Technology and Worker Power

Premonitions

Ari Laurel of the Tech Workers Coalition discusses The Xenofeminist Manifesto and how it informs her path to collective liberation.

Ari Laurel, a strategic communications specialist, had her life transformed when she read The Xenofeminist Manifesto. The manifesto, recently republished by Verso, attempts to construct a “feminism of unprecedented cunning, scale, and vision,” one adequate to the digital age. Ari brings this perspective into all her labor organizing efforts.

In December 2017, Ari Laurel attended a “learning club” about The Xenofeminist Manifesto put on by the Tech Worker Coalition. Soon after, she moved to Seattle and joined the local TWC chapter. She was determined to fight the tech industry from within, transforming its products into tools for revolutionary organizing.

The Tech Workers Coalition describes itself as “a network of progressive and left-wing workers throughout the tech industry.” It aims to bring an updated version of the labor movement to tech workers in key areas: the Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Washington, DC.  The gargantuan tech industry takes a new form each year. For this reason, TWC’s definition of “tech worker” is constantly transforming.

Cunning

In Seattle, Ari set to work learning how TWC does its thing. She jumped in, based on her skills in the tech world: “I work in strategic comms, so some of my skills have been useful. But a shared vision and the desire to build up the autonomy of each person in the service of the group is what has really been guiding the work.” Ari believes technologies should not constrain us, as they frequently do today. All too often, technology closes down thought and makes it harder for us to act for ourselves and connect with each other. “In TWC we ask ourselves: does this help build worker power? That’s an open-ended question, but it’s a strong compass.” This question guides the coalition in its organizing effort. TWC members do not simply want to leverage their privileged position as white-collar workers in the service of lower-paid employees. They want to build workers’ power by identifying all workers in the industry as tech workers. TWC seeks to develop this collective self-understanding across various strata. Ari again: “The tech industry is so big now that it’s hard to see ‘tech worker’ as simply a well paid programmer.”

Scale

To build tech-worker power, one has to deal with the workforce in its current, fragmented, and alienated state, and from there find a way to unify workers. To successfully organize the tech industry will require programmers organizing with gig economy workers, contingent workers, and contract workers. There is a need to organize beyond the privileged suites of the tech campus: in warehouses, in cafeterias, in bus pools. “[In the TWC], there’s an emphasis on creating an authentic community network,” Ari explains, “that’s not based on your employer, a particular skill or job type, professional development, or token identity group. We’re building relationships between people as workers, based on what affects us materially.” Ari focuses in particular on getting contractors and contingent workers the basic benefits their informal contract denies them. “Contracting is a way for tech companies to get around having to provide things like health insurance, PTO, and parental leave.” In many companies, over half the workers are contracted.

When TWC started, its main purpose was to enlist the support of skilled technical workers in order to help less-privileged service workers in the industry get unionized. In one of TWC’s earliest actions, “full-time tech workers showed up at the contract negotiations in support of what the other workers were doing.” The presence of software engineers startled the negotiating company. The possibility of intra-class alliances was a complete surprise to tech-industry managers. TWC organizers quickly realized, however, that they are not and do not want to be volunteer union organizers. Instead, they want to contribute to workers’ self-organization. As Ari explains, “ultimately, workers know their conditions best, and the more resources they have, the more effective they can be when working together.” TWC sees direct action as the only way to get results: “when conditions have been made better for workers, it wasn’t because they phone banked for a sympathetic candidate. It’s because workers raised enough hell that people could no longer ignore it. Labor runs everything, so we are focusing on what works.”

“The task of collective self-mastery requires a hyperstitional manipulation of desire’s puppet strings…over a terrain of highly networked cultural systems.”
The Xenofeminist Manifesto, 0x0D

These early unionization efforts changed the way TWC members thought about themselves: “solidarity with service workers has lead more of us to think of ourselves as workers as well, as part of the same struggle.” In January 2018, software engineers at Lanetix, a logistics technology company based out of the Bay Area and Washington, DC, formed a union. The company retaliated by firing not just the TWC workers who had engaged in organizing, but also the entire engineering team that had voted to unionize. Now the company plans to outsource its labor to Eastern Europe to avoid labor protections. The contours of a familiar pattern emerge. Silicon Valley had earlier been a center of tech manufacturing until many jobs left for Ciudad Juárez, Hyderabad, and Hsinchu City. Will software engineers become the next previously secure group to experience precarity?

TWC aspires to build a large, intraclass network of workers’ organizations: “imagine if Amazon warehouse workers were able to coordinate with Amazon engineers.” In a recent panel, TWC suggested that “bringing the skilled technical workers of platform capitalism into the labor movement” will “open up a whole realm of possibilities for what we can accomplish.” Commune reached out to Angry Workers of the World, some of whose members work in an Amazon warehouse in the UK, to see what they thought about this possibility. “Bringing workers together from different skill backgrounds undoubtedly makes the potential for mass disruption greater,” they explained. They added, however, that “the hierarchies and divisions within the working class will not dissolve by merely bringing different parts of the workforce together.”

“XF seizes on alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds.”0x01

How will these divisions be overcome, given the extent to which the reorganization of the workplace has alienated us from ourselves and from each other? Recognizing these problems, TWC seeks to address the division between intellectual and manual labor head on. Like Angry Workers in the UK, they see this division as the source of most hierarchies within the working class. These divisions often run along the rifts produced by race and gender, entrenching some of the deepest obstacles to working class unity. Workers sorted into these positions can have deeply opposed interests. That is why Ari does not let past success become a stable model for her organizing.

Vision

She wants to do more. That is where The Xenofeminist Manifesto comes in: “The promise of liberation through tech already fell apart when marginalized communities were cut off from technological resources.” Had workers retained greater control over technologies, she wagers, cyberfeminism––xenofeminism’s nineties precursor––might have become a larger force. A generation later, we know that technology is neither the cause of, nor the solution to, our problems. The Xenofeminist Manifesto distinguishes between freedom-to and freedom-from. Freedom-to is positive freedom. It is about empowering individuals to shape the world around them by rearranging its component parts. Xenofeminism contrasts this real freedom with the sort of negative freedom that merely protects people by cutting them off from one another. Freedom-from is an impediment to workers’ struggles, as Ari sees it. “If we organize reactively, we limit ourselves.” To organize reactively means to demand freedom only in moments when it is taken away or in crisis. Instead, she wants to elaborate other forms, other networked pathways, that allow us to flourish together.

A Feminism at Ease with Computation

For Ari, this is not only about organizing in the tech industry. She uses technologies to fight for housing justice, for climate justice, and against mass incarceration. “When the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline started, with each update I wondered: ‘What the hell am I not doing there?’” At the time, she was doing anti-racist organizing in Missoula, Montana. Since she had to stay at her job, her options were limited but not exhausted. From Missoula, Ari helped coordinate deliveries of supplies to the water protectors. “A lot of the donated materials sent to the occupation were useless and were being burned on arrival.” From talking with people at Standing Rock, she learned that water protectors needed specific pieces of equipment—for example, propane and gas lamps. “We used Facebook to centralize the coordination. People would go to the donation spot, begin sorting, and we would send supplies along with people who were making trips out to the camp.” This coordination became a virtual supply chain for necessary materials, and a new model for connecting struggles across multiple locations. This is an example of what she calls tech optimism, the repurposing of a tool like Facebook in the service of revolutionaries.

“Nothing should be accepted as fixed, permanent, or ‘given’neither material conditions nor social forms. XF mutates, navigates and probes every horizon.”-0x01

Tech optimism, like all optimism in capitalism, is an ideal rather than a reality, “an ideal wherein technology is developed in the service of the worker, to aid people in meeting their needs.” Rather than praising or condemning technology as such, Ari’s example suggests ways to understand the possibilities specific technologies afford. It is possible to reclaim various technologies for ourselves. “For the moment, that seems closest to what true liberation feels like,” she says. Liberation implies not only changing tech, but changing ourselves, together.