This month, Big Tech pulled the plug on the loudest man on the internet.
The decisions by Facebook and Twitter to remove Donald Trump coincided with a growing public concern about the power of tech platforms to invade privacy, monopolize markets and swing elections. Bipartisan political actions, including major antitrust suits, are also underway.
But as tech executives prepare for these battles, they also face an adversary closer to home: the militant white-collar tech worker.
Twitter employees long agitated for Mr. Trump’s suspension from the platform. At Facebook, demands from the rank and file for a tougher stance against his posts circulated for months, inspiring internal petitions and even a virtual walkout. Similarly, Amazon’s management cut ties with Parler, a social media platform popular on the far right, only hours after a group of Amazon employees called for the company leadership to do so.
Historically, white-collar workers in tech, including software engineers and product designers, have rarely engaged in collective action. They tended to view themselves as professionals, future founders, members of a corporate family or the creative class — hardly the sort to band together against their bosses. Indeed, the notion of loving one’s job so much that it doesn’t even feel like work is a Silicon Valley export.
But after the 2016 election, a growing number at companies like Google and Amazon began to change their thinking. When their chief executives seemed eager to accommodate the man who was then president, these employees pledged not to build databases identifying people by race, religion or national origin. Keeping such promises, however, would require more than talking to one’s manager about surveillance or the security state.
Their gaze also turned inward. Early in the Trump presidency, a series of high-profile lawsuits and scandals heightened scrutiny of systemic racism and sexism in their industry. Employees could not count on their managers or human resources departments for protection; here, too, they needed to act collectively. In November 2018 more than 20,000 Google employees walked out of offices in 50 cities all over the world to protest sexism and racism at their company—one of the largest international labor actions in modern history.
Critics of the tech worker movement have lumped it in with a broader culture war that raged throughout Trump’s presidency. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, saw a “woke segment” of a coddled young work force; the Wall Street Journal editorial board, “campus-style political activism.”
This misinterprets the significance of these actions.
Workers organizing against Pentagon and Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts want more power over the content of their work—the kind of code they write and how it can be used. Workers organizing against harassment and discrimination want more power over the conditions of their work. Content and conditions are connected: The question of power in the workplace is at stake in both.
To build and consolidate this power, white-collar tech workers have formed unions of their own. In February 2020, Kickstarter employees voted to unionize in affiliation with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. This month, employees at Alphabet, the parent company of Google, announced the creation of the Alphabet Workers Union, a membership organization to strengthen collective action within the company.
Some tech executives have argued that social issues have no place in the office. Others have argued that tech employees are too privileged to organize. Mike Solana, a venture capitalist, claimed that the union’s members were “appropriating the language of exploited coal miners.” In other words, Googlers aren’t real workers; they’re not oppressed enough. Interestingly, many people once argued that coal miners were not real workers, because they were not directly supervised and often owned their own tools and hired their own helpers.
These criticisms are understandable. The decades-long decline of the labor movement has left it so weak that many Americans know little about its history. In fact, workers have often organized not only to improve their wages, but also to gain more control over their work—especially when it had an outsize effect on the world. In the 1970s, employees at Polaroid and IBM, two major tech firms of their day, protested their companies’ business with South Africa’s government during apartheid.
The suggestion that people who work at tech companies are too privileged to organize also seems dubious. Alphabet Workers Union membership, for instance, includes contractors who do not enjoy the high salaries or generous benefits of senior software engineers. And even better-compensated tech workers routinely experience racism and sexism. Is it a privilege to not be insulted or assaulted at work? Studies show that harassment both reflects and reproduces inequality, by preventing victims from seeking promotions and raises, if not pushing them out of the company altogether.
Critics of the tech worker movement also imply that collective action is suitable only for the most immiserated workers. But organizing can help protect people against many kinds of harm, especially in a country where most people can be fired at any time for almost any reason. Indeed, about a month before the Alphabet union launched, Timnit Gebru, a high-profile Black female computer scientist who helped lead Google’s ethical-artificial-intelligence team, said the company fired her for being too critical of its hiring practices and the biases built into artificial intelligence systems.
With Mr. Trump’s departure from office, the sense of crisis that proved so mobilizing—and unifying—may fade. But the contracts and conditions that workers have protested remain in place, as do the networks they have formed. The workers pushing for changes in tech firms may forge more direct relationships with policymakers like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the Democratic Party’s biggest advocates of robust antitrust enforcement against Big Tech.
But any regulation is likely to be slow moving. For better or worse, in an era of extreme corporate concentration, organized workers within the ranks of a company like Google may be the strongest lever the public has for forcing tech executives to be transparent and accountable.
In the continuing debates over platform power, one set of voices will be coming from inside the house.
Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel are co-founders of Logic magazine and the editors of the recent book “Voices From the Valley: Tech Workers Talk About What They Do—and How They Do It.”
Opinion pieces reflect the view of their authors, not San Jose Inside.
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