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recoding power

criado em: 14:59 15-12-2022

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  • notas: o que podemos aprender sobre resistência com os programadores

  • O novo livro de Sidney Rothstein explora as táticas utilizadas pelos trabalhadores da tecnologia para mobilizar e exercer o poder no local de trabalho.
  • O livro de Rothstein é baseado em estudos de quatro empresas de tecnologia nos EUA e na Alemanha.
  • O livro destaca o papel do discurso nas táticas de organização dos trabalhadores da tecnologia e mostra como a criatividade nestas táticas pode ajudar na "reprogramação" ou "recodificação" do poder.
  • Rothstein discute os desafios da definição de trabalhadores da tecnologia, a diferença entre recursos e poder, e a importância do discurso na organização dos trabalhadores da tecnologia.
  • O livro também discute lições aprendidas com o Sindicato dos Trabalhadores do Alphabet.

Texto em portugues

In the book Recoding Power, Sidney Rothstein explores how workers in the technology sector have developed new tactics for collective action and exercising power in the workplace. Drawing on empirical studies in four technology companies in the US and Germany, he highlights the role of discourse at the center of workers' organizing tactics. He also discusses the concept of "reprogramming" or "recoding" power, and the importance of organizing tactics in the technology sector. In an interview, Rothstein discusses the challenges of defining tech workers, the difference between resources and power, what's new in tech struggles, and the lessons learned from the Google workers union.

texto original

Summarize and list the main points:

Sidney Rothstein, professor of political science at Williams College (USA), recently published the book Recoding Power: Tactics for Mobilizing Tech Workers, by Oxford University Press. In the book, he explores how workers in the technology sector have developed new tactics for collective action and exercising power in the workplace.
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Drawing on empirical studies in four technology companies in the United States and Germany, he highlights the role of discourse at the center of workers' organizing tactics. Creativity in these organizing tactics can help in what Rothstein calls "reprogramming" or "recoding" power. With this, he demonstrates possibilities for organizing workers in the technology sector.

In an interview with Rafael Grohmann, Sidney Rothstein talks about the conceptual pitfalls of tech workers, the differentiation between resources and power, what's new in tech struggles, what it means to reprogram or recode power, organizing tactics, the role of discourse, and lessons learned from the Google workers union, the Alphabet Workers Union.

The definition of tech workers can be complicated. How do you conceptualize them?

I generally think that people should be called whatever they want to be called, but it is true that defining "tech workers" presents some challenges. For one thing, you can define them in terms of occupation, which could lead us to define everyone who works with computers as a tech worker. This would include many people that we would not normally consider as technology workers, such as programmers who program for lumber companies or perhaps an IT administrator who works in a dental office. On the other hand, you could use industry and include everyone who works for technology companies, although this would also include many people who do many different things. At Facebook, for example, this includes software developers, but also security guards and bus drivers.

In the book Recoding Power, I use a definition that I think will be most useful for building solidarity among the working class. So for me it is important that the label is as inclusive as possible and groups people together in a way that makes organizing easier. I chose the sectoral approach because the "tech sector" is imbued with a particular history, which is often what people refer to, at least implicitly, when they say, "I'm a tech worker." All the Silicon Valley mythology and iconography (two guys in a garage, sweatshirts, etc.), however kitschy at this point, can still provide the basis for a common identity or common reference point - especially where they don't apply to real life. The other reason to take an industry approach is that it usually applies to workers in the same company, or who at least work together regularly, and this proximity can provide the basis for the organization.

In the book you differentiate between resources and power. What would these differences be, especially in the case of technology workers?

In talking with technology workers and with other people about technology workers, there is a frequent pattern that you hear: many think that technology workers have power when they don't, and that they have no power when they do. This is due to the tendency to confuse resources with power. Technology workers often think they are powerful because they can demand high salaries and generous benefits, and when the job market is tight, they get what they ask for. But that is not power. It's just that, at that particular moment, workers have access to a resource. When the economy sinks and the labor market disintegrates, it turns out that they don't have much leverage against management. And it is in situations like that that workers feel powerless, even though they are not.
In talking with technology workers and with other people about technology workers, there is a frequent pattern you hear: many think that technology workers have power when they don't, and that they have no power when they do. This is due to the tendency to confuse resources with power. Technology workers often think they are powerful because they can demand high salaries and generous benefits, and when the job market is tight, they get what they ask for. But that is not power. It's just that, at that particular moment, workers have access to a resource. When the economy sinks and the labor market disintegrates, it turns out that they don't have much leverage against management. And it is in situations like that that workers feel powerless, even though they are not.

What I show in Recoding Power is that technology workers can actually be much more powerful than they may have thought at first glance, although they are also not as invincible as they may think - but you can only see that if you distinguish power from resources. Power has to be built. Your ability to demand a high salary because your boss wants your skills now is not power. You can see this during economic crises, because you will be fired like everyone else when the boss doesn't need your skills. But like all workers, tech workers can organize and can mobilize against the arbitrariness of management in order to protect their jobs. I show that even where it seems impossible, workers can mobilize. It takes creativity, thorough analysis, and collective action, but that's exactly what tech workers are really good at.

What's new in the struggles and power of tech workers in recent years?

In general, I would say that labor struggles in tech have become louder, bigger, and cooler. First, tech workers have been organizing for decades, like at IBM in the 1980s and Microsoft in the 1990s, but for whatever reason, we're hearing more about it now - which is good and probably inspires other workers to organize. Second, whereas these earlier efforts focused primarily on narrow groups of workers, such as full-time white-collar workers at IBM and "permanent temps" at Microsoft, current efforts are much more inclusive, with the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), for example, including full-time and part-time workers at Alphabet. Third, with unions winning real victories across the economy and especially in tech, such as Kickstarter United negotiating much better severance terms for laid-off workers, it is increasingly clear to more tech workers that unions can make a real difference in their lives. They are not just for industrial workers of bygone eras.

Workers are recognizing this, and so are the bosses, as the vicious retaliation against worker leadership at Google, Apple and other companies shows. In a way, the bosses' desperate attempts to crush worker organizing are just more proof of how promising these efforts are.

I think it's safe to say that we're seeing a resurgence of labor militancy in the U.S. tech sector, which is happening at the same time that tech workers are getting more and more infrastructural power. With so much concentration in technology, it is conceivable that a handful of Amazon Web Services employees, or a few Google groups, could shut down vast areas of the internet.

At the same time, it is important to be realistic. Concentrating organizing efforts in tech gets a lot of attention, and this may be the start of something big, but the bosses still have the upper hand, and the road to building real, lasting power across the working class will take a lot of work.
At the same time, it is important to be realistic. Focusing organizing efforts on technology gets a lot of attention, and this may be the start of something big, but the bosses still have the upper hand, and the road to building real, lasting power across the working class will take a lot of work.

What do you mean by "reprogramming" or "recoding" power?

I called the book Recoding Power for two reasons. First, the most striking thing I found in each of the case studies was that what allowed workers to build power was the reprogramming of managerial techniques of control into resources for collective action. Broadly speaking, workers can transform management's justifications for layoffs into arguments about why layoffs are actually avoidable-and this is necessary to inspire the kind of generalized collective action through which workers can exercise power. For example, management, as a rule, comes up with some kind of economic analysis to argue that the company cannot survive unless it cuts jobs. Workers can dissect this analysis and identify its limitations to propose alternative business strategies. What was so fascinating to me about this is that the workers were basically using management's own discourse to show why mobilization could be effective and then organizing to make that possibility a reality.

But I also mean "reprogramming" power in a second sense, and that's more about theoretical and practical debates regarding the nature of power. For reasons I articulated earlier, I'm not convinced by existing approaches to power that seem to conflate it with resources. So one of the things I wanted to do in this book is to offer an alternative that is more consistent with the reality of what we see in the workplace. I think the word "power" is still useful, but we should think about it differently and therefore organize ourselves differently.

What is the place of discourse in this "reprogramming"? Or, what have you found in terms of discursive creativity in your research?

Discourse is central to reprogramming or recoding. What I show in the book is that while managers use discourse to control the workplace, workers can transform these discursive techniques of control into resources for collective action. This requires considerable creativity, but is not beyond the capabilities of workers. Most jobs require at least this amount of creativity, so it is not surprising that we see workers using the tactic of reprogramming in many contemporary labor struggles. At Google, for example, workers announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) in the New York Times with an editorial in which they accused management of violating the company's motto of "don't be evil" and positioning themselves as the true guardians of the company's values. I call this "discursive opportunism," and while opportunism has a bad reputation, I think that given the current position of the workers, it is a worthwhile strategy.

I would like you to talk more about organizing tactics. What are the main challenges in organizing, especially in terms of democracy?

The main challenge in organizing workers is that many of us really struggle to recognize the possibility of getting what we want. The labor parties and the left are losing so much for so long that it can seem impossible for anything remotely good to happen. You see this in contemporary discussions about what some are calling "technofeudalism," as Evgeny Morozov recently noted. In contrast to a few years ago, we may be able to imagine the end of capitalism now, but only if it is worse than what we had. But the basic point is that we are so completely underprivileged in so many areas of our lives, and especially at work, that it is almost impossible to imagine that we can really make a difference in our basic living conditions.

Believing that we are powerless prevents us from doing all the things that are necessary for organization. It keeps us from making time to go to a meeting - why would we bother with that if we can't do anything anyway? And it keeps us from thinking about how things could be different - if you can't make a difference, why think about it?

The other part of that is that we're so alienated from each other that it's hard to break through that ingrained powerlessness, because it usually takes the external impetus of a relationship to do it, but if you don't talk to other people, then it's not going to happen. In many jobs, there aren't many opportunities to get together with your colleagues and talk about what's going on and how they're doing. Social scientists have made careers out of writing about the loss of life.

Believing that we are powerless prevents us from doing all the things necessary for the organization. It keeps us from making time to go to a meeting - why would we bother with that if we can't do anything anyway? And it keeps us from thinking about how things could be different - if you can't make a difference, why think about it?

The other part of that is that we're so alienated from each other that it's hard to break through that ingrained powerlessness, because it usually takes the external impetus of a relationship to do it, but if you don't talk to other people, then it's not going to happen. In many jobs, there aren't many opportunities to get together with your colleagues and talk about what's going on and how they're doing. Social scientists have made careers out of writing about the loss of associational life, how there are no bowling leagues left in the United States or whatever, but there really is something about that, and covid-19 has definitely made that more extreme. We are so busy working all the time-often under time pressure and afraid of losing our jobs, or being disciplined, and so on-that we don't have time to just talk to people, but it's those personal connections that really provide the basis for a meaningful and effective organization. The problem is that there is this kind of catch, because the best way to protect yourself from the kind of pressure that alienates us is to form a union so that your boss has less power over you, but for that you need to organize, and organizing requires building connections with each other, so we are back to square one.

You asked about democracy, and I would say that the main challenge here is that there is no democracy, especially at work. Workers are systematically denied a voice at work, so they don't feel empowered to speak up when they see a bad decision being made. In most workplaces, there is no real way to exercise voice. Sure, there are many offices where management has an "open door policy," but everyone knows that this is usually bullshit. Some firms may have real channels for workers to speak up, but without a union, you don't have the protection you need to meaningfully criticize management. The reality is that many managers don't do well with empowered workers who want to discuss important decisions as equals. You're in the university, so you know how exceptionally tense faculty meetings can be at colleges and universities where faculty really weigh in on governance decisions. All workers should be protected as professors in permanent positions.

But the flip side of that in terms of democracy is that precisely because workers are systematically denied a voice at work, they end up in situations where management makes such bad decisions that they think they need to make layoffs. In doing research for the book Recoding Power, I talked to dozens of workers who knew that managers were making bad business choices, but there was no way to get their voices heard before things fell apart. At Siemens, for example, management rejected VoIP (Voice over IP) in the late 1990s when it was clear to almost everyone (except, apparently, management) that this was the future. But because management made this strategic mistake, they found themselves a few years later in a position where they "had no choice" but to cut jobs.

What is new in terms of strategic capability on the part of the workers?

Strategic capability is a term based on Marshall Ganz, who uses it to describe how leaders update their tactics in light of changing circumstances. The technology sector presents some new circumstances that require considerable strategic capacity, and in Recoding Power I focus primarily on discursive ones. Labor leaders need to speak the language of the workers they are organizing. That doesn't just mean language in terms of English, Spanish, or Chinese. It means being able to really communicate in terms of the underlying assumptions that the workers have, so that the workers believe what the organizers are saying. This is especially important in technology, because the language that technology workers speak can be very different from that of other workers. Much of this has to do with management control techniques, which are largely based on fostering a collective workplace identity around technical skills and performance goals, but also around shared values.
Organizers need to adapt their discursive repertoires to this new environment. To give a timely and, well, polemical example, if you watch Lula's speeches, especially from the 1980s on, you can see how fascinated his audience was - because he spoke the language of the working class. I think it's really telling that his bourgeois commentators sometimes mocked him for saying things that were "grammatically incorrect." To the audience he spoke to, there was no error, and that's what made him such an effective leader. So one of the challenges for organizers of workers in technology is to really learn the language of the workers they are organizing. As I point out in the book, this is easier when the workers are the organizers themselves, as, of course, we see with Lula. There is a real need for organic leadership in technology, and we are seeing that more and more. I'm really inspired by all the amazing people who have come out of the Kickstarter union (Kickstarter United) and are now organizing in tech.

I would probably emphasize one other point that is new, and that is that more and more people are learning the basics of worker organizing. Some are learning through all the training activities that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) runs, whose membership has increased in the last two years to almost 100,000 people by 2021. Labor Notes publishes a really useful pamphlet called "Secrets of a Successful Organizer," and Jane McAlevey has made it her life's work to educate people about how to organize, both through workshops and the books she's written (like No Shortcuts and Raising Expectations and Raising Hell). What's really cool is that workers are putting these strategies and tactics into practice. So when people read news coverage about organizing workers somewhere, they also learn about how to organize. When workers were able to organize a union vote at an Amazon warehouse in New York, for example, they talked a lot about the tactics they used, describing how they adapted the techniques described by McAlevey. We need more leadership with the strategic capacity of the organizers of the Amazon Labor Union.

Based on the lessons learned from the Google workers organizing case, what are the future challenges regarding worker solidarity in the industry?

The efforts of the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) have been inspiring, and while there are a handful of lessons we can already draw from this effort, it's too early to tell (for example, whether this non-affiliate strategy will actually work). The announcement of the AWU in January 2021 came after years of internal organizing at Google, and while the union has at least 600 members, there is still a lot of room for growth, both in terms of membership, but also strategy and tactics.

There are many lessons we can take away, but off the top of my head, I would point to four. First, I think we can learn a lot from the workers involved about how to organize divisions within the working class. The AWU includes workers from many different parts of Alphabet, from full-time software developers to part-time workers on temporary contracts. Workers used a variety of tactics to be inclusive, such as one-on-one discussions and intensive relationship building, and new tactics to organize in different remote locations. I think it's important to highlight how workers found common ground, in part, by turning management discourse itself into a resource for collective action, so I see Google as an illustration of how the tactic of reprogramming can be used effectively to build real working class power.

The second lesson from the Google case is more complicated and has to do with the long, slow process of organizing, rather than just mobilizing. The AWU grew out of years of organizing at Google, usually around issues that may not seem like labor issues if you think of "labor issues" very narrowly-for example, wages were not a central issue. For example: resistance to the "real names" policy that management implemented for Google+, as well as the strike in protest of sexual harassment. These and other efforts became the seeds of what eventually grew into a broader movement for worker power and voice. Some of the other issues that arose along the way had to do with workers refusing to work on U.S. Department of Defense contracts that the company's management had accepted. The lesson here is that the organization needs to listen to the workers first and foremost. Anything that matters to the workers is a labor issue. Especially in the current circumstances, where the labor issue is so weak, the first step has to be to build worker-led organizations in the workplace. Whether or not these organizations directly address traditional "labor" issues is beside the point. Is the issue widely and deeply felt? Is it something that can be earned and helps build the organization and leaders? Organizers succeed when they ask these questions, rather than trying to organize around issues that other workers at other times in other industries may have been concerned about.

The third lesson from Google is that "even" Google workers need to unionize. You're probably used to these accounts of what it's apparently like to work at Google - free sushi, massages, a well-kept campus full of colorful bikes - but even in a workplace where managers spare no expense to satisfy (some of) the workers, there's still a need for compensatory power building. Management does terrible things, sometimes by accident, but also sometimes on purpose - like firing people who stand against accepting unethical contracts. Unless there is someone there to stop them. So organization is necessary, even at Google.

The fourth and final lesson is that organizing is possible, "even" at Google. Even where workers may receive high salaries and relatively generous benefits, and divided among themselves by status distinctions and remote work, it is still possible to organize.

The empowerment of workers at Google further illustrates its necessity, given the vicious management response. Even at a company that prides itself on treating (some of) its workers well, and not being "mean," management still hires union-busting law firms, and violates labor law to undermine workers' organizing efforts. Overall, the lesson of the Google case is that it is necessary for tech workers to organize - and it is possible.