Back in the late 1980s, after the defeat of the air traffic controllers in the USA and the miners in the UK, a great many activists gave up on their hopes that working class people could lead a revolt against capitalism. Andre Gorz, for example, had written a book, Adieux au proletariat (Farewell to the Working Class) which became popular on the left. His argument was that the traditional working class had changed in such a fundamental way that we would never again have the power to lead a transformation of society.
What the book (and those influenced by it) failed to appreciate is that the working class is always changing. Industries rise and fall, with consequences for patterns of employment. But the fact that all companies exploit their workers to maximise profits is a constant. And it is a constant that means after a new company has been running for a while, its employees will try to organise themselves.
Take Google and Facebook, two very important examples of new workforces, especially for Ireland. Right now there is major unrest by staff worldwide in these companies along with a drive to unionise.
The struggle for trade union rights at Google
At the end of October 2019, a row broke out at Google over a new tool for Chrome that automatically launches a pop-up when staff book a room capable of holding 100 people or more. Google says that it’s just a roadbump to stop unnecessary invitations but employees anonymously leaked news of this tool with the allegation that it was designed to warn management of attempts to hold organising meetings.
Workers have mocked the tool, circulating memes such as one showing Professor Dolores Umbridge teaching a defence against the Dark Arts class. Beneath her, it says: ‘Google decree number 24: no employee organization or meeting with over 100 participants may exist without the knowledge and approval of the high inquisitor.’ Another shows a bunch of male managers in suits laughing as one of them says: ‘and then we told them “we will not make it appear to you that we are watching out for your protected concerted activities” as we pushed a Chrome extension to report when someone makes a meeting with 100+ people.’
This came shortly after a meeting, 21 October 2019, in Switzerland, where for several months, over 2,000 Google staff had been attempting to organise a meeting addressed by the trade union Syndicom. Management attempted to thwart the meeting and at one point sent a message around to employees saying, “we’ll be cancelling this talk.”
In the end, some 40 workers insisted on their right to hear the union representative and this issue is likely to culminate in a fierce battle for recognition.
To some extent the drive to unionise was trigged by the massive walkout on 1 November 2018, a strike that was very well supported by Dublin Google workers at the Barrow Street headquarters. Google employs around 7,000 workers in Ireland. Over 20,000 workers in 47 countries held a wildcat strike to protest at massive severance payments made to male executives accused of sexual harassment.
Google workers have recently leaked information on issues they feel are morally wrong in the direction of the company, such as censored search engines for China; co-operation with armies, or with the fossil fuel industry.
Facebook has over 4,000 employees in Ireland and here too there have been leaks, not least in regard to making contracts public. This has been an important contribution to a legal case against Google contracts where the plaintiffs want end to compulsory arbitration of workplace discrimination cases.
One Facebook worker described to Independent Left how the company started in Ireland in a non-traditional way, making an effort to create a team spirit through twenty-four hour, free access to a variety of food and drink, including a bar. But now, most of that has gone and the company manages its workers much like any other.
Life in Google and Facebook for workers is unrecognisable in the Hollywood versions of these companies (e.g. in The Social Network or The Internship).
What this discontent among workers in the giant tech companies shows is that although the decline of old industries can indeed shatter working class organisation and confidence for a few years, the rise of new ones (and, indeed, the return of confidence to traditional ones) brings back the fight to organise against exploitation and unfair practices.
And what this means for the big picture is that the potential for workers to lead a massive, fundamental change to how the world currently works is as great as ever.