“This is my job. If I’m being asked to do more than my job, I can say no. If they fire me, they’re — that’s like way worse for most employers. So you do have a lot of power as an employee, I think especially if you’re organizing and unionizing and talking with everyone that you’re working with on your level. You have so much power to actually get what you need and not be exploited in the way that most people are.”
The masses who settled into remote or hybrid work during the pandemic are waking up to the fact that Zoom-mediated labor isn’t all it was promised to be. Instead of being liberated from unnecessary drudgery, demands on their time have ballooned, they feel permanently on call, and some can’t shake the sense that they’re working harder than ever for less pay…
Disabled employees . . . demonstrated [that] nearly everyone could do their jobs just fine by telecommuting… Remote work has benefits for all.
…The pandemic and remote work turbocharged techno-solutionism, leaving us with the impression that Zoom alone could allow us to claw back everything the ever-expanding demands of the office had been stealing from us.
Unfortunately, outsmarting capitalism requires something more than one weird trick that bosses hate. We have to stop believing that technology, in and of itself, will emancipate us, and instead embrace our collective power to shape how technology is used. That requires organizing.
–Katherine Alejandra Cross, “Remote Workers of the World, Unite!”, WIRED (June 2023).
Stephanie Jo Kent: All right. Today I’m delighted to welcome to the show two guests: Charles Hobby, returning, our podcast engineer, and also Stellan Vinthagen, who is a scholar-activist working on resistance. I am very curious what conversation the two of you might have about this excerpt from WIRED Magazine about organizing and remote work in the times that we’re living in. Either of you want to dive in?
Charles Hobby: I guess I can just introduce myself to Stellan because it’s the first time I’ve met you. I’m super excited to chat. Currently, I’m a remote worker, and one that is being exploited and abused in my own way. Reading this article — actually, Steph, I did read the full article. I don’t know if that’s cheating, but —
Stephanie Jo Kent: Cool. No, you’re welcome.
Charles Hobby: — I did. Yeah, it is a very interesting topic that I don’t — Yeah, I feel like this has been the promise of the internet since I don’t remember; that Arthur C. Clarke quote from the ’60s saying that, “The internet would liberate us to do whatever we wanted and be wherever we wanted and work from wherever we want.” It’s interesting that it’s just happening now in the 2020s and is immediately becoming completely corrupted and destroyed. So, yeah, that’s where I’m coming from, I’m someone on those front lines.
Stellan Vinthagen: Thank you. Well, yeah, I’m very much a remote worker too. I have both the privilege and the curse of being a tenured professor at UMass. But my work is mostly research, which means that I work from elsewhere not really from campus. I would say that the advantage of that is that I have a lot of freedom to decide myself what kind of work I do and when I do it.
The curse of that is that I’m supposed to deliver a whole lot of things and it means that I work a lot more hours than what I’m supposed to.
Charles Hobby: Is that built into the position? My remote job is very much more like basically online customer service with a few extra roles added to it. But I’m very much a responder to stuff rather than — it sounds like you’re much more like — a little more interesting than what I’m doing, but also a little more, you set what you want. Or are you under the dictation of what other people want from you?
Stellan Vinthagen: It’s taken me quite a while to figure out, but what I have learned is that my employers — they only look at the numbers of how much I produce. So I can very much decide the content, but I need to deliver books, articles. I need to draw in research funding and these kind of things. But that means also that I have a lot of freedom to decide on the content.
But I think what comes with this is an over-exploitation of work and hours, but also the possibility of using your content, the work, towards a service of activism and social change. So that’s what I’m trying to do.
Charles Hobby: Cool. Yeah. I’m curious. It seems like a different exploitation, because I feel like almost all — most work is exploitative, in the way that it works in this country and probably most countries, where it’s like my body, my time, my life is being taken for someone else’s benefit. What’s so interesting about, I think, remote work is that the body part of the exploitation is removed from it, which I think is scaring a lot of employers because that’s such a easy physical way to control someone.
So I think what this article hints at is all these even sort of creepier and potentially scarier versions of that theft of yourself. Like if they’re saying basically like, “Well, if we can’t have your body anymore, we’re just going to have access to you and to your house and to everything that you’re doing on your computer, because it’s our computer.” It’s just like suddenly so much — that physical theft has now become almost, like, conceptual and metaphysical. It’s weird to navigate because we’ve never really done it before.
Stellan Vinthagen: No, I agree. There are many versions of how this exploitation happens, of course. I think the crude version is to measure then, how active are you at your computer? What kind of movements are you doing? What kind of sites are you looking at? What are you doing? How efficient are you in doing the certain different tasks? So that’s a detailed control.
But then the kind of control that people like me are facing is a different one where it’s a matter of looking at the output, that you’re supposed to be in the international frontline of a certain discussion, and you need to publish in certain journals, you need to deliver. That is then not measured in time, which I think is definitely a matter of both a privilege and a curse because you will put in a lot more time than what you are supposed to.
Charles Hobby: How long have you been a professor?
Stellan Vinthagen: Nine years at UMass. Before that, I was a professor in Sweden.
Charles Hobby: Okay. Did you notice a big — or maybe not even a big, did you notice a change in how your responsibilities were measured or demanded with COVID changing a lot of the way people interacted online, or? Because it sounds like your job has always been, unfortunately, just — yeah. I’m just curious if the COVID aspect and Zoom mentality has really changed the way people are demanding even more from you.
Stellan Vinthagen: Yeah. You must experience a similar thing. All the time there has been this ongoing experimentation with the increasing amount of emails and the pressure to respond quickly on that, so that’s always been there. And then the output, as I said before: output delivery, but not that you’re present at your office. So it’s been remote in that sense, even before COVID.
With COVID, I would say that there was a brief period of a couple of months when it was beautifully quiet because people hadn’t really gotten into booking Zoom meetings and all that, so things became very slow. That was a beautiful opportunity that I could return to and tell about the contrast. But then after a while, it became incredibly many Zoom meetings. That pressure has increased, I would definitely say.
I’ve seen a lot with my students; that they lose energy, motivation, orientation. There’s been really psychological effects of studying remotely.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. I think the article is written by a professor and one of the things they mentioned was that, if I was teaching a class of 200 people, I’m not able to look at everyone’s eyes and where they’re looking and what they’re doing. The fact that now the response to teaching people online was to monitor every single individual’s attention level through AI platforms to make sure they’re looking at the screen and not looking at other browsers.
So quickly did it turn into this rather than — because that’s the thing about natural interaction is that when we’re talking on a computer like this, I feel compelled to look at you and always be looking at you. I can’t go get a cup of coffee or excuse myself or maybe look out the window.
It’s like a fake way we would interact because of this digital element, where it’s just like — I don’t know what it is, if it’s just politeness or something. Because we’re not in the same room, we feel like we need to just be overly attentive.
I think students are feeling like they have to be in Zoom meetings. Like I shut off my camera at a certain point because it’s just like I’m sitting in an hour-long meeting doing nothing, but yet I’m forced to look at the screen where I can get shit done, I can play a game, I can walk my dog and still be at this meeting and contribute identically.
Yeah, we’re all now forced to just sit and be lifeless because I feel like that’s what the people running the place demand in the same way that they demanded my body at other jobs, and now they’re just demanding my brain and attention because that’s all they have.
Stellan Vinthagen: Yeah. The ownership of your attention, your time is fundamental for that exploitative relationship that exists. But I’m curious, how is it that your work situation, your profession — is there a union organizing, or? Because we have a very good union where I am.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. I was actually going to ask you too. I’m currently working for Trillium Brewing Company in Boston who has decided to completely shut down their entire marketing team through — I don’t know how specific I want to get on your podcast stuff in case —
Stephanie Jo Kent: [brief laughter] You can do whatever you want.
Charles Hobby: — there’s any legal action, but —
Stephanie Jo Kent: Oh, boy.
Charles Hobby: — basically they — No, I’ll keep it vague and we don’t — it was a team of five. I think it’s hard to know how to unionize, especially when they have restaurants and everyone has different jobs and no one’s really taught to organize. I did some brief organization that wasn’t really union. But when there was three of us left, we really talked about our salaries, we talked about the work that we’re being asked to do because they were basically just firing people and then telling the people who are left to continue doing their work.
So we banded together to just make sure that none of us would agree to do extra work and do our best to not allow them to just continue to exploit what we’re doing. And then at this point, all of us are gone. So their reaction rather than to work with us was to create a workspace that was just really miserable so that we all leave. And I don’t know what they’re going to do with this. They seem to be just using AI to write copy and hiring people to temporarily take photos and just working in that space for right now.
But, yeah, I’m really curious since I’ve never — well, actually I was in a union once but that was before I knew what the benefits were. I’m curious, yeah, because this article does hint that we need to organize, but it doesn’t really — I read the whole thing and I don’t know, it’s about voting for people and not choosing bad landlords. I’m really curious what your recommendations are to organize.
Stellan Vinthagen: Yeah. I think we need to use a lot of different tactics at the same time. One is obviously what you’re saying, having a code of solidarity between people working. But formal organizing has its strength and limitations. I think when most of the people in a profession are unionized, you can actually be quite forceful and strong, making demands. Our union were, for example, able to find ways of compensation for us for the extra work of transforming all our teaching into online teaching.
Charles Hobby: Cool.
Stellan Vinthagen: So we got compensation for that. So I think that is really important, particularly in the United States where employers are not really used to face a collective organized right of workers. I come from Sweden where it’s the default that people are in the union. But then the unions are not very militant, they’re not very strong. Whereas I find here, people tend to not be unionized. But when they’re unionized, the unions are quite militant and quite useful.
And then I think there’s yet another layer of resistance needed, another tactic, and that’s what I call “everyday resistance”, which is when people are cutting corners and finding ways of, as you say, participating in the meeting while walking the dog. So you need to find ways of defending your space and maybe do things good enough so that you deliver, but where you don’t participate in the exploitation of yourself more than you have to in order to maintain a job where you get a salary.
So I think a combination of tactics here are necessary. But the fundamental thing is that people that are in a similar situation talk to each other and develop a strategy.
Charles Hobby: It’s just a quick story from the recent — I finally am just pretty much done with my job at where I currently am working before they force me to…. But the end to my sad story at Trillium is that they are forcing me to leave because they say my job must be done in-person. The other end of the remote work is that a lot of companies, I think, are scared of remote work. So rather than just constantly surveil me, they’re just making some bullshit argument that I need to be back at — they need my body back, and I’m refusing to give my body back, so they’re like, “Okay, you’re no longer going to work here anymore.”
They also try to scam me into saying that I’m quitting rather than terminating my employment. Thankfully, one of my best friends is an employment lawyer, so he’s been super helpful to make sure I say what I need to say and hopefully that everything will work out.
But they actually came to me because I’d offered — I wrote myself a job proposal to say, “Hey, we have a need in the department. I would be happy to fill that need, here’s the salary I’m asking for, and here’s the responsibilities I’m going to overtake.”
They’ve ignored it, and then suddenly, two weeks later, they asked me to do the exact thing that I said I was going to do for the increased salary. I feel like a lot of employees would not — I just said, “Awesome, I’m so glad you’re interested in that. Send me that job offer and I’ll take a look at it.” I do think that you’re right that a lot of employees don’t really feel like they can stand up for themselves and they allow the exploitation, not through a fault of their own, but because they need the job.
I’m in a great position. I’m married to a wonderful person who makes more than I do. If I were to suddenly lose this job, I have this part-time job bartending, everything’s fine, so I feel like I can stand up for myself. But I know so many people that they have to just keep saying yes to their employer because if they lose the job, it’s going to be super hard. But I think that most employees also need to realize that they are in a place of power because without them, their employer will not be able to function.
And it’s way easier to keep someone that knows how to do a job than to hire someone else and — so I do think that people just need to think about, “This is my job. If I’m being asked to do more than my job, I can say no. If they fire me, they’re — that’s like way worse for most employers. So you do have a lot of power as an employee, —
Stellan Vinthagen: Exactly.
Charles Hobby: — I think especially if you’re organizing and unionizing and talking with everyone that you’re working with on your level. You have so much power to actually get what you need and not be exploited in the way that most people are.
Stellan Vinthagen: I think key to doing that and putting up these limits and demands is exactly like you do, have a plan B. What do I do when things are not working out? If you have a plan B, you can be much tougher in saying, “I’ll do this, but I won’t do that.” And then imagine if we were unionized and all of us were saying the same thing, then definitely their dependency on people doing the work is, as you say, very big. And it creates a lot of problems to find new people that are doing the job efficient enough.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. I think people forget that, they’re like — for my industry, there’s only so much beer Mr. And Mrs. Trillium can sell by themselves. So they got four people to help them and now they have 400 people to help them. And if all of us just were like, “Fuck this,” they would go back to being able to sell almost no beer. And it’s like that power that having so many people who aren’t the owners can really be like, “I am worth more than $15 an hour because you make like $100,000 an hour based on what you’re actually selling.”
The inequality with how much a few people make over what — the people that allow that to happen are just like, “It’d be so nice if we could all just be worth what we’re actually worth, not what they’re telling us that we’re worth.”
Stellan Vinthagen: Yeah.
Charles Hobby: I’m curious, can I ask you a question about — you mentioned earlier that you got compensated for the extra work it took for you to convert your classes to digital classes. Is that right?
Stellan Vinthagen: Yes.
Charles Hobby: Can you walk me through — because I’ve never been in a union that actually did anything cool, and I’m just curious like how you felt that need and responded to it and actually got it to work.
Stellan Vinthagen: Yeah. A lot of us were pointing out the extra work in terms of learning the technology, and adapting the curriculum to online teaching, and the kind of extra work that would entail in terms of creating enough of participation, engaging the students in an online setting. So when we had pointed that out, the union took that on board and had negotiations with the leadership.
It was a really hard negotiation because I mean, at that time, the university was laying off a lot of people, so it wasn’t easy. But what they worked out was that if we could demonstrate that we’d taken a number of courses, we’ve done preparation and we could show the conversion from one curriculum to another. We got compensation in terms of one extra course that we could, in future, teach less in the coming years.
So it was a really excellent negotiation the union made. I think that that really satisfied people. But it would never have been possible without the union.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. How does it start? Do you complain to your coworkers like, “Oh, I have so much extra work,” and then you all realize it? Or how did the beginning of the process happen?
Stellan Vinthagen: As I recall, the beginning was discussions during department meetings at different departments where people were voicing the amount of extra work that was being done, particularly from those colleagues that have small kids because the kids were very often then obviously at home during COVID as well, which meant that they had to work taking care of the kids and do extra work to learn how this technology works and transform [that] into curriculums at a very high speed to be ready for the coming semester. So that was coming up at department meetings several times.
Charles Hobby: And then you just have a person that’s your go-between between the union and —
Stellan Vinthagen: Yeah.
Charles Hobby: Yeah.
Stellan Vinthagen: Yeah.
Charles Hobby: Cool.
Stellan Vinthagen: We are lucky, we have the labor center based at our department. So very many skillful union representatives are part of the department, so they could collect up these things and formulate it into specific demands.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I have a question, more for you Stellan, but I’m curious your take on it also, Charles. This excerpt is from WIRED Magazine, so popular, has a large readership. Does it mean anything in particular that they’ve published a pro-unionizing — I mean, maybe they don’t use union specifically in the article, but what else do they mean if they say organizing?
Stellan Vinthagen: Well, my take on it is that particularly in the time of — it’s obvious from what I’ve said, I’m coming from Europe, I’m coming from Sweden. I’ve only been here in the country for nine years, so I have a little bit of an outside perspective. So my take is that, especially in the time period we live in now in the US, it seems to be very difficult to get understanding for unionization and that kind of collective bargaining.
So I think it’s really important. It’s kind of a signal of perhaps something that we can see more of because we have seen the campaign for $15 minimum of wage for a while. I think there is a trend that goes against otherwise very authoritarian developments with politics in the US. So, yes, I see it as a signal that there is one or several — of something shifting. Yeah.
Charles Hobby: It is interesting. I thought about that too, that it’s weird to see the popularization of this. I think it’s easy to write in WIRED Magazine about it because when I read this article, it doesn’t actually help — I just don’t find it super helpful the way it’s written, and it’s so much more helpful to talk to someone like Stellan because it says — the only mention of the word union is just like, “The best way to ensure your right to work remotely is to organize a union.”
And I feel like that’s what most people get, is like, you should be in a union and you see all these fights to unionize. But as a worker, I had four employees that are on the same level as me and I don’t even know really how to get started. It’s like, can I unionize a four-person department, or do I — it’s weird that it’s popular in some ways, but also still incredibly hard to actually know how to do it, I think.
So these articles are maybe following the trend that is all of American politics just like a bunch of — nothing really is changing. And even though we’re talking a lot about it, I don’t really see much … that is offering much hope that things are getting better, just that we’re now aware of them. But I’m not — I don’t know.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I think that’s right. I guess I also took it as a signal, and it could just be a signal, that they’re doing their journalistic duty. I mean, there are unionizing movements happening and actually being successful. Starbucks maybe most notably right now. I think, to your point or your question, Charles, I’ve also been curious about unionizing interpreters for a long time. And we work independently. We’re all freelance unless we’re happen to be hired by a state and the state government has a union.
But for the most part, we’re isolated out here on our own. And there are language agencies that have situated themselves as intermediaries, so now they’re charging exorbitant fees to be the organizer of our — to facilitate the need and the scheduling. We are pushed further and further away from creating the conditions that would be the best conditions for, in my case, Deaf people because I’m a sign language interpreter.
But it’s true for interpreters of other languages too, that we have very little say over the conditions in which we work. Most interpreters have appreciated the shift to Zoom because now we’re not struggling with traffic, struggling with being lost. How do I find this place? I mean, there are many inconveniences to working out in the world as opposed to working from home. But working from home also means we’re in this ethereal Zoom video space.
Some of the apps work okay, some of them are terrible. And people don’t know how to manage the turn-taking or actually create inclusion really any better online than they do in person. But in person, the interpreter has a little bit of leverage to be able to manage the situation a little bit.
Anyway, there’s a lot of layers there because Deaf people also want to be dictating their own conditions without relying on the interpreter. And they have a little more access and a little more freedom to participate in things that are online instead of having to physically get places.
So we’re back to the positives and the negatives. But the question of unionizing, if it’s [that] you’re a disparate group, there are a couple of examples. I think actually the writers’ strike right now is one example of a union of people who are independent. They’re freelancers, they work for themselves, for the most part, but they organized themselves into a collective and created a structure to give themselves collective power, bargaining power.
There might be restaurant workers, but I don’t know how it works. Like, if you get your restaurant, how do you get the workers in your restaurant into the hospitality industry?
Charles Hobby: Yeah. That was the industry I was in before I started working, because I was a server and a bartender, I still am. I don’t know if I’m in a union, I don’t think so. But, yeah, I think that’s [what] the issue is, and remote work is, you’re in this position where you are in a field, yet how do you get everyone in your field or a significant portion to want to come together?
Yeah, it’s such a challenge to — again, the internet should be bringing everyone together and it should be way easier to find ways to unionize like for these sorts of roles. And yet, I wouldn’t even know where to start if I were in your position. I don’t know if Stellan knows or if you’re — yeah.
Stellan Vinthagen: Well, yes. I followed through a friend the unionizing of a restaurant. There they called for a union of restaurant workers to come and give them legal advice, and then they voted. So as long as the majority said yes, they formed a union locally. But there was a lot of anti-union or union-busting techniques used against them. So they formed the union, but sometime later the union was dissolved. I think it’s really tricky in this country because there are so many hurdles.
But I think you can form at the local place, as long as you have the majority of the workers on your side and you are willing to face the union-busting attempts that will definitely come. But then you should get the legal advice from professional union workers that then can make sure that you know what … you have possibilities of doing. There are a number of things that exist that people don’t really use otherwise.
So I think these kind of possibilities exist and they are necessary to use. But at the end of the day, I think it’s a matter of creating that kind of solidarity among people and agree[ing] on codes of how to protect each other and individually develop your plan B. I mean, I have a tenured position, but I do have a plan B; I think everyone needs that. My position has been threatened despite being tenured, so it happens everywhere. If you try to push the limits and do something with your work, that’s necessary.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. I love all the things that you’re pointing to, even in the worst case. As remote workers, find your freedoms and use them. I’m a firm believer in if while we’re working and being exploited, then exploitation — I mean, I don’t know that I can exploit my employer because of just the power imbalance, but find your freedom and take it. If they don’t explicitly say, “Have your camera on during meetings,” turn your camera off until someone tells you to.
If they don’t have control over you during certain parts of the day, then just don’t — yeah, just find ways to — I’m a firm believer in stealing from your employer, really. I think the power imbalance is so huge that if you can find ways to make space for yourself and live your life, then yeah.
You’re saying that’s your third way is like, go for walks on work time and do these things that maintain your balance of your life while we’re living in this weird time where your boss can just expect you to respond to emails any time of the day and they can get — so you find the ways that you can take your life back and have that plan B and be strong and talk to your coworkers.
Because there’s so much power, I think, in that collective voice. And well, we don’t have capital — well, I guess I won’t speak for everyone, but well, I don’t have capital. There’s a lot that we can do to have power in a system that basically only has capital as its main currency.
Stellan Vinthagen: I love that, Charles. What you’re saying is very much what the book I wrote about “everyday resistance” is about. The opening chapter is a story about workers that work very differently when the bosses are around and observe what they’re doing and when they’re not there anymore.
Charles Hobby: I love that, just even if you’re not in a union, you can treat your coworkers like a force, that you can gang up on the person making the rules because it’s hard to say no to a bigger group of people all wanting the same thing.
Stellan Vinthagen: Exactly.
Charles Hobby: Yeah.
Stellan Vinthagen: I love that.
Charles Hobby: Yeah.
Stellan Vinthagen: I think that when you negotiate with the union for better conditions, you do that collectively. But when you are using your work time, or as you say, borrowing stuff up to your workplace, you are increasing your conditions individually, you are improving your pay individually, so it’s actually the same logic in it. The collective bargaining and making sure that you’re not overexploited by using maybe an hour of your work time for private things or borrowing material at your workplace, they improve your salary.
So I think it’s the same logic here and we should value the kind of class struggle that is with everyday resistance as much as the collective bargaining through unions. I think they go very well together.
Charles Hobby: I’ll have to read this, I’m excited. Yeah, I’d love to hang out in person if I’m ever in the Valley soon. Maybe stuff like —
Stellan Vinthagen: Yeah.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. I went to Hampshire College about 10 years ago so I’m a huge fan of the area, but I didn’t really spend much time at UMass.
Stellan Vinthagen: All right. Yeah, we should meet up.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. That’d be fun.
Stephanie Jo Kent: All right. A reunion in the works. Thank you both for being here today. This was a great conversation. I think the Structures of Interaction are just all throughout the conversation. I think we’ll put a couple things in the show notes. I’ll find a couple of resources for how to join a union or how to start a conversation about joining a union. We’ll definitely put a link to your book, Everyday Resistance, in there, Stellan.
Stellan Vinthagen: Great.
Stephanie Jo Kent: All right.
Stellan Vinthagen: Thank you for the opportunity to have this dialogue.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. This is really nice to chat with someone who’s really engaged and active. It’s cool.
Stellan Vinthagen: The same. Yeah.
This collection of short excerpts is from an article published May 17, 2023 by Katherine Alejandra Cross for Wired magazine, called “Remote Workers of the World, Unite.”
The Reading was recorded on June 5, 2023. The conversation about the reading with Guest Stellan Vinthagen was recorded on July 3, 2023.
Dr. Stellan Vinthagen is Professor of Sociology, and the Inaugural Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Resistance at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he directs the Resistance Studies Initiative. He is Editor of the Journal of Resistance Studies, and Co-Leader of the Resistance Studies Group at University of Gothenburg, Sweden. He has since 1980 been an educator, organizer and activist, participating in numerous nonviolent civil disobedience actions, for which he has served a total of more than one year in prison. One of his books is A Theory of Nonviolent Action – How Civil Resistance Works (2015). Long bio at https://www.umass.edu/
Image credit: Shawn Michael Jones
Structures of Interaction is produced by Charles Hobby, co-host and producer of “When Will It End?,” an irreverent movie review podcast that explores cinematic universes, with each season of the show focusing on an entire film franchise that Josh and Charles watch from beginning to end.
Original music written and performed by Richard Guild Kent.
Transcript by Esther Wokabi.
Shownotes and Transcript are published at www.reflexivity.us.