Organizing Isn’t Reading Das Kapital
It’s making spreadsheets and talking to your coworkers: a conversation with Emma Kinema
Appears in this episode
Organizing isn’t reading Das Kapital, it’s making spreadsheets and talking to your coworkers. That’s just one of Emma Kinema’s many zingers in this conversation with Reboot community member Chris Painter.
I’ve transcribed some of my favorite sections below, but the full audio is worth listening to if you want to get the full scoop—on craft-based vs industrial unions, what it’s like to be a QA tester at a game studio, on software for organizing, on what Emma thinks of DAOs and similar approaches, and on when unions might be used for anti-progressive causes.
Emma Kinema is an American labor organizer and a lead organizer of CODE-CWA, the Communication Workers of America's Campaign to Organize Digital Employees. She is a cofounder of Game Workers Unite. Find her on Twitter.
Chris Painter is a Technology and National Security Fellow at the National Security Innovation Network. He's formerly worked as a machine learning engineer in the Bay Area at 4Catalyzer, as well as on AI alignment projects at OpenAI and the Centre for Effective Altruism. You can find him on Twitter or his Substack.
🎮 organizing is a struggle for power
Emma Kinema, interviewed by Chris Painter. These are only excerpts! Listen to the full audio for the rest :)
On games, film, tech, and steel
The games industry I think mirrors in some ways the film industry. In the 1920s and early 30s, it was a dream job; it’s a relatively new thing, people would go and leave their communities behind to go to Hollywood and work in the industry. They were just grateful to have a job because it felt like they were doing something so exciting.
But then, over time there's a lot of bad conditions. There's no standardization of practices. Crediting isn't appropriate, there's no safety regulations for actors and workers on set, and all kinds of different things, right? And so a couple of decades in, in the later 30s and 40s, and certainly into the 50s and 60s, organization came into the industry in major ways. You see the vast bulk of the industry organized—whether it's artists, editors, set dressers, painters, etc—all becoming organized in fighting for a better workplace and more professional workplace where they can practice their craft in a more effective way.
So there’s this pattern in a lot of new industries where in the first couple decades it's a bit Wild West; it's a bit chaotic sometimes, but as people have gone through enough cycles of seeing people leave and burnout or be harmed, we learn that, turns out the industry we're in is not an exception.
Before it, there's been kind of like a golden period, and then people get used to it and they want to have a more regular professional environment. And I think that's where we're at now—late 80s, 90s, 00’s—the [film] industry gets out of its baby phase. In the 2010s and certainly now the 2020s, [film has] really become a more professional, stabilized industry in some ways.
[In games] people have seen enough cycles of people burning out and leaving and amazing studios crashing because of bad conditions and bad corporate practices, and that's why you're seeing an emergence of interest in organizing—to make it a more frankly, adult, and more humane, and more professional environment for everybody. And I think it maps a similar experience as the film industry had.
Tech, I would say, mirrors the steel industry, which is maybe a weird comparison, but I often reference the steel industry when I'm talking to people about tech because, back in the 1910s, 1920s, during the early days of the steel industry, it was completely unorganized. If you asked any labor leader, any worker or any businessmen in the industry, will unions you know finally appear and be organized in the steel industry? —they would say no. The vast majority of people thought it was never going to happen, including organizers and labor leaders. There were individual strikes and actions that would pop up, but there's no cohesive movement.
But in the 30s and in the 40s, you start to see mass industrial unionism—massive companies falling to organized labor and workers being empowered on the job in a different way.
What’s funny is a lot of people said steel could never be organized. They would say the workers are too well paid; it's too new of an industry, and people really like working in the industry; steel has new management techniques that will make it impossible for workers to organize.
Where have I heard those same things in technology? The workers are too well paid. People wish they worked in tech. Management has these unique, newfangled ways of structuring the workplace such that the workers will never organize. I hear that constantly. But I think we're entering that phase where you start to see the scales tipping towards workers.
On how to get started organizing
Get in touch with me and my fellow organizers at CWA. We work with many, many game developers across the US and Canada, we have relationships with folks in many different studios. Go to our website; there’s a contact form.
Even if people aren't sure if they want to organize to have a certified union and win collective bargaining rights, which I think you should—I think it's the strongest, most effective, most powerful way to address these issues we're talking about—but even if you're not sure about that, you should reach out.
You should get organizer training from us because there's a lot of common red flags and pitfalls that people trip on when they don't have good organizing experience prior.
I think a lot of people who don't know what to do and they're feeling very frustrated, they'll sometimes lash out and have really pent up energy, and they'll want to do some kind of big petition or a letter to the boss. Or try to run a walkout or something when they actually don't have the relationships and organizing foundation to pull that off.
People only hear about strikes and walkouts and petitions, but they don't understand that 99% of organizing is actually just talking to your coworkers. People make pretty serious mistakes by trying to get to the big things too fast and they kind of ignore the more difficult day-to-day, more small-scale work that makes up good, powerful organizing.
On rookie mistakes
Trying to have these conversations [about starting to organize] in group settings—always a bad call. Don't have your organizing conversations over text or signal or company slack; do it in person, on a video call, or by phone. You have to have that personal, real time conversation, where you can actually feel where that other person is emotionally, and connect with each other, and let your social barriers down, because good union organizing is all about—again—really connecting personally on the issues. You need trust and care amongst your coworkers, and you just can't do that unless you're really talking to them as people.
I’ve also seen this at many studios: sometimes “progressive,” usually senior white male devs, will refuse to do the meaningful work of organizing in terms of having conversations and meetings. They won't help their coworkers with that, but instead, they'll fire off in an all hands meeting or on company slack, some big message about why everyone should have a union. They think they're helping, but they're not. They're actually often causing major problems for other people, because when the company sees that, they're not going to target the senior white male dev. They're going to go start looking for all the QA testers and marginalized people where they assume the rabble-rousing is coming from. Oftentimes people will do this more individualist approach to trying to move the issue, and it's really counterproductive. It's not just neutral, it's counterproductive to meaningful organizing.
On cultural vs material change
To someone who believes that union organizing is good, but it can't really address cultural issues or social issues, I would just say that they're profoundly wrong and that I would argue union organization and the density of unit organization in any industry or region is the number one factor behind how progressive and accessible that culture is. I would argue our material conditions shape what we think and what we do—it shapes our culture and not the other way around, and so I think if you can affect the material conditions you can affect the culture right: the superstructure of culture is built on the primary structure of the economics and the the concrete relationships. [...]
By its very nature, you cannot organize a union in your workplace unless you have a majority or supermajority of support. And unlike all other forms of organizing, it's not opt in. I don't pick my coworkers. It's not a social club. It’s not a group around a certain identity, or certain experience. Those spaces are valuable too, of course, but union organizing requires us to go out and organize our coworkers no matter who they are.
I'm a trans woman, a queer trans woman from a low working class background. I have had to organize far right people who hold very transphobic, very homophobic views, right? People who've been hostile in the workplace. I've had to go and organize them, because I didn't get to pick my coworker and I needed them to get to that majority where we can make change, and not change not just for me and for the people I care about, but for them too.
There's things they can benefit from the process of organizing, whether you're a white guy, senior developer who wants to improve things around career progression, or the quality of the game, or having more say in the product, or better crediting practices. I'm a queer woman who wants to organize around diversity, equity, inclusion and pay equity. Both of our issues can benefit from working together in organizing a union together, because those issues aren't in competition. They can be empowered by linking them up.
That’s the real weight and power behind union organizing. Union organizing, by its very essence, requires bridging these gaps amongst us—not in a fluffy liberal way, not in a let's all hold hands, and magically the world will be care bears and rainbows and sunshine way. It's very concrete.
You know, there was someone who was very transphobic, very far right when I was organizing at that workplace—my coworkers on the organizing committee told me not to talk to them. We were going through our social mapping and saying who should talk to which person, and this conservative person's name came up and everyone was like, oh, we should not talk to this person. Save them for last. They'll definitely be a big problem.
Immediately there was a flag for me that I need to go talk to that person, and I'm so grateful I did, because we connected on the issues—because, it turns out, we're in the same workplace. We see the same problems. We could put some of the other politics and identity and background aside for the moment and connect on the shared stuff.
And he got involved with organizing and over the course of many months of organizing, his politics shifted far to the left. His views in terms of social issues wildly improved. He became a much more open minded, caring person to folks that he didn't share an identity with. And that happened because of the organizing.
So that's just one anecdotal example from my life on how profound that is, and this isn't to say everyone should go out, you know, If you're a Black person and you have a coworker who's racist—you don't have to go talk to that person. If you're trans like me and you have a transphobic coworker, you don't have to be the person to go talk to them. But the point still is, it doesn't matter who that person is. They're in our workplace and we can't improve our stuff until they're participating too.
Union organizing is not abstract. It's not systems design; it's a systemic solution, but it's not systems design. What it is, is a struggle for power.
Whatever you're struggling over, for whatever issue you want to improve, whatever group of workers are involved at the end of the day, it's people coming together to try to have some power in their lives over their workplace.
And that's not abstract. That's not a problem you're going to think through. It comes through trial and error and messy social interactions. And you're never going to design your way to having power.
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Here’s the contact form for CWA again!
Ten months ago, we shared an interview with Angie Kim, then an organizer with the NYT Tech Guild. As of very recently, their union has been certified and recognized by the NLRB!!! Outdoor store REI recently did the same in NYC, and there are now a total of six unionized Starbucks stores!
Two tech-oriented New Yorker pieces on “After Yang”—on techno-orientalism, and on “techno-fascist” aesthetic.
Metaverse architect is a job now I guess
h/t community member Theresa:
💝 closing note
You may have heard there’s a Substack app now. Obligatory disclaimer that Jasmine works at Substack, but I (Jessica) don’t. I’m putting this in here because I’ve beta-tested the app for a few months and actually(!) really like it, and think you will too! iPhone app store link here, and Android waitlist (sad!) here.
(Maybe) see you on the app!