Labor Reads for Labor Day

Inspired by Flavorwire’s Labor Day Reading List, I’ve decided to make my own. Here are my top ten Labor Reads for Labor Day (bonus–links, where they exist, go to, the unionized internet & Oregon bookstore).

1. temp slave Best of Temp Slave by Jeff Kelly. Chronicling nearly ten years of temp work in the 90s. Everything old is new again.

2. xtra tuf Xtra Tuf No. 5 The Strike Issue by Moe Bowstern. Yes, another zine. I’m crazy like that (but these are books of zines). Imagine being a commercial fisherwoman (woman fisherman?) in Alaska. Now go on strike. Big fun.

3. germinal  Germinal by Emile Zola. Life in a mid-19th century French mine certainly was not charmant.

4. The Kid from Hoboken by Bill Bailey. I think I bought this self-published book at an Abraham Lincoln Brigade event in San Francisco sometime in the 90s. It’s the autobiography of a guy from Hoboken (duh) who worked on possibly every U.S. tramp steamer that went to sea in the middle of the 20th century, while organizing for the Communist Party. If I know you offline, you can borrow this book, but if you lose it? I might have to kill you.

5. hey waitress Hey Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray by Alison Owings. Sort of a Studs Terkel-ish approach to waitresses.

6. The Many and the Few by Henry Kraus. Amazing inside look at the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1937.

7. holding the line Holding the Line by Barbara Kingsolver. I’m guessing that few of her fiction fans know that her first book was about women copperminers who struck in Arizona in 1983.

8. black workers remember Black Workers Remember by Michael Honey. Black workers fought segregation on the shop floor and in the union.

9. small trades Irving Penn: Small Trades. Vogue fashion photographer shoots Parisian workers with the tools of their trades. Result? Magnifique!

10. my year of meats My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. You know that feeling you had when you read The Jungle? You’ll have it again.


What are your top ten Labor Day Reads? Answer in the comments.

Newsletter 3


The Singularity Approaches

3D printers might seem like science fiction–but what if, every time you lost a spoon, you could just print a new one in your own kitchen? The Manufacturing Association ain’t gonna like this one. Plus, y’know, self-assembling 3-D printed drones.

The higher ed system is ripe for disruption, especially with the astounding cost of college these days. More than half of all parents expect their kids to do at least part of their college curriculum online. We’ve already seen a huge increase in faculty adjunct teaching–expect to see changes in all kinds of service sector jobs that exist in the university system, as kids spend less time on the traditional four-year college campus.

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

Not to be outdone by the Task Rabbits of the world, Google just launched a chore-contracting service. It’s invite-only, at least for the moment. Google’s also bought into Uber, giving rise to speculation that the self-driving limo isn’t too far off.

A recent opinion piece on TechCrunch makes the argument we’re interested in–what happens in the post-scarcity economy? The unemployed masses of the future seem to be concerned–the post had over 120 comments at this writing. Some tech companies seem serious about maximizing the ability to work less, more efficiently, for the same money.

Sharing & Solidarity, in the Economy

While companies like Lyft & Uber disrupt the taxi & limousine service, Relay Rides is out to mess with Hertz. Why should your car sit in a parking spot all day? Rent it to a stranger, instead!

Sara Horowitz did a great interview with NYU biz Professor Arun Sundararajan from NYU about the sharing economy, this week on the Freelancers’ Union blog. Key takeaway? We’ll all be factoring in the value of our rooms-to-let when we apply for mortgages, in the future.

In shareholder-first versus sharing economy news: Big power companies don’t like the idea of rooftop solar growth. While this op ed is definitely tinged with “the little people only matter when they’re on my side” syndrome–it still makes some valid points.

From Friends

Interested in building a better labor movement today? Two friends of HtU have recently published papers that may help you with that.

Matt Dimick studied the impact of greater centralization and found that unions that centralized their collective bargaining have a better ability to achieve income equality in the workforce.

Peter Murray studied how major membership-based organizations (think the NRA & AARP) using functional organizing (ie–providing services and a communications platform), not just issue advocacy.

Several folks in the co-op community pointed out the publication of this new book, which studies worker-owned coops in Italy, Argentina & Japan.

Geeking Out

Supporters of a basic minimum income for all legal residents of Switzerland announced recently that they have reached enough signatures to qualify their proposal to be put to a vote. Here’s a pretty good primer on Basic Income efforts around the world.

Final Thoughts

“Today we are raised with the notion that to be secure is to be financially autonomous. Amassing wealth is viewed as the primary rite of passage to a secure, autonomous existence.”

~Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work

What if we welcomed disruption?

Those of us in the traditional labor movement have spent years feeling besieged. It seems like every day, there is another attack on the ability of average working people to earn a fair wage, to get medical care when we need it, to retire with some semblance of security & dignity. It’s not that surprising that our initial reaction to technological change in the workplace is suspicion.

It isn’t because workers are inherently opposed to the improvements that can be wrought by technology. I’ve worked with a lot of Certified Nursing Assistants over years—and most of them would agree that they prefer Hoyer Lifts (when they work!) to back injuries and repetitive strains.

So what if we flipped the script on our automatic response to technology, and thought, “does this make workers’ ability to do their jobs better, faster or safer? If yes, then let’s figure out how to make it work.” It seems doubtful, for example, that large numbers of surgeons are protesting the increased use of robots in surgery, or wearing Google Glass to be able to see CAT scans without moving their heads, if it improves their ability to save people’s lives.

The real problem, of course, isn’t a technology problem. It’s the problem that comes from living in a society that says people only have value if they work, and that they have the greatest value if they work full-time. If you’re a surgeon, you’re probably pretty sure that the value you bring to your work will not be disrupted by robots (whether that’s an accurate assumption remains to be seen, of course). But if you’re a factory worker who has been seen as “interchangeable” since the advent of some new machine or another, robots seem terrifying.

No matter how low wages for workers fall, the cost of paying for humans is eventually going to be much higher than the cost of robots that can, with maintenance, essentially work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Even Chinese manufacturing companies, which most of us view as the ultimate low-pay employers, are looking to expand their use of robots in order to save money.

That leaves us with two choices—either fight encroaching technology (which increasingly seems like a losing battle) or fight to change some of people’s basic assumptions about work in our society.

It’s a hard thing to envision, for a movement that is, at its core, based on employer-employee relationships. How do we move from making an argument that “all workers have value” to an argument that is essentially, “all workers have value, even when they’re not working?”

On the other hand, doesn’t it seem like it might be time to have a dream of what we could gain from technological advances, rather than just fearing what we might lose?

After all, the shareholder-first-last-and-only economy is already fully-engaged, on their side of that argument. We know what they want—more flexibility, in their workforce, with less long-term obligation. What are we willing to demand, in exchange?

Newsletter 2


Still working to secure a logo, over here. This week’s image was sent by a friend–if you’ve got a photo to share that says something about today’s economy, please email it to kati (at) hacktheunion (dot) org.

The singularity approaches

The White House held a Google Hangout to discuss the potential of robots to increase US economic activity by $100 billion over the next ten years. Roboticists* from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Texas A & M, and the amazing YA novelist John Green participated. Spoiler alert: the industrial accident that befalls Max in Elysium won’t actually be a problem in the future, because MIT will have figured out how to roboticize all the steps of production. Sadly, all those Task Rabbits who are cobbling together a living by assembling Ikea furniture soon will just be handing tools to a ‘bot. (Somehow, robot scientists seem to believe that they themselves are irreplaceable, while simultaneously developing robots that can made out of $10 worth of parts.) BTW–be careful. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics aren’t actually the law yet. Robots can hurt you.

This one’s not new–just new to me (and probably you)–Brian Arthur, an economist at PARC, writes about the ways that digitization is forming an invisible, second economy in a way that will certainly make you think differently about your next plane trip. In a week when every other tweet by Market Watch was about how you should delete all investing apps from your smartphone lest you accidentally do something stupid, it gave me pause.

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

In The Rise of the Naked Economy, co-authors Ryan Coonerty & Jeremy Neuner compare the challenges of the digital economy to the changes wrought by the Agricultural & Industrial Revolutions. In this interview, Neuner talks about the social policy changes that need to be made in response to today’s changes. Here’s the money quote:

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Gallup this week put out their biennial survey “State of the American Workplace,” surveying the attitudes of US workers for the benefit of US employers. Major takeaway? Employee disengagement is costing the US roughly half a trillion dollars per year, so “Let’s get rid of managers from hell…” Yes, let’s.

A Canadian group, the Wagemark Foundation, has created a new standard to certify socially responsible businesses based on how much the company does to promote income equality through their own pay structures. Participating companies cannot have more than an 8:1 ratio between their highest- and lowest-paid earners. Pretty sure that Jamie Dimon won’t be applying for this one.

The Economist, of all places, talked about how the disaggregation of the workforce makes it harder for workers to organize to improve their livelihoods.

Geeking Out

If you’ve been wondering, since last week, just what you will print when your town library gets that 3D printer? Wonder no more. It’s time for your jaw implant.

Final thoughts

“America is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Over the course of the twentieth century alone, real income per capita (adjusted for inflation) increased roughly sevenfold in the United States. As we have seen, so wealthy is our nation that were income divided equally today, all families of four would receive almsot $200,000. (Alternatively, of course, the workweek could be cut in half, with family income reduced on average to $100,000–roughly two times current median family income.” Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do?

*BTW, kudos to the White House geeks for making sure that the panel of participants was gender balanced, and for highlighting a viewer-question to the women scientists–now time to work on the racial balance.

Newsletter #1

to the inaugural edition of the Hack the Union newsletter. If you’re receiving this email, you either asked me to keep you updated on my work, or you subscribed on the website. In the not-too-distant future, this site will have a real logo–until then, consider it a work-in-progress (well, probably after that too).

The intent here is not to recreate the many excellent lists that already do “news of the day” roundups, but to send out interesting or provocative articles that spark conversation or a new way of looking at things.

So let’s go:
In a break-through for advocates of the sharing economy, this week the CA Public Utilities Commission essentially green-lighted the continued operation of ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft & Sidecar. Everything becomes more real, when it’s subject to regulation, right?

If you’re not really clear on the benefits of the sharing economy, you might want to read this excellent primer of what’s in it for communities that expand access (to wit: “for every 15,000 cars a city could take off the ownership rolls, it could keep $127 million in the local economy annually (80% of car spending goes out of the local economy).”).

Meanwhile, back in the not-so-shared economy, did you know that in Australia, McDonald’s already pays a $15/hour minimum wage? The downside is that Aussie fast food managers seem to be speeding up the race to replace cashiers with computers to take your order of large fries and a coke. Plus side? In the future, those of us who have jobs that let us telecommute may NEVER need to leave the house!

Corporate campaigners, read this piece about Hyatt’s aggressive monitoring of social media–and why it led them to abandon a new marketing campaign, despite the fact that they had been working on it for months.

If you’re looking for a longer read
in the last days of summer, you might want to check out this in-depth look at a woman who survived a suicide attempt while working at Foxconn, and the working conditions that led her to make  the decision to take her own life.

For the organizers among us, you should really check out Rick Falvinge’s new bookSwarmwise, about how he built the Swedish Pirate Party from not existing to a point where they could win seats in Parliament in less than four years. Still think online organizing is a fad?

I’ll close by linking to two pieces that are linked, at least in my mind–the first is Irene Ros’ warning to her fellow developers to realize whether they are trying to solve the right “problem” in inventing new apps or products, and the second is our very first blog post here, which asks the question “So You Wanna Be a Disruptor?”

So You Wanna Be a Disruptor?

One of the major trends the tech community is promoting lately is a vision of a shared economy–where anyone with a car might become a taxi driver, and anyone with a guest bedroom can become a b & b owner. At its heart, the sharing economy has values that appeal to many of us–more cooperation between humans is a thing we’d like to see. Plus, it’s just geeky and cool—who doesn’t want a ride in a car that sports a pink mustache, or to stay in a treehouse in Hawaii?

The benefit of the sharing economy also releases us, to some degree, from the increasing need to own every possible device or tool we might occasionally have to use. The sharing economy works every time a group of neighbors band together to buy a snow blower, in a place where major snows happen only once or twice per year. One neighbor agrees to maintain the snow blower in exchange for a reduced financial outlay–nobody on the block has to shell out the whole chunk of money–and voila, a shared resource is born! Scale this up to a town-wide system for sharing a 3D printer, and members of your community can save some real money. The library, after all, is one of the original elements of the sharing economy, largely promoted in this country by a captain of industry.

I wonder, though, what people in the tech industry are doing today to understand the interests of those they are putting out of work with the innovations they design, other than bemoaning the idea that non-tech workers are resistant to change?

What are they doing to help us find solutions to the real problems of our economy–things like high unemployment, income inequality, or a political system that seems rigged to favor the rich? I can certainly understand the impulse to focus on things that seem fixable–like not being able to get a taxi late at night. But if you really want to disrupt the way the economy works, why not start trying to figure out why increased productivity hasn’t led to an increase in the quality of life for most people?

It was Henry Ford, after all (hardly a pro-worker guy) who understood that, in addition to making advances in technology, he also had to pay workers a decent wage if he wanted a market for his products. How are you going to get to build the next billion-user app or device, if the US standard of living continues to sink? Does it make sense to base a business plan on the idea that people will continue to pour thousands of dollars a year into data plans to enable them to do “jobs” that don’t allow them to feed themselves or their children?

There has been some recent interest in the idea that the tech industry, in particular—and big business, in general—has some role to play in helping to overcome inequality, and invest in a shared public good. What if there was a conversation inside the industry about how to advance public policy that allowed people to work fewer hours, and still be able to afford things? To advance the idea that maybe if we’re all going to work more contract jobs, we should design a social safety net including healthcare and retirement security that welcomes people moving fluidly between work and unemployment, instead of discouraging fluidity? If the industry is destroying jobs faster than it’s creating new ones, what is it doing to convene a conversation about how to protect the out-sourced or underskilled, besides just saying, “tough luck”?

I consider myself to be an amateur geek. I’m an early adopter, an itinerant gamer, a tech fan. Like many geeks, I came to my love of technology through science fiction, and it taught me one important thing:

We’ve always got choices to make, when we adopt new technologies-are we embracing a future where technology serves to advance the interest of all humanity? Or are we embracing a future where technology serves the interests of the few—the tech-savvy, the smartest, the rich?

We need tech-savvy people to join the fight for economic justice. Because at the end of the day, the disruption that we can cause there has more potential for creating public good than any one company can ever hope to achieve. A friend of mine starts every day with the tweet, “A Better World is Possible.” Let’s make that true, together.