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Tech Workers Need to Keep Organizing

JS Chen

Despite their often-high salaries, tech workers are workers. And like any other kind of worker, to advocate for their interests on the job, they need to get organized.

Google employees walk off the job to protest the company's handling of sexual misconduct claims, on November 1, 2018, in Mountain View, California. Mason Trinca / Getty

Tens of thousands of Google workers in over forty offices around the world recently walked off the job to protest their employer’s handling of sexual harassment claims. Collectively, they are demanding an end to Google’s culture that has fostered sexual harassment and abuse. Their demands not only include more transparency around harassment incidents but also a commitment to end gender inequities in pay and opportunity, among other issues in the company.

This protest against leadership in tech and others in recent years, signals a realization among tech workers that their interests and values differ vastly from those of their bosses, and that the only way to fight for their demands is to organize.

Today, the fight centers on the rampant sexism within these tech giants. But tech workers can and should fight the oppression and exploitation both within their companies and inflicted by their companies with the technology they build.

To do so, tech workers must first realize that they too, despite their often-high salaries and office perks, are workers. And like any other kind of worker, to advocate for their interests on the job, they need to get organized.

Why Some Tech Workers Don’t Think of Themselves as Workers

When we think of tech workers, we think of free pizza, table-tennis work breaks, casual attire, and six-figure salaries — hardly typical features of the working class in our minds. That’s no surprise: Americans typically think of income as synonymous to class. A large-enough paycheck qualifies you as part of America’s upper-middle class.

But this is the wrong approach to defining who is working class and who is not. Under capitalism, class is defined by one’s relationship to — and ownership of — the means of production. In tech, like any other industry, there are owners (the bosses, the executives, and the shareholders, who make money off workers’ labor) and there are workers (who can only survive by selling their labor).

Workers create more value for the owners than what it costs the owners to hire them. That additional value is then pocketed by the owners as profit.

For example, the average Apple engineer, who makes on the lower end of a six-figure salary, generates $1.9 million of revenue for Apple. This means that Apple gets about 10-20 times the monetary value per engineer than what it costs for to hire them.

Why is this class distinction so confusing for tech workers? Why is it that tech workers don’t think of themselves as “workers”?

One of the main reasons has to do with the conflation of tech bosses and tech workers. In the media, tech bosses speak on behalf of workers and are usually disguised, blending in with the same casual workplace attire to which most regular tech workers are accustomed. You see this all the time at tech conferences when execs, dressed casually in t-shirts and jeans, showcase implementations of new scenarios or use cases that are crafted by junior engineers. (Ironically, these demos usually are beyond the exec’s own technical depth to produce.)

Tech workers also conflate themselves with their bosses when they are led to believe that they too can be the next Zuckerberg and are just one good idea away from founding the next big startup. Hackathons, for example, in both corporate and academic settings, encourage this. Attendees are tasked with building a small project within a few days to then get on stage and pitch to a panel of judges. The performance is not dissimilar to a founder pitching to venture capitalists for funding.

As a result, many engineers take lower-paying jobs to work at startups in order to “get experience” and learn what it’s like to start their own company one day.

Even in large companies like Amazon or Google, product teams are encouraged to act like a startup, to the extent that most have bought into the “open office” concept (despite the fact that startups only use open offices because it’s a cheaper way to pack people into one space). At these large companies, engineers are coaxed into taking “ownership” or “driving” smaller components of a product (oftentimes components that don’t even matter), feeding the appetite of the founder-CEO inside of each tech worker.

In this environment, tech workers are strongly encouraged to think of themselves as future CEOs instead of wage laborers. For the ownership class, it’s a cunning but intentional mechanism. In the mindset of becoming a future company founder, tech workers are more than happy to work late hours and spend off-hours on online education platforms like Coursera, learning app development or data science — all in the name of self-improvement and “investing in themselves.”

But the reality is much less exciting. Despite their aspirations, most tech workers do not start companies. For those that do, over 97 percent of them fail before raising their first major round of funding, leaving founders burnt out and usually at a financial loss. Even between an early-stage startup and one that is raising hundreds of millions in funding, the failure rate still sits above the 80 percent mark.

The perks that tech workers enjoy also have a darker side, playing into the same ploy bosses use to extract as much value from their workers as possible. For many companies that provide free food, breakfast catering ends before 9 AM to encourage workers to get in the office early, while free dinners can only be reimbursed if they are delivered after 7 PM. The additional employee amenities such as nap rooms, showers, and pool tables blend together work and life, ruining any chance of attaining a balance between the two.

Of course, these perks do not apply to all workers in tech. Instead they only impact in-house tech workers whose jobs are to write code, design applications, and manage products. Equally important, however, are contract workers who consist of but are not limited to customer-service agents, security guards, janitors, and factory workers. Additionally, tech workers also include those with precarious employment who include Uber drivers and Mechanical Turkers. But unlike those working in-house, these contracted tech workers face much severe exploitation and abuse.

Why Should Tech Workers Care?

It is crucial to understand that tech workers, like other workers, are still subject to a high degree of exploitation from their employers.

While salaries have been relatively high for these in-house tech workers because their labor is in demand, we shouldn’t expect this to be permanent. Sooner or later, the labor supply for technical skills will catch up, and salaries will start to even out.

In the meantime, tech bosses will do what they can to lower wages and walk away with even more profit. Execs at major tech companies have been called out for colluding via anti-poaching schemes to suppress wages. As part of a longer-term strategy, these tech giants have also partnered with schools, supported coding bootcamps, and sponsored programs that teach minority youth groups to code. MicrosoftM/a> works with Girls Who Code. Google maintains a subdomain dedicated to computer science education.

Their goal in technology education is not to simply expand their consumer base to the youngest and most marginalized of our society, but to increase the labor supply of the future and subsequently drive down wages for decades to come.

Under capitalism, private corporations operate more similarly to dictatorships than democracies. Workers have little or no say in what they build or for whom. Any kind of dissent means putting your career at risk. The tech industry is no exception.

In the advent of artificial intelligence, the questions of what tech companies should build and for whom have been increasingly scrutinized. Surveillance systems for tracking factory workers, computer vision technology for drone weaponry, and facial recognition for immigration control are only a few projects to surface in headlines over the past few years. For the tech bosses, the objective is to maximize profits regardless of the ethical or political implications.

This happens systemically: shareholders put immense pressure on execs and upper management to maximize the bottom line, forcing them to be laser focused on optimizing next quarter’s financial report. As a result, their goals can be in direct conflict with those of tech workers who care about the humanity of the technology they build, or at the very least, care about having an opinion.

Organize and Fight Back

When it comes to making the decision of what to build and for whom, tech workers individually find themselves without a voice. What can be done to give workers the ability to make these decisions when their goals are often contrary to those of their bosses?

Google’s abandoned Project Maven provides a useful example. In 2017, Google worked with the US military on the project, an initiative to develop computer vision software that increases the efficacy of drone strikes. After months of pressure and backlash, Google execs formally called for the project’s termination.

Journalists celebrated Google for living out its “don’t be evil” motto after its decision to end the contract, quoting CEO Sundar Pichai about how “Google should not be in the business of war” as well as other statements positioning Google as a leader in the ethics of building AI products. But these headlines had it wrong: Pichai and other execs didn’t turn away a multimillion dollar contract with the military because of their moral high ground — they did it in response to the collective pressure that Google workers put on their leadership.

At first it was just employees from several different teams who knew about Project Maven, specifically teams from Google’s AI and cloud initiatives. They brought their disdain for the project in front of the head of Google’s cloud division, Diane Greene. Their concerns, however, were dismissed and execs showed no plans to slow down the project.

The Googlers then changed strategies and began sharing their knowledge about Project Maven broadly within the company. The post they shared on an internal Google message board blew up. Thousands of employees immediately expressed anger and betrayal, and called for the termination of the project. Diane Greene stepped in, hoping to placate employees by saying that the project was strictly for non-offensive purposes.

After seeing the overwhelming responses from employees throughout the company, the post’s writers were empowered to put even more pressure on the bosses. They understood the kind of leverage they could gain by banding together. Their next step was to write a letter calling for Project Maven’s termination, addressed directly to CEO Sundar Pichai. It was signed by thousands of employees.

In the following months, groups of Googlers across the globe teamed up to create new initiatives that would pressure their bosses. One group started to track and publish the number of resignations from Google because of Project Maven. Another group developed a methodology to get employees to ask specifically about Project Maven at every all-employees meeting. Googlers even started to get support from other tech workers, including the Tech Workers Coalition, who launched a petition externally.

Eventually, Google execs caved to the pressure, cancelling their contract for Project Maven. For many rank-and-file employees, these several months were a shocking realization that tech bosses held vastly different values than their own, prioritizing company profit over ethical concerns. It was also a light-bulb moment for many that unless organized, they were not the decision-makers in the company.

What About Unionizing?

Learning from Project Maven, those of us who work at these companies must ask ourselves: how can we as tech workers begin to organize?

The first step is to develop a collective voice that can pose a threat to the company’s bottom line. If a single Apple employee generates for Apple $1.9 million in revenue per year, a thousand Apple employees on strike can cost Apple over $5 million in a single day, a number that no exec would want to be responsible for losing.

One way to organize our collective voice and build solidarity is for tech workers to unionize — an idea that the Googlers who led the termination for Project Maven had also considered. But why haven’t Googlers achieved this? And why is there little precedence for it in tech?

For one, tech workers, despite sometimes having brutal work hours, are relatively comfortable with office perks and high salaries. Tech workers are also known to move jobs quite frequently, with average tenures of no more than two years, making it hard for these workers to develop meaningful relationships with coworkers and loyalty for the community.

At a macro level, unions are also at a historic low. In the 1980s, prior to the tech boom, Reagan and subsequent presidents attacked unions, and the pro-boss, anti-worker climate of the proceeding decades has driven down union membership to its lowest in almost a century. It was in this climate, when labor was at its weakest, that the tech industry became the behemoth that is it today. As a result, many working in tech are millennials or even younger, and grew up in a culture of anti-unionism.

The tech industry is also steeped in a culture of supposed meritocracy. While no longer practiced, companies like Microsoft used to “stack-rank” employees to decide who was promoted and who was fired. In a team of five, each engineer would be given a number to represent how well they performed compared to the rest of the team. Rank 1s would be promoted while rank 5s would be fired. Promotions were said to be based solely on hard work and individual achievement, regardless of the internal finances of the organization.

At these tech giants, promotions are more symbolic than anything else. Promoted employees make an additional 5 percent — not much more than pocket change for execs. It’s an old trick. Throughout many industries, bosses have promoted select members of the working class into the ranks of directors, partners, or executives — a small price to pay to maintain the illusion of upward mobility and keep employees motivated and working hard.

Part of the strategy that tech bosses have when building meritocratic institutions is keeping employees in competition with each other. When being stack-ranked one to five, one engineer’s success is tied directly to the failure of another. And when there is competition, there is no solidarity.

Silicon Valley’s roots in the libertarianism of the 1990s and the so-called “Californian Ideology” also feed into the tech industry’s loyalty for individualism and opposition to collectivism. The openness of the internet was supposed to democratize information and enhance the individual, giving anyone the ability and the incentive to build anything — the goal was to limit the power of the state over the individual. Perfectly capturing this ethos is Apple’s slogan Think Different, as well as their anti-government, 1984-themed advertisement in which they announced the Macintosh. In this context, unions represent unnecessary bureaucracy and is a hindrance to Silicon Valley’s need for speed and innovation, where they will only stand in the way of individual accomplishment and ingenuity.

These historical and systemic forces that promote individualism over collectivism, may make tech worker unionization seem far away. But the task ahead is not impossible. Tech workers must start to show solidarity with all workers, especially low-paid contractors who often work within the same buildings, cleaning, cooking, and keeping the space secure.

The Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) provides a good example. In 2017, TWC members helped the labor union Unite Here organize cafeteria staff at big tech firms. From small gestures like making pro-union stickers to physically supporting cafeteria workers as they came out to sign union cards — part of the process for winning union recognition in the US, TWC worked with Unite Here to help unionize Facebook cafeteria employees. While the union is only for contracted cafeteria workers, many members of TWC got to know the cafeteria workers and built solidarity with the people serving them food every day.

Why Now?

Like many industries before, tech is becoming an industry of conglomerates. Over the past few years, there have been more than a dozen tech acquisitions valued at over $10 billion. The tech giants — Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and a few others — are becoming too big to fail. Their projects are no longer just apps on a phone; they now span industries and countries, affecting people all over the world and in all aspects of their lives.

With the goal to scale, these tech giants have quickly monopolized sectors of our society. Facebook dominates social media. Netflix competes against sleep. Amazon has enough data and capital that it can identify gaps in the market and fill them all by itself. If an entity becomes a threat, it simply gets bought out, allowing these giants to not only set prices, but also the rules.

Unsurprisingly, these tech giants are also leaders in AI technology. With AI’s potential to track, surveil, and even harm populations, the stakes are higher than ever. When AI is not being used for military efficiency or immigration control, it is used to weaken labor; replacing repetitive jobs or improving worker productivity (for the same wages). In either case, the results are the same: higher profits for the tech bosses.

Under the Trump administration, tech workers themselves are now also at risk. The tech industry relies heavily on immigrant labor for both in-house and contracted work, leaving hundreds of thousands of immigrant tech workers vulnerable to Trump’s anti-immigration policies. In an already misogynistic and racist industry, workers from marginalized communities are also increasingly under attack as Trump empowers racism, sexism, and xenophobia on a national scale.

It is in this world that tech workers must realize their class position and exercise their class power. Just as hundreds of women at Google led a walk out to demand an end to sexual harassment, tech workers must continue speaking out against billionaire tech-execs and say no to building technologies that support US militarism, surveillance systems, and any other tools of oppression.

Thousands of Googlers have walked out to fight sexism. We don’t often see protests from tech workers, especially from those who relish the perks of working for a company like Google. But we should make sure this won’t be the last.