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Tech Workers Take Action: A Look At Recent Labor Movements

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Employees at Kickstarter have voted to unionize, but over the past year alone, there were over 100 worker movements at companies including Amazon, Google and Facebook that failed. A group of researchers at University of California Berkeley is tracking the organizing and protesting. Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya is one of those researchers and joins us now from Berkeley. Thanks so much for being with us.

NATALIYA NEDZHVETSKAYA: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How significant do you find this Kickstarter vote?

NEDZHVETSKAYA: You know, it's unprecedented in that it's the first successful formal recognition of a union for these kind of more privileged class of tech workers.

SIMON: Well, what - why have those efforts failed in the past, and what's changed now? Is it just the times?

NEDZHVETSKAYA: It's interesting. There have been a few really close calls. Back in the early 2000s, there was a company called E-town (ph) that had a successful vote, but the company actually went bankrupt before then. Amazon technicians in 2014 took it as far as, you know, a vote with the National Labor Relations Board. I think they ultimately didn't get enough votes.

SIMON: Well, I think there might be a lot of people listening to this conversation who don't think of tech workers as being in the same category at all as factory workers or, for that matter, overworked teachers. They're high-paid, inside work - no heavy lifting, air conditioning. What are some of the circumstances that are leading them to unionize?

NEDZHVETSKAYA: Yeah. So what set this all off with Kickstarter was there's this comic book that was, you know, on the fundraising platform. It's called "Always Punch Nazis." The news outlet Breitbart saw that this was on Kickstarter. They got in touch with the company and basically said, you know, this is a violation of your company policy. This promotes violence. The company initially took it down. A lot of workers were upset by this action because they felt like it was acquiescing to the alt-right. Basically, the workers had one kind of moral take on the issue, and then company management had a very different one. And I think it was this moment in the company when people realized, you know, we don't have as much of a say in the decision-making as we would like to. This is our - you know, our intellectual labor as employees. We want a little bit more control over exactly what happens with that.

SIMON: Are the people who own and run high-tech companies resistant to that?

NEDZHVETSKAYA: We have seen a fair amount of resistance, yeah. Tech itself is really interesting because it started with this really kind of ideological, almost utopian vision. You go back to the early days of tech, the people who were involved in this industry weren't doing it for the money. They were doing it because they really just loved the technology and the promise of it. And that's kind of carried forward to today. Google, up until a couple of years ago, had the phrase don't be evil in their corporate handbook. That's since been removed. But that kind of, you know, ideology lives on in tech.

In other countries - so in places like Germany and France, you actually have workers formally represented as part of the corporate board of directors, so there is precedent for workers having a greater say in how these corporations are run around the world. The U.S. doesn't have this kind of structure. And in some ways, I see this unionization effort as a small way to try to get a little bit more influence over company decision-making and just kind of a seat at the table, a voice in the room.

SIMON: Yeah. So this is just Kickstarter. Do you expect that union efforts at other companies will be emboldened by this and say, well, if they can do it at Kickstarter, we can do it here?

NEDZHVETSKAYA: I think that Kickstarter - you know, it's a relatively small company, so organizing at Kickstarter is different than organizing at, you know, Amazon, for instance. But it's certainly - it sets a precedent. It shows this can be done. It shows kind of a blueprint for how it can be done, actually. I'd be surprised if we didn't see more actions like this coming on.

SIMON: Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya, who's a researcher at University of California Berkeley, thank you so much for being with us.

NEDZHVETSKAYA: Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF KETTEL'S "QUICKPIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.