This is not a basis for collaboration: on ‘separate but equal’ formations in Australian design-tech unionising

On May 23 2018 a public meeting was held in Melbourne on the topic of organising design and technology workers for the purpose of collective action and the possibility of forming a dedicated industrial union. The event, held at the Victorian Trades Hall, was organised by human rights lawyer and technology writer Lizzie O’Shea, programmer and Australian Council of Trades Union (ACTU) employee Robert Lechte, and a front end developer identifying as Tom.

The emergence of a serious and public discussion about the political organisation of design and technology workers is overdue. As the content of the May 23rd event flyer alluded to, this is relevant not only to the conditions of exploitation for workers across design-tech industries, but also to the way in which design-tech workers and the broader communities of which they are a part are impacted by the products of design and technology work.

For example, while discussions of the politics of design and technology are as old as the history of industrialisation, the recent scandal over Facebook’s handling of user data in the context of the 2016 US election is one of a number of events that has pushed the problems that exist within the design-tech sector into clear and public view. The same events have also demonstrated the relevance of these issues to constituencies beyond the sphere of Silicon Valley, as well as the inadequacy of attempting to both theorise and regulate such a domain via liberal conceptions of right. Similarly, the recent campaign run by Google workers against the tech giant’s participation in the US military industrial complex has renewed focus on the range of political possibilities that exist for design-tech workers beyond the delimited terms of both the employment and social contracts, an issue extensively theorised by Angela Mitropoulos.

The question of the political organisation of design-tech workers is therefore potent and timely. It is one that prefigures the possibility of serious and effective action to resist the terms of exploitation as they extend from the freelancer contract, to the company IT department, the national election campaign, and drone bombings in the Middle East. The opportunity to shift the terms by which political action is conceived — from the sphere of formal, representative ‘politics’ to the far broader and generally more responsive terrain of ‘economics’ — is, indeed, a move that has the potential to facilitate much needed forms of systemic transformation. With that said, my suggestion here is that design-tech workers ought to approach our organisation into a self-conscious political force with a sense for the stakes of how this organisation occurs, to whose benefit, and with an awareness of the structures that already exist for checking and regulating the political force of organised labour.

On the politics of organisation

The event in Melbourne on the 23rd is not the first or only initiative in Australia to declare an interest in organising a design-tech union. As far as I am aware, the earliest public appearance of this was in a October 2017 presentation by researcher, strategic designer, and self-described “Black radical anarchist” Michael Palmyre at UX New Zealand.

Palmyre presents the possibility of design-tech unionising in a context where, as he explains, most major problems in the world, properly conceived, are the product of systemic and structural formations that cannot be sufficiently addressed within the limited scope and normative expectations of design-tech work. With this in mind, Palmyre makes the point that unionisation has been shown to be an historically effective way of shifting the terms of both responsibility and action from a focus on the atomised individual to something that is more collectively articulated and, as such, far more effective at resisting the varied and complex terms of capitalist exploitation. Palmyre takes this idea further, arguing that the logic behind any push for collective action in the design and technology industries ought to be enacted in and as related to existing and emergent efforts at organisation in other domains.

Palmyre ends his presentation with a plug for the How Might We Do Good platform (HMWDG), a semi-public Slack group that Palmyre along with other interested design-tech workers helped to establish in August 2017. Since its launch the platform has acted as a forum for informed and oftentimes very serious discussion on a range of issues, including issues of racism and sexism within the design-tech industry broadly and as manifested within the space of HMWDG itself. It’s a point of note that these discussions are for the most part directed by women and/as people of colour speaking from a position of ownership over these issues, an occurrence that reflects Palmyre’s October appeal to a networked and intersectional approach to design-tech industry politics.

HMWDG has also acted as a platform to organise various actions, projects, and local meet-ups across Australia (Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney) and New Zealand. At the time of writing the platform has a member list of 326 participants, several of whom participate internationally including from India, Sweden, and the US.

In the midst of this activity there has been prominent discussion within HMWDG on the topic of design-tech unionising, including over questions of possible structure, objectives, and processes of formation. A dedicated channel on this topic was opened in January 2018. That channel’s history presents a record of various efforts to assemble insights and connections from other local and international initiatives. This includes a February report back by Palmyre of a previous discussion with organisers of the California-centred Tech Workers Coalition (TWC), and a write up from a workshop run by Australia-based members of the radical syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

A dimension of the discussion to which others and I have contributed concerns the question of worker autonomy and movement vis-à-vis the long record of mainstream union complicity in issues of white supremacy and/as worker suppression. As argued elsewhere on the HMWDG Slack, this issue is well exemplified in the case of wildcat actions by migrant Ford factory workers in 1973, an event which was as much a necessary strike against the class collaborationist nationalism of a white union leadership as it was, in the same move, an expression of worker resistance to the conditions of their exploitation by Ford. While the struggles of the early 1970s were pivotal in the shift to multicultural expressions of social governance, the legacy of mainstream union complicity continues today in forms that include the refugee detention industry financing, shutting down debate on efforts to close detention camps, and the inclusion of a pitch for border policing in the ACTU’s current #ChangeTheRules campaign.

All of this points to the need for an organisational approach on the part of design-tech workers that is both practical and analytic — that is, a project of both understanding and acting upon the complex and diverse ways in which the exploitation of actually existing design-tech workers occurs. This includes an awareness for the fact that the archetypes of factory, mining, teacher, or nursing unionising are not necessarily applicable to the post-Fordist composition of contemporary design-tech work. Further, relatedly, and as is the case with most industries, a sizeable number of design-tech workers experience combinations of race, gender, sexuality, border controls etc as core material factors in their economic exploitation. To put the issue directly, design-tech workers are already exploited by racism, patriarchy, and borders; effective unionising means analysis and strategy that foregrounds and confronts these as issues affecting design-tech workers. This is to say that the design-tech sphere is already organised in such a way that ‘diversity’ acts as both a condition of exploitation and a factor that is irreducible to a flat, universalist conceptions of ‘the worker’ —or at least not without replicating the traditional terms of unionist collaboration in processes of labour market segmentation. The prospect of effective design-tech organising, therefore, as opposed to a simple replication of the terms of exploitation, lies in an organising methodology that treats complexity and difference as an organisational principle, rather than as a superficial and supplementary way of re-branding the same old politics.

As a whole, HMWDG provides a months long record of serious and significant work on these very issues, both within and beyond the design-tech industry. Importantly, this work has been spearheaded by organisers of colour and their supporters, and by people who have been active in both reaching out to existing organisations and unpicking the complex materiality of race, gender, and organisational forms.

As such, the appearance of an additional effort to organise design-tech unionists at last week’s meet-up in Melbourne would seem to be a welcome opportunity to connect and amplify work by different networks around an allied interest in union politics. As things have panned out, however, such appearances belie a process of erasure and non-engagement that have left HMWDG participants questioning what the terms of interaction are supposed to be in this space.

While these are ‘early days’ for the prospects of design-tech industry organising, both in Australia and worldwide, the points that I make are with a view to the fact that the issues at play can only get harder to address as the habit of ignoring them is further institutionalised. As such, these are issues that ought to be on the agenda of any design-tech union from the very beginning, and as something that is the responsibility of all design-tech workers — but most particularly those who benefit from uneven power structures — to promote, enforce, and hold others to account within their networks.

Getting the story straight

The basis for the concerns presented here lie in the fact that, by their own admission, the organisers of last week’s event have made no public acknowledgement of the existence of HMWDG or the work that it has done to date on design-tech unionising. This is, importantly, despite members of the Melbourne organising group having participated in the HMWDG Slack in the months and weeks beforehand, including on the channel explicitly dedicated to the topic of unionising. It is also despite an effort made by HMWDG people to reach out on Twitter to a Melbourne organiser who had not yet appeared on the HMWDG Slack. These concerns have been compounded by the Melbourne group setting up a channel on the US-based TWC Slack to which they have directed people who attended last week’s meeting, suggesting the formation of a TWC-AU.

Some precision is required here in communicating the terms of the problem. As indicated above, one of the founding principles of the HMWDG project is an interest in networked and collaborative forms of collective organising. The issue is not, therefore, about the formation of alternative groups or platforms for helping design-tech workers to organise themselves. Given the role of complexity and difference referred to above, the formation of a multiplicity of networked projects should in fact be seen as necessary to the co-ordination of effective collective action. An important corollary to this idea, however, is that such projects develop to attend to the specific material needs and conditions of design-tech workers within a broader context of networked, co-operative efforts. As demonstrated by past movements, such organisational formations constitute a basis for addressing differential power imbalances within networks of design-tech workers so as to make unionisation as a whole more effective, and less susceptible to division, competition, and working at cross-purposes.

The issue in how things have unfolded is that the formation of TWC-AU has not occurred with any sense of reciprocity with HMWDG. When TWC-AU organisers were pressed on the reasons for not mentioning the existence of HMWDG at either last week’s meeting or the TWC Slack channel — thereby allowing other design-tech workers to participate in and across both platforms — the response has been to minimise prior knowledge of HMWDG and to redirect inquiries to other organisers. The Melbourne organisers have also argued that their creation of an alternate channel on the TWC Slack is a simple reflection of the fact that they first met on that platform. This is a claim that belies that TWC-AU organiser’s interaction with HMWDG began in March, more than a month prior to when the meeting of Australian organisers is documented on the TWC Slack. This argument also fails to explain why HMWDG and the question of its relation to TWC-AU continues to be ignored on the TWC-AU platform.

While more could be said, these details are sufficient to represent a test case of what exactly is meant by appeals to ‘unity’, ‘diversity’ and ‘collaboration’ within the space of design-tech unionising. The situation presented is one in which a platform formed and informed by PoC, and which organises on the basis of a demonstrable commitment to networked co-ordination, antiracism, antisexism, and worker-autonomy, is being put in a position of doing all the work to relate with an ostensible all-white leadership group. In the process of the discussions that have occurred on the HMWDG Slack, TWC-AU organisers have made appeals to the fact that they are indeed interested in ‘collaboration’ between the two platforms. Reading this claim against the history of how the organisers have conducted themselves, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the relationship that they have in mind is more so one of containment and management than one of genuine collaboration and reciprocity. All in all, the situation has the marks of a set up in which HMWDG organisers must either concede to a process of marginalisation to a white centre of power or, as Angela Mitropoulos has observed, to contest a terrain in which they risk being accused of causing ‘division’ and ‘disruption’, something that HMWDG organisers have gone out of their way to avoid.

The situation as it stands is, to put it mildly, less than inspiring. While I am interested to hear explanations that can make sense of how this is not a replication of notorious ‘separate but equal’ formations, it is worth being clear on the fact that a significant amount of energy has already been invested in making sense of claims that do more to dissemble than to address or clarify the substantive issues at stake. That energy is not an endless resource, even though it is a particular mark of capitalist exploitation — including in its racist, patriarchal forms — to treat it as such. My own sense for things is that those of us who are interested to engage with the question of design-tech unionising are now obliged to consider at what point we are prepared to call time on formations that replicate the standard terms of differential exploitation. It ought to go without saying that the burden of this obligation does not lie with people who are forced to contend with these issues as a condition of their existence.


Matthew Kiem

Matthew Kiem is a researcher, designer, educator, and activist. He is currently a PhD candidate at Western Sydney University. His thesis topic is the 'Coloniality of Design'.

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