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Employer-worker power dynamics and return-to-office mandates

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

There's a new but totally predictable trend in corporate America: return-to-office mandates for tech workers.

Millions of people have been working from home for the past three years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that tech companies have purged over 270,000 workers as of the past 13 months, they are starting to assert even more control by implementing return-to-office mandates under the guise of the supposed productivity and culture benefits of in-person collaboration (with no mention of the benefits of work-from-home on productivity and worker happiness.)

We are witnessing the ever-evolving push-pull power dynamics and inequities of the modern American workplace and employer-employee relationship, in a context that people don't typically associate with labor struggles - the tech sector.

Amazon, Disney, Youtube, and Starbucks are leading the pack with their feel-good, propagandistic dictates. Workers don't want to go back because, well, working from home is working for them. And now they're starting to put up a fight by joining internal employee groups, drafting petitions, and even going on strike, in opposition to these top-down decrees. It's exciting to see people advocating for their best interests in ways that are kind of like what labor unions do. In fact, if these workers were already unionized, the first thing their unions would do is enter into negotiations with the employer to advocate for workers.

Over the course of the pandemic (which is still a thing contrary to popular belief and behavior), the ability to work from home led tech workers to experience newfound freedom, flexibility, life-work balance, and pay and productivity increases. These are all good things for people, families, health and wellbeing. Alas, control and coercion are ultimately (though arguably) more profitable in the eyes of employers who are driven by one thing - maximizing worker productivity for short-term gains. I say it's arguable because I don't think it's actually good for the long term success of a business to do so.

Image from a scene in the movie Office Space where the employee Milton is sitting in a gray cubicle with piles of paper and folders everywhere, with his desk telephone on his shoulder, talking to someone, and his signature red swingline stapler on a pile on his desk. He is surrounded by a sea of other cubicles. Above him is a large banner that reads "Is this good for the Company?"

Times are changing yet again in an evergreen game of tug of war between capital owners and workers.

For workers, the practical and financial implications of return-to-office mandates are really messed up. Right now we are seeing the worst job market for tech labor in over a decade, which means that people are faced with three not-so-great choices: either comply, fight, or quit. Companies have the upper hand to put serious pressure on employees. If they fight back, there is the risk of being fired. If they quit, then they will have to compete with a large pool of job seekers for a significantly reduced number of jobs as compared with what was available even six months ago.

And just like the tsunami of copycat layoffs we've seen in 2022-2023 (which some have theorized are the result of social contagion), there will be a wave of copycat RTO mandates. If the FAANGs are doing it, then anyone else can at least try to get away with it. Personally, I have my own seemingly plausible conspiracy theory, which is that executives are in some way coordinating or signaling these decisions to each other to put workers back in their place, reduce negotiation power, and suppress wages, in order to boost profits across industries. They probably had back-room discussions about it after the Sting concert at the Davos summit. History shows that people with inordinate wealth and power have really strong class solidarity, and are no stranger to monopolizing markets, insider trading, and other unfair and illegal practices that harm everyone else.

I hope people see this for what it is - a giant power grab to turn the tables back in the favor of companies, shareholders, and billionaires.

It's not just a market correction or an economic growing pain. Tech workers have been allowed to feel safe and secure for a long time, but they are not immune to mistreatment, and the job security they thought they had was only an illusion. Yes, they're more financially privileged than others, but that's by design. They have been allowed a little taster, an amuse bouche, of what it's like to have access to capital in the form of stocks, equity, and property. They have it better than so many, but they are just as susceptible to the whims and abuses of corporations as other classes of workers.

This is about control, plain and simple. I'm seeing some pretty crappy and unfortunate takes out there from folks who think that they should suck it up and do what they're told, and be grateful they get to sit on their ass in an office all day using a computer and making bank. Capital owners benefit when workers go at each other like this so they aren't on the receiving end of people's ire and discontent.

The ONLY way people can protect themselves is through solidarity, organizing, and yep, UNIONIZING.

Unions aren't just for coal miners and rail workers y'all. There is no time better than the present to band together, to build on the momentum and set a strong precedent of not taking no for an answer through collective action over capitulation.

I imagine we will also see a movement of copycat organizing and pushback, inspired by what we're seeing with Disney, Amazon, and Youtube workers in response to RTO policies, along with previous organizing efforts like the mass walkout of 20,000 Google employees 2018, and the successful unionizing by Kickstarter employees in 2020. In fact, tech worker organizing goes all the way back to the 1970s!

If anything, I hope to see an increase in class consciousness amongst tech workers who have more in common with delivery drivers, baristas, school teachers, and anyone who doesn't have a choice but to work for a living.


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