the improvements we want in work. Here are the changes that we as union members want to see instituted in our workplace."
I don't know. It's a simple thing. But I think it's kind of revolutionary, at least.
Chris: Yeah. To underscore some of what we talked about so far, even though you're in tech and you have some six-figure salary and there are lots of Twizzlers available, and you have a generous time off package, or whatever, it might be papering over the idea that you really still don't have that much power.
You still might be fired in a way that you don't like. There might be things that you don't like about your job. You might be underrepresented and paid $0.80 on the dollar to the next person over. Your company might take on a contract with ICE or whatever, and you have nothing. You're just like, "Okay." There's no mechanism in place to have any say about that.
So, you alone could be like, "Wait! I don't like the organization that rips children away from their family," and they'll be like, "Pfft. So?"
I don't know. But if all of y'all say it, then that's the point of the union, right? You've pre-banded. [Laughter]
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah. [Laughter]
Chris: Because you might band together after something bad happens, and that's cool. Good.
Chris: You should.
Chris: But if you've pre-banded, you have power right away when you need it.
Ethan: Exactly. Yeah. No, I love that. I think that's great. I spoke with somebody who is a union member at the New York Times Tech Guild, and she said something similar.
It's like there's usually... For a lot of unions, something bad happens in the workplace that kind of kicks off the organizing. It's like, "We need to fix this thing that's not working."
But let's say you love your job. You've got a great relationship with your manager. You've got great benefits. A union gives you a mechanism to ensure things stay the way that you like; that you can enshrine all of the benefits, the Twizzlers, whatever it is that you and your fellow union members care about. Get them in a contract. Ensure that they're going to be there year after year. That's power in the workplace, and I think that's important.
Dave: Yeah. I think you drew that line very nicely in the book. You're just like, "You might have a really great setup right now. A chill manager, Doug. But what happens when Doug gets the axe or Doug finds a new job, and now you're with Tom who is a dirtbag?"
Ethan: Right. [Laughter]
Dave: You know?
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah. Totally.
Chris: You know I've never thought about it until now, embarrassingly and ignorantly, perhaps. Are Doug and Tom not in the union? Who gets the draw the line as who gets in and who gets not in?
Ethan: Yeah. Chris, ah, that's such a great question. American Labor Law is a terrible spiderweb of bad ideas.
Dave: I think you mean the best.
Ethan: Oh, yeah. Sorry.
Ethan: Because of the freedom.
Dave: Bald eagle scream. Yeah.
Ethan: A Camaro just exploded behind me in a very cool way. Yeah.
Dave: America. Welcome to America, Ethan.
Ethan: [Laughter] Forgot where I was for a minute.
Yeah, so basically, we do have labor protections in this country, and the National Labor Relations Act basically says that workers get these certain sets of protections, but managers are excluded, basically, from a lot of the protections in American legal law, labor law.
Yeah, if you operate in a supervisory role at work, unfortunately, you're not allowed to be part of the union. There's a bunch of other sort of exceptions.
Chris: Okay. Okay.
Ethan: A lot of other countries don't make that distinction because, in a lot of workplaces, managers are actually a lot closer to workers than they are to the folks who run the company.
Chris: Yeah, that's what I was thinking. There might be five levels of manager. Do you take the first two off the bottom or what?
Ethan: Totally. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, it's... I'm with you on that.
Chris: You take none off the bottom in the law we have now. Okay.
Chris: All right.
Chris: That works.
Dave: You kind of said in your book tech is weird because I can be a tech lead, and I make all the calls on the tech, but that doesn't make me a manager exactly.
Ethan: Yeah, or you might be a product manager or a project manager, and there have been some instances where companies have tried to fight the union and try to carve people out of the bargaining unit to basically shrink the size of the union. And they go after job titles to say that, "Okay, well, these folks are managers, so they should be exempt," when they're not acting as managers. It's just like tech seems to just strap random words together to make job titles sometimes, and that's the thing that happens.
Chris: Interesting. It feels like even this could just be a whole show. But I wonder what it feels like then to be on the union side and be like, "Yay! Go union!" Maybe you're even a part of it. Then you're offered a role in management, and you're like, "Well, that's kind of the trajectory. I kind of want that. I want the money. Maybe I even want the responsibility and all that."
All of a sudden, you're like... It doesn't have to be this way, but I'm sure that it is often that you're kind of pitted against. I hate to think of it that way because you'd think a really highly functional company, both sides would be glad that each other exists. You're like, "We keep each other in check. Isn't that good?"
Ethan: That would be ideal.
Chris: But it's probably not always that way. It's almost like a defector if you take the role.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, it is hard. I mean I did speak to some companies where some of the organizers eventually got promoted up. And I think those were good situations, but there's actually a pretty long history in the U.S. of using promotions as a union-busting technique to identify key organizers and be like, "All right, well, here's a promotion, the one that you've been waiting for," and immediately just moving....
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, so it's weird. It's weird.
Chris: Yeah, it's weird. We haven't said... Just because I want, for the sake of the show, we haven't said the S-word this whole time since we've been talking!
Chris: It seems like that's probably what's on people's minds a lot just because of the news and it's a well-known thing that that's what unions do. They strike. Probably their biggest hammer, in a way.
Chris: For fixing stuff. I know there's deliberation, and it would be interesting to talk about other things that a union does. But their biggest tool is, they're pissed, so you walk out - or whatever. You go on strike.
We've heard about it because aren't the autoworkers are on strike, and there was the Screen Actors Guild and the writers.
Dave: How did you time this, Ethan, for hot union strike summer?
Ethan: Oh, gosh.
Ethan: You know part of me wishes this book didn't feel timely. But yeah, definitely feels like we're in a moment right now.
I think, in a lot of these industries, things aren't working for people. They're not working for workers. And a strike is something that, Chris, I think you said it really well. It's the heaviest tool in a union's toolbelt. I don't know what that metaphor is, but let's run with it for a second.
But it's one of the most powerful things that a union can do if things aren't going their way. And we've seen strikes in the tech industry as well. Back in 2018, 20,000 Google workers struck over the New York Times expose about 3 high-level executives at the company basically getting bought off after being accused of various forms of sexual abuse. And they were striking not just because they were angry but because they were trying to get institutionalized reforms in place, like better protections for workers and contractors.
We just saw a strike at Google, actually. I think last week a bunch of contractors for YouTube Music had been trying to bring Google to the table. And so, basically, the way I think about it is a strike is not a strategy; it's a tactic. It's like something needs to happen. Something is not happening. This is what a union can do in recourse.
Yeah, we've seen it in Hollywood. We're seeing it with the UAW. And it's a really powerful way for workers to get something to happen, to withhold their labor and get concessions made for them.
Chris: Right. I imagine it can feel very good and powerful because it's not joking around. This company literally can't exist if it can't make cars or widgets or whatever it is. So, clearly good.
But talk about polarizing. That's what's so hard about some of this. I feel like you can be out to dinner with somebody where you probably 95% agree on everything. You know if they're like, "Hey, Trump said some smart stuff lately." They're not going not say that. You already know them well enough that that's not going to happen.
But then all of a sudden, they'll be like, "Have you seen what those poultry workers want? That's greedy." You'd be like, "Holy shit! Really?! Wow! We disagree on that one, huh?"
Chris: But just because the idea of striking is like -- I don't know what it is -- harming the economy or preventing me from getting chicken nuggets? I don't know what it is.
Dave: I mean those spoiled Hollywood elite babies--
Chris: Well, there it is.
Chris: That's easy in Hollywood, but it's harder with autoworkers.
Dave: I will concede, it is a lot better to have actual late-night hosts rather than--
Dave: I don't know. Jen Psaki was holding it down, but it was tough.
Ethan: A little touch and go there? Yeah.
Dave: A little tough.
Ethan: Yeah. No, I mean a strike is a hard thing. It's hard for the workers. That's the thing. It's not something that I think unions undertake lightly, especially in the U.S. And folks in Hollywood, I mean the writer strike was 146, 147 days - or something like that. Folks basically out of work, out of paychecks, taken to the sidewalks, and then, eventually, after 150-ish days, managed to get all these producers with 15 yachts, giving them the deal they were asking for in the first place.
Chris: No... No paycheck, and they're the greedy ones?
Chris: It's always so strange to me.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Chris: Really literally difficult, too. I mean you can imagine some people are like, "Okay, I agree. Solidarity. We're doing this. Striking, I am not going to bust this strike line. I'm going to do what I said I was going to do."
Then be forced up against this moment where you're like, "But we literally need to eat food." There are lots of people that I'm not willing to die for it. You know? I don't know.
I feel like it's that big of a deal sometimes.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: They're like, "I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm going to go do something else, I guess, because I'm with you, but I need... for my family's sake." Whatever.
Ethan: Such a great point, Chris. I wonder sometimes. A big part of writing the book for me was to get an opportunity to learn more about labor history in tech and also outside of tech because I feel like that's one of those things that, at least for me, I didn't really learn much of it growing up. I think that's a pretty common thing in America, too. There are not a lot of big labor stories in high school, I think.
I think it's a real moment that we're in right now. Looking at the Hollywood strikes, there's this assumption that Brad Pitt and JJ Abrams are on the sidewalk demanding an extra zero after their big paychecks. But 86% of those folks make less than $30,000 a year.
Ethan: They're holding down second and third jobs just to stay in the industry and to have healthcare.
Ethan: Yeah, there's a lot of work to be done.
Chris: Is it always this way? It feels like it. In the book, there are stories of one hundred years ago, and we're up to now, and it probably predates that, even. Is it like this? Is it just this human nature, power corrupts absolutely kind of thing, or there just has to be yin and yang forever?
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good question. I talk a lot about AI in the last chapter, which we don't have to go down that road too much, but I want to be excited about that technology. But from a labor standpoint, it's really troubling.
I would love to live in a society where I can be more excited about that stuff and have fewer reservations about that technology. But at the same time, it does terrible things to workers. I do think that there needs to be that negotiation between where we want things to be and where things are right now, and trying to understand how we fight to get things to a better place. Frankly, unions are where that fight needs to happen.
Dave: Let's talk about that more. Mostly page 115 where you cite--
Ethan: Tell me more about 115.
Dave: --wonderful blog post by a talented individual. It's me. It's my blog post.
But I was talking about my experience with Copilot and how it sort of shifted my posture from, like, "I am now reading code." It shifted my posture from writing code to observing or reviewing code, and you call this de-skilling.
Dave: That's the technical term. And I'm just curious.
Dave: De-skilling, and I'm curious what that entails. Why is it bad?
Another voice in my head is like, "Get wrecked, son!" [Laughter] "Your cheese moved. Go figure it out." You know? Like, "You're old. Go figure it out. React is cool now."
What's the problem with de-skilling?
Ethan: Yeah. I'm glad you asked that, Dave. When we think about automation and taking away jobs, we tend to think of it like an overnight process, like, "Oh, the machines are going to show up. Then all of a sudden, a bunch of us aren't going to have places to sit at work anymore because they're going to be taken over by Copilot," or Dalle or Midjourney or whatever.
The process of threat history is always much slower than that, and it starts with this process of de-skilling. When automation technology gets introduced to a workplace or to a workforce, it basically cheapens the value of human labor.
Like the Hollywood example is a good one where screenwriters were basically concerned about, rightly, that things like ChatGPT or other text-based LLM software packages would be used to provide script treatments or first drafts of stories, and so that would shift the value of their work from providing that upfront creative work to maybe doing AI cleanup tasks, probably for a much lower rate.
Basically, that's how human workers get shifted out of a workforce. It's a very gradual process.
I think that's one of the things that most concerns me about LLM tech. It is actually impacting human workers. We're seeing it in newsrooms. We're seeing it in creative industries.
Anyway, that's one of the reasons that both the WGA and the SAG in Hollywood are striking. They want protections for workers to ensure that they're not going to be displaced or devalued if the software does get used more in the workplace.
I would love to see that in the tech industry as well. Having a conversation about what protections do we need, as workers, if we're going to be relying on this technology in the future? Yeah. Does that make sense?
Dave: Yeah. You know my brain kind of immediately goes to the auto industry in the '80s, right?
Dave: Boom. Strong unions in Detroit, man. America Made, you know. Then Japanese, very, I guess, cheap, inexpensive cars, very heavy automation, they came and kind of ate the lunch of the West. And so, to me, that seems like maybe a failure to automate, a failure to embrace the new.
Dave: I don't know if that was explicitly the fault of the unions, but I could imagine there was a lot of, "Robots aren't going to take my job," sentiment. But is it a two-way street? Where does failure to evolve fit into the system?
Ethan: Yeah, that's a big topic that's probably outside my area of expertise because that gets into free trade agreements and international shipping stuff.
Dave: No, that's a great point.
Dave: Yeah. At the same time, there was, "Oh, surprise. We can just make these in Mexico," or whatever. Yeah.
Ethan: Well, I think you're right. I think it's a both/and sort of situation.
There's this story that I tell at the end of the book about dockworkers in the '80s who were represented by this really powerful union on the West Coast, the ILWU. They were kind of facing this pressure from the industry to adopt what's called containerization, which is basically just automated shipping processes.
They were worried about losing jobs to machines. But they were also dealing with the fact that international markets (like in Canada and Mexico) were already adopting this technology, so it's like, are they going to be losing out on work coming into the States if they push back on adopting this tech? It's like a damned if you do, damned if you don't sort of situation.
I think their approach was brilliant because they found this third path, which was basically to say, "We're going to fight for a contract that ensures workers are going to get paid regardless of whether or not they work." If jobs are actually affected or displaced by automation tech, there are protections for workers that they can profit off the technology even if it's going to impact their livelihood, especially if it's going to impact their livelihood.
I don't know. There's a long history of unions looking at what workers need throughout American history and, I think, throughout most countries' histories, and trying to actually address that concern of, like, "How can we enshrine some protections in a contract for automation or better salary, better benefits, better working conditions - what have you?"
Yeah, and so I think it could be really valuable right now where we are in this moment.
Dave: I'm drawing parallels to my family, actually, because I tell my kids, "Hey, if you guys fought for the same thing, you would accomplish more."
Ethan: Wow! Wow.
Dave: Because they're like, "I want burgers. I want Panda Express." It's like... [mind blown] We're making quesadillas at home, kids, because--
Ethan: That's great. That's great.
Dave: If you guys can't get it together, we have less fun because you guys are just fighting. Anyway, I'm almost encouraging them to unionize against their parents.
Chris: Have you thought about kids' unions?
Dave: I don't know.
Ethan: [Laughter] Yeah.
Dave: But it's just like, "Hey, you would accomplish more if you fought for the same thing rather than fight each other."
Ethan: That's amazing.
Dave: Or - whatever - fight your parents singlehandedly.
Ethan: Collective action in the Rupert household. I love it.
Dave: I know!
Ethan: I love it!
Dave: Well, and then I think about technology, introducing the technology. My wife and I are unionized against any kind of Alexa or smart speaker in our house because we don't want that thing listening to us. But if the kids were like, "We really want it," then they would have more collective bargaining. I guess if they want to bring this into the workforce or the household or whatever, they could. Anyway, it's just interesting.
Ethan: No. That's a great point. Just to bring it back to the Writers Guild, for example, they're not looking to ban AI. They're just looking to regulate it effectively through a union contract, so writers can use ChatGPT or similar tech in the writing process (if they've got permission from the studio to do so), but they didn't want studios basically hiring out their work in some sort of harmful way. There are protections in place.
Dave: Yeah because it could just be some bad idea factory that then just sends piecemeal work over rather than--
Chris: That one came to a strike in order to get them to agree to that thing, but it doesn't always have to do that, right? You can be like, "Oh, AI is becoming a thing. Can we all sit down at a table?"
Chris: Right? That's a cool... That's a better way of having it go down, hopefully.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's the thing. Like Kickstarter, I mentioned before, they've got a union. They're the first modern tech company to get an actual contract in place, which they put online, which I think is amazing. For folks who are thinking about unionizing and thinking about what a contract could be, they put theirs basically online for anybody to look at and get ideas from.
Chris: It does seem huge, right? Otherwise, what are you doing? You're just going to--? I don't know. You kind of just sit around and brainstorm it. That's useful.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: But that's not as useful as, like, here's one that was actually thought about by some smart people. Yeah, and that worked, too, crucially.
Ethan: Totally. Totally. Right. I think it's both of those things. I think there needs to be that opportunity to dream about what could be different about our work. We want better health benefits. Hey, can we get a pension or better reproductive health services?
You should open yourself up to shoot for the moon about what could be possible at work. Yeah, absolutely. See what's out there. See what happens. See what works, and aim for that, too.
Chris: I just think it's interesting to think about. People aren't thinking about unions for the first time. It's not just this group of people and they strike. That's what they do. There's other stuff. There's a little more to it than that.
It came up on the Freakonomics podcast. You know the NFL workers are unionized? That's new to me, but if you're in--
Ethan: I think that's relatively new. Yeah.
Chris: Yeah. Right on.
Dave: Even sports guys do unions. Yeah.
Chris: Yeah. And they weren't talking about a strike. They were talking about hired somebody or somebody works at the NFL union who conducted a workplace survey in the NFL. [Laughter] It was very interesting.
It was just like, "What's travel like for the families of the players?" and stuff like that. "How are the showers?" It uncovered all kinds of interesting crap, like, "For the Florida team, it's terrible. But the Chiefs, it is amazing."
They rated it and then publicized it with the idea that you could - I don't know. It's almost like a shame tactic, or at least that's what they said on the show. Or make the owners of the teams appeal to their competitive nature and fix their crap - or whatever.
But more like if you're an incoming player in the NFL, you can now look at this and be like, "Yeah, but it sucks down there. Why would I go there?"
Maybe they don't care. Maybe it's money-only kind of thing. But I think it was cool that the union did it. They took union fees and planning and all that stuff and they're who got that done. Would that have gotten done any other way? Maybe not.
Ethan: That's great. I love that. I love that. It reminds me of a story I heard from the New York Times Tech Guild where they basically did something that anybody can do. You don't have to be a union to do this. They just started a spreadsheet where everyone put in their salary information, titles, and departments.
Chris: There you go.
Ethan: It's a way for folks to see, am I adequately compensated? It was useful for them for two reasons. One is to, again, give workers that kind of visibility into how salaries are structured at the company, but also reinforce how the union could help. We're going to use this information to close up these gaps at the bargaining table.
Anyway, I love that NFL story. I'm going to have to track that down. It's very cool.
Dave: Yeah, because I always thought unions were like, "Eh, give me. You got the money. Give me the money." You know? [Laughter] Sort of like a mafia shakedown, "Or else I'm not going to work!" You know?
I like this - I don't know. I like this idea, especially nowadays with wealth, income disparity, and stuff like that - very well documented. But it's not just like, "Hey, I want the money," but it's like, "I need this standard of living." Then your workforce can dream.
I think about the "come back to work" thing. A lot of workers are just like, "No..." [Laughter] I mean wouldn't it be cool if you had an official way to say no rather than an individual arm twisting, but your whole union or your whole workforce was just like, "Well, we'll do two days at work for sure, or in-office, or some hybrid situation."
Chris: Doesn't it seem like you have literally no... What's so funny about it is you have almost absolutely none power alone. It's that dramatic. It's like from none to some or from none to a lot, in a lot of cases.
Ethan: Totally. Totally.
Chris: That's wild. And to just be sitting there with none feels like the most striking thing to me, thinking about this. If you don't do this, your power level is zero, basically.
Maybe that's part of the title. You deserve a tech union. Yeah, you deserve more than zero power.
Ethan: Man, Chris, that's beautiful. Yeah, you should have a say in how you work. You deserve a vision of work that's going to compensate you adequately, give you good benefits definitely, but you should also have a say in determining how your work is structured and how it treats you. And that's definitely what a union provides. I think it's that math equation again.
Get all the kids asking for Panda Express. You're going to have Panda Express. [Laughter]
Chris: I had another image that burned into my mind. Years ago, before... Not that I know anything about it now, but I wasn't thinking about unions at the time. I remember how ridiculous it seemed, so it burned into my head.
It was about Delta unionizing, the flight company that we all know and love, airline industry stuff. They made a poster that said, "Union dues cost around $700 a year," and then had a clipart of a game pad controller, like a PlayStation controller. Then it said, "Delta. Don't risk it," or something at the bottom.
Which makes... "Wow!" number one, like, let's treat everybody that works here... Are you a baby child? Do you have a little budget for your money?
Chris: I don't know. It just feels really condescending.
Dave: Workplace empowerment or Xbox?
Chris: And if that worked, oh, I just feel... That just feels so shady and clearly was not... like, who did that? Probably some union-busting firm was like, "Have you thought about posters? You could try that."
Chris: I don't know how that panned out, but oh, my gosh. To think that's just always how it goes. It's just the people in power; they don't want the unions. The people down lower do.
That's what feels like this eternal yin-yang to me, like, man, that just sucks that it just always has to be this way, apparently.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, it does. It does. Yeah. Yeah, it wasn't until I started working on the book that I learned just how big the union-busting industry actually is. These are massive law firms that get paid incredibly well.
Ethan: It's a huge... It's a big, big, big business.
Chris: How would it feel to get unjustly fired from a union-busting firm?
Ethan: [Laughter] Yeah.
Chris: It's got to sting.
Ethan: Oh, man.
Chris: They've got to be like, "Well, that's how it is."
Dave: "Gosh. I should have saw that coming."
Chris: It was my fault. It was my problem.
Ethan: Oh, that monkey's paw just curled shut. That's weird. Um...
Ethan: Wow. Yeah. I'm going to be untangling that mind twister for a while today. That's huge.
Dave: I mean I think that's the biggest - I don't know - vote of confidence for organizing is the fact that it is very powerful people with way too much money. Bezos comes to mind, or Starbucks or Google are pushing against the idea so hard.
Chris: What do they think?! Nobody thinks... They don't go to bed being like, "How can I be more greedy?" It's just not how people... It might be how they act and how we think of them, but nobody actually thinks that. Right? Everybody famously thinks they're a good person.
Are they thinking, "They don't... Those dummies. They don't know what they need. I, at the top, am so smart. I do think about how good of a life they could be. They just need to trust me more." Or something, right?
I can't imagine. I just don't understand what they think to themselves when they're like, "We're going to print those posters up. How about a million?"
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I don't know. I think you could have some good conversations with the folks who decide to hire those firms.
Ethan: I don't know. I do think it comes down to power at one point, like, being able to maintain that single say over how the company works, how it functions, how the employees are treated.
Chris: Maybe that's it, right? This could be the downfall for all of us if this goes through. They've convinced themselves. Yeah, that's got to be it.
Dave: There was a popular project management software that fired a bunch of people because they said, "We want no politics at work," and people were like, "Uh, that was kind of m favorite part, so I guess I'm out of a job."
Anyway, yeah, I wonder if it's those sort of things, like, "I don't want my employees to unionize because then I won't have that control over the labor force," or price arbitrage for employees.
Chris: That's a good one. I remember that. That was Basecamp or whatever, right? Then did they--?
Dave: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: Could a union have said, certainly they could be mad about it and deal with it after the fact, but maybe could you see that coming before? Perhaps a good, comprehensive union have already written in there, "You don't get to tell us what we can talk about in Slack"? Is that already in the bylaws maybe?
Ethan: Yeah. Right. Right. Yeah, that's a good question. I think that whole situation was just sad, frankly, because it was kicked off by uncovering this old list of "funny names" that folks had been maintaining inside the company for years.
Ethan: Employers were like, "Hey, let's maybe not keep a list of really racist stuff around. Shouldn't we be treating our customers and ourselves better?" Yeah, leadership's response was basically to cut out 360 reviews internally and banning politics at work.
Yeah, I think a union can address some of that stuff. If the 360 reviews were valuable, putting those in a contract and making sure that they're part of the process.
Chris: Does that mean you review the managers? Do I have that right? That's what the 360 is?
Ethan: You do have that right. Yeah.
Dave: Even just a single point of bargaining because that's another part of it, too. You're yielding your say to a representative say, sort of, almost like a representative democracy.
Ethan: Kind of. It depends. This is something that folks have written a lot about much more than I do, so I've got some limits to my knowledge here.
There are different ways you can structure negotiations. One is sort of closed room where you've got a union representative, but also some people from your union sitting at the table that's part of your bargaining committee. They're sitting across from the company's representatives, and you're kind of hashing out the contract. But anybody who is not part of those sessions isn't allowed to participate.
There's been a push in labor circles in more recent years for open bargaining sessions where you still have that kind of structure at the table itself, but anybody can watch. You can sit in on the sessions, either virtually or in person, and (just as a passive observer) see how both sides are participating.
I've heard time and again from the folks that I've spoken to (working on the book) that open bargaining sessions are one of the best ways to keep a union engaged because they get to see when your employer fights against, like, an extra week of paid leave, and they really go to the mat for making sure that's not an option for workers. Everybody is going to see that happen, and that's going to really make sure that folks understand that the union is fighting for them and that the company is not.
Dave: Sort of "room where it happened" scenario.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah.
Dave: No secrets. I like that.
Ethan: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Chris: In the news recently, was it this week, last week? Bandcamp, they did a union. It sounds like they did a union after they were sold once. They went to Epic Games for some reason, which does seem like a weird fit.
Chris: Probably didn't love it, most of the people that worked there. That's the impression that we got. Then they're like, "You know what? Let's fix it and unionize." They also have a nice looking landing page. [Laughter]
Ethan: Yeah, they do.
Chris: Yeah. [Laughter] Good for them. It's a nice green palette. Good fonts. Then they got sold again.
Chris: I guess that's one thing you probably don't have control of a union. You can't control whether your company sells you or not. Not you but the company itself selling itself to a new company. It probably did affect things, in a way, because the buying company is like, "Hey, by the way, our employees are unionized." That probably comes up.
Ethan: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Chris: You'd think that the new company wouldn't care or would consider it a good thing, but they probably don't. Just the nature of things. But it happened anyway.
Chris: So, that's almost like a cool thing to know, and it happened to Glitch, too, right? Glitch had a union, and then they got bought. It happens, but it doesn't mean that because you've unionized that it's screwing your future self somehow.
Sometimes companies -- tech companies, especially -- are looking for an exit, and it's good when the acquisition happens because it's good for everybody's stock and all that crap. You could convince yourself in your brain, "Oh, wouldn't that be... I'm not going to unionize because it'll make a company less likely to buy us and less likely for a good financial outcome for me and all of these other people that work with me." I could see that thought process, anyway.
But here are two examples, two notable examples, that just happened and it was fine. So, there you go.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, the Bandcamp thing is super new. I'm curious to see how that plays out because, yeah, like you said, they were recognized as a union but hadn't started bargaining yet before they were bought, so they're kind of in a bit of a gray zone.
Chris: Ooh... yeah.
Chris: I didn't realize they were mid conversation.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, but you're right. When folks say that unions are going to scare off investors or scare of potential acquisition partners, that's not necessarily true, and usually that's a tactic to scare folks off the idea of unionizing.
Dave: Or was Anil Dash like, "Oh, no. They're unionizing! I've got to sell out!"
Ethan: [Laughter] Yeah.
Dave: No, I'm just--
Ethan: I mean Anil, Glitch did a really powerful thing just recognizing the union, just immediately, like, "Yep. This is what our employees want and we're going to do it." I think, if you care about your employees as a leader of a company, there's only one response, and that's just to recognize the union when they come to you.
Chris: Yeah. He's such an unusual leader. He probably helped. Would you think?
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: Maybe it was his idea.
Dave: Your boss is like, "Hey, we're a family." It's like, "Yeah, cool. Put it on paper."
Dave: Get a marriage contract - whatever.
Ethan: That's right. That's right. That's right. Yeah.
Chris: Arguments against it, you must deal with that probably because it's so... I mean you've written a political book now, so I wouldn't want to be Ethan's inbox.
Dave: Oh, I bet Twitter is cool about it.
Ethan: Yeah. Everything is fine over there. Everything is normal. Yeah.
Dave: Yeah, it's a good one. It's a good one.
Chris: Unless you don't consider it political. I mean people would.
Chris: I would assume that you're down with that distinction, right? Or would you hope that it's not?
Ethan: I hope that it's not. I kind of wanted to write about it to make it feel like a normal thing that's an option to people. I think seeing it as a radical concept is part of how we've been taught to think about unions. That it's something that doesn't belong in tech.
Folks are showing us today that unions are an option, and they've formed unions. Some of them have won contracts. This is a thing that anybody can do.
I think that that's what's most exciting to me about this book. I want to make this something that anybody feels is an option to them and then they get started on the process.
Dave: I do have a question, like downsides - or whatever. Not all unions are necessarily great. Maybe the autoworker union failing to adapt to technological change or police famously have strong unions, and that can be very mixed in certain cities.
I think about... Did you ever see the documentary Waiting for Superman about the New York education system?
Dave: New York City, but it's just basically like the New York City is in shambles, the public school system is in shambles. This was early 2000s or so. Then sort of like charter schools like Harlem School for... I forget the name. KIPP schools and stuff like that started coming in and offering alternative education paths and sort of disrupted that system.
But then they tell this whole side story about all these public school teachers who are being paid to sit in some building in the Bronx or wherever, and they're on probation because they either punched a kid or sexually assaulted children. But it's this idea that the union is protecting them and stuff like that, or you can't just immediately fire this person because of "reasons."
Is that--? Are there situations where it goes bad?
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, I mean--
Dave: Or ask for too much? I don't know.
Ethan: There's a whole separate discussion about whether or not police workers that we can get into when we're done recording.
Ethan: But I think, for me at least, it comes back down to this idea that unions are ultimately institutions that are made up of humans. Humans are not perfect. They're far from it. And you can definitely find examples in labor history of unions that are racist, xenophobic, that are corrupt - absolutely. But if that is your entire picture of unions, then I think it's worth actually spending some more time on the topic because you can absolutely find examples of unions that are fighting for better contracts, for better pay, for safer working environments.
The UAW, for example, they have this new reform leadership that just got voted in, and they were immediately fighting for stronger contracts in a way that they haven't for at least a decade, and that's primarily because they were voted in by the union's membership. The union wasn't working for them, so they instituted something better.
That democratic governance that's at the heart of creating a union is incredibly powerful, and there's this line in labor circles that if your union is not working for you, take it over. And I think that that, for me at least, is a real--
Chris: That's kind of badass.
Ethan: Yeah! Yeah. There's a real promise of--
Chris: Do it again, better!
Ethan: Exactly. Exactly. Which is not to say that's easy work, but I think it's important to recognize that that democratic engine at the idea of creating a union at work is really powerful, and I think it's worth investing in.
Chris: It does have that whiff of, like, it's probably more good than bad almost all the time. But then it's real easy to point at one and be like, "See, though. They're bad sometimes."
I don't know if that's far, but that's what I was going to bring up about my dad, too. Remember at the beginning I was like, "I don't want to get into that." Occasionally, he'd have to protect a guy's job who was out drinking the night before and drove a snowplow into the side of a building or something.
Chris: Maybe not that bad, but he'd be like, "I have to. I literally have to wake up today, go in, and fight for this guy's job."
Ethan: Well, yeah.
Chris: Because that's what the unions do.
Chris: That sucks that day because that was not good that that guy did that, and they just immediately fired him, which I feel like most people on Earth would be like, "Yeah, you fire the drunk plow guy. That's not good."
Chris: But he was a union member, and there are things you just do. You know? So, you just have to do it. I think the guy got to keep his job. Maybe he turned it around. Maybe he didn't. But I mean, dude, that's why he's in the union.
Dave: Well, that's... Yeah, that's mixed, right? It's like, "Yeah, you fire the drunk snowplow guy," like very quickly. But then I'm also like, "You know, I mean--"
Dave: All of us are probably going to biff hard at work at some point in their lives.
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah.
Dave: Or off the job, too. You know? That doesn't necessarily mean we should just be instantly thrown.
Ethan: Yeah. Which is what we have right now, right? At will employment, it's kind of a scary environment to be working in. I think we're going to go through a learning process in this industry. As we get more contracts in place, we're going to see what's working and what isn't, and hopefully get a model in place for a lot of workplaces that is going to make work a little bit more survivable and sustainable for people. It's early days yet, and I'm excited about what's coming.
Chris: Yeah, I hope so. Waiting, for your sake, for all those emails to roll in and be like, "We bought Ethan's book. We bought it for the whole team. Now we have a union."
Chris: Have you got one yet? Are people at least thinking about it? Have you gotten a full-blown union out of this thing yet?
Dave: What's the names and emails and companies that...?
Ethan: I forgot we had the CEO of Rupert Co. on the line. My bad.
Dave: Hmm... Yes.
Ethan: [Laughter] Yeah, I hope this makes conversations easier for people. When I think about success for this book, yeah, yeah, it's helping with organizing conversations and making it more accessible to people.
Dave: Well, that's probably a great place to end. I would say reading the book, it's got "You Deserve a Tech Union" on the cover, so it's very much about unions. But I feel like it's also a really good book about just the state of labor, especially if you're American, like, "What are your options?" But in other countries, you're probably going to have some sort of similar ability.
I feel like it's just sort of like, "Here's the state of tech labor. Lots of weird layoffs. Lots of sudden things. Lots of this." I feel like it's a good, general-purpose book in the same way Lara Hogan's book was good for people who aren't managers, so you could know how to be managed. I think that's a really good book.
Ethan, for people who aren't following you and giving you money, how can they do that?
Ethan: [Laughter] They can follow me on my website, ethanmarcotte.com. I've got some social links on there, but that's the best place to find me online.
Dave: Wonderful. All right. Well, thank you, Ethan, very much. Thank you, dear listener, for downloading this in your podcatcher of choice. Be sure to star, heart, favorite it up. That's how people find out about the show.
Follow us on -- I'm going to choose Mastodon today. [Laughter] Then join us... Twitter is getting real dark, man. Anyway, they took away titles on the previews. Anyway--
Chris: I saw that today.
Chris: That one is weird.
Dave: What's going on?
Chris: No more links.
Dave: Anyway, it needs a union. [Laughter]
Chris: I'm sure they ran it past a bunch of accessibility experts first, Dave.
Ethan: Oh, yeah. I'm sure.
Chris: I'm sure that was their first port of call.
Dave: Oh, yeah. There's a little transparent text over it that says the URL, the domain name field plus one.
Ethan: Does anyone else hear circus music? Yeah.
Dave: Yeah. Yeah. Anyway, then if you want to really support the show, head over to patreon.com/shoptalkshow and join the D-d-d-d-discord because that's where actually all the fun is happening. So, Chris, do you got anything else you'd like to say?
Chris: What I really want is for, like... You know some people like to protect themselves from themselves. They hide their wallet if they're going to go out drinking or something because they're either worried they're going to buy a Golden Girls box set or something off eBay. You're like, "I'm so dumb. I'm so--" But to have a corporate guy do it for his greed. He's like, "Man, I'm such a greedy piece of crap," that they're like, "I'm going to encourage my employees to have a union," just to stop themselves from being so horrible. That would be cool.
Dave: A check and balance.
Chris: Anyway... ShopTalkShow.com. [Laughter]
Dave: Yeah. We didn't even get into, like, do Luro and CodePen need a union?
Chris: No, but that's fine. Do whatever.
Dave: Should Reagan and I radicalize against Trent?
Dave: Just kidding.
Ethan: Hot drama at Luro. I love it.
[Law and Order 'dun-dun' sound effect]