Stylized illustration of workers in semi-transparent cubicles

Issue 4


A Labor of Luck

written by Jacky Alcine

edited by Jacob Sujin Kuppermann

art by Phuc-Thanh Mai Vo

It’s July 13, 2023 on a hot Florida day. I’m on a Zoom call with the rest of the bargaining committee of Code for America (CfA)’s union, our lead negotiator, and representatives from OPEIU, the Office and Professional Employees International Union. We’re looking over a proposal from management for our union’s first contract. This cycle wasn’t new to us: edit, discuss, edit, export and send, a process that began a year before I joined CfA in 2022—though the union was recognized in 2021. In another Zoom call, union members are anxiously waiting to hear what we’ve received from management, musing on prior sessions and drawing predictions, talking about the tensions between factions within the union. Employees who had personal relationships with leadership grumble about what they’ve seen as combativeness from the bargaining team; militant members prep inflatable rats for a street protest. The mood was tense, and bargaining was on the verge of falling apart. This time, though, management unintentionally gave us the shift that highlighted the nature of organizing: humans are at the center of it. And occasionally, humans have lucky days.

Ever since I was small, I've seen the world through a lens of if I can hold it, then it's real; if I feel it, it’s real. Luck pushes against the limits of this worldview: it’s slippery and unpredictable, popping up when you least expect it, but it can help to course-correct you in a tangible way when you need it the most. Yet my view of luck was not just shaped by my experience of the world. My parents told me about Vodou, a syncretic religion practiced by generations of my family in Haiti, and spoke about how it teaches luck as something that’s almost intrinsic to a person, passed down by birth or foisted upon you through some unspoken (dis)content with a deity. It’s a perspective on luck that challenges what our society at large taught me, against ideas that hard work is the guaranteed path to stability or that wealth is earned not given but instead that our relationships within community are at the center of our fates.

If you've engaged with any level of organizing, especially in a space that’s in more than one locality and use the Internet, you’ve used spreadsheets. They're the heart of so many grassroots data-driven groups—from local soccer teams to a cross-national labor organization. At Glitch, CfA and other union drives I’ve passively engaged with, they’ve served many purposes. Spreadsheets track who’s in and who’s out. They help transition people throughout the movement and determine what proposals during the bargaining process agitate members (or management) the most. None of these practices are new or foreign to organizing. Yet becoming too reliant on tables can lead to what organizers at OPEIU call “over-quantification of workers’ sentiment.” It’s a reminder of the need for human interactions, not just sending surveys en masse but engaging with people beyond work: talking about their lives, their interests, what makes them them.

These acts of offline sentiment analysis don’t work within the model of the tech industry’s definition of “scaling.” They can’t be neatly planned, but require intentionality in choosing the things we were fighting for: focusing on the material needs of individual workers at CfA. As workers within an organization that aims to use technology to enable progress in government policies, our day-to-day labor involves a lot of research and fact-finding. We mirrored these practices in our organizing—in the ways our UX researchers contributed to proposals and the finesse with which our case work experts understood how to reach people with empathy. What’s normally obscured in these sheets are the conversations not had with people that can turn movements in favor of workers. These momentous conversations are things you can't plug in a formula for nor can you use a model to predict: they require a lot of luck, confidence and bravery to weed out. It’s what makes or breaks a drive.

On May 15, 2023, CfA’s leadership and its union entered into a weeks-long hearing held by the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB. This was a unit clarification hearing, where either side would present cases around one’s ability to be eligible in a union. It drained a lot of resources from both groups, with management testifying on why certain members of the union had to be excluded from the unit while we played defense. In order for us to safeguard workers’ right to union membership, we got, after submitting a subpoena, 50 job descriptions representing the whole of the unit, around 130 people, from leadership in the form of a sloppily combined 300-page PDF. This didn’t instill a lot of hope into leadership’s interest to engage in this process in good faith. In fact, we had expected these job descriptions prior to the hearing itself—it’s a component of the bargaining process. The belated days spent reading, assessing and dissecting this tangled mess of information, while working full-time jobs and keeping members engaged with this process were draining. However, these moments gave us an opportunity to convince folks who still trusted leadership’s approach to see that in practice, management would do below the bare minimum required by law. Despite leadership’s counsel insisting otherwise, the National Labor Relations Act holds that it is the employer’s burden to prove if someone’s not union-eligible. Seeing leadership aim to disqualify as many people as possible led those very same people to learn about their rights in the face of retaliation and investigation. What began as a threat became a lucky opportunity—we had sessions addressing the concerns of unit members and invited members from our sister unions to share our experiences, commiserate in frustrations and to see parallels in how management responded to union organizing in different workplaces.

The collective energy brewing after the unit clarification hearing spilled over into a subsequent series of internal actions. Two months before the hearing, we had sent leadership yet another counter-proposal to a proposal from a week earlier that had been rejected by union members. On July 13, more than three months later, management finally responded, rejecting nearly all of our demands with little to no explanation. They refused a proposed equitable labor committee, rejected the idea of having union representation on the organization’s board, declined to codify holidays into the contract and denied our demand of maintaining flexible PTO. The only movement was the doubling of a one-time stipend (from $100 to $200) for multilingual employees that did translation work internally. Union members were enraged, hurt and disillusioned. Our private Slack channels for observers had “several people are typing” blinking constantly as leadership presented their offer without further explanation. Soon after receiving the proposal document, Matthew Bernius, a long-time researcher at Code for America, made the chance discovery that the document’s tracked changes revealed that management had made these changes no more than two days ago despite having months to respond—a shocking degree of delay shown through nothing but Microsoft Word. This behavior from leadership activated more folks who were on the fence, making clear leadership’s resistance to closing the union contract. Even more egregiously, Code for America’s counsel demanded a vote shortly after providing us with the document—a demand that, legally speaking, could only be made by the bargaining committee.

As if via collective alchemy, our anger with management’s response transmuted into a campaign. Workers were eager to demonstrate their solidarity and challenge leadership’s claims that they operated with innate knowledge of the needs of workers—claims made ridiculous by their lack of communication and constant circumventing of the bargaining committee. Workers decided to collectively speak in a very risky way and remind management who had previously disagreed with these terms. We had no way of knowing how this would turn out. We, 69 workers, delivered our collective frustration and broke through the narrative that management was pushing.




What ended up happening was amazing: more coworkers ended up celebrating each others’ bravery, found moments to expand on what they enjoyed about one another and we saw what happens when we bring a truer sense of self, a humane sense, to a workplace: people demand better for each other. The members of the union held their bosses accountable, directly highlighting how leadership’s actions were slowing down bargaining itself. Unit members even crafted comics to explain the arc of the campaign in an effort to keep everyone in the loop and fight internal anti-union sentiment.



Management did reply to our messaging—but they did so in a tone-deaf and flat way, responding to our personal frustration with a faceless email account. Some members of management decided to target members directly; one sent an email explicitly calling me out in reaction to my tweets bringing attention to management’s lack of authenticity in their communications; another insinuated that my vocality has led to more contention at the organization. Ignoring the racial undertones of the conversation, this did not land well for observers of the email thread as it was a clear derailing of the point of the action. By directly targeting me, it reinforced the view that management was focusing less on contract ratification and more on spurring discontent among workers.

In talking to other people outside the organization who were watching these events, either on social media or via our parent union’s newsletter, it became clear that they were confused over why an organization that professed pride in helping people seemed to be so resistant to doing so internally. Our situation, with its divide between the lofty goals of the organization and its failures in practice, drew an easy parallel with the dissatisfaction people had with the broader political mood. Federal programs that had provided life-changing aid to the American public during the early stages of the Covid-19 Pandemic like the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit lapsed under Biden’s administration; CfA shuttered the Brigade Network, the nation-wide support network for thousands of volunteers that introduced me to the very concept of civic tech when I first moved to Oakland in 2015. It was clear that if we didn’t fight for something, we’d lose even more. This mirroring of behavior was, in some perverse way, lucky—two parallel guttings happening at the same time, using the same language and for similar (economic) reasons, showing people excuses as well as actions. Each moment, especially after that campaign, made it clear that when we stood together, workers won more. There’s no amount of reading, lecturing nor training that could have prepared me or my colleagues for what went down there.

Even after Code for America’s management began laying us off in September 2023, as announced directly by the CEO and on the organization’s blog in a bargaining meeting, people still stepped up to figure out how they could help. Having people willing to help is a thing organizers dream of and is always considered a lucky moment: it’s extremely fortunate when management makes the case to take action for you.

It quickly became obvious that management hadn't anticipated how we responded to their proposals, from the email action to long Slack threads of support. They had been banking on the social capital they had accrued internally, the implicit power they hold as what philosopher Elizabeth Anderson refers to as a private government. In their view, the mere act of attending the meeting was enough to demonstrate their good faith. Instead, they inadvertently made the union’s case clear: that if we do not push, we will not receive; that if we choose not to speak, we will never be heard. Frankly, it was a fortunate break: some behaviors had to be demonstrated in order for others to believe. Just as I grew up understanding: if I can feel it, it’s real.

This leads me to believe that luck, despite often being treated like something that’s given to people or some force of the cosmos, can be manufactured—and prepared for. When it’s something that requires the behavior of another to align with your goals (in this case, management demonstrating a form of bad-faith bargaining), then it becomes more clear how to prepare for such an environment. It also becomes important to have the community ready to receive such a situation. We did what we could. When members disagreed with decisions made by the committees, they’d hold conversations in the open or directly to communicate their needs—going as far as producing documents that we used and cited at the table. Others spent their free time crafting blog posts for the union’s site or calling other members to inform them of changes in the process. Being able to use these moments allowed us to share stories and inspire more workers in the tech industry to firstly understand that we are the workers in this process: software engineers like myself, but also product managers, interns, designers, researchers, office managers, human resource workers, executive assistants—anyone who isn’t in a direct position to have control over someone’s ability to fend for themselves. There’s a lot of hope that more lucky breaks like this will happen in 2024 for tech organizing; as 2023 closed, Code for America workers ended up obtaining their first union contract. And with more space for workers to understand their place in the space, I’m very hopeful that many other lucky workers will get theirs as well.

headshot of Jacky Alcine


Jacky Alcine

When not reading, Jacky works as a software engineer and community organizer in Tampa, Florida. He's worked at big and small places and learned a lot about people at each turn. He's pretty Online and enjoys blogging on his website.

headshot of Jacob Sujin Kuppermann


Jacob Sujin Kuppermann

Jacob is the Editor-in-Chief of Kernel Magazine Issue 4, which is the magazine you are currently reading. They are also a member of the Reboot Editorial Board, a writer and editor at The Long Now Foundation, an environmental scientist, and avid hobbyist baker.