Tech workers increasingly see themselves as victims of corporate exploitation
Video game company Activision Blizzard pays its workers poor wages under abysmal conditions, and has taken punitive action against unionization efforts. It's just one of many companies that relies on tech-savvy workers to make its profits but doesn't want to pay them living wages. | Jae C. Hong/AP

The information technology industry has been a relatively quiet one when it comes to workplace organizing, let alone unionizing. It has certainly seen its share of efforts, of course; over the decades, plenty of people have tried. However, recently, the tide has started to turn. Tech workers at the New York Times won a union earlier this year, workers at Google started organizing last year and have been growing, and Apple workers in Atlanta just filed to start their union last week.

The tech industry, although seemingly a place of innovation and high-paying jobs, is also on the frontier of the exploitation of cognitive labor, which is a market that can be divided into “cognitive routine” and “cognitive nonroutine” roles. “Routine” is a label applied to a job that is seen as no longer needed or which can be outsourced, much like how the term “unskilled” has been used in other industries (or amidst the ambiguities of essential/non-essential work that were deployed during the pandemic). So-called nonroutine roles tend to involve uncertainty or areas of strict expertise—such as computer programming and financial analysis.

Although economically this seems to be good for the tech industry, nonroutine roles, however, tend to suffer from high stress, working well beyond 40-hour weeks, burnout, and expected 24/7 availability. Also, it should be noted that nonroutine work often includes automating tasks and processes which will only ever turn so-called nonroutine work into an invisible routine.

The so-called nonroutine labor of these roles doesn’t exist above or outside market logic, either.

Cloud technology is still relatively new and in-demand, and finding people who are well-versed in engineering in cloud environments is a problem for many companies. However, when these jobs first came onto the market six or seven years ago, they paid salaries well into the six figures. Now, the labor itself has become “deskilled” enough to warrant entry-level positions that can start as low as $43,000 a year. Although this is a comfortable salary for plenty of people, the truth that often gets missed by professionals in the industry is that IT is not immune to the ideology of “unskilled” labor. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild points out in The Managed Heart, even when things are going well, “the worker must give up control over how the work is to be done,” concluding later that “deskilling is the outcome of specialization and standardization.”

What is different for the industry than most others is the culture that surrounds it: Although every role can become deskilled, the available material to learn new skills is not only plentiful but it’s freely shared. One of the things that the tech industry is known for is the willingness of engineers and developers to share what they’ve done and the details of how they have gone about solving problems. With code repositories like Github, developers can create things that the public can give immediate feedback on, offer code suggestions, troubleshoot, and even enhance.

This of course helps companies as much as it helps workers; software companies can depend on the same type of code suggestions and fixes from the public. However, such sharing of knowledge undercuts the very thing that the tech industry is founded on: intellectual property. What’s more, open-source projects are often used as alternatives to intellectual property that’s protected by copyright. Developers often use such passion projects as a means of generating income through consultant or contract work. Such a model has the potential to put the power back into the engineer’s hands.

However, with the ability to shift the power in such a relationship, why did it take so long for tech professions to start organizing? Is controlling the worker-manager relationship, in addition to creating open source “products,” enough to generate solidarity across an entire industry?

Part of the answer is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to care only about one’s own needs.  This is to say that things like job security and salary, although on the rise with industry growth, are not necessarily being matched by job satisfaction and manageable workloads.

Tech has always been an industry where it was easy to keep one’s head down until a particular task or piece of information was needed. Industry workers often talk of “de-siloing” information so no one person has all the knowledge to do something. However, keeping that knowledge to oneself was also a way to ensure one’s job security, being the “hero” when things go wrong, and even getting a reward like a promotion as a result of that know-how. It is an industry that often talks of collaboration and teamwork but strictly rewards the specialist.

A specialist in some facet of technology could ensure their own job security by only keeping to themselves or threatening to leave the company. Today, however, tech professionals, depending where they are in their career, are likely to only spend 15 months in a role. The national average for software engineers to stay at a company is 4.2 years. Some markets, like New York City, tend to range from 1.5 to 3 years for the normal tenure of an engineer.

The most important bargaining power that tech professionals once had is now becoming standard industry-wide to which employers have already adapted. Although it is still more expensive for a company to lose an employee than retain one, the gap left by an employee can be filled by a contracted employee rather than a permanent one–and at lesser expense.

The number one reason for employees leaving, though, is money. For those who stay at a company, they are likely to receive an annual raise anywhere between 1 and 3%, but moving into a different role can garner about a 15% raise, title change/promotion, and newer benefits—some recent examples include shorter work weeks and unlimited paid time-off.

However, the drive for more money isn’t the only factor in play; it’s just the one that takes precedence as demand outpaces the development of such specialized labor. Focusing solely on such a drive, though, ignores the growing discontent within the tech industry. The bigger concerns here are often mistaken as “natural” in such an industry: heavy workloads and poor work-life balance.

When one’s career is based on constantly learning something new, and (re-)specializing one’s labor, it becomes easy to substitute one’s “free time” with “investing in oneself” by studying or developing skills. And with the new normal of remote work and telecommuting, one never fully “leaves” the office. There is no more time away from work: Time is either precariously in favor of work or it’s spent on ensuring one is good enough to work—i.e. on self-care or learning.

The other part of the answer is the growing mental health crisis and companies not knowing how to respond.

Although “mental health” is a common term today, we don’t really know what good mental health is supposed to look like. Despite the CDC’s or WHO’s definitions, which often depend on ambiguous criteria like being able to “cope with the normal stresses of life” and “work[ing] productively,” mental health is drawing ever closer to an ideology akin to notions of self-care, wellness, and individuality (sometimes through fashion) rather than an absence of or focusing on mental illness.

Such an idea of mental health tends to bring to the surface old arguments that we’ve heard time adn time again: “Success comes from hard work,” “You have no one to blame but yourself for failing,” etc. However, what gets misrecognized as failure is the role the market plays in determining what constitutes success and failure.

Hochschild cites Marxist Harry Braverman’s work on the subject of mental and physical labor and argues that “the ‘mind’ of the work process moves up the company hierarchy, leaving jobs deskilled and workers devalued.” It’s not only that specialization and deskilling further divides labor, but that workers themselves are subjected to valuation—their worth is heavily influenced, if not predetermined—by the rate at which the industry changes.

It’s here that we can understand how one’s labor-value is the factor that fully determines one’s social worth. Being fired or out of work, on top of being an economic hardship, carries a certain stigma that is off-putting to many. Also consider how “unskilled” jobs are looked down upon and sometimes even become the punchline of a joke often in sitcoms. Our value is equivalent to the worth we have in the job market, and it should come as no surprise that mental health surveys and questionnaires usually ask some form of the following question: Have you had any feelings of worthlessness or that you didn’t offer any value?

Despite such specialization and the growing demand for it, it’s not enough to protect tech industry workers from massive layoffs, benefit cuts, or increased demands of time and effort. Between the rate of technological change and the difficulty of keeping up, the industry raises many concerns that we as a society should be giving our attention.

The fact that labor is constantly specialized in tech does not mean there will only ever be jobs at the top. Rather it means that it will continuously create more deskilled, lesser-valued workers as their roles become forever obsolete. We may be able to increase our worth—i.e. increase our salaries, expand our résumésbut are we ever getting close to that valuation if all our time is spent on-call or thinking about work or learning something new? Is the salary worth the burnout? It’s becoming harder and harder to chase after one’s own value.

Although more companies are trying to address worker discontent by adding additional perks and benefits, above all else many companies try to shore up their labor force by giving their workplace a sense of purpose. In essence, corporate culture has tried to mimic solidarity in several different ways; the most recent iteration has been Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. DE&I efforts have been a means to create more collaboration under the guise of “celebrating” so-called workplace diversity. Even more recently, though, a fourth term has been added: Belonging. In short, “belonging” is meant to create or signify a sense of attachment to a company’s culture. Usually this is summed up whenever someone—usually a manager or someone in HR–says, “We’re like a family here.”

The use of “family” at work is always meant to distract from the harsh realities of the market by putting a human face on leadership. The very nature of the word is also meant to invoke ideas of loyalty and sticking around through the “hard times.” However, such ideas are conditional to say the least.

The ideas of “belonging” and “family,” although certainly important to many, are emptied the moment it’s remembered that you only belong or you’re only family as long as the employer needs you: “You belong here if you’re valuable to us.” Such efforts constantly come up short.

Going back to the question above: Is controlling the worker-manager relationship, in addition to creating open-source “products,” enough to generate solidarity across an entire industry? The answer seems like a clear no, but it does point to something more.

As one tech worker, Carmen Molinari, points out, if organizing in the tech industry is to be effective, “it has to engage in actual labor withdrawals and refusals…. And you cannot develop that capacity without convincing workers to fight for themselves, over their own issues.”

Molinari continues, “To win on any issue, workers need power we can exert against employers in the workplace. This is as true for the tech industry as it is for any industry, and for tech professionals as for any trade.”

In the IT industry, tech professionals often occupy positions with more power and control. To date, this power–coalescing around special skills or threats of leaving a company–has benefited individual employees more than it has tech workers as a whole. It’s time we accept the race to the next best skill is only ever prolonging the eventual outcome, and burnout is the object at the finish line.

Tech workers can let the further specialization of skills alienate us from all others within the industry, or we can anticipate that burnout, deskilled labor, and the subsumption of all our “free time” will come for us in the morning. The tech industry looks for “highly-skilled” individuals, but it will always punish the majority of workers for not keeping up. Whatever may be gained by individual workers from a job will never equal what they put into it.

As one friend, who was recently fired from a tech company for not recovering from multiple back surgeries in time, put it: “I gave them ten years, and they gave me eight months.”


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.