One of the things that audience members at readings and events for Digital Dead End seem most eager to know is what they can do. If technology isn’t the solution to our social justice struggles, what is?
The women in the YWCA of Troy-Cohoes community had amazing insights into the structural nature of high-tech inequality, and offered innovative solutions. In their spirit, I offer a nine-point plan, what I call the “High-Tech Equity Agenda,” in the last chapter of the book.
In the next few weeks, I’ll offer some key point from the agenda. In light of recent events, I’ll start with the top:
Point 1: Protect Workers in the Lower Tier of the High-Tech Economy
The information economy is a bifurcated economy. While we have a tendency to think about the new economy as being made up primarily of creative and knowledge-based jobs, most of the economic growth from the high-tech economic development is in the service sector.
We can use the Capital Region of New York, where I live, as an example. Between 2001, the peak of the regional economic development scheme known as “Tech Valley,” to 2008, the beginning of the recession, we saw a growth pattern that is distinct to the information economy.
Attempting to replace the collapsing manufacturing and construction sectors, which lost nearly 5000 jobs in those seven years, regional chambers of commerce and municipal government officials aggressively courted high-tech industries: chip fabrication, biotech, nanotech, media, creative and financial businesses.
They had some success. There was growth in “top-tier” information economy occupations. While there were losses in the NAICS industry classification “Information,” which includes publishing, broadcasting, telecommunications and internet service providers, the area added jobs in financial activities and professional and business services. These well-paid, education-dependent occupational categories grew by 3387 jobs, about 500 jobs per year.
But the most exponential growth was the service sector—education and health services, leisure and hospitality, and other services—which grew by more than 12,300 jobs. That’s nearly 2,000 jobs per year added in low-wage, high-volatility, insecure and difficult industries like retail, healthcare, education, and food service. Most of the workers in these classifications make close to minimum wage, and few have access to health insurance, pensions, paid sick leave, and other employment protections and benefits. 78% of job growth in Tech Valley is in the service industry.
The most rapid job growth between 2001 and 2008 was in the lowest-paid NAICS classification, “Leisure and Hospitality.” The Capital Region gained 4282 jobs in this category, a growth of 14.7%. The average weekly wage for these workers is $262 (in 2000 dollars), and the category has the slowest wage growth of nearly any category, only 5.4% in those seven years.
If nearly 80% of the job growth in the new economy is in these low-paying and insecure occupations, any attempt to create high-tech equity must include protections for vulnerable workers. Work in the information economy—in both the high-tech and the service sectors—tends to be less reliable and lacks institutions for effectively organizing on workers’ behalf. The increasingly anti-union political climate is, thus, especially dangerous for information economy workers.
Though service occupations have presented especially difficult challenges to collective bargaining, impressive gains have been made in the past decade. For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest and fastest-growing union in North America, boasts more than 2 million members who provide for America’s health care, public services, and property services needs. SEIU is also the country’s most diverse union: 56 percent of SEIU members are women, 40 percent are people of color, and SEIU represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.
So one thing you can do to fight for social justice in the information age? Sign on to the Employee Free Choice Act, support attempts to protect employees’ rights to collective bargaining in your state, and never cross a picket line.