CEOs really make me laugh.

I really enjoyed reading Elizabeth Anderson’s book, “Private Government”. It’s a lecture she’s given with responses from other people, a philosopher, economist and historians. Having these sorts of people of different analytical lens wasn’t something I fully appreciated until she made her closing arguments. If almost by design, some of my notes that I made as I read rung loudly in this final chapter. She refrains from giving a concrete guide on what to do about the dilemma she’s addressing, the concept of the overreaching and arbitrary rule of governance that employers are capable of deploying in workplaces. This I appreciate because it returns the agency to the same people she's discussing are impacted heavily by private government: workers. When I was employed at Code for America, I cited this book in conversational spaces over Slack, solely in water-cooler rooms. There was a clear difference in how the two branches of private government, in this case, the conventional workers and that of the managerial realm, in how they responded to this. I’m almost certain that as part of my separation agreement and my severance agreement, that I can’t speak verbatim on what exactly was said. I can mention what, while finishing this book, reminded me of those times at work there and my time at Glitch.

“We live in a society.”

I remember having a lunch conversation during  my first week at Glitch. I have to admit, that week was a blur. So it’s significant that I remember a few of us at a table bench talking about (handwaves) the world. I remember a mention of mangoes and where the best ones are. Then some time later, Anil Dash and I were talking about something dealing with society, our work and culture (I think). He expressed his understanding of the dilemma of the industry and in the same breath mentioned that it’s the society we live under - it being capitalism. I remember coming to sharpness in attention around here because it wasn’t something I was expecting him to mention. We were wrestling lightly with this but I remember not saying more - not like things were afoot or anything.

Shout out to the workers of Glitch, past and present, by the way. Y’all are amazing - love running into y’all. I also learned a lot about software development and management at my (short) time - shit happens, though, because neoliberalistic capitalism.

I didn’t fully understand why that exchange lingered so much in my mind - not until I got to Code for America.

"My family came from a union.”

I haven’t had any one-on-one interactions with Amanda Renteria. In fact, I think the most personal interaction I’ve had was the signature in my offer letter.  That said,  some stuff happened after I signed that and that eventually led to more spaces in which I did interact with her. During one of the many sessions of bargaining for the first union contract at Code for America, she made it known - and I think this was something that’s been repeated a few times - that she came from a union family. I routinely had moments during these sessions where I couldn’t tell if some of the comments were meant to be a way to reset the already tense nature of these sessions. Prime meme placement here.

Let me set this scene up a bit more. By now, I’m at the nine-year mark of my time working in the software industry - two years after Glitch. Despite having worked on large-scale systems and rapid consulting projects for viral startups, I still sweat when I’m in these spaces because my capability means nothing when it comes to challenging a power dynamic that I began to understand as similar as the one I saw when I left work (or closed my laptop) and reengaged with society. Skill means nothing when you begin to push on the very thin barrier of the hierarchy at work. This barrier gets more pressure on when workers begin having conversations about how work is done and who benefits from said work. This gets more complex in non-profits since, despite the company lawyer's mention of "users", the American public weren't paying us - donors were. The pressure I felt each time having to make the case with the work that dozens of workers had spent hours researching, drafting and analyzing how and what changes could be made to help meet management at the table wasn’t small: it felt like being brought back to the interview process and being asked “what will you defend most: the health of the company or your individual well-being?”, constantly repeating “I want collective health and organizational strength” and then being immediately rejected for the role for not being a "culture fit".

Safe to say that workers got what they fought for: a contract that enshrines the values that they work day-in and day-out to bring to people who need aid. A mantra now burned into my mind by one of the organizing, then bargaining then severance committee members was one that was short and to the point: Workers deserve more.

Y’all (CEOs) must live different.

This returns me to the opening point and indirectly to the title of this post. Anderson makes the astute point that, despite being able to do ice breakers with these people, we are not alike. She states (emphasis mine):

Private government at work embeds inequalities in authority, standing and esteem in the organizations upon which people depend for their livelihood. Those cosigned to the status of wage worker for life have no real way out: while they can quit any given employer, often at great cost and risk, they cannot opt out of the wage labor system that structurally degrades and demeans them.

This paragraph reminded me a lot of this discontent I felt and justified the reactions to our messaging to management. There’s been actions where I was extremely shocked at how our leadership chose to respond. I had to clock that it’s not me that’s provoking this response - it’s the challenge to their unchecked authority that’s invoking this. Anderson’s book aims to introduce a space in where one could have a legitimate conversation about the nature of work, specifically the governance of work - all of which in the conventional corporate fashion is inherently private - even 501(c)3 non-profit non-governmental organizations - and how this impacts us on a daily basis.

The interactions I’ve had with these two leading executives branched from the same tree: that because of the world we live in, we must accept it and play by its rules as much as possible because anything else doesn’t work. It’s an extremely narrow view and it’s what helps entrench the inequalities at work that the liberal rise of DEI was alleging to help resolve. I highlight that especially because despite the efforts of it, we still have cases where companies are comfortable with underpaying employees (even keeping wages stagnant in relation to inflation but rising theirs) and instead of rectifying that, we get the same behavior that’s happened since the introduction of identity politics: the coopting of DEI for the purpose of union busting and the reducing the ability of workers to critique or hold leadership accountable for failing to maintain DEI objectives. It’s frustrating because I wanted these people to be the kind of folks who could put power to use and make change not just for their reputation organization, but for fellow organizations and giving precedent to change in how we can work (and beyond).

Frankly, I’d propose both of these folks to take a pay reduction to match the average salary of all non-managerial staff for the average tenure of said staff to understand both how short the culture of a side of the organization that they don’t have to interface with often with manages to get by before coming back to any conversations about equity or inclusion. Of course, there’s things in life that could cause higher needs of cash on hand - like better healthcare, extended family care and support, exploring things like a more flexible work-week to allow better work-life balance, especially in [a now unrecognized pandemic. or having funds for familial or self-development on hand. Even allowing for better systems of delegation such that work consolidation (with equivalent compensation) into one person can reduce bus factors and effectively give people more true equity in the work they contribute. I remember a moment during the unit clarification hearing where childcare was needed and thinking this!

But then you’d be describing a worker-owned cooperative. Since these executives are beholden to their own private governments (the Board that never has to join those all-hands but controls what the people who control your paycheck), it’d be easier to imagine them adjusting this pay readjustment as a pilot or a show of good will to workers to encourage them to not invoke their rights in the workplace (which isn’t too hard). Consider it a remix on the holiday bonus!

At the end of the day, I remain firm in my stance that a workplace that doesn’t provide workers a actionable voice into how their labor contributes to the well-being of the organization and its assets as a whole needs a union. Especially tech companies, with our short tenures, pay gaps even at the highest-funded organizations, still-rampant discrimination and more regressive policies in labor management.

That’s why CEOs make me laugh. The disconnection from reality that can come even from a considerable pay raise, elevated status and control and the ease of dismissal of the needs of the workers who transfer their labor into their direct deposit of $29,105.17 per month (which, before taxes, is about 3/4 of a US presidential salary as of 2001) is something I’ll never be able to relate to, a side effect of how capitalism has split the wealth capture between millennials and Gen X. This is the kind of correlation that Anderson makes as she speaks about the economist who tries their best to minimize a whole swath of workers, the lives they live under capitalism and how companies take advantage of that - for profit or reputation. I was just hoping for a bit more behind the words from these people, but I'm understanding now that this is the taint you take with that job so it's not even personal.

Sadly, because of how this country works, I have to end this by disclosing that my inclusion of the people mentioned does not consititute an attack or defamational message about them, the organizations or affliated parties, and should not be construted as the such. This exists as an opinion blog post, nothing more. Depending on how one parses it will be told by time.

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