Connected: Unionise IT - workers' rights in the digital revolution

Over the last twenty years, the reality of work has shifted drastically.

A hand holding a smartphoneGone are the days when good grades and a degree would guarantee a secure job and a steady income. Suppressed wages, insecure work and several decades of successive neoliberal governments have meant an increasing amount of focus drifts towards supporting employers rather than workers.

Industries born since the ‘80s are built on this foundation of individualism, of profit before people. It’s not so much that the owners of these new companies want to create an environment of insecure and low-paid work for their employees, but it’s a different environment they’re starting up in. The speed at which the digital revolution churns through technology, apps and related environments is so fast it’s dizzying.

The shiny future-world that tech startups promise seems at odd with the public image of unionism. For many, unions conjure up black and white photos of protesters from the early 20th century, back when work was tough and life was tougher.

The disruption of work

Tech startups talk about doing things differently. They want the world to be easier, faster, and more customisable. They want to ‘disrupt’ the status quo, routing around things like taxi companies and hotels by encouraging people to directly share their transport and even their houses. This can make things cheaper, more convenient, or better in other ways for consumers than the traditional models.

It turns out the main things that are being disrupted are industry regulations, which were often originally designed to protect workers and consumers. While these new ways of working can provide benefits to the people who use the services, they have a significant effect on driving wages down for individual workers.

With the drive for cheaper prices for customers, it’s wages and working conditions that are often the first to be trimmed, then cut, then slashed. And with work becoming scarce, many in this low-wage economy don’t have the luxury of choice to look for other work.

Tech startup life can sound like a millennial’s dream. Flexible working hours, unique and interesting office setups, unlimited free snacks. In reality the ‘flexible’ can mean twelve hour days, seven days a week, unique office setups can favour dominant people, and the free snacks could be traded against wages.

The future of unions

Across Silicon Valley and beyond, people are organising and pushing back against this new breed of insecure work. Within digital media, there’s been work to unionise inside places like Gawker and Buzzfeed. Drivers for Uber have begun working to unionise, even though they’re technically supposed to view other drivers as rivals rather than colleagues.

After all, a union is a collection of people working together to achieve better working conditions and rights. That’s not the kind of thing that becomes obsolete.

By Jem Yoshioka