FOCUS for Community Change

Through the Humanities Engage Summer Immersive Fellowship, I have been able to secure funding for an immersive with FOCUS, a joint project of the United Steelworkers’ Federation of Tech Workers and WH Digital. This has been an amazing opportunity to build an understanding of what goes into a labor organizing campaign and how the skills I am developing in my PhD program can be leveraged to effect real change in communities outside academia.

Broadly speaking, the project is looking to connect with workers in the Pittsburgh area who participate in the gig economy; to learn how these workers view themselves and their place in the broader labor ecosystem; and, finally, to identify the needs of this population in the workplace. When most people hear the phrase “gig economy,” jobs in the tech (and tech-adjacent) sector are not what come to mind. After all, we are all being told to learn to code because that is where the steady employment and the good pay are, right? The reality of the tech sector labor landscape is rather more complex. While there are many full-time positions available, it is not uncommon to work freelance or to be hired with a company through a temp agency as a contractor. Many tech workers are some combination of full-time employee, freelancer, and contractor. As such, learning Python is not necessarily a guaranteed ticket to a 401(k) and a great salary.

In my time working with FOCUS thus far, I have begun developing a survey to be sent out to gig workers, broadly defined, in the Pittsburgh area. We would like to see what they identify as pros and cons of their employment situations. Once we have gathered enough data to generate a clear picture, I will begin to sift through it to identify common concerns and themes. From there, I will be able to put together a report that can communicate the contours of this community, its needs and desires, and the ways that collective action might be able to address these things. In addition to this, I have started to pull together a kind of literature review, from which I can also produce a report, that will detail organizing efforts among gig workers nationally—the workplace changes that they have sought, the motions that have passed, strategies that have worked, who among this group of workers has successfully organized, etc. In order to begin thinking locally, it helps to have a big picture in mind.

Overall, this project has been a perfect opportunity for me to learn more about what it looks like to work in the field of labor rights and organizing in the US, something which has been of personal interest to me for quite a while, and how the skills I have acquired in the Slavic Languages & Literatures PhD program at Pitt could be put to use in this field. My research, analysis, and storytelling skills have certainly come in handy for each of the tasks that I mention above. My dissertation research centers on the labor philosophy of two early Soviet theorists, one of whom was also a steelworker and pre-revolutionary union organizer. In doing that work, I find myself sifting through tons of manuals on proper workbench setup and the most optimal movements for operating a lathe; it becomes my job to extract the meaning that lies in between the lines in these documents and to explain the philosophy of labor contained within them. It has been extremely exciting to see how this sort of work can, in fact, have real-world applications, and the skills I have acquired in doing it could be put to use in improving working conditions and defending workers’ rights in the US today.

Felix Helbing
Slavic Languages and Literatures
July 2021

Learn about all the Pitch Your Own Summer Immersive Fellows and Curated Immersive Summer Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.