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Case study: United Tech & Allied Workers

How does a Tech worker union support tech workers? Read this article to find out.
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Remembering that general social activism is connected to technology and tech justice in particular, we will now discuss the first of our case studies of tech justice activism: a campaign by United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) on employee surveillance.

The examples we use in this course bring together technology and other social justice issues (like labour rights or women’s rights). Maybe technology is a big part of the issues you care about, or maybe you haven’t thought much about technology. Wherever you are is fine! As you are reading, however, you might want to think about how technology is implicated in the social justice issues you care about. Try to keep in mind that technology is actually social. It is embedded in and the product of our societies, and it has a big impact on people’s standards of living. You don’t have to be a technology expert to care about technology as a social issue, and you don’t need to have any particular background to be able to talk or act meaningfully against tech power.

Case Study

United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) is a branch of the Communication Workers Union which seeks to represent and fight for workers’ interests in the tech industry. This case study relates to Articles 12 and 23.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—”No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with [their] privacy” and “Everyone has the right…to just and favourable conditions of work”, respectively. It also relates to the following Feminist Principles of the Internet:

  • Economy – “We work to create alternative forms of economic power that are grounded in principles of cooperation, solidarity, commons, environmental sustainability, and openness.”
  • Privacy & Data – “We support the right to privacy and to full control over personal data and information online at all levels. We reject practices by states and private companies to use data for profit…”

UTAW’s campaign targets workplace surveillance, i.e. employers’ use of intrusive technology and business practices in order to monitor workers. Workplace surveillance often increases pressure and stress, frequently occurs without transparency or accountability, and can be used to treat workers unfairly. According to UTAW’s description of their campaign, employers might use surveillance: “to reinforce management power and control, to ‘measure’ performance and productivity, to understand employee mindset and attitude, to map social relationships between employees, to undermine whistleblowing efforts, [or] to gain intelligence on workplace organising activities”. Some of the tools and techniques employers can use to gather surveillance data include reading instant messages and emails on your company device or after you have given permission such as through Outlook on your personal device, monitoring how and when you use your devices, viewing your calendars and files, remote wiping or deleting your files without your permission or perhaps even without your knowledge, monitoring your web browsing, snooping on everything you type and everywhere you move your mouse, Keylogging and mouse tracking, tracking your location and movement with GPS and mobile device tracking, and recording or snapshotting your screens.

Resisting workplace surveillance

The campaign provides practical guidance on how workers can resist workplace surveillance [2]. In addition to suggesting how to begin to protect yourself and get access to the latest knowledge by joining a union (such as joining UTAW itself in the UK), UTAW has also compiled tips on counter-surveillance tactics, on using GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) to learn about what data your employer collects, and on spotting surveillance software that might be being used on you.

This part of the campaign describes the rights to privacy all UK workers have in accordance with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) [3]. They outline what forms of surveillance are covered by the law; what restrictions employers are subject to; what type of data employers can legally collect; what data protection rights workers have and whether employers can use surveillance data for automated decision making. They also provide specific examples of rights, examples of legal cases on the topic and useful resources.

In this final part of the campaign, UTAW outline what they intend to do to continue to address the issue of employee surveillance [4]. They commit to:

  • Providing support and advice for anyone affected
  • Campaigning for better practices and more transparency from employers
  • Working towards better surveillance laws putting workers’ rights first

What did you feel were the strengths of this campaign? Was there anything you think you could use in your own activist work? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

References

United Tech and Allied Workers, 2021. What is Employee Surveillance?. United Tech and Allied Workers, 2021. How to Combat Employee Surveillance. United Tech and Allied Workers, 2021. Your Rights Around Surveillance. United Tech and Allied Workers, 2021. What next?

If you are a tech worker and would like to become a member of UTAW you can find out how to do so on the UTAW website. The direct link to join is on the Join UTAW page.

If you have questions about trade unions, you can ask in the comments, or ask a union rep, or see this informational pamphlet put out by the London Tech Workers Coalition: Tech Workers Unite: Your Workplace Rights, Joining a Union, Organising your Workplace, Direct Action.

UTAW & University of St. Andrews webinar: Professor Kirstie Ball on Employee Surveillance: psycho-social risks and organisational justice PASSCODE: qZ=2$75H

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