This post introduces a symposium on Worker Surveillance & Collective Resistance. Read the rest of the posts here.
Surveillance in the workplace has long been a reality and subject of contestation. Yet over the past few years, evolving forms of digital monitoring and remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic have come under increasing scrutiny, as workers, reporters, and scholars have brought renewed attention to the ills of workplace surveillance.
Those ills, as Brishen Rogers has observed, impact workers both individually and as a class. On the individual side, employers use complex electronic systems to extract data from and about workers; these systems track what workers do during their shifts, during breaks, and at home. Beyond threatening the privacy of individual workers, these systems of surveillance also threaten their ability to collectively organize. Employers—like HelloFresh, Walmart, and UC Santa-Cruz—use social media and email monitoring to track communications about working conditions and nascent organizing. Employers are also investing in sophisticated data analysis tools that allow them to stifle collective action. Whole Foods and Amazon reportedly use “heat mapping” software to track employee agitation and identify stores “at risk of unionization,” while Google has developed a Chrome browser extension to alert managers of internal meetings involving 100+ employees, “partially to weed out employee organizing.” Of course, employers still rely on comparatively “old-fashioned” surveillance techniques, like video recording and interrogation, to monitor strike and protest activity and intimidate workers at the polls.
In response, workers and their unions are mobilizing to address the impacts of electronic surveillance within and beyond the boundaries of the workplace; indeed, draconian surveillance practices often catalyze worker organizing. Elected officials are asking questions. And government agencies are responding through their regulatory agendas: the Federal Trade Commission recently sought public comment on its proposed rule on commercial surveillance practices—a rule which explicitly contemplates workers as beneficiaries—and the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel announced she would urge the Board to adopt a presumption that an employer presumptively violates the NLRA where their surveillance and management practices would tend to interfere with employees’ protected activity.
These developments raise a host of important questions for scholars of law and political economy. How does law currently facilitate, and even incentivize, employer surveillance? How precisely does surveillance erode the dignity and well-being of workers, and undermine their sense of solidarity? What legal and non-legal strategies are best suited to combat the individual and collective harms of invasive monitoring at work? And how might these strategies also take aim at employer domination and structural power over workers’ lives?
Over the next few weeks, authors in the Workplace Surveillance, Collective Resistance will chart answers to some these questions. Karen Levy launches the series by describing the phenomenon of “surveillance interoperability,” which enables governments, employers, and third-party companies to seamlessly integrate their monitoring systems and create a surveillance regime that’s “greater than the sum of its parts.” Next, Sarrah Kassem demonstrates how different features of Amazon platforms inform the contours of company surveillance and worker resistance. Reed Shaw then examines how new forms of electronic surveillance threaten to undermine a wide variety of longstanding employment and labor law protections, while Matthew Bodie suggests how employees might wrest both control over their data, especially through collective bargaining and worker cooperatives. Finally, Alvin Velazquez considers how lawyers and unions can knit together “patchwork” privacy and labor law frameworks to challenge invasive workplace monitoring technologies.