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.
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.
Global, creative and expansive. The gaming industry has been hailed as a success story, with new records broken year after year. Many Swedish companies have made a mark on the world market, while continuing to grow at home. But behind the scenes, the industry faces a number of challenges. For some who work there, the price has been high.
“I hear horror stories about how bad things are at some companies – from systemic exploitation of interns to pushing people so hard that they burn out. It makes me angry. How can you continue to exploit people in that way?” says Petter Karlsson, chairman of the local trade union branch at Toca Boca.
When we meet, he has just come back from a few days of absence nursing his own cold as well as looking after a sick child. “My child started nursery school a few months ago, so I knew this would happen. It’s not great, but I’m pleased that I work for a company that understands what it’s like. Taking time to drop off and pick up my child at nursery, as well as taking dependency days is not a problem.”
50 million players per month
Karlsson has worked at Toca Boca for almost eight years. He has long had a great interest in games, both board games and role-playing games, but despite an education in game design, he worked with other things for several years. “I did fear that my interest would fade when my hobby became a job, but I ended up working for the company of my dreams, and still enjoy it.”
Toca Boca makes games for children and has around 50 million players per month. “It’s not just a paper product, the company has real values and believes in the inherent power of play. We also work a lot with inclusion, and our characters come in all shapes and colours – everyone should feel included.”
One of few that has a collective agreement
One reason he enjoys working for his employer is that they offer decent conditions, as the company is one of the few in the industry with a collective agreement. “That’s perhaps because we started as a project within our previous owner Bonnier.”
Even though the Swedish computer games industry today is an export success with thousands of employees, it suffers from teething problems. There have been reports of everything from sexual harassment to unacceptable overtime – sometimes because it’s embedded in the culture and sometimes because the shareholders expect a product to be released on a certain day. “Rushing to release a game before it’s ready could easily disappoint the players, which is stressful for the developers. Then, fixing the bugs in a hurry means that already tired staff have to work even harder. It becomes a vicious circle.”
“Ironically, even the companies lose out. The absence of an employee, regardless of whether it is due to stress-related illness or departure from the company, means that unique competence is lost. It also means that remaining colleagues have to work even harder, which in turn increases the risk of illness. It is neither financially clever nor morally decent.”
Sustainable companies where people stay
Karlsson believes that the solution is to build sustainable companies. Getting involved in a trade union has been a way for him to not just sit and wait for change. “It took a long time before I got my act together and joined the union. But once I became a member, I realised that if we have a collective agreement, maybe we should have a health and safety representative as well. And why not set up a local branch?”
The local branch was formed in 2017, and Karlsson was elected chairman. Both he and the company embarked on an educational journey. Amongst other things, Karlsson had to take a computer course about basic trade union work. “That put flesh on the bones, and I learned a lot about our rights as well as our chances to influence. I have benefited with regards to my own workplace, and have also been able to help friends who work for other companies,” he says and adds with a laugh: “the course was good, although as a game developer I can see that it had development potential.”
Since then, they have worked at finding good ways to cooperate. He says that the trade union does not always agree with the employer, and vice versa. “But both have understood the advantage of happy employees. It’s great when the company listens to our suggestions and makes actual improvements. One example is when we were hit with the pandemic and got the company to remove the rule of an unpaid first day of sickness. Surely, they did not want people to come in if they were ill and could infect others?”
Satisfying to change things for the better
Communication improves when both the company and the branch members have confidence in the trade union. “When members feel they can talk about unsatisfactory conditions and we raise the matter with the employer and the situation changes – yes, that is very satisfying.”
Communication works both ways. “Of course, the company can get information through various surveys, but sometimes the local union becomes aware of issues that don’t always come to light in these.”
When asked what the most difficult thing about being chairman is, Karlsson replies that it is not always being able to be there for staff when he himself has a lot on his plate.
Benefits you don't risk losing
Yes, Karlsson believes that collective agreements are essential for the industry to carry on growing. “The gaming companies are crying out for good people, and some key skills are really hard to find. Having decent conditions can be a way to attract people.”
He adds that thinking there is no need for a collective agreement because one’s benefits are great already is a misconception, as they can basically be withdrawn overnight. “And there is nothing that prevents a company from offering more than what is stated in the collective agreement, such as improving benefits or even raising salaries. They just can’t offer less than what is agreed.”
3 good things about being an elected official:
1. The meaningfulness. It feels good to do something useful.
2. The branch colleagues. At times, the meetings are really enjoyable, like when we manage to overcome problems and find solutions.
3. The ongoing training. When we solve problems, ask Unionen for guidance or take courses, we learn more about our rights, which feels rewarding.
3 good things about forming a local union branch:
1. A stronger voice. By gathering our members’ opinions, they become stronger. Queries and issues rise to the surface and can be answered.
2. Easier to influence. Being a unifying force and counterpart to the employer is an incredibly good way of influencing, instead of just watching changes happen.
3. The bigger picture. We are a part of the trade unions’ achievements, rights that we take for granted in Sweden. And we have to continue, on every level, so that we don’t lose these rights, and fight for further improvements in the future.