Alibaba's co-founder recently wrote an op-ed explaining why he expects tech workers to work 996 (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) and why he treats participation in this measurement as a sign of whether workers are "passionate" about their jobs.

Now, I could cite numerous academic studies showing that consistently working long hours creates errors and do-overs, massively increases health problems, and only benefits billionaires and the investment class.

But instead--bear with me here--I'll relate a conversation I had with a tech worker a couple of weeks ago.

"Tristan" is an expert in computer animation lighting effects, a technical discipline that requires years to master. He has been a team leader in prestigious and big-money-earning Disney content like Moana, Coco, and Ralph Breaks the Internet. As a point of comparison, if Tristan were working in a software company or a gaming development company, he'd be the equivalent of a lead designer and coder.

Tristan recently took a new position at DreamWorks doing lighting design and R&D for an animated television show based on one of the company's most popular film franchises. After he'd worked there a week, I asked him how it was going. The conversation went like this:

  • Me: So, Tris, how do you like your new job?
  • Tristan: Well, I've been pretty busy. We're behind schedule so I'm putting in 12-hour days.
  • Me: You need to set some boundaries, dude. They're ripping you off.
  • Tristan: How do you figure?
  • Me: Do the math! If they're paying you 40 hours a week and you're working 72, that's almost a 50 percent cut in pay.
  • Tristan: Uh...Geoff, I belong to a union so I get paid overtime. When I work long hours, I get a huge paycheck.

After I picked myself off the floor, I remembered that Hollywood--unlike Silicon Valley--is a union town.

Despite the fact that there are millions of people clamoring to work in Hollywood, most workers belong to unions, thereby ensuring that Hollywood billionaires and investors don't increase profits--and reduce the number of workers--by arm-twisting employees into working unpaid overtime.

The Hollywood unions--and the many benefits they've created--didn't happen automatically. They required union organizing and strikes that damaged the ability of Hollywood to make money. And, amazingly, all that was accomplished at a time when the fanciest technology consisted of a telephone and a mimeograph machine.

And it worked, even though the product that the strikes delayed was only entertainment--a luxury good rather than something that people need to live. 

Fast-forward to today.

High-tech products--software and hardware--are absolutely crucial to the functioning of the entire world economy. Finances, military, commerce, manufacturing, agriculture, and everything else depends entirely upon high-tech workers doing their jobs and doing them well.

So consider: If high-tech workers went on strike (to, say, demand paid overtime), it would bring the entire world to its knees within 24 hours. Furthermore, high-tech workers have social media, which makes organizing unions and strikes incredibly simple. 

Imagine a world where huge and hugely profitable high-tech companies have to pay double-time or time-and-a-half to anybody who works more than 40 hours in a week. Hiring more workers then becomes a way to save labor costs. Additional hiring decreases the supply of trained workers, thereby increasing the average worker's salary.

Given the huge amounts of revenue involved, high-tech companies would still remain profitable. (Hollywood isn't exactly dying on the vine due to unionization.) However, a greater percentage of the money in high-tech would go into the pockets of workers rather than merely uptick billionaires' net worth.

So there it is. Jack Ma thinks the most powerful people in the world--high-tech workers--are so stupid that they haven't the slightest inkling that they can totally call the shots and get whatever they want. 

And frankly, until high-tech workers use social media to unionize and organize general strikes, he's probably right.

Published on: Apr 15, 2019
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