Illustration of hands holding picket signs
By Greg Shook Illustration by The Project Twins

A new book examines how tech workers can develop the strategic capacity and economic leverage necessary to defend against the threat of job loss.

Growing up the child of computer programmers in San Francisco, political science professor Sid Rothstein witnessed firsthand how the tech industry changed the dynamics of his city and economies around the world. Then, as a student at Reed College and the University of Pennsylvania, he examined how the booming economic growth during the dot-com bubble did little, if anything, to shield tech workers from mass layoffs. “Even though tech workers generally earn a lot of money, they don’t have a lot of power, and that really stuck with me,” says Rothstein, whose current research focuses on the politics of digital transformation. He seeks to explain how the transition to the knowledge economy reshapes relationships of power and patterns of inequality in different countries.

In his latest book, Recoding Power: Tactics for Mobilizing Tech Workers (Oxford University Press, 2022), Rothstein examines headline-making mass layoffs at IBM Burlington, IBM San José, Infineon and Siemens. The case studies show how workers succeeded and/or fell short in their efforts to “develop creative tactics to ‘recode’ management’s discursive techniques for control, transforming them from obstacles into resources for collective action,” as the publisher’s website states. “One of the arguments I’m trying to make is that if we want to understand capitalism and potentially change it, we need to think a lot more about the workplace,” Rothstein says.

He shared insights from his research and teaching with Williams Magazine.

What can be learned from the tech sector when it comes to understanding workplace structure?

Starting around 2014, I began trying to figure out how it is that tech workers can establish more horizontal democratic governance—flatter organizational structures that provide greater employee autonomy—in the workplace. Much of my work comes across as being critical of tech, which is maybe unavoidable when you study mass layoffs. But there’s a lot about the sector that is also admirable. One example is that some of the management practices in tech are more effective than those in other sectors. One of the most difficult challenges we face as humans is figuring out how to work together in an effective way. And some tech firms have figured it out, at least for a period of time. I was particularly interested in that, not just for organizational effectiveness but also for the democratic elements of these organizations. Especially when it comes to innovative processes, horizontal structures and environments where people feel free to share their ideas and work their ideas out collaboratively really are effective in fostering creative organizations that adapt and come up with new ideas.

How does your book intersect with your teaching?

A common thread through my teaching and the book is trying to connect the macro level and the micro level and to illustrate the ways in which we can exercise agency over our lives in the context of capitalism. I teach a tutorial, Silicon Valley: Digital Transformation and Democracy, that explores the tensions between Silicon Valley and a conception of what democracy could be in the contemporary moment. Some of those tensions are at the macro level. The Silicon Valley model for economic growth leads, in many cases, to economic inequality, which is corrosive of what we understand as being democracy. We also look at the workplace to try to figure out what are the working conditions associated with tech in different countries. I also teach a course called The Firm that puts the firm at the center of our analyses of contemporary political economy, and that comes directly out of the book. The workplace and the point of production are where a lot of the power relations unfold that shape overall firm behavior, macroeconomic trends and the everyday ways that we experience capitalism.

What do you hope people will learn from reading Recoding Power?

Ultimately, I hope that it helps workers in every sector exercise power. I want those who don’t generally see themselves as workers—for example, professionals who might feel they have more of an equal relationship with their managers—to learn from the experience of these tech workers who did push back when facing the threat of mass layoffs. They realized that they’re in an employment relationship, and the only way that they can protect their rights and their working conditions is by organizing. One of the big takeaways of the book is that economic determinism is not a fact about the world but a belief that is constructed. If workers have access to their firm’s economic data, they don’t have to take managers at their word that cutting jobs is unavoidable; they can run the analyses themselves and see that there are alternatives. Even in the face of serious economic challenges, we don’t have to shed all these workers. We can retain the workforce.