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Voices From the Valley Is a Snapshot of the Tech Industry, as Told By Workers Themselves

A new book capturing the voices of workers in Silicon Valley’s tech industry — from software engineers to cafeteria workers — reminds us that the relentlessness of labor exploitation is just one side of the story. The other is the persistence of worker resistance.

The Tech Workers Coalition brought together workers from different companies, and across the spectrum of employment statuses in the tech industry. (Cess Idul / Unsplash)

The tech industry has always had bosses and workers, of course, but until a few years ago, most coverage of the sector suggested otherwise. Silicon Valley was the epicenter of libertarianism, we were informed. A techno-utopianism powered a twenty-first-century gold rush, driven by software engineers huddled over their computers, only taking breaks to play ping-pong or sip kombucha in the office. “Will this app change your life?” headlines asked. Readers were told to marvel at the latest hack dreamed up by the geniuses out West. This was the future, we were told.

It’s too neat to say that Donald Trump’s election in 2016 changed all that, but it was an inflection point, opening the sector to greater scrutiny. Workers had long criticized their companies, particularly when it came to matters of racial and gender discrimination, but that year, they gained a broader hearing.

Why did this shift take place? On the one hand, there was Trump and the growing politicization that followed in his wake. When the president violated the behavioral norms whose existence had once reassured much of the middle classes of the general goodness of the state, everything around him was fair game for criticism, and that included some of tech’s most well-known companies.

On the other hand, there was a wave of organizing, even — and some might argue, especially — among white-collar workers. In the Bay Area, the Tech Workers Coalition brought together workers from different companies, and across the spectrum of employment statuses. Increasingly, the monied full-time programmer and the contracted technical writer were in conversation, and sometimes they were joined by the contracted low-wage workers who cooked their meals, or cleaned their offices. The unity of the tech industry that had been presented to the public — with CEOs as its face — was flipped; now, the goal was a unity among the workers.

Protests convened. Petitions circulated. Workplace action proliferated. Journalists followed the action closely: who were these workers, and what were their complaints? What, exactly, had been kept out of the press releases for all these years?

Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel, editors of Voices From the Valley, a new book from FSG Originals, offered preliminary answers. Tarnoff, a tech worker himself, wrote about tech workers’ flood of donations to Bernie Sanders’ s 2016 presidential campaign, the drive to lower wages through coding camps, and the case for making the internet a right (among dozens of other articles, including some for this magazine). For the Guardian, Weigel wrote one of the era’s first long-form reports on the nascent tech-worker movement.

In 2017, the pair, along with Christa Hartsock and Jim Fingal, launched Logic magazine, offering a place for a different type of tech coverage. As the editors write in the publication’s opening manifesto, “We want to ask the right questions. How do the tools work? Who finances and builds them, and how are they used? Whom do they enrich, and whom do they impoverish? What futures do they make feasible, and which ones do they foreclose?” The first issue, themed around the topic of “Intelligence,” includes features on neural scanning, gender discrimination in the programming world, the datafication of the medical profession, and a conversation with an anonymous data scientist.

Logic’s first book-length project was 2017’s Tech Against Trump, an edited book of interviews. The volume’s labor section consists of conversations with leaders from the Tech Workers Coalition, Silicon Valley Rising, SEIU United Service Workers West, and Tech Solidarity, shining a light on the fast-moving resistance building in the valley.

Voices From the Valley is a follow-up in the spirit of Tech Against Trump. It’s one of a four-book collaboration between Logic and FSG (the other titles are Tim Hwang’s Subprime Attention Crisis, Adrian Daub’s What Tech Calls Thinking, and Xiaowei Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm). The slim volume consists of interviews with seven tech workers, all anonymized to get around the industry’s pervasive non-disclosure agreements.

Every Company Wants to Be a Tech Company

“It’s not so different from trying to soften up old meat,” says the massage therapist in Voices From the Valley, describing what it’s like to loosen up tech workers’ tense bodies. The punishing work led her to develop arthritis. At the company where she was contracted as a massage therapist, only direct employees could use her services — when she asked to work on the contracted kitchen staff, she was refused.

Tarnoff and Weigel’s decision to place an interview with a massage therapist alongside one with a founder is what makes Voices From the Valley stand out among the countless books on the tech industry. In addition to the massage therapist and founder, there are interviews with a technical writer, a cook, an engineer, a data scientist, and a storyteller (the authors’ word for communications, marketing, and public policy specialists).

Taken as a whole, it’s a spectrum of perspectives far broader than typical Silicon Valley coverage. Taking seriously the concept of “tech worker” used by many of the industry’s labor organizers requires admitting such vantage points, and the array of employment arrangements it includes.

If tech companies employ significant numbers of contracted workers (or TVCs, as they’re frequently referred to, meaning temps, vendors, and contractors), a book on tech workers can’t focus solely on full-time employees (FTEs). And these TVCs aren’t just low-wage workers either — increasingly, white-collar work in tech is contracted out, too. At Google, TVCs are the majority of the workforce.

This change in employment is about shifting liability and risk from employers to third-party contractors and, ultimately, individual workers. This is perhaps the key innovation of the tech industry: labor arbitrage.

Its centrality is why gig-economy companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash have spent a combined hundreds of millions of dollars to pass Proposition 22 in California, which will save them from having to reclassify the independent contractors at the heart of their business models as direct employees.

Tarnoff and Weigel’s book traces that transformation, with a Google engineer describing the company’s shift from employing FTEs to TVCs. At first, says the engineer, the hiring of TVCs “seemed justified.” “Google is not in the business of hiring people to do everything.” But over time, a shift occurred. “Google has gone from ‘There’s this special project that needs a few hundred people who have skill sets that no Googler currently has,’ to taking full-time positions and turning them into temporary or contract positions.”

The change isn’t limited to Google, or even to the tech industry: it’s taking place at companies in every sector. As Tarnoff and Weigel write in the introduction, “every company wants to be a tech company.”

Winning a Union Is Just the First Step

What, exactly, is a tech company? An outline emerges from the interviews. The founder speaks of, at one end of the scale, startups hoping to be acquired, companies that don’t necessarily solve any useful problems so much as demonstrate the potential value of the founders themselves.

On the other end are the behemoths that acquire startups “In the hopes that regular infusions of entrepreneurial blood will keep them young and nimble” (an evocation of Palantir CEO Peter Theil’s unnerving interest in infusions of young people’s blood as a means to achieving immortality).

The technical writer describes gender discrimination and harassment, suggesting a tech company is a workplace where a team is so unprofessional that a potential female recruit is asked what she would do “if someone was throwing paper balls at you all day?” She recounts being fired on the day she was planning to request maternity leave. This is what a tech company is, too.

A data scientist describes the industry as a place inflated with hype and algorithmic bias. A cook who grew up in Oakland says the first tech company where he was contracted to cook was a place where Benzes, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Ferraris, and Bentleys fill the parking lot. The Google engineer quotes his friend, who says the company “believes in doing the right thing — so long as it doesn’t cost Google money.”

But a tech company isn’t just inequality; when it comes to labor exploitation, the story is never that simple. It’s also fighting back. The cook helps organize a union at his second tech company. He and his coworkers “chop it up in the parking lot” after work, or grab pizza after a shift.

Learning about their struggles — some of his fellow cooks commute two hours — inspires him to fight for everyone. And the white-collar tech workers help the cooks too. “They went above and beyond,” he says. The Tech Workers Coalition shows up. The cook states the issue plainly: tech companies “don’t want to be responsible for the help.”

Lower-wage tech workers aren’t the only ones organizing. The engineer and tech writer evaluate recent efforts, and the dilemmas that come with greater media scrutiny. The founder, of all people, pinpoints the inarguable logic of profit as a wall to organizing efforts. “We’ve tried private control,” he says. “Now we’re talking about worker control.” The storyteller, ideology embodied, loses faith in words.

We don’t know what any of the interviewees will do next. We don’t even know who they are. But as the cook emphasizes, winning a union is just the first step; contract negotiation is “painstaking.” They all have a long road ahead of them, should they keep fighting.

Voices From the Valley doesn’t presume to predict the future. But in an industry this secretive, the snapshot is invaluable. After all, in more than one sense, every company wants to be a tech company.