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What Tech Workers Can Learn From Harry Bridges

I was raised in SF & lived there until 2 months ago. I love the city and its history and miss about a million different versions of it, some of which you can still see if you squint. This is the transcript of a talk I gave about one of them. If you prefer you can watch the video, with bonus hacky Javascript jokes. You also can just jump to the most important part.

This is the kind of thing I get into fights about on the Internet:

Really? The Gold Rush!? The Gold Rush involved large-scale massacres of Natives, pogroms against Latinos, legal massacres of Chinese people, we're still dealing with the environmental devastation that wrought in Northern California, and you wanna align our industry with that? Okay: blue jeans. I'll give you blue jeans. The Gold Rush gave us blue jeans and they're pretty great, but otherwise come on.

I got in three separate fights about this tweet when it was first going around, with strangers. The magic of the Internet! When Brian really generously asked me to come speak and asked if I wanted to keynote ForwardJS--that was super generous, thank you Brian--and when he really trustingly said I should just talk about something I'm passionate about--that was super trusting, I'm sorry Brian--I thought I'd make good on a promise I made on Twitter a while back and address what bothers me about this sentiment.

What bothers me about it is that it aligns the industry I work in with this gross destructive force, but it's also super ignorant. Do people really think that the Gold Rush happened, we sat around on our hands for 150 years, took a break to jam with Jerry Garcia, and then Silicon Valley appeared and Steve Jobs invented computers and we were saved? That's so inaccurate and it's such a weird casting of San Francisco history. "SF is such a boom and bust town"--well, you've named two, if you count this current one with the last one. What else?

You know, even in that first boom of the Gold Rush, all those people got here and some of that gold got out some kinda way. As agriculture developed in California in the mid-19th century, 90% of products that left the state left through the Port of San Francisco. Shipping is a huge part of San Francisco history. Oakland became the area's main port in the 1960s for reasons I'll explain later, but the Bay is still one of the three principal gateways on the West Coast for goods to get in and out of the country. In an industry that's based here and has deep roots here, there's so much we can learn as tech workers from the shipping industry and all those years.

I'm a working stiff. I just happened to be around at the right time, and nobody else wanted the job. --Harry Bridges

Harry Bridges was a beloved figure from that industry and era in the Bay Area, commemorated in song and art. The Ferry Plaza in front of SF's Ferry Building is named after him. At the dedication ceremony, on the centennial of his birth, speeches were given by Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, and other prominent local political figures. The day before I gave this talk, the Ports of San Francisco and Oakland were closed for his 114th birthday, which is celebrated yearly as a port holiday. I want to tell you a little bit about his work and what we can draw on from his legacy to inform our work in the tech industry.

Harry Bridges was an Australian immigrant. He went to sea at age 16 and came to SF in 1922, where he would live the rest of his life. He left the sea for longshoreman work. Longshoremen pack boats and they unload them at docks--they work exclusively on land, but they are a critical part of the shipping industry. He was a rank-and-file member of the longshoremen's union who rose to prominence due to his role in the 1934 waterfront strike. He led the membership in a coast-wide strike, shutting down the docks & shipping industry all up and down the West Coast of the United States and Canada to demand workers' rights.

The 1934 strikes culminated in Bloody Thursday on Thursday, July 5th, 1934. The Industrial Association of the docks asked the police to use force to reopen the port. The SFPD threw tear gas, charged the crowd with mounted police, and fired on the crowd of marchers and onlookers with a shotgun. Three were shot and two were killed. Outrage was so high that it prompted a general strike. Harry Bridges, as the leader of the longshoremen, went to other unions in the Bay Area and said we cannot stand for this kind of violence against workers who are exercising their right to protest. The other unions agreed and struck with the longshoremen. They shut down the city, shut down the entire West Coast, and ended up getting the concessions they were asking for.

This is a major event in labor history. If you even learned about labor history, you probably learned they "struck for better working conditions," but I want to address what the strikers in 1934 were actually demanding, because I think it's instructive for changes and reforms that activists in the tech industry are calling for. Specifically, the 1934 marchers were demanding changes around hiring.

The hiring process for longshoremen around the world in 1934 was called the shape-up. Longshoremen would show up at the dock or the plaza in front of the docks very early, potentially even days before a ship came into port, and hope to get chosen by a foreman. The shape-up was a ritual of humiliation, marked by nepotism and bribery. Foremen were very corrupt and would often require workers to go through extraordinary trials to get these jobs.

The strike in 1934 was in main part to establish hiring halls. A hiring hall provides worker control over job distribution. To get assigned to a boat, instead of going through company foremen and the corrupt shape-up system, longshoremen now go to union-run hiring halls. At the hiring halls, union dispatchers, who are (on the West Coast) democratically elected, distribute the available jobs equitably. They can rotate through the members who have worked the least, the idea being to try to distribute the wages across the set of union members.

The hiring hall is also a tool to enforce consequences for breaking various rules. Some of these are work-related: in the years following the strike, members were fined if they worked more than 120 hours a month, to avoid working standards creeping to an unsustainable level. Others are disciplinary: members who do things like make racist comments or endanger their fellow workers can be kicked out of the hiring hall entirely. Apprenticeship of new workers into longshoreman work are also arranged through the union. In many unionized industries the training programs that prepare new people to work in the field are controlled by the workers.

This is really astonishing to me as a programmer, where we have these regular paroxysms of handwringing over training and interviews. I think a lot of people would say that our hiring processes are unfair. I think that it's patently evident that results of our hiring processes are inequitable and don't reflect the general population or even the population of applicants. But we seem to be leaning on the goodwill of our employers to fix that. The reason why this strike was necessary was that these longshoremen and the unions that supported them, after years of fighting in many different ways for fair conditions, realized that we cannot count on employers to do the right thing. They will literally never do the right thing by us voluntarily. There is no such thing as moral suasion when you're dealing with a corporation. Looking at a different industry's history really opens my eyes to what we could ask for or how we could conceive of fair process in tech hiring and in the tech pipeline.

The hiring hall transferred hiring control all the way over to the union. It was and continues to be the cornerstone of the longshoremen's union's power. Harry Bridges would go on to lead that union for 40 years. Let's get a couple things out of the way about that.

I would have worked with the devil himself if he'd been for the six hour day and worker control of the hiring hall. --Harry Bridges

Harry Bridges was a Communist--there's argument about whether he carried a "card", but he was definitely a Marxist. The U.S. government repeatedly tried to deport him over that. Also, yes, longshoremen's unions do famously have ties to organized crime. We get it, you watched the Wire! A critical point about the Wire--besides that it's fictional--is that it's set in Baltimore; East Coast longshoremen belong to the International Longshoremen's Association. Harry Bridges' union is the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union. The ILWU seceded from the ILA in disagreement with the ILA's social conservatism on race, immigration, and general social welfare. The ILWU stood alone--they were affiliated with no national union in the 1950s due to that whole Communism thing. As a result, there's actually very little organized crime involvement in the West Coast longshoremen's unions. In 2013, the ILWU once again left national union leadership in part over their compromised positions on immigration reform and single-payer healthcare.

Interfere with the foreign policy of the country?....Sure as hell! That's our job, that's our privilege, that's our right, that's our duty. --Harry Bridges

That matters because the ILWU, led by Harry Bridges' Local 10 chapter in San Francisco, are fundamentally a union that has taken stands on social issues. It was fully integrated from the beginning: the Local 10 is majority Black and has always had Black leadership. That was partially strategic; Harry Bridges realized early on that lily-white unions means a steady source of potential strike-breakers. He acted on that realization, though, and went out and did concerted outreach to Black dockworkers to recruit them into the ILWU and the union stood much stronger for it. During WWII, ILWU leadership were some of the very few to speak out publicly against the internment of Japanese-Americans and testified against it to Congress. As the war ended, they worked to get Japanese-Americans back in jobs at the docks--again, acting on that conviction. Cesar Chavez's Delano Grape Strike in the 1960s was a farmworkers' strike. The farm owners hired scabs to come in and pick the grapes. When the grapes got to the docks on the West Coast, the longshoremen refused to pack the scabbed grapes in support of the farmworkers and let them rot on the docks. The union protested South Africa's apartheid segregation system as early as 1962. The cab driver who delivered me to the conference was eager to tell me about joining the ILWU in their dramatic 1984 "Block The Boat" protest, when they refused to unload South African cargo in an action that sparked anti-apartheid solidarity worldwide.

What I point out about all of these examples is that they're not statements of support, written or spoken. They're economic actions that take a specific approach to an issue that say: We see ourselves, as dockworkers, as part of this broader economy, and when there are injustices happening that are perpetrated by that economy we have a duty and a right to act on them. How might we find parallels in our work in tech? This is where I plug my own shit! This talk/article is all about the tech economy's incursions into politics and ways as tech employees we are directly and indirectly funding police militarization and school privatization.

At the conference, attendees had to walk past picketers protesting Apple's use of low-paying non-union contractors to build its $50 million flagship store. Some folks expressed confusion about their presence, since Apple wasn't directly sponsoring or presenting at ForwardJS. I presented, as many others did, though, on an Apple laptop, and I'd wager a huge percentage of attendees brought at least one Apple device. Almost all of us write software that is developed or accessed on at least some Apple software or hardware. It's extremely ostrich-head-y to pretend like we don't participate in an economy that uplifts Apple, and if they're doing things to their workers that are unfair--I don't know, it's your conscience, but I see a strong argument for our complicity and thus responsibility to act.

My final point about Harry Bridges and the ILWU in regards to tech involves containerization. From my notes: Docker joke goes here. I'm talking about real physical containerization, which was the move from packing individual goods in various shapes onto boats to shipping everything packed in standardized containers which are transferred directly from ship to rail or truck and doing the warehouse processing off of the docks. Containerization was a huge revolution in the world economy, and is probably behind a good amount of the globalization that has happened in the last 40 to 50 years. By the way, this is why Oakland is now the Bay Area's main port, because San Francisco's peninsula geography doesn't allow for good rail connection to the docks.

Why should we take it upon ourselves to pick up the pieces after industry discards people for machines? Isn't it about time unions got in there before the fact to insist that there must be some obligation to people in all this? --Harry Bridges

Many, many people were caught off guard by containerization. It's a form of automation, and a lot of the work that used to be done in packing and unpacking ships no longer exists, or exists in a much different place. It ended up causing a 90% reduction in the number of people working on the docks. In 1960, Harry Bridges and the ILWU signed what is to this day a controversial agreement called the Mechanization & Modernization Agreement, which guaranteed wages for dockworkers then working even as the number of hours required to load and unload boats decreased. The agreement was an instrument to pass on some of the savings created by automation and industrialization to the workers who had provided for the economic growth of the dock in the first place. One detail I find very interesting is that management pushed for the concessions by the unions to go forward with these workforce reductions, then proceeded to try to squeeze every inch out of labor. They increased the loads to dangerous amounts and refused to upgrade aging cranes. After years of fighting automation, the union had to go back and force management to make the capital investment in automation technology so they wouldn't maim workers.

The longshoremen's agreement was a mixed bag. There were definitely fewer jobs, and in many ways it mortgaged the future of younger longshoremen and the working class supported by dockwork to provide for contemporary workers. In historical context, the choices that were available to the union look even bleaker. Although our narratives of the time have mostly forgotten it, labor automation was a huge economic and social force in the 1960s. JFK said in 1962: “I regard it as the major domestic challenge of the 1960s, to maintain full employment at a time when automation is replacing men." The ILWU insisted that workers deserved to be treated humanely as their jobs were eliminated. That's a position that very, very few other groups in American society took and that to this day we refuse to honor.

I hope a lot of you are drawing conclusions ahead of me to how this kind of job reduction and elimination is happening in the service industry as a direct result of tech that many of us build. I believe we've almost completely failed at fulfilling or even acknowledging our humane obligations when building technology that puts people out of work. I also think it's worth considering how this might affect our own jobs. Many of us build technology that is sold to other developers; many of us do so under the guise of increasing productivity. What do tools that allow software to be built in less time and with fewer employees mean for people whose jobs building software keep them fed and housed? Increasing productivity is not necessarily a net good when we are talking about livelihoods.

So. Are we like longshoremen? Well, there's one obvious difference, which is that dockwork is physically arduous and dangerous. Programmers probably need to take stretch breaks more often, but we're clearly not at the same level of physical danger at work. But I also think that a lot of the impulse to claim that we're different, we're not working class, we don't do working class labor, is based somewhat in bias. Longshoreman work requires training, experience, judgment, and work ethic. I think programmers sometimes overstate the amount of creativity that we actually exercise--not to mention that many creative fields take advantage of collective bargaining and labor agreements.

Like our jobs, longshoreman jobs are paid well. They're paid well by dint of a strong union and decades of sometimes-bitter collective struggle. We're paid well by dint of...a temporary labor shortage that's buttressed by our shitty, unwelcoming culture? It's worth sitting down and thinking about why you're paid so much and whether you will be in the future. We are privileged, and I don't want to minimize that. You don't want solidarity to erase real class difference. We're especially privileged because that pipeline into programming depends on so much privilege already. That said, we are paid well, but we're taking home a tiny fraction of the enormous amount of capital that we generate. These six figure salaries are not really guaranteed by anything, and many people see them disappear simply as they age or procreate. When you look at the throughput of money that's going on in the tech industry, that slice seems like a smaller and smaller sliver.

I think the main difference between us and longshoremen is the narrative of success in our industry, and that narrative bothers me. If there's one thought I'm gonna leader, it's this: our narratives of success manage to be both unrealistic and so, so small. I don't want to dream about being the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. That's an absurd goal to sell. One, because that's never going to happen. I don’t have the resources, access, or network to get there. It’s a fairy tale, a crumb thrown to keep us complacent (and implicitly threatened) when we have real reason to criticize leadership or to criticize labor conditions.

More than that, fuck a Sheryl Sandberg if people who work for her can't feed their families. What the hell kind of dream is that, really, to sit at the top of companies and industries that do so poorly by so many? I believe we can dream bigger than just widening the potential demographic profile from which a really tiny elite class is drawn. I believe in us!

We subscribe to the belief that if the employer is not in business his products apps will still be necessary and we still will be providing them when there is no employing class. We frankly believe that day is coming. --Harry Bridges (amended)

Am I here to organize you? I don't know that I am. What I would like is for us as programmers to recognize our labor for what it is. Our labor is input to a system that’s extracting an enormous amount of capital that goes to a very few people, and that system is wreaking havoc in many ways. What I find increasingly urgent is for us to align ourselves with all of the other workers who generate that capital, whether they write docs, answer phones, serve food, drive buses, or clean conference venues. That alignment should be political, in our words and ballots; material, in our allocation of personal resources; and economic, in our purchases and career choices.

I don't think that unions are be-all and end-all of class struggle and empowerment. A lot of the gains I've described came out of solidarity and worker action, but they also came out of a specific economic and political climate. There's work to be done in boardrooms and courthouses. There's a lot of real objections to be made to unionization. Local 10 really is the best-case union. There's a reason why people love Harry Bridges. He represented and he built the promise of a union that has often failed, and that has often turned into vehicles for racism, corruption, organized crime, and xenophobia.

That said: it was real. It is real: the Local 10 exists, and it has done extraordinary things in its existence. The Local 10 of the ILWU was and is an extraordinary union. But SF and the Bay Area is an extraordinary place, that has birthed extraordinary communities, movements, and--yes--industries. And that is what upsets me so much about the tweet I started with. I will continue to push back on it, because that narrative of "Gold Rushers gonna Gold Rush" is just the saddest, most complicit, shittiest possible reading you could take of Bay Area history. So forget "Gold Rushers gonna Gold Rush". We can do better. How about this: "workers joining in solidarity to lift each other up gonna join in solidarity to lift each other up."

An Injury To One Is An Injury To All

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