Our goal is a collective agreement

The tech industry is known for its cool offices and generous perks. But a few years ago, Henry Catalini Smith at Spotify realised that the company does not offer the basic job security that nine out of ten Swedes enjoy. Now he is fighting for the employees to get a collective agreement.

Detta är ett innehåll från Unionen Opinion.

Publicerad 23 feb. 2023

Henry Catalini Smith, chairman of the local trade union branch at Spotify
Henry Catalini Smith, chairman of the local trade union branch at Spotify   Photo: Freddy Billqvist 

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In the same week that Spotify announced that the company was laying off six percent of its workforce, a trade union was formed at the company. The first meeting was attended by nearly 130 people, and Henry Catalini Smith was elected chairman. “I wanted to connect with Sweden more, and what’s more Swedish than unions? Now it feels like I was born to do this”, he laughs.

Born and raised in Britain, Catalini Smith had no previous experience of trade unions. “Absolutely none. Zero. We don’t really have unions in the UK any more, the Thatcher era more or less destroyed them. We have individualism and suffering instead.”

As a young man, he had a negative view of trade unions. “They were seen as a dying concept, like big, ineffective organisations from the past, kind of a joke. I’m from the Liverpool area, so as a child I often heard about strikes but not so often about workers actually winning. So, what was the point of striking?”

In 2016, Catalini Smith got the job as Senior Software Engineer at Spotify and moved to Stockholm. “The best thing about the company is the vibrant community. I left the company to work somewhere else for a while, but I really missed the people at Spotify, the network of all the colourful, creative people.” Another thing that impressed him early on was all the benefits that Spotify offers. “Like the paid parental leave. In many countries it’s something you wouldn’t even dare to dream about.”

At the same time, the company does not have a collective agreement, and thus does not offer all the basics benefits that nine out of ten employees in Sweden have. “Our benefits are good, but we have nowhere near the influence over them we’d have through a collective bargaining agreement. The company decides. It’s like a parent-child relationship, where the grown-up decides if you get a Playstation or an Xbox.”

They’re not getting rid of the union leaders that easily

He started thinking along these lines a few years ago. Last autumn, he read articles about Sen Kanner at Klarna, who unexpectedly became chairman of a newly started trade union branch, and about their fight for a collective agreement. That autumn, Catalini Smith suggested they start a branch at Spotify, and in the December of that year, they booked a meeting to be held in January. But then the bomb dropped: Spotify was cutting staff. Catalini Smith was one of those who was offered redundancy. “Initially it was quite frightening. You start wondering: Why me? Was it because I didn’t smile at the boss last week? Or that I’ve been home with a sick kid too often? The last-in first-out rule has more of a logic to it, whereas this process is psychologically quite tough.”

He recalled Sen Kenner, who had also been offered redundancy — and turned it down — and says he was empowered by her story. “I felt I had to pay it forward. You can’t get rid of union leaders that easily.”

The weeks since then have been intense, and it’s not over yet. According to Catalini Smith, many of Spotify’s employees come from other countries, and a dismissal can mean a lost work permit and thus a lost right to stay in Sweden. “As you can understand, this stirs up some strong emotions. I’ve been busy, I’ve cried a lot, but it also feels great to be able to help people. I’m proud of what we have done so far.”

Many are unsure of how a local Unionen branch can help. “Yes, people wonder about their rights. What can I expect from HR? How do I negotiate properly? Had this happened a year ago, everyone would have been disorganised and isolated, on their own with their questions. Instead we’ve been able to gather answers to give to our members. It evens out the balance of power between employer and employee a bit.”

The goal is a collective agreement

The long-term goal for the branch at Spotify is to get a collective agreement in place. “Staff influence grows quite significantly then, and I feel excited and optimistic about this. If it was up to me, we’d already be negotiating a collective agreement!”

One valid question is how the employer would benefit. “As it is now, there are always lists going around to collect signatures for ideas such as how the share scheme should work, or what we should buy in for the office. Poor HR have to deal with all these suggestions and decide what to do about them. With a collective agreement in place, the process becomes more structured. We would have periods when we negotiate, and periods when we just work.”

Another goal is to provide new employees with a kit of basic information. “I would like to create a welcome package, with tips for a safer future. As I said, many come from abroad, so just being advised to join an unemployment benefit fund would be good. Or getting information about LAS – the employment security law. Very useful when there are redundancies.”

Don’t be late to the party!

“There is a lot happening in the tech industry right now”, he says. The industry has been known for its special, somewhat “cool” terms and conditions to attract people. But in times of uncertainty, employees become more interested in basic security – and more and more are joining the union. The branches at Spotify and Klarna already collaborate, support each other and exchange experiences. “However, we want to hear from more union representatives, and form a network. The more of us, the stronger we become.”

When asked what he would say to people who hesitate in joining the union because of the cost, Catalini Smith replies: “The Spotify model was one of the most exciting tech industry trends of the last decade, with ‘squads’ (small teams), ‘tribes’ and autonomy. Many new employees have heard about that, but didn’t get to be a part of developing it. Now I think it’s time to write the next chapter, and develop a new Spotify model. So, don't be late to the party! If you join now, you can say you helped shape the future.”

Top three things about being elected official:

1. It feels good to help people. So many people text me just to say thank you, it’s amazing!

2. You learn a lot. I have never learned so much so quickly, about leadership, laws and employment regulations. I’ll be ready to be a CEO soon!

3. The people you meet. There are values in this culture that attract a certain type of person. When you get involved, you join a new network with some great people.