Prospects for unionizing in Silicon Valley

A topic I've heard increasing buzz about at parties[1] is the idea that Silicon Valley tech workers should be unionizing. The New York Times was discussing unionization in digital media a month ago:

Daniel Marans, a reporter at HuffPost, said the treatment of employees at digital media companies should not remain stuck in a time when websites were small and scrappy, staffed by younger workers who were happy to see their names in pixels.
"That comes to things like transparency on pay, having a decent pay scale that allows a ladder of sustainability where you can support yourself on such an income, and having due process and a guarantee of severance in the case of layoffs," Mr. Marans said.
Ooh, that looks like a great slate of demands, straight out of the union playbook. Let's unpack it.

The union demands

Transparency on pay
Know what everyone else is paid based on level - no practical scope for varying pay based on the positive or negative impact to the company. Any perceptible skew by race, gender or other minority status gets jumped on. This ties in to the next point very well.
Ladder of sustainability
a.k.a. "pay by seniority". The longer you work here, the more pay you get. No concept of "you haven't materially contributed more - or even as much - this year than you did last year, no rise for you." Per the above point, if you're a mother who's been working short hours to match with your daycare needs then you should be paid as much as a single man who's been employed for the same duration as you but has put in twice the hours. (Also as much as a single woman in the same situation as the man, which is even more invidious, but for some reason the law doesn't care about this situation.) And if you've spent 75% of your working day on Twitter supporting the Resistance Against Trump, or endorsing Chelsea Manning for Senate, that is a perfectly appropriate component of your day job.
Due process
Several states in the USA - including California, home of Silicon Valley - follow employment at will where a company can fire a worker just because they don't like them. They don't have to conduct a specific act of misconduct, it's just "it's not working out between us, goodbye!" There are carefully crafted exceptions in each state's laws, but the basic principle holds true for most employees. This violates one of the fundamental tenets of union laws worldwide - employees should not be fireable except in the most egregious circumstances.
Where you can support yourself on such an income
This refers to the lower-level employees - in practice, contractors - and the minimum wage. The more money union employees earn, the higher the dues that the union can ask for. "You're getting $15/hour? We Fought For Fifteen!" Of course, the employees who lost their jobs because their labor wasn't worth $15/hour don't really benefit from this. But screw them, right?
Guarantee of severance in the case of layoffs
As noted above, unions don't really believe in layoffs unless you're irretrievably conservative or Republican - in which case, fuck you. But if severance is unavoidable, you may be out of luck. I was surprised to learn that even in California, severance pay is not required although in practice it's present in most contracts.

Where is this coming from?

My personal opinion - which you should take with a whole bag of salt - is that this drive is a reaction to the past year's tepid (by Social Justice Warrior standards) reaction by Silicon Valley engineer peons to the cases of "hate speech" by such luminaries as Googler James Damore. The 2014 ousting of Mozilla's Brendon Eich seems to have been a misleading catalyst for social justice organizing: the perception was that the relatively small number of social justice crusaders had disproportionate power to influence media opinions and drive online lynch mobs.

The carefully union-unaffiliated Tech Workers Coalition has been pushing this line for a while:

The Tech Workers Coalition is a home for progressives in tech in the Bay Area. We’re an all-volunteer community organization. Our active participants include workers in the tech industry, members from labor union locals, community organizers, and friends.
"Labor union locals", huh? Why am I not surprised?
And now unions are concerned about the possibility of a nationwide “right-to-work” law which would effectively gut their funding. Tech workers need to stand with service workers in these fights.
Translation: we need tech money to fight the union-gutting right-to-work law. California in particular is not a right to work state - if you want to be a public school teacher, for instance, you're going to pay union dues.
Certain things are safer than others, and safer for different people. An undocumented contract worker is in a very different situation than a salaried citizen worker.
Well, there's the teeny tiny issue that the contract company is clearly breaking the law of the nation, so yes...
For tech, it’d be cool to see the strike weapon on the table. History shows us the tactics that will change the world for the better — the tactics that will not only get rid of Trump, but change the conditions that we’re all forced to live and work under.
Oh, that'll be an interesting one. Tech workers striking - "Facebook will go dark for 24 hours unless FB guarantees contractors the right to employ undocumented workers". How exactly do you expect the tech company leadership to react to this existential threat?

You should also give careful scrutiny to Coworker.org who has been publicly allying with union-oriented Silicon Valley employees. It looks to be funded principally by New Venture Fund (a $315M turnover organization whose turnover doubled from 2014 to 2015, and whose 2016 and 2017 turnover I'd be extremely interested to see. In turn they get "advised" by Arabella Advisors who have a very interesting management team with cited connections to e.g. Barack Obama's secretary of commerce, a company focus on regional food and divestment from fossil fuels.

Will it work?

What do I think? Twitter, Facebook and Google offices in the USA are going to be hit with unionization efforts in the next 12 months, initially as a trial in the most favorable locations but if they succeed then this will be ramped up quickly nationwide. This will be framed as a push to align the companies to approved socially just policies - which their boards mostly favor already - but will be used to leapfrog the activist employees into union-endorsed and -funded positions of influence. That approach neatly nullifies the increasing concern about their lack of material contribution to the company as they spend more time on Twitter and producing social justice memes than actually writing code and making the applications work better.

I wonder, though. The bulk of Silicon Valley engineering employees - who are still the majority of the company - are white, Indian and Chinese males. They are used to ruthless meritocracy from the age of, oh, eight or so. The prospect that some slacker [foreign epithet] could supplant them in promotion or pay just by unfireably hanging around the company while they sweat blood, or block them from a union-favored sinecure by dint of being black / female / transgender / identifying as a dragon is unlikely to be something they'd lie down and accept. I fear that the social justice crusaders are mistaking silence for acceptance, and the settling of accounts after the unionization effort will be (metaphorically) bloody indeed.

I doubt this will get off the ground with Apple. They are notoriously controlling and will both detect and ruthlessly act on any twitches of unionization.

For Amazon, of course, it's much more simple. Any Amazon employee pushing unionization will be deniably but publically killed by an Amazon warehouse robot. I can't imagine Jeff Bezos taking such a challenge to his authority lying down.

TL;DR - there will be a big unionization push for Silicon Valley companies in 2018, and it will go horribly wrong.

[1] You almost certainly don't want to go to the kind of parties I go to. There are no kegs, vol-au-vents, or mini sausage rolls. There's organic Chardonnay, sushi of dubious provenance, and acceptably ethnic cuisine like Vietnamese bánh cuốn and Mexican chilaquiles. I happen to like bánh cuốn, but am under no illusion that the food and beverages are based on what the guests find appealing.


Prediction for Hawaii in October 2018

Following the ballistic missile false alarm, a surge of babies will appear in Hawaii approximately 9 months from now as men and women clustered together under the bed decide to go out of this world in flagrante and without protection.

There may also be a bunch of unmarried teen pregnancies for those who didn't want to die as virgins...

Good news about Hawaii's ballistic missile warning service

It works!

Watching the 1pm (Hawaii) press conference, the Governor and the Administrator for Emergency Management are going through the expected self-flagellation. The Administrator commented "Our process is to have no more false alarms from now" and that now two people will be required to send out an alert.

The interesting questions, which the journalists don't seem to be asking:

  1. How many false alarms are acceptable - rather, what rate of false alarming is acceptable? Once in 30 years? Once in 10 years? Once a year?
  2. What are the benefits from a false alarm - e.g. testing the alert channel, prompting people to think about their emergency plans - and what are the costs - e.g. mental health events, car accidents, heart attacks, premature consumption of expensive whisky
  3. What actions taken to reduce the risk of false alarms increase the risk of a real alarm being delayed in sending?
Everything comes with a trade-off. The last question is probably the most important. If you only have 10 minutes from alert going out until missile impact (on the current plan), what happens if e.g. your requirement for two people to trigger the alert sending ends up causing a delay because one person isn't around? You just know it's going to happen:
"Hey Akamu, can you watch the console for the next few minutes, I just gotta go to ABC Stores to get some more chocolate macadamias?"
"Sure Alika, I don't want to call in Ula the backup guy if we don't really need to."

I'd like to see a public written postmortem about this incident. Redact names - replace them with roles e.g. "the coming-on-duty emergency alerts worker", "the going-off-duty emergency worker" - and explain:

  • what went wrong,
  • why it went wrong (following the 5 Whys technique),
  • what actions are being taken to remediate the risk, and
  • what do they aim to achieve in terms of the false alarm rate and the failure to alert probability?
Write it in a blameless fashion; assume good faith and basic competence by the people involved. If someone made a bad choice, or slipped and hit the wrong button, the problem isn't with the person - it's the process and technology that let them make that bad choice or press the button in a non-deliberate way.

One interesting question that was raised in the conference: why did some but not all of the sirens trigger? You'd want the process to be that both the sirens team and the alert message should monitor each others' output. If you're the siren operator and get the alert on your phone, the best strategy is to trigger the siren immediately to increase coverage of the alert. The impact of a false siren is much lower than impact of not playing the siren when a missile really is inbound because of the PACOM-to-sirens message channel failing. So maybe this was individual siren operator initiative - reward those folks, and make it standard procedure.

This is a great opportunity for the state government to demonstrate transparency and a commitment to making the systems objectively work better, rather than just playing to the press. Unfortunately, you just know that it's not going to happen like that.


How To Not Get Your Ass Kicked by James Damore's lawyer

With apologies to Chris Rock

CEOs of major tech companies often worry that they might be the victims of political conservative persecution, so as a public service the Hemiposterical Blog proudly presents:

How not to get your ass kicked by James Damore's lawyer

Have your firm ever been face-to-face with a James Damore lawsuit and wondered, "Is his lawyer about to kick my ass?" Well, wonder no more. If you follow these easy tips, you'll be fine.

Communicate with care

You've heard people say, "Man, I wouldn't say that shit if I were you." Well, here’s some of that shit:

  • Calling people Nazis
  • Threatening to punch Nazis
  • Blocking contact with co-workers
  • Blacklisting co-workers
  • Denigrating men
  • Calling for people with non-liberal views to be fired

You know, you probably won't get your ass kicked in a lawsuit if you just use common sense.

If you make an intemperate comment about diversity then you might just get off with opprobrium from Breitbart; but if you allow a systematic campaign against white people in general and men in particular in your company then, maybe, you need your ass kicked.

Turn that shit off

Here's a no brainer: if your company's employees are spending half their time making SJW postings, then find the bulletin boards and mail lists generating those prejudicial posts and turn that shit off. Giving free rein to employees to make memes about punching Republican co-workers is just ignorant.

Filter your candidates

You want to hire a new employee? Not so fast, your candidate might be crazy! Before you let the candidate in the company, ask them these questions:

  • Do you tweet 20+ times a day on social justice issues?
  • Do you write ill-conceived rants on public blogs and forums?
  • Do you regard 60%+ of the country as basically Nazis?

If you want to hire a new employee, get a libertarian. They don't care what anyone else does as long as they're left alone.

If you get sued

And in case you do get sued, remind your employees to do this one thing:

Shut the fuck up!

If you follow these simple pointers, you probably won’t get your ass kicked by James Damore's lawyer.


The best messaging advice I ever got...

...was that I should never write any email or document, internal or external to my company, that I would be unhappy seeing on the front page of the New York Times. Obviously this advice was from back in the days when a lot of people still read the NYT. Nowadays I guess the advice should be

"never write anything that you'd be unhappy to see 'trending' on Twitter or prominent on Reddit"

It seems that a bunch of people at Google, including many senior managers who should have known better, did not take that advice. Reading James Damore's lawsuit against Google (starting around the end of page 12, through page 44) he captured a bunch of invective-laden emails, forum posts and other internal content and his lawyer is using that as evidence that Google systematically discriminates against conservative viewpoints of its employees.

Now, I have no idea what the actual legal merits of the complaint are under California law - or any law system to be honest - but the individuals' emails and posts have handed Damore a giant stick with which to beat Google, and no doubt multiplied whatever amount that the lawsuit will eventually settle at. If they'd actually paused to think "how would it look if this email ever leaked?" then maybe this situation wouldn't be such a trash fire.

The alternative, mind you, is that the individuals did consider this risk, but thought "that's OK, all right-thinking people will agree with me when they read this." By their definition they may be correct, but I suspect that they will soon discover how much they are outnumbered by wrong-thinkers.

I'm going to be fascinated to see the reaction of the more conservative members of the press and blogosphere when they read through these posts.

Update: also look in the complaint at Exhibit B (page 74 onwards) with additional posts and memes. Holy crap.


Solving the sub-letting problem

The mainstream media is curiously quiet about the practice of sub-letting: where tenant X rents a property at a substantially discounted rate - typically, from the local council - and then finds a sub-tenant Y who pays them less than the commercial rate but more than the discounted rate. X makes a profit of close to 100% of the differential. If the local rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Camden is £2400/month and tenant X gets a council rate of 30% of that value, tenant X is paying £720/month and could easily charge tenant Y £1560/month, for a monthly profit of £840. The council - or rather, its taxpayers - are spending £1680/month for zero social benefit. Meanwhile, tenant X and tenant Y are laughing at them.

The effect of this phenomenon obviously depends on its frequency. If 1 in 1000 council tenants sub-let, this is too small to worry about. If 1 in 10 tenants sub-let, this rises to a significant level of concern.

Google found a very interesting study from 2012:

In 2,120 cases, 8 per cent of the total, HJK found "red" indicators of fraud, where the registered tenant had a mortgage, bank account, active credit or utility bills at another residential address.
In 3,180 cases, 12 per cent of the total, they found "amber" indicators of fraud – active credit, bank accounts, Sky TV or utility bill records held by a person with a different surname at the tenancy address, but no such activity there by the registered tenant.
In the light of the Grenfell fire, where the "rumblings" were that a significant number of tenants were sub-letting and hence it was difficult to identify who was missing and who was not, you'd have thought that there would have been more interest from the London councils in identifying illegal sub-letting - apparently not, though...

How to fix this? The first step is to find people who are being sub-let to but are unaware of this fact (their landlord is tenant X). Every council knows which properties it is providing at sub-market rates. Have a major cross-London publicity campaign with letter mailshots to "Occupier, <ADDRESS>" at each subsidised house; each letter says

we believe that you are tenant X and are currently paying £YYY/month to the council. If tenant X is not living at this address, please provide evidence of your current rent payments to them and we will accept you as a social housing resident instead of them, at that payment level. If you do not do this, and we subsequently find you, you will be evicted with no notice and we will impose a fine of £ZZZ
Complying sub-letters get a year of their current rate, then council has discretion to ratchet up the rent significantly above rent inflation (say, 3x).

Second step: exclude most innocent council tenants. Each 6 months, random visit from a council member. They provide their ID and ask to speak to tenant X face-to-face. Crucially, they don't arrange follow-up appointments - if they can't speak to X on the day, they call back one day in each of the next 2 weeks - but they do follow suggestions about what time of day is good to catch X. If they don't speak to X within 2 weeks, X gets a black mark.

Black-marked tenants then shift to being the subjects of active detection:

  • Inspect the mail going to that address: how much is addressed to X, how much to someone else? Check with utilities, specifically TV and mobile phone companies.
  • If there's significant evidence of sub-letting then bring in the police, enter and inspect the property, illegal sub-letters have their property seized.
  • Councils publish a bulletin every 6-12 months - sent to "Occupier, <ADDRESS>" at all subsidised housing - with statistics of sub-lets detected and seized, and the amount of money saved.
  • Active publicity to residents in the same building: "do you know of illegal sub-letting in your building? Provide evidence to us at <EMAIL> and be eligible for a reward up to £5000, no questions asked.

Coming back to the root cause, though - why aren't councils more interested in detecting illegal sub-letting? It's direct theft from them, and not small amounts either. If Geraldine in accounts snaffled £10K with invoice fraud over 12 months they'd happily throw her in jail and trumpet the detection. Why aren't they similarly vocal about the sublet fraud by Darren and Beyrooz which is ratcheting up a similar loss rate? Is it just too much hassle? Is this a classic example of P. J. O'Rourke's classification of "other people's money spent on other people" - you don't care how much is being spent, and you don't care whether the receivers are getting value for money, as long as you're getting your regular salary and don't have to work too hard?