Unions Got This - Organising the Tech Trade

Presented by Dan Parkes at You Got This Birmingham 2020

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These transcripts were captured live by a captioner. As such, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

My name's Dan. I'm an audio engineer by day, and an organiser by night. This is about unions. So, I'm going first off start off what are unions? I want to know how many people know what a union is? Raise your hand. That's good. So, for those of you who don't know, we're not talking about set theory. Yes, I did do a maths degree! Not very good, but this is the bit I knew. We're not talking about set theory. We're talking about trade unions.

And so trade as in kind of any kind of work, and ultimately, what unions are about are about rights, so, the rights we have in our daily lives. A lot of us, especially at this stage in our careers, when we're new, we maybe don't know what our workers' rights are, and you aren't to know because we're not taught that.

When you go to study at university, chances are you may have had one lecture. You were like, "I could skip that one, not important now." It's very important, and it is something that is very tied to - it's tied to something that we don't really think about because chances are, we won't need to, because companies will say, "This is where I would like to thank Keziyah, the first talk was perfect". It was like a launchpad into this talk, because, companies, although they're offering you an opportunity, they're ultimately trying to use you for their gain. This is where you have to look out for yourself with your workers' rights.

So, companies are capitalist. They're going to try and use your value - Nathaniel earlier was talking earlier about value and the value they're putting into you. That value is what the company cares about. It's not necessarily you, and that's why you have to look out for yourself, and you're not alone, because you work at that company with other people. And those workers, if you combine together, that's when you get unions.

So, some big wall of text. You're not meant to do this in presentations. If you're ever going to do it, but the big things here are that unions are meant to represent workers and employees in big companies, and small companies - any size of company - but it's ultimately representing the employees verse the employer. These are some of the things that they can do for you.

So, if you have a union, you can get engaged with some kind of democracy. Democracy's fun when it works. So you can practise a little bit working in a union where you can vote on things, and votes for yay, nay, and it sounds like you're actually in parliament. It's fun! But you elect workplace reps and branch officers. I'm an officer of the union, the Game Workers Unite UK union for the West Midlands region, so our region here, and I was elected by people in my region to represent our region.

Here are some examples of things that unions in the past have done for their workers. They have made sure that these things are part of your daily lives, part of your working lives, and some of them - a lot of these you might think are taken for granted. They're not. Sometimes, employers will try and slip you by, try and get one on you, because probably because you're new, and you don't really know - you maybe don't know your workers' rights. If they think - because the tech industry, we're not particularly well unionised at the moment, so, we're particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing.

Then, if you're really thinking "What is in it for me? What's in it for me?" Every union in the UK will provide you with legal support in cases. So you can - if you're getting discriminated against at work for any legitimate reason, and you're part of a member of the union, you can talk to your union, and they will be, "That's out of order" and then will he had come in, and you can sue your company. And then you have a case, and then you get some money, which is great. If that is sounding great, where do I start?

Those of you who didn't know about unions earlier, the best starting point is probably for the UK the Miners' strike. If you don't know what that is, some good starting points are Billy Elliot. The musical is probably better. We have Tom Holland because of it. And Pride, which is a wonderful film about how LGBT people supported the miners' strike. It's all about Maggie Thatcher, and that. Yes. Yeah! Thank you. Love those boos! There will be a few of these. These are called QR codes. They're very rarely used. They're quite useful. But that is a QR code for the link on the left. If you want to read up on Labour and the complications between employees and employees, - employees and employers, and seeing them in films, this website is good, it has a good list of films that can help you get into this stuff.

So, some example unions that we have here in the UK, we've got, I'm going to name a few out, we've got the National Union of Journalists, which is for journalists. We have the Musicians Union for musicians. The Communications Workers' Union - the CWU, they're for the Royal Mail. You will see they've been having some big strikes, and proposing to strike, and the Royal Mail are refusing for them to strike, and it's quite - they're one of the biggest vocational-based unions in the UK, and I would recommend if you're interested in how big unions can get, CWU is a good union to have a look at, and they're very active, really strong, very inspirational. You've got Equity for actors. And performers.

And then we've got on the right-hand side, Geneva got Unison and Unite. These are two really big unions. They're massive. They represent all sorts of workers from various different industries. And another such union is BECTU. I'm just going to do another quick query. How many of you are actually in a union? That's good. Yay. How many are you with BECTU? One person. Two people. Okay, so you know about BECTU. BECTU is for broadcasting, entertainment, communication and theatre union. And they have a small little games sector, but the thing about a big union like BECTU is they're known as service unions, or business unions, which means that they have a structure much like any company where you have bureaucracy. So you have levels to that, and that can be good. It means that it is quite a efficient and well run, but it does mean that it is maybe less radical. It's not going to create large changes to an industry, and especially a broad union, like BECTU, is going to be looking after various different avenues, so they haven't necessarily got - they're not tailored to a specific industry. Whereas if we look at a union like IWGB, which has been coming up in the news a lot recently - they like to make a lot of noise - it is the Independent Workers of Great Britain.

I won't go into why it is called "independent workers" because it's a very long story, but basically, the "independent" doesn't mean self-employed, it just means - it is from the history from which the union came, and it focuses on industries that haven't traditionally been unionised, so we've got branches for social care workers, cleaners, Deliveroo riders, Uber drivers. All of these work remembers are separate branches of the IWGB.

The thing about IWGB is that it is light weight and it's got a flat structure as opposed to a hierarchy. The way I kind of used it is kind of like a bootstrap for unions. What is the very minimal you want? And IWGB offers that, which is basically legal support and a very strong kind of press team who are very - they have very active and get news out very quickly.

So, one such bit of news is very recent. A couple of days ago, we just - we have had this case, IWGB, against the police because James Farah in the top left, your top right, he was prosecuted by the police for assault. He used a megaphone. He didn't whack someone around the head with it, he just was using it. And the police were trying to accuse him of assault. Luckily, the judge thought that was bollocks, so he threw that out. So now now IWGB and James are trying to sue the police, and another QR code there, and link there to that, and you will see slides available, I think, later, so you can follow that through. But that gives you a bit more information.

And this also is the - in order to sue the government, they're going to need a bit of funds. Because it's lightweight, radical, they're not a big union, and big unions do have big pots of money, they're very much in the same kind of kettle of fish as kind of non-profits, charity, where they need to do a lot of fund-raising. If you think that our right to protest should be defended, and you've got a spare £5, you should definitely maybe pop that into the pot.

So, IWGB leads us into Game Workers Unite UK which is a branch of IWGB, and using the bootstrap that IWGB is, we're like, that sounds nice, we will use that, and then we've created our own union, which is Game Workers Unite UK branch of IWGB. It's rank-and-file unionism where no-one has more power than anybody else but everybody has an equal vote, an equal voice. Where there are positions, there is responsibility, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have power.

There is obviously power in that someone who calls themselves a Chair sounds important, so, you're like, "I'm the Chair" and they go, "Ooh!" Other than that, there is no power, and we are autonomous, so we run ourselves. We are all volunteers. We all do it off our backs because we want to change the industry. In fact, what we want to do are four things. It all came together when we formed the union, and we were, like, things are bad in the games industry.

We want to change things in four key areas. So we want to end this thing called "crunches" - I'm sure you heard of it. I was talking to Ruth before I came on sage of Cyber punk they've delayed, not because they don't want to let their workers not crunch, they are still going to crunch, in fact, they're going to do more crunch - this is exactly what we could want to stop. And that's why we formed this union primarily.

But we also want to improve diversity and inclusion efforts across the UK because it's incredibly cis white. I mean, I'm a case in point, but I hope I'm trying to change that. It's not great, and we need to do better, and we want to work with all sorts of people in the games industry to improve representation.

We also want to support people who have been abused. This is an area that we are very proud that we've won lots of cases for our members, so, we've been going just over a year, and we've helped people who have had harassment and discrimination at their work places, and we've helped those people in cases.

And finally, we want to try to create security, because when a game - when a game is being developed, there's bugs, and people have to find those bugs, those wonderful QA people often are on zero-hour contracts. We want to try and solve that as well. And some other examples of where organising is happening

Riot Games over in LA, you might know them from League of Legends, but they've been in the news a lot in the last couple of years because they have an inherent sexist culture that was exposed, and then some female employees sued Riot, and then there were walkouts. This was a great example of organising and it's crucial to state that they haven't got a union yet.

So organising doesn't require unions. Unions are ultimately a product from organising, and that's why I want you to take that in, because tech industry hasn't really got any bespoke unions yet. Another example is this a freight video, I'm just going to leave the QR code there, and you can find it later, or you can Google or DuckDuckGo it. I'm divorcing myself from Google at the moment!

PMG is People Make Games, a YouTube series by Chris who used to work at Euro Gamer. It's a great example of what unionism looks like. It's Blizzard were trying to fire 100 or something people in France and then hire them again for cheaper in Ireland. And this video goes into all the issues with that, and how the unions - France has got a great history of unionism. I don't know if that is a word. Unions there. If you want to go and looking into that, I highly recommended watching this video.

But, a lot of you, okay, another raise of hands. I'm enjoying seeing the hand. Who here works in video games? Hi, Beck. Beck came with me. None of you work in video games, which is fine, because it's not just, as I was saying, video games. This should bleed out into other areas, and we've been seeing walkouts at Google, and, in fact, just last November, four employers were fired, and they think it was for organising efforts.

So, to provide some context, those were employees working at Google and then maybe trying to get some union, or organising efforts happening at the workplace, maybe organising meet-ups outside of work, and then Google - it's possible they might have used some documents to share around things, and then Google fired them, and that is something called Union Busting. Boo! Union Busting sucks.

So this is something we want to make sure is squashed a lot. That's where we are going to see, in America, Code CWA, and going to see hopefully those Google employees, and other people in tech, and games, because in America, you can see there being a kind of sisterhood of tech and games coming together to form a branch of the union which is CWA over in America to create Code CWA, AOC tweeted about it, which was awesome. And you can - this is an example of what hopefully tech organising in the UK might look like. So that brings me nicely on to the tech workers' coalition.

Who here has heard of the Tech Workers' Coalition? A few people. Okay. That's great. Because that means the rest of you, this is new. Tech Workers' Coalition is a movement similar to how Game Workers' UK is formed out of an international union called Game Workers Unite which is an effort to create organising and hopefully unions in various places around the world. Technical Workers is trying to get to do the same, get people talk to each other about organising and put those people together, and they have a great website that I'd highly recommend you checking out.

I'm going to go over quickly reasons why organising is good, and why I hope some of you today will go away, go to Tech Workers' Coalition website and join the Slack, and take part in the conversation. It's a great way to meet new places and create safe spaces. "Safe space" is becoming more common in work places and outside of work places. It's trying to create places with good codes of conduct, such as this place here today. I would regard this as a very good safe space for people to feel they can come here without being harassed or discriminated against.

You could organise similar meet-ups in your home towns, find a pub, use a free service like Eventbrite, or there are other services available. But also, I would highly recommend trying to keep it dry, like this event as well, because there is a growing trend that alcohol is just not great in social meet-ups. It's nicer to use other methods to comfort people, do some ice-breaking, you could use those tips that Matthew had earlier. They're great. But it's about meeting you in people, and meeting new. I didn't know anything about unions two years ago, and here I am today.

It's about - look, you could learn about the history of unions in our country, and, in Europe. You would also, it's a great steppingstone into other areas of activism, so I'm sure you've seen all the stuff about Extinction rebellion. If you were - one of the previous members of the exec or our union now does environmental climate change activism. And, similarly, I was very invested in this election, more than I have before, and that I think was down to unionism, because I now feel more passionate about improving the lives of everybody. It's a great way to learn new skills. Like you probably get them elsewhere. You can learn some of these skills at work, of interpersonal communication skills, but there is also a lot of learning - learning workers' rights, and learning something that is very different to our very technical expertise, being in an environment which is divorced from that, it's a great way to learn new skills.

Checking the time. Oh, I'm doing great. It's also incredibly rewarding. Because, as I said earlier, the union that I helped form has changed lives. It's helped people who have had - who are worse off, and this is another reason why you should maybe join a union. If you feel pretty good, I'm feeling pretty great. My life's pretty good. There are people out there who aren't, who are in worse positions, and especially in unions such as the IWGB who represent clearance, immigrants who come very soon don't know if they'll be in the country or not. That is something that, by representing those people, I feel that I'm helping in a way.

If I wanted to step up even more, they would give me plenty of opportunity to do so. Every single time I've done anything for the union, it's incredibly rewarding. You inspire others, and also constantly you're inspired. You do feel like you're maybe changing the world, which is nice to feel.

So this is the website you should check out. There are meetings in London. There is a tech workers' coalition London already, so, if you're London-based, that exists. If you're not, I would love for you maybe to - well, definitely join the Slack, and then maybe set up a meeting here in Birmingham, if you're based in Birmingham, or wherever you're from. It could be just in the pub. Set up a meet-up, and chat about your work. Chat about what is good about your work, what's not about the work. And everything you've heard today, creating a space to talk about all of the, that you've heard about today, like the Bragg Docs, all of these things would be perfect to be discussed in such an environment. But also, with your fellow workers.

Because it's all about camaraderie, and comrades, and being better, making the workplace better for everyone. So, on that, I would like to say thank you. Go and join a Slack. Yeah! Thank you. [Cheering and applause].

About the talk

This will be a whistle-stop tour of what unionism means in today’s world of tech. We’ll briefly cover what a union is, the various shapes and sizes they take and what they can do for you, using the recently formed Game Workers Unite UK branch of the IWGB as an example.

About Dan Parkes

Dan is the Chair of the West Midlands Regional Group of Game Workers Unite UK. He’s also an Audio Engineer at Pixel Toys and has worked in the games industry for 6 years across audio, data and design disciplines.

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Dan Parkes


You Got This is a network of community conferences focused on core, non-technical skills coordinated by Kevin Lewis.