Winifred Poster is a sociologist teaching at Washington University, St. Louis. Her interests are in feminist labor theory, digital globalization, and Indian outsourcing. For the past two decades, she’s been following high-tech firms from the US to India, both in earlier waves of computer manufacturing and software, and more current waves of back-office work and call centers. Focusing on the intersection of post-colonial computing and the political economy of service labor, she is curious how information communication technologies are changing the meaning of work, dispersing it transnationally, incorporating new types of workers, and reshaping identities. See her website for projects on: global circuits of high-tech labor, transnational call centers, multisurveillances, cybersecurity, and virtual receptionists.
The World’s First Virtual Strike: Indian Infoworkers and the Transformation of Labor Activism Through ICTs
In 2007, the online platform “Second Life” was the site of what some call the world’s first virtual strike. Even though Second Life is often considered to be for entertainment, it has many of parallels to the “real world” – including people, businesses, and governments (Boellstorff, 2008). So when Italian employees of multinational firm IBM were disgruntled with practices by their employer, they took to Second Life to stage their protest. Their strike at IBM virtual headquarters included almost 2,000 avatar picketers in support, from 30 countries. The action was successful enough that global union UNI purchased an island on Second Life from which to run its online operations.
This event marks several transformations in labor and union tactics. Employment is moving online through virtual teams, crowdsourcing, etc., (Scholz, 2013). Digital platforms are not only sites where labor occurs, however. They are sites which reshape how labor occurs, and the interactions between employees and employers. Through dynamics like gamification (Cherry, 2011a, 2011b), players perform labor for employers as they participate in online games, both knowingly and unknowingly. Moreover, overt employment transactions occur on these sites, as employers use Second Life to conduct interviews with job candidates. And in the case of IBM above, managers hold meetings with their employees in Second Life headquarters.
In this paper, I’ll explore how the IBM protest on Second Life represents important dimensions of labor activism by info-workers in the current era. In particular, I focus on India where outsourced employees are embedded in technologically-intense environments (using telephones, computers, and the internet) – and whose labor group “UNITES” participated in the strike. Although these employees work in what are called “electronic sweatshops,” and are often considered the least likely to organize collectively, the virtual platform of Second Life provided a conducive means for group protest.
This analysis recounts the details of the event, and then reflects on the problems of striking virtually. Such platforms create barriers, for instance, in the skill requirements of the participants, maintaining the longevity of worker organizations, and avoiding surveillance by elites. At the same time, platforms like Second Life enable strikers to reproduce street activism in digital spaces, with visuals, sound, and embodiment. There are potential uses of online tools: avatars to protect worker anonymity, teleportation to disrupt employer meetings, and most importantly, the twin features of decentralization and simultaneity (Sassen, 2005, 2006), enabling workers in disparate locations to participate in protest transnationally and interactively.