The Once and Future Labor Movement

My name is Felix Helbing, and I am a fourth year PhD candidate in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. My dissertation is on the labor philosophies of early Soviet theorists Aleksei Gastev and Aleksandr Bogdanov, each of whom was interested, in different ways, in the interaction of technology and the body in labor. With the contemporary labor ecosystem being what it is—technology becoming ever more integrated into our jobs, even those that supposedly have nothing to do with tech—the work of these two theorists is more relevant than ever.

 Thanks to the Humanities Engage Immersive Summer Fellowship, I was able to work with FOCUS, a joint project of the United Steelworkers’ Federation of Tech Workers and WH Digital, designed to investigate how freelance tech and creative workers in the Pittsburgh area might benefit from collective action. As part of the immersive, I helped the team to design a survey that could be circulated among attendees of an event for local tech workers and creatives. The main goal of this phase of the project was twofold: firstly, to connect with this population in a way that it would find relevant, useful, and fun (hence the event); and, secondly, to ask people directly what they value about the work they do and what aspects of it are challenging, with room to improve.

Due to COVID restrictions, the event had to be postponed, and my project changed somewhat. Many workers these days could be said to fall into some category of gig worker, broadly defined—that is to say, temp workers, independent contractors, freelancers, app-based workers, etc. Many workers in this type of employment struggle with low wages, unreasonable workloads, lack of health insurance, and so on. Nonetheless, many freelancers, as in tech, for example, also make great money, and so the traditional incentives for joining a union—such as pay raises—are not a draw for them. What could possibly bring together workers with such varied interests?

In lieu of working directly with the survey data, I put together a sort of literature review that organizers coming on to the project after this summer will be able to use to get a general lay of the land when it comes to gig worker organizing. Furthermore, I conceived of this document as an effort to, firstly, identify populations of workers currently left out of discussions of gig work (i.e., e-commerce customer service specialists); secondly, indicate (inter-)national trends in freelance organizing; and, finally, pinpoint the common concerns these workers identify as pain points in their work.

In the course of putting together this review, three core concerns repeatedly surfaced amongst both high and low wage-earners. Many of these workers highlighted a lack of community as a persistent negative of their jobs—this was particularly true of those working remotely or doing app-based jobs—and reporting a feeling of intense isolation where they were atomized in relation to the employer. They secondly pointed out a lack of transparency in company hierarchies, promotion structures, and so on. This led to a persistent sense that these employees were sequestered on an island of their own, with no opportunities to advance within the company. They mentioned an acute sense of their own precarity, and a feeling that they were practically working for a different (lesser) business than their fulltime corporate peers. Lastly, all workers, regardless of their level of compensation or subfield, identified discrimination and harassment as a huge issue, one that was not adequately handled by company HR departments. All of these observations help to paint a picture of what role an initiative like FOCUS could take in improving working conditions for these groups.

Although many of the circumstances are quite different (the US in 2021 is not, after all, post-revolutionary Russia), working with FOCUS helped me to get a better idea of how a union and its partners structure their concerns. Worker welfare and interests must be at the center of all organizing and outreach efforts, and it requires a great deal of research and negotiation to determine what these interests are. While on the one hand, this may seem obvious, in my work it can be easy to get lost in the labor theory that Gastev and Bogdanov wrote, wherein they wax poetic about establishing a collectivist society in which industrial labor and art are one and the same thing. At the core of these theories is a sincere desire to improve the lives of Soviet workers—who, at the time these two were writing, faced food shortages, lost wages, the authoritarian pressure of the government to break the power of skilled labor, etc.—and so, when this idea is kept at the forefront of my mind, their theories acquire a different cadence. The more esoteric musings on collective subjectivity extend from the straightforward question of how to make workers’ lives better.

The work I did with the immersive fellowship has prompted me to reconsider the focus of my own research, grounding it now more firmly in the realities of Soviet life in the early 1920s and looking far more closely at how these conditions influenced the philosophies of Gastev and Bogdanov, and to what end.

Felix Helbing
Slavic Languages and Literatures
September 2021

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