INTERVIEW: 'Spotify is going to find that a union deal is a competitive advantage'

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INTERVIEW: 'Spotify is going to find that a union deal is a competitive advantage'
Henry Catalini Smith is the chair of the Unionen club at Spotify. Photo: Freddy Billqvist/Unionen

When three Swedish unions formally contacted Spotify to request a collective bargaining agreement on Wednesday, it marked the end of six months of activism for Henry Catalini Smith, the British head of Spotify Workers, the company's Unionen club. He tells The Local how it came about.


"I was smiling like a mad person all day," Catalini Smith, a Spotify engineer based in Malmö, told The Local. "If it was up to me, we'd have done this a month ago, so I've been sort of holding my breath, bouncing up and down in my seat, wanting to get this get to this moment. For me, it was a huge relief and just a massive, massive, happy moment." 

While the layoffs Spotify announced at the end of January have done a lot to pave the way for the unions' decision, Catalini Smith had actually started the ball rolling back in November when he started a channel titled kollektivavtal, or "Collective Agreement" in Spotify's corporate messaging board on Slack. 


The spark was another channel pushing for Spotify's management to offer a wellness allowance, or friskvårdsbidrag, using a Swedish law which allows companies to offer employees up to 5,000 kronor to spend on health and wellness as a tax-free perk. 

"I started looking at that thread and thinking how these people are going to do an open letter with a bunch of signatures, and that that wasn't going to work because the company was looking to cut operating expenses," he remembers. "We need to negotiate instead and think of something that we'd be willing to trade, and I was thinking, 'we can't have that conversation in the form of an open letter'." 


He started on a Friday by contacting colleagues on LinkedIn about unionising, but soon decided to up the stakes. 

"By the Monday, I was like, 'screw this, we're going public', and I made a channel in Slack called kollektivavtal and it had a hundred people after about a day and since then its grown to be I think, the third or fourth biggest channel in Slack, with maybe 2,000 people. It's really kicked off." 

More than 700 Spotify employees have since joined Unionen along while more than 100 joining each of the Engineers of Sweden and Akavia unions, meaning a majority of employees are now union members. 

Spotify's management in Sweden have not done anything to try and suppress the channel.

"Fair play to them on this, they stayed out of it. They left it to us, which I think is the right thing to do," Catalini Smith recalls. "They haven't tried to stop us. You hear about in America, these meetings they have, these consultants they bring in. They play these silly games. And it's not really the way things are done in Sweden. They've become a bit of an American company in some ways over the years, but they've held on to some core Swedish values." 

All the indications are, he says, that after a few weeks, Spotify will enter into negotiations with Unionen, Engineers of Sweden, and Akavia, and, after a series of meetings, strike a deal later this year. 

Catalini Smith suspects the company may simply join TechSverige, the tech industry trade body, and sign up to the standard collective bargaining agreement it already has in place with unions. 

"They've made a couple of statements internally in the company welcoming us. So it's looking really promising." 


While Catalini Smith himself has had to work hard to promote union membership within Spotify, he acknowledges that there is no way a majority of employees would be unionised by now without the voluntary redundancy programme. 

"When I started this in November, obviously, the plan was [based around] no layoffs and my expectation was that to get to the point where we're at today was going to require a year, maybe 18 months, of fairly hard organising work," he says. "The silver lining from the layoffs is that it's cut that time down quite significantly. By my calculations, we got about a year of growth in about a week." 

The layoff announcement completely rocked the company, he says. 

"In the week or two after they were announced, barely an hour of work got done worldwide at Spotify, because everyone was just knocked flat on their ass by the shock of it," he reports. "In fairness to the poor people in HR, even if you do it in the maximum 'Swedish' way, it's still going to suck for everyone." 

He has himself been moved to more junior position with a 20 percent pay cut, in an area where his niche skills are not properly used, deciding to opt for that instead of redundancy mainly so that he could complete his efforts to unionise. 

"It's been really rough. But what I've seen now is people are starting starting to recover psychologically," he says.

"The news this week on the collective bargaining agreement feels like a punctuation mark at the end of the layoffs part of the year," he says. "It's like a healing thing where we're collaborating with the company instead of feeling like we're fighting with them." 


As far as he's concerned, if Spotify becomes one of the first big tech companies to strike a collective bargaining agreement it will continue its history as an industry trailblazer, following on from the widely copied Spotify Model -- which replaced teams with a more agile system of tribes and squads -- and its move to a remote-work policy in 2021.

Indeed, Catalini Smith believes a collective bargaining agreement would help the company at least as much as it helps its employees. 

"Once you sign a collective agreement in Sweden, it's not as if it makes redundancies harder to implement. In some ways it makes them easier, because once you have these formal lines of negotiation, you don't have to get into these silly fights, and it tends to go a lot more smoothly." 

Tech workers tend to identify strongly with the companies where they work and want them to have the flexibility and manoeuverability to stay competitive, he adds, meaning Sweden's future tech unions are likely to be even more cooperative with company management than those in other industries. 

"The thing about the collective agreement is that in the long run what Spotify is going to find out is that it's actually a competitive advantage," he believes. "There's going to be such a boost to the employer brand to be one of the companies that embraces all of this. It's going to be a differentiator from the likes of Apple and Amazon who've made arseholes of themselves because they've tried to fight this. Spotify is going to look forward-thinking and it's going to be attractive." 


In Sweden, the tech and start-up sector is an anomaly, the only industry which is not yet fully unionised, so it's perhaps surprising that the drive to unionise at Spotify has come from a British rather than a Swedish employee, and that the Swedish unions have so far failed to make many inroads.  

Catalini Smith believes that Sweden's unions historically haven't understood how to sell the idea to Spotify's mainly international workforce. 

"Spotify is a bit of a weird case because so many of the people at Spotify are immigrants who have moved to Sweden to work there," he says. "There's a different structure and tone that the message needs when you're speaking to immigrants versus Swedes when it comes to like promoting collective bargaining, so in the past when Unionen has tried to set up meetings at Spotify, it's kind of fallen a bit flat". 

When selling the idea of a collective agreement foreigners in Sweden, Catalini Smith tends to focus on the guaranteed annual salary increase, transparency around salary bands, and also the role that unions in Sweden have had in giving the country's workers the high quality of life that they enjoy. 


While he, himself is married to a Swede and speaks, reads and writes Swedish, he says that he tries to deal with Unionen in English to help them improve their ability to coordinate with international workers. Sweden's unions are improving rapidly, he believes, with more and more of the content on Unionen's website available in English. 

He sees the effort he is making to get a collective agreement as part of a path to simultaneously making both himself and the company he works for more 'Swedish'. 

"I've been in Sweden close on seven years and am still not feeling really connected to the place, and I just got the idea in my head that this whole thing with a collective bargaining agreement is normal here, but we don't have one at Spotify. So I'm a bit of an outsider in the country, but so is Spotify, and it's kind of a way for me and the company to go together and become more Swedish in the same time." 

He sees his home country, the UK, as "a dump" compared to Sweden when it comes to quality of life. 

"Over time, I've come to realise that part of what has made Sweden that way is decades and decades of strong union power," he says. "In the UK in the 80s, [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher kind of crushed the union movement, and that didn't happen here, so it's a sort of an alternative future where there's no Thatcher and things are good."


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