Politicizing Subcontracting


For our first meeting of 2019 we had a discussion centered on the labor process and how to effectively politicize the issue of subcontracting in tech.

We were joined by professor, technologist, and trade unionist Joan Greenbaum, a giant in the fields of technology, design, and labor studies. Fun fact: as an undergraduate she programmed one of the first computers in binary code (an IBM 650).

Joan Greenbaum opened the meeting with a brief survey of labor process in the tech industry: how firm’s have controlled and disciplined labor and how they’ve used subcontracting in every form of capitalism, from industrial to service to financial capitalism. She then posed a question to the group: “How, in your line of work, has management changed how you work?”

We then broke into smaller discussion groups to discuss the following political strategies for addressing the inequality between employees and subcontractors in the tech industry:

  1. M4A: Medicare for All, since subpar and extremely expensive health insurance costs greatly affect subcontracted workers.
  2. Limiting subcontracting: Force tech companies of a certain size to only contract out daily work to firms that are either publicly owned or cooperatively owned by their workers, in either case those workers must be unionized.
  3. Worker representation: A tech company of a certain size needs proportional representation of its own employees and the employees of any subcontracted firms that work daily in the workplace.
  4. Minimum industry wage and equalizing time off: Raise the minimum wage for all workers whose daily work is in a tech workplace to $25/hr and require that subcontracted workers receive the same companywide time off benefits as the company’s own employees, including for example vacation days and parental leave.


  1. Google Urged the U.S. to Limit Protection For Activist Workers. While Google publicly supported employees who protested company policies, it quietly asked the government to narrow the right to organize over work email.

  2. What It’s Like to Work Inside Apple’s ‘Black Site’. Contractors a few miles from the company’s spaceship-like headquarters live in fear of termination—and the bathroom lines.

  3. The Stark Political Divide Between Tech CEOs and Their Employees. Is Silicon Valley growing away from its liberal and libertarian origins?

Discussion Questions

  1. Since you began working in your field, how has management changed the nature of your work? How you work, where you work, when you work, what tools you use to work, etc.

  2. What are some workplace grievances you think would be shared between full-time and subcontracted workers? For example, quality of healthcare (or lack thereof).

  3. What are some concrete step you and your coworkers could take towards organizing around the political strategies outlined above?

  4. Can you think of any other strategies for politicizing and organizing around the role of subcontracting in tech?