Known best for its negative impact on communities, venture capital affluence, ‘fun’, and overwhelming gender discrepancy, the tech industry is rarely thought of as a working class environment. The rank-and-file are often conflated with the capitalist class as toxically entrepreneurial, with a fetishization of overtime as passion, and belief in Libertarian Capitalist politics. A shortage of skilled programmers and engineers has lead to their high pay, and ultimately the affordability crisis for others in areas of concentrated tech such as the Bay Area and Seattle. Meanwhile, the tech industry’s growth is upheld by blue collar and service workers, who are largely people of color that face grueling conditions and wages significantly worse than their unionized counterparts in more traditional industries. Understanding their advantaged position in the labor market, tech workers can make a transformative impact by organizing to stand in solidarity with their blue-collar comrades and imposing socially-just ethics on the work they’re willing to do. Clarifying their inherently opposed interests to their bosses and allowing a space to express grievances, campaigns such as the Tech Workers Coalition have aimed to begin this under a deeply inclusive and anti-fascist framework.
Tech workers are often excluded from working class identification due to their own lack of class consciousness, as well as backlash from others for their high income, culture, and role in gentrification. Employee shuttle buses, with union Teamsters drivers, are frequently the target of rubber bullets and pellet guns in the Bay Area.1 The San Fransisco organization Gay Shame goes by the tag-lines, “Queers Hate Techies,” and “House People Not Techies,” seeing the workers as part of the ruling class due to their displacing effect. Gay Shame members defend the tagline as a demand for everything from a place of little power, seeing that compared to traditional corporate capitalism, “one of the most troubling features of ‘Tech’ is its deep entanglement with values that will be remembered one day as ‘progressive,’” pointing to and deriding Twitter’s tokenizing lunchroom Black Lives Matter mural.2 The professional career status of engineers has long distanced them from working class solidarity. In the New Deal era following the institutionalization and legitimization of unions under the NLRA, engineers avoided organizing drives due to, “concern that involvement with blue-collar unions would produce a decline in the engineers’ status.”3 The elite, near-managerial status of professional workers limited 20th century labor successes in the United States and Canada to mostly healthcare, credit union, and nonprofit workers in the OPEIU, and AT&T and Verizon workers in the CWA, a carry-over from Ma-Bell. HBO’s television show Silicon Valley demonstrates the enamor some tech workers have with the belief that they’re one bright idea from being the CEO of their own company, aided by stock-option schemes not found in blue collar jobs. Meanwhile, the Bay Area and Seattle’s agglomeration of high paying jobs that draw people globally have massively impacted the cost of housing and displaced existing residents, who haven’t seen an economic benefit.4 Gay Shame is valid in their resentment. However, tech companies demonstrate equal overt disregard for their worker’s labor rights as any industry history has, and tech workers share impending job vulnerability from automation and outsourcing with other members of the working class.
The disproportionately few Black, Latinx, and women workers in technical positions experience widespread racialized and gendered harassment. Software engineer Susan Fowler gave her account of working at Uber, depicting daily sexual harassment of herself and other women by managers, and an intentionally negligent and dishonest HR department.5 Numerous grievances, made public by union campaign FACE of Amazon, demonstrate an industry where Uber’s flagrant inequity is the managerial norm. In a December 2017 survey conducted by Tech Workers Coalition and Women of Color Speak Out in Seattle, 81% of the 204 respondent cis women, trans, or gender non-conforming people in the tech industry reported gender-based discrimination, and just 27% of people who had reported incidents felt like meaningful action was taken by HR departments.6 Many companies portray an image of diversity campaigns that are genuinely working towards solving these systemic issues, leading to backlash such as James Damore, the Google employee that was fired after sharing his reactionary “hot take” that white men are both biologically suited to the job and are facing hiring discrimination in today’s progressive corporate climate. In Engineered for Dystopia, David A. Banks argues against the naive and patriarchal desire to techno-fix the world. This ignorance of social context in favor of purporting a backing of objective data at the core of STEM is shared between Damore and his more palatable liberal colleagues:
Rather than consult anthropology and sociology to study an issue that is distinctly social and cultural, the links that pepper [James Damore’s] ten-page manifesto are mostly evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and sociobiology. The very premise of his memo is that biology trumps society in the formation of individuals. This is an idea that is shared by both the reactionary right that has welcomed him as a righteous cause célèbre and the ostensibly liberal left whose popular views on society and individual behavior are pulled from similar fields. The mainstream liberal is fed a steady diet of Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Note to Self, and Freakonomics Radio, all of which heavily favor the same sort of logic—humans behavior is largely determined by biology and best studied using statistical analyses using big data—that Damore used. Damore, like the Unabomber, only differs from the Silicon Valley consensus in that he has a different take on the same set of basic premises.7
Counter to Damore’s assertions, Google would prefer to avoid the topic of diversity altogether. The company fired Tim Chevalier, a trans man, after he called Damore’s memo misogynistic and linked to a blog post on white privilege on Google’s internal employee forum site.8
Gay Shame’s perception of “techies” as the “white ruling class,” does not align with the experiences of many workers. While 74% of Amazon’s executives are white men, and just one of the eighteen senior vice presidents that report directly to CEO Jeff Bezos is a woman, 40% of Seattle tech workers, and 71% of Silicon Valley’s, are immigrants from primarily India and China, many on vulnerable H1-B visas that tie the worker’s documentation to the company.9 In one FACE of Amazon grievance, a worker described the situation as enabling abuse and harassment. Fearing for their immigration status, “most of them end up continuing to suffer in silence and enduring this modern indentured servitude,” they wrote.10 A 2009 AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees report detailed the indentured labor relationship under H1-B:
The uneven worker-employer or recruiter relationship is heightened by the threat of deportation if fired and the inability of guest workers to readily change employers if mistreated. Employers or visa recruiters may illegally charge visa applicants fees for a visa or for employment placement services, burdening new guest workers with substantial debt. These practices create a situation in which guest workers are rendered de-facto indentured servants, unable to change their employment situation without penalty and indebted to their recruiting agency.11
Tech companies, like most others, overwhelmingly exploit the labor of people of color for the profit of white men, creating abusive and illegal situations to do so. Whether workers are in a position in the labor market that either enables easily moving on to other companies or their immigration status is at stake, it’s a hurdle to convince them to solve their grievances through collective action. In the rare cases where tech workers have, their organizing efforts are met with an iron fist. In 2000, the Communications Workers of America campaigned to unionize Amazon. Amazon quickly made lay-offs of 1,300 people, completely eliminating, “the corporate division in which the union had the greatest strength.”12 Recently, cloud-software company Lanetix laid off and outsourced their entire software engineering team in retaliation for unionizing.13 A new labor movement wave has spread through startup journalism outlets such as Vox Media, Vice News, Gothamist, and Gizmodo, and likewise, illegal retaliation has been swift and heavy-handed. One week after Gothamist staff had voted to unionize with Writers Guild of America East, recent purchaser and billionaire Joe Ricketts abruptly shut the entire site down, later selling the brand-rights to public radio organization WNYC, a union-operation.14 Business owners in the tech and media world are no more amenable to their workers having a voice than any of the historical industry titans.
Besides high-paying technical positions, the industry employs many less empowered industrial, service, security, and janitorial workers, with typically poor working conditions and low wages. Amazon “fulfillment center” warehouse workers have faced some of the worst standards, including extreme temperatures with ambulances on standby for workplace casualties, approximately 10-30 miles of walking on concrete floors per 10-12 hour shift, granular micromanagement, and firings over failing to meet a rapid-fire repetitive motion sorting pace of eight seconds per package for the entirety of that shift.15 These sweatshop conditions cause many to quickly develop physical health conditions such as early onset arthritis and degenerative disk disease. As one FACE of Amazon grievance accuses, to avoid paying workers-comp, Amazon has been known to classify these workplace disabilities as “pre-existing conditions,” before firing their victim.16 Another set of vulnerable workers supporting tech are independent contractors, a tax-evading misclassification that allows Amazon, Uber, Lyft, and Postmates to be exempt from covering expenses, providing healthcare, overtime pay, occupational injury compensation, the right to unionize, or even a guarantee of minimum wage.17 Amazon’s independent couriers, working around a similar micromanagement and wearing-pace to their warehouse comrades, are rapidly replacing the monopolistic retailer’s use of UPS and the publicly-owned USPS, both unionized carriers, wherever it’s cheaper to do so.
Tesla Motors is Silicon Valley’s rare example of industrial production, and is California’s largest manufacturing employer. Seeing benefit to maintaining a blue collar workforce, California gives Tesla a $15 million tax break. In a similar competition to Amazon’s current HQ2 search for incentives, Nevada won the bid for Tesla’s battery factory by offering a massive $1.3 billion tax break. The auto industry has historically provided well-paying jobs with benefits and pensions thanks to strong union representation in Northern states, carrying a national average wage of over $29 per hour. Tesla brings this down to $17-21, a low income under the Bay Area’s cost of living. Many of their workers commute two hours each way to reach affordable housing, and public transit riders on BART have a two mile walk from the station. While CEO Elon Musk touts his self-inflicted 90 hour schedule with pride, his autoworkers claim being forced into overtime with 60 hour weeks of hard manual labor. In 2015, Tesla’s serious injury rate was 103% higher than the industry average, while whistleblowing workers have alleged that supervisors recklessly break industry and company standards of duty rotation to prevent repetitive motion injuries, and retaliate against workers that report their injuries. Jonathan Galescu, a body repair technician that was injured from machine malfunction, noted, “They blacklist you, they treat you like crap,” for just speaking up about workplace injuries.18
After worker Jose Moran went public with his allegations of poor working conditions, Musk responded by promising free frozen yogurt, accused Moran of being a paid agitator, and claimed unionization was against the interests of his employees because the United Automobile Worker’s “true allegiance is to the giant car companies… This is David vs Goliath if David were six inches tall!”19 Amid the transition from select luxury car production to mass production of 500,000 Model 3 vehicles, last October Tesla suspiciously made layoffs of 400-700 workers. The UAW filed a complaint with the NLRB, citing laid off folks such as Mike Williams, who plead, “I worked hard for this company for five years, sometimes 72 hours a week – and never had any performance-related complaints. I did, however, wear a union shirt. And I had union stickers on my water bottle. And I believed that a union would make us safer, and would make the company more organized and more efficient. I hate to think that I was targeted because of it.”20 Whether or not Tesla is found to have illegally retaliated, the company is undoubtedly a growing anti-union force with the same kind of sweatshop labor complaints as automakers were known for prior to the success of the UAW.
Without standing in solidarity with the industrial, service, and gig workers of their industry, well-paid and empowered tech workers associating to greaten their market value alone could be problematic. Both Gay Shame and Banks relate the potential of professional tech unions to how, “police have benefited from some of the most powerful union representation and that has not proven liberatory for anyone,” with the legal protection of killers and obstruction of public transparency.7 James Damore provides an example, having immediately tried to use labor protections for his benefit, filing his firing with the NLRB. Unionized tech could act solely to protect the current inequitable workforce, and leave behind the H1-B immigrants instead of fighting for their security and rights to speak up alongside U.S.-born coworkers. Exclusionary demands to decrease the labor supply involving racism and immigration restriction are certainly not historically unknown in the labor movement.
However, figures like James Damore are not leading the tech labor movement. To help change a patriarchal culture, Tech Workers Coalition partnered with Women of Color Speak Out, hosting the event “#MeToo in Seattle Tech: What Men Can Do” that aimed to teach men how to do better in light of the harrowing statistics their co-authored survey had found.21 TWC organizer Ares Geovanos noted their efforts to bring class consciousness to the industry, stating, “We want to give a voice to tech workers as a separate entity from their companies and their corporate PR, as often rank-and-file ‘techies’ are lumped in with the CEOs and entrepreneurs of the industry.”22 In addition to shifting tech worker culture to embrace the working class and fight discrimination, much of the movement’s organizing involves solidarity with lower income workers. In August 2017, 150 Seattle Tech Solidarity members protested at Amazon’s headquarters in solidarity with the guards’ campaign that’s been aided by SEIU 6. After speaking at a May Day rally about the low wages and Islamaphobic harassment they experience, two Amazon security guards employed through a third party contractor were removed from their company’s scheduling system, a form of illegal retaliation. Security guard Khalid Elmy expressed that tech workers “being a bigger voice for us really helps get our message out there.” Employees are pressuring Amazon to sign a responsible contracting agreement that takes into account worker pay, benefits, and protections in judging contract bids rather than finding the lowest cost. 23
The coalition’s goal is that organized tech workers can not only offer their power to others, but also institute an ethical framework of the jobs they’re willing to do. As Banks points out, “Unlike medical professionals who have a Hippocratic oath and a licensure process, or lawyers who have bar associations watching over them, engineers have little ethics oversight outside of the institutions that write their paychecks.”7 Ethics qualms discussed in the Tech Worker’s Coalition’s Slack forum include predictive policing technology used against Palestinians and residents of New Orleans by the company of Trump advisor and Musk’s friend Peter Thiel, and the finding that Google Maps shows results for anti-choice pregnancy counseling centers when searching for abortion clinics. Capitalist-driven motive and algorithms alone are blind to the politics they inherently interact with. After Trump was elected, IBM’s CEO reached out to congratulate him and offer their company’s informational services to the regime’s needs. IBM notably did this for Nazi Germany, orchestrating the Holocaust’s IT system. A coordinated effort lead IBM to later declare they would never contribute to the creation of a Muslim Registry.24 Social Movement Unionism has been incredibly powerful in cases such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s boycott of Apartheid South African imports, shutting trade with the racist regime off across the west coast of North America.25 Tech workers unionizing behind strong ethical principles of equity could have a similar say over the many actions that don’t make headlines before making global impacts.
Unions have the potential to offer a more genuine grievance process for safety and discrimination than HR departments fundamentally alienated from workers can, and unionized women and people of color experience a greatly narrowed wage gap compared to the national average. With widespread genuinely leftist organizing, the hope is that workers could potentially seize a democratic say in the product and its societal externalities. Impactful and intersectional work is being done towards this goal by new groups such as the Tech Workers Coalition, Seattle Tech Solidarity, and Silicon Valley Rising, each cooperating with traditional unions. The tech industry has grown entirely within our neoliberal era of declining union membership. Reversing this trend must involve tech workers becoming conscious of class relations while acknowledging their privilege and power within the working class as an opportunity to fight racialized and gendered discrimination and improve labor standards for all.
Image: It’s Going Down. “Disrupt the Gig-Economy: Demo at Amazon Flex in Seattle” https://itsgoingdown.org/disrupt-the-gig-economy-demo-at-amazon-flex-in-seattle/.
1 Jack Morse. “A Google bus was attacked outside of San Francisco, just like buses from Apple” https://mashable.com/2018/01/17/google-bus-attacked/#AEBX2fCWzmqp. Last modified Jan 17, 2018.
2 Christopher J. Lee. “Virus in the System” https://thenewinquiry.com/virus-in-the-system/. Last modified May 17, 2017.
3 Peter F. Meiksins and Chris Smith. “Why American Engineers Aren’t Unionized – A Comparative Perspective” (1993). Sociology & Criminology Faculty Publications. pp.9. Available online: https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1043&context=clsoc_crim_facpub
4 Cary Moon and Charles Mudede. “Hot Money and Seattle’s Growing Housing Crisis” https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2016/08/08/24442014/hot-money-and-seattles-growing-housing-crisis-part-one. Last modified April 20, 2017.
5 Susan Fowler. “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber”
https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber. Last modified Feb 19, 2017.
6 Sasha Anderson. “#MeToo in Seattle Tech: What Men Can Do” https://public.tableau.com/profile/sashaevieanderson#!/vizhome/MeTooinSeattleTech/MeToosurveydashboard. Last modified Jan 22, 2018.
7 David A. Banks. “Engineered for Dystopia” https://thebaffler.com/latest/engineered-for-dystopia-banks. Last modified Jan 24, 2018.
9 Gene Balk. “More than half of Seattle’s software developers were born outside U.S.” https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/more-than-half-of-seattles-software-developers-were-born-outside-u-s/. Last modified Jan 19, 2018.
10 Former and Current Employees of Amazon. “H1B Visa Abuse” https://sites.google.com/site/thefaceofamazon/home/h1b-visa-abuse.
11 Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO. “Gaming the System” (2009). pp. 6. Available online: http://dpeaflcio.org/pdf/DPE_Gaming_the_System_Report.pdf
12 Alan Hyde. “Employee Organization in Silicon Valley” 2002. U. PA. Journal of Labor and Employment Law. Available online: http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1118&context=jbl
13 Hassan A. Kanu and Josh Eidelson. “Tech Start-Up Fires Engineers Amid Union Organizing Effort” https://www.bna.com/tech-startup-fires-n73014474793/. Last modified Jan 30, 2018.
14 David Uberti. “The Many Questions Surrounding the Revival of Gothamist”
https://splinternews.com/the-many-questions-surrounding-the-revival-of-gothamist-1823272351. Last modified Feb 23, 2018.
15 Jacob Weindling. “7 Examples of How Amazon Treats Their 90,000+ Warehouse Employees Like Cattle” https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/12/7-examples-how-amazon-treats-their-90000-warehouse.html. Last modified Dec 4 2017.
16 Former and Current Employees of Amazon. “Pre-existing” https://sites.google.com/site/thefaceofamazon/home/pre-existing.
17 Bryan Menegus. “Amazon’s Last Mile” https://gizmodo.com/amazons-last-mile-1820451224. Last modified Nov 16, 2017.
18 David Dayen. ”Charge Time: Electric Car Workers Accuse Tesla of Low Pay and Intimidation” http://prospect.org/article/charge-time-electric-car-workers-accuse-tesla-low-pay-and-intimidation. Last modified April 10, 2017.
19 Kelly Weill. “Workers: Building Teslas for Elon Musk Is Hell” https://www.thedailybeast.com/workers-say-tesla-is-trying-to-scare-them-out-of-a-union. Last modified Aug 11, 2017.
20 United Automobile Workers News Release. “UAW files charges against Tesla on behalf of unfairly terminated workers” https://uaw.org/uaw-files-charges-tesla-behalf-unfairly-terminated-workers/. Last modified Oct 26, 2017.
21 Heidi Groover. “Seattle Tech Workers Ask: In the Moment of #MeToo, What Can Men Do?” https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2018/01/25/25749204/seattle-tech-workers-ask-in-the-moment-of-metoo-what-can-men-do. Last modified Jan 25, 2018.
22 Lizzie O’Shea. “Tech capitalists won’t fix the world’s problems – their unionised workforce might” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/24/technology-capitalists-unionised-workforce-tech-sector. Last modified Nov 24, 2017.
23 Heidi Groover. “Tech Workers Join Calls For Amazon to Improve Working Conditions for Security Guards.”
24 April Glaser. “Apple, Facebook, Google and Uber say they won’t help Trump build a registry of Muslim-Americans” https://www.recode.net/2016/12/17/13995310/apple-facebook-google-uber-refuse-help-trump-registry-muslim-americans. Last modified Dec 17, 2016.
25 Peter Cole & Peter Limb. “Hooks down! Anti-apartheid activism and solidarity among maritime unions in Australia and the United States” (2016) 58:3, 303-326, DOI: 10.1080/0023656X.2017.1255535