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The State Of The Unions - can workers unite to improve online privacy?

Summer 2021

Our premise

It used to be that when people worked with computers, the employer was tasked not only with supplying the hardware, but paying for software licences as well. Application distribution, even up to and including the days of Pentium 4 processors, consisted of CD-ROMs. Operating systems and programs were unable to rely on continuous internet access, which meant software wasn't designed from the ground up to spy on users. The license agreements were made between companies: a fixed number of usage rights were bought and paid for and employees were handed pre-installed machines with the tools needed for them to do their work.

Today, almost everyone in the west is using some kind of computer in their job, either in the form of a "classic" laptop or desktop machine, or in the form of a smartphone. The way either one of them is used has changed since the turn of the millennium, from relying on agreements between corporate entities to relying on agreements between a single individual - the employee, and several third parties - the ones who run whatever ecosystem(s) the employer has decided to use.

This means that individual employees are forced into personal and far-reaching legal agreements with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and any number of other third parties, all conveniently following the employee around all day, every day - most likely even when they're not working. Though we all know we shouldn't mix business and pleasure, a lot of people have little choice: either their gig jobs require them to constantly watch over their phones to be able to snatch a few hours of work here and there, or systems such as the Swedish Mobile BankID can only be installed on one device at a time, limiting the choices for those in professions where carrying a second phone is impractical, forbidden or even impossible.

We seem to accept this mostly because we've been accustomed to it over time and now, like a frog in suddenly boiling water, we seem incapable of jumping to safety. To help put things into perspective, imagine this translated into a more traditional workplace conflict: Suddenly, a popular forklift manufacturer requires all individual forklift operators to at all times disclose their physical location - on the clock or off, awake or asleep - to said manufacturer. I'm pretty sure not only the employees and unions, but actually the employers themselves, would firmly object to this and either force the forklift manufacturer out of business or promptly make them reevaluate their bizarre policy.

The state of the unions

Unions, at least in Europe, have mostly turned into sinecure mausoleums for the kind of overproduced elite whose interests align more with the actual elite than with workers and their welfare. My union, for example, is hell-bent on paying large amounts of money for "webinars" with parasitic "inspirational" lecturers or even a stand-up comedian with a known track record of hiring illicit laborers to avoid paying taxes. (So why am I still a member? Because the Swedish system is elegantly rigged to make this the only viable option for an actually livable unemployment insurance.)

When I contacted my union, they simply concluded that if a person doesn't want to enter third party agreements that put their privacy up for sale, they can get another job. Exactly what kind of job that might be today, and whether or not they would've acted the same way if forklift operators had to enter into agreements to at all times share their physical location with the forklift manufacturer, remains unclear.

In Europe, and certainly in Sweden, union membership is uncontroversial. What's more worrying - but not at all surprising - is that not being unionized is gradually less and less controversial. The unions are still living comfortably off the hard work of older generations who, together with the Social Democratic party, pushed for extensive parental leave, lengthy paid vacations, workplace safety regulations, extensive paid sick leave and a whole host of other genuinely beneficial legislation made possible during a period of unmatched economic growth.

A stagnant economy has opened up lucrative markets for operators who exploit legal loopholes, creating ample opportunities for gig jobs even in a heavily unionized and regulated job market such as the Swedish one. And that's only the systemic side of of the coin: there's also competition from a growing black market economy fuelled by illegal immigration, which time and time again has proven to lead to slave-like living conditions with laborers packed in barracks and fed gruel while working to pay off "debts" owed for their ticket to Sweden.

With all of this in place, it's become easier for politicians to further impair employment legislation by pointing at the (false) futility of stopping what's already been set in motion, instead of closing the loopholes and keeping borders and employers in check. The unions, meanwhile, have mostly kept quiet and their members have mostly been caught by surprise, still befuddled by the speed of this change. Small wonder, then, that a lot of young workers in relatively cushy "modern" office jobs - programming, administration, sales - consider unions to be little more than a pointless monthly expense cutting into their streaming media budget.

Workers, unite!

Despite this, I still believe unions are a better tool than political parties for workers to protect their interests, in part because most western legislation still allows for conflict measures such as strikes. At least in Sweden, unions are also mostly free of corruption and they have the economic muscles and clout (if managed properly) to actually push legislation in a better direction. They also have at least a notion of national and international cooperation and solidarity remaining in their DNA - small trickles emerging from old floodgates waiting to be opened. It's not going to be easy and it may take time, but unions are still organizations I deem less rigid and closed than old established parties, because the union operatives on a grass roots level have real jobs and thus know how the real world works.

The privacy problem may affect programmers and office dwellers to a greater extent than other workers, but because of the prevalence of smartphones, handheld computers and other computational devices in almost all areas of work, this is an issue affecting everyone and something that all unions could work together to change.

Beware of traitors

I'm no expert on the US labor market, but unions seem more controversial there than in Europe. Still, they exist and have at least historically been fighting for the workers. Programmers, especially the ones in the Silicon Valley fantasy economy, are also particularly averse to unionizing - though a little flicker of hope was briefly lit when the Alphabet Worker's Union announced their existence.

Hope was, however, swiftly put out after reading their mission statement and code of conduct: they seem intent on pushing the kind of flawed ideology that makes it easier, not harder, for the elite to swiftly fire dissenters and free thinkers. They also claim they "will ensure Alphabet acts ethically and in the best interests of society and the environment" (yes, verbatim), but the very basis of Alphabet's profit relies on mass surveillance, privacy invasion, selling advertisements and doing so by gobbling up massive amounts of electricity. We can swiftly conclude that the AWU won't lift a finger to counteract that (though I'm happy to be proven wrong).

Other than that, the fights they've picked so far are mostly symbolic and have little to do with equal pay and benefits for equal work. They are in fact - either purposefully or serving as useful idiots - henchmen for the kind of elite any meaningful union should consider a natural and sworn enemy.

But what about the economy, stupid?

I could take the easy route here and say that a pushback against surveillance capitalism would simply bring about the kind of "creative destruction" our elites are so fond of pushing as a narrative, and leave it at that. However, not being a sneaky grifter pundit, I'll go one step further and propose a turn of events that may be optimistic, but not improbable.

Factories are currently being shut down not because they're operating at a loss, but because they're not profitable enough. Investors and corporations simply aren't interested in production and refinement if more money can be made by spying on consumers, selling advertisements, creating debt traps or turning commonplace commodities into rentals by way of software.

This state of affairs is worsened by the fact that those actually interested in opening new factories may be unable to do so. Energy is a scarce commodity, in part because of bad policy decisions but also because fossil resources are finite. This will remain true until a real disruptive game changer appears, or at least until the inevitable is postponed if (when?) western policymakers once again put faith in fission.

If the legislative rug was to be pulled out from under the surveillance economy, the change would likely be brutal at first. Programming as a profession would hardly disappear altogether - there's too much critical software around for that - but a lot of programmers would suffer. Certainly those employed at companies who rely almost exclusively on income from advertising, such as Google and Facebook, but also those within traditional entertainment and productivity software. Then, gradually, capital and energy resources could be freed up from now pointless data centers and data harvesters and diverted elsewhere.

After all, a moderately profitable factory would surely be a better option than no profit at all.