“Collective action is declining as a means of resolving labour disputes. Technological companies may have revolutionised the workplace, but it’s not the revolution employees need. Trade unions are sorely needed, and allowing employees to swap their neckties for hoodies doesn’t change that.”
When we think of worker-exploitation, a few images come to mind. We think of portly Victorian men in top hats presiding over lines of soot-covered children, or sweatshops in China, where fences are erected at the top of buildings to stop employee suicide. We don’t think of Luas drivers or workers in Dunnes Stores — at least, not initially.
The influences of globalisation and punitive labour laws have weakened trade unions over the years. And while only the most Randian zealot would argue that they should be abolished, there is a growing sentiment that they should have less influence over workplace relations. Unfortunately, the exploitation of labour by capital is still ongoing, and the decline of trade unions is not a sign of progress.
Have we progressed to the point in history where trade unions are no longer as necessary? Unions have received a lot of flak recently. SIPTU, the trade union representing the Luas drivers, were heavily criticised for their involvement in strike. SIPTU’s detractors maintained that the union was far too demanding in their negotiations — the Luas drivers were getting a ‘fair’ deal anyway.
Over time, the tide of public opinion turned against the trade unions. By the end of the dispute, wading into the comment section on any article featuring Luas drivers on The Journal was like entering a far-right echo chamber of hate and begrudgery.
Essentially, the most common line of argument against the Luas drivers was that SIPTU were too demanding and that Luas labour conditions were satisfactory. Tech companies are even more impervious to this line of criticism because there’s a perception that newer companies are eager to create a better working environment. Google, Facebook and Apple commonly top polls of the most desirable places to work.
A new era?
Have start-ups and tech companies improved the lives of their workers? Cosmetically, it would definitely appear so. Companies like Google have employee gyms and yoga mornings. Ostensibly, they are your average friendly neighbourhood corporation. But have we just replaced a Victorian factory owner with a 26-year-old CEO who wears a hoodie?
Some of these companies have been scrutinised of late. Amazon has received a lot of criticism in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding their workplace culture. Employees were encouraged to submit feedback if they were unhappy with a colleague to a secret source. This was often used to further grudges or end a petty squabble. Worse still, this culture dominated the lives of the employees, with emails being sent after midnight, followed up with texts if they were not answered. The company itself boasts that their standards are “unreasonably high”.
This culture is not limited to the towering corporate behemoths. An article published in the New York Times last year detailed somebody’s experience working in a tech start-up called HubSpot. The writer described the company as a “digital sweatshop”. When employees were fired indiscriminately, emails were sent saying “Team, just letting you know that X has graduated and we’re all excited to see how she uses her superpowers in her next big adventure.” Their firing culminated in a farewell party, wishing the employee well on their next venture.
The use of jargon to neutralise nastier elements of company practices should not be taken as a genuine example of a less exploitative workplace. Just because companies have a cuddly, progressive image; they shouldn’t be let off the hook. And we shouldn’t mistake the fact that many offices – or “incubation hubs” – have smoothie machines as evidence of a progressive work environment.
We cannot assume that new start-ups, with an emphasis on “blue-sky-thinking”, are also revolutionising employer-employee relations. In fact, given the importance of venture capitalists and investors to burgeoning companies, we should be more wary of start-ups because they are inherently tied to the profit-motive, more so than other ‘traditional’ companies.
Trusting companies to create a suitable workplace and compensate their employees adequately has not worked in the past, and it won’t work in the future, regardless of how ‘progressive’ and ‘forward-thinking’ these companies are.
Collective action is declining as a means of resolving labour disputes. Technological companies may have revolutionised the workplace, but it’s not the revolution employees need. Trade unions are sorely needed, and allowing employees to swap their neckties for hoodies doesn’t change that.