Daniel in the Lion’s Den: Platform Workers Take on Tech Giants in the Workplace and the World
In recent years, Silicon Valley’s platform workers have introduced a phenomenon previously alien to their industry: collective action. This process is twofold. The first is political organizing, wherein workers protest corporate practices with real-world implications—an inexorable, and increasingly visible, truth of twenty-first century tech firms. The second is more traditional workplace organizing, wherein workers seek to improve the conditions under which they labor on a daily basis. In a milieu where both forms of organizing have little precedent— thanks partially to the industry’s relative youth, glossy anarcho-capitalist culture, and historically high pay rates—employees have made waves but continue to navigate murky waters.
Effective political organizing relies on, and normally begins with, mapping the power of the organizing target, a Sisyphean task when it comes to sprawling Silicon Valley giants. Google—a search and email monopoly, a leader in the development of artificial intelligence, among so much more—is a case in point. However, a series of events in spring and summer of 2018 rendered that task a bit easier. Last March, technology news outlet Gizmodo reported that Google had contracted with the United States Department of Defense to “help the agency develop artificial intelligence for analyzing drone footage”—a scheme, christened “Project Maven,” that the Defense Department initiated in April of 2017 and secured with Google in September of the same year.
According to the article, a number of senior engineers and other employees, after learning of the initiative the previous week, were “out- raged” over their employer’s contribution to lethal drone technologies. Google denied participation in combat-related projects, asserting its responsibility was purely clinical: to process video footage collected by the Pentagon’s drones, with the implicit goal of “improving” strike precision. Yet employees remained skeptical and, by April, had authored a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai. “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” it opened, fol- lowed by a demand that Google withdraw from the project. Nearly four thousand signed the petition, and dozens resigned amid their indignation not only over Project Maven but also over senior executives’ furtive protection of it.
Nearly four thousand [Google workers] signed the petition, and dozens resigned amid their indignation …over [Google’s Defense Department contract to analyze drone footage] …
Slowly and begrudgingly, Google withdrew. Citing “backlash,” the firm internally announced the contract’s cancellation in late May. Still, as Gizmodo reported, Google continued to defend its work on the project. This came as no surprise: although leadership fretted over potential public-relations blows, the contract would potentially serve as a springboard for future lucrative Pentagon agreements. (The same article reported that the Project Maven agreement was worth approximately $15 million, and that Google was vying for a $10 billion cloud- computing defense deal.) Nevertheless, the deal was dead, and a victory could be claimed.
Google workers’ actions marked the first of a series of parallel tech-worker protests against their employers’ provisions for the U.S. government. Mere weeks after the Project Maven contract’s nullification, employees at Microsoft drafted a letter asking the company to abort a $19.4 million contract to provide Azure Government—a program of cloud-computing and facial-recognition software—for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); it also called on Microsoft to develop procedures to prevent working with clients who violate international human-rights law and other tech companies to halt any related agreements. The petition circulated at a particularly draconian period in an already-egregious history of American immigration policy: ICE had been separating children at the U.S.-Mexico border and confining them, quite literally, in cages.
… [E]mployees at Microsoft drafted a letter asking the company to abort a $19.4 million contract to provide… a program of cloud- computing and facial-recognition software—for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement…
Other workers, such as Mat Marquis, decided to divorce themselves from the company entirely. Marquis, a web developer who worked as a contractor for Microsoft, explained his decision to New Labor Forum: “I’ve used my expertise to help further the reach of [Microsoft’s] Azure Government site and service—a service which Microsoft is ‘proud’ to offer to ICE, to, in their own words, ‘accelerate facial recognition and identification.’”
Promptly, Microsoft sought to exculpate itself—without sacrificing profit. The firm denied involvement in separating children from their families, professing its “dismay” at the practice, and said that its Azure products, to its knowledge, were not “being used for this purpose.” As of late July, Microsoft employees had presented the company’s CEO, Satya Nadella, with their petition. Despite their efforts’ similarities to those at Google, the agreement remained active.
Still, analogues continued to arise elsewhere, cementing the inchoate, hashtaggable movement now known as “Tech Won’t Build It.” Within days of the actions at Microsoft, Amazon workers distributed their own internal letter, demanding their employer cease to sell its facial-recognition software, Rekognition, to law-enforcement agencies. “Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as U.S. authorities tore children away from their parents,” the letter stated. “In the face of this immoral U.S. policy, and the U.S.’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS.” Hundreds of employees at the cloud-computing firm Salesforce followed suit, drafting a petition to their employer to sever ties with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
This is not the first time engineers and other members of the high-tech sector have challenged their companies’ political transgressions. At Google alone, for example, workers sought to hold YouTube, a Google property, accountable when it flagged LGBTQ-related videos as inappropriate for children in March of 2017. The following year, employees resigned over Google’s sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Rarely, however, has the white-collar tech industry seen its rank-and-file wield its power to the extent the petition drafters have. Much of this can be attributed to a fairly simple cause: the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Prior to that, Silicon Valley had arguably enjoyed, to borrow a term from Picasso, its Rose Period. The Obama-era tech industry was glazed with speeches extolling engineers, White House science fairs, sunny women-in-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) initiatives, and a president teasing about a career in venture capitalism after his term was complete. At the time, Silicon Valley enjoyed powerful boons to its public-relations strategies, even if the fact remained that the Obama administration was rife with the aggressions of drone strikes and technologically facilitated deportations that workers are protesting today.
The ascent of Donald Trump chilled this relationship. Lacking the tranquil, technophilic demeanor of his predecessor, the new president laid his penchant for imperialistic brute force bare, forgoing the pleasantries of lip service about getting girls to code and stripping the industry of the philanthropic veneer it had once enjoyed. “A lot of people, I think, took work in these companies because…they had a sense of the endpoint of the technology that they were building to be a net good,” Michelle Miller, co- founder of workplace-organizing site CoWorker.org, told New Labor Forum. “When the Trump administration came into office and was really sort of buoyed by this rhetoric of targeting immigrants in particular, people started to think, “What are the ways in which the technology we’re building could be used to do this in this very pointed way?” Workers, observing the profound iniquities of foreign and immigration policy under Trump, were galvanized; a mere month after the election, hundreds signed a pledge refusing to contribute to a Muslim registry Trump had proposed that would potentially result in mass deportations.
Even as tech workers’ awareness of their power mounts, it is imperative to remember what they are up against. Silicon Valley’s chief motive is, and always will be, profit. It bears repeating that Google rescinded its Project Maven commitment not in a moment of moral awakening; it simply sought to circumvent bad press. Worse, as of summer of 2018, Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce kept their agreements intact; in lieu of cancellation, Salesforce sought to donate $250,000, the equivalent of pocket change for the multi-billion-dollar company, to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). (In a stroke of poetic justice, RAICES rejected the donation.)
Grappling with the ills of Silicon Valley entails understanding not only the industry’s roots in governmental aggressions but also the business model of consumer surveillance these companies have pioneered (see Shoshana Zuboff’s article “Surveillance Capitalism and the Challenge of Collective Action” in this issue.) Silicon Valley’s surveillance powers are not limited to the Department of Defense or law enforcement; they are also the foundation of targeted advertising. It now borders on common knowledge that companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon track users’ browsing activity and—via phone apps and digital assistants—conversations, and sell that data to advertisers seeking hyperprecision in tailoring their campaigns. “Companies like Google and Facebook always want you to think about government surveillance,” said Yasha Levine, author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. “They even criticize government surveillance, criticize the [National Security Administration] NSA after Edward Snowden’s leaks. They don’t want people to think about what they’re doing.”
Grappling with the ills of Silicon Valley also entails …understanding … the business model of consumer surveillance these companies have pioneered …
It is for this reason that, even if every Silicon Valley firm ceases to work with government and military bodies, far more work will remain. As tech workers inch closer to radicalization, it is possible that challenging their companies’ business models is on the horizon. For the majority, however, this remains a more abstract notion. According to Ares, a member of labor- rights group Tech Workers Coalition who asked to be identified by first name only, organizing against private surveillance may be an eventual goal, but the most effective way to agitate tech workers has been to focus on urgent issues of inequality, immigration, and imperialism. “You can be agitated by occupational segregation and see workers at your campus not being able to make a living wage or living in their cars. Other workers are really agitated by the technology they’re providing for ICE,” he said. “We’re looking at what these immediate issues are to agitate the workforce and building an organization around those issues that will sustain and move beyond whatever the initial issue is.”
As tech workers inch closer to radicalization, it is possible that challenging their companies’ business models is on the horizon.
Despite significant victories achieved through political organizing, tech workers’ labor organizing remains a wildly difficult task. As many have noted, Silicon Valley leaders have sought to create environs of libertarian, labor-hostile posturing since the area rose to commercial prominence in the 1960s. Corporate regulation is shunned in favor of “disruption”: companies, from Intel in its infancy to Google in the present day, eschew the strictures of, say, an eight-hour workday, for the ostensible purpose of building meaningful technologies that simply cannot wait. Meanwhile, office workers are dissuaded from collective action, let alone unionizing, in exchange for the marathon hours, handsome salaries, and bottomless onsite amenities now synonymous with tech-behemoth campuses: laundry rooms, bike repair shops, panoramas of gratis catered food.
…[O]ffice workers are dissuaded from collective action, let alone unionizing, in exchange for the marathon hours, handsome salaries, and bottomless onsite amenities now synonymous with tech- behemoth campuses…
This sets the stage for balmy messaging about an agile workplace, ready to modernize the world at breakneck speed, and unencumbered by antiquated labor and business structures. Such luxury and idealism, the logic goes, will give employees little reason to confront their superiors with grievances. Management and worker, employees are told, are operating in concert toward the same goal: innovation. This was a foundational principle for one of the industry’s progenitors, Intel co-founder and microchip co-inventor Robert Noyce, who infamously articulated this tactic:
Remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we’d all go out of business…We have to retain flexibility in operating our companies. The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management which can paralyze action.
As author David Bacon argued in Organizing Silicon Valley’s High Tech Workers, “The expanding electronics plants” such as Intel “were laboratories for developing personnel- management techniques for maintaining ‘a union-free environment.’”
This ideology bleeds into the present. Software engineers already harbor a significant amount of power; they’re equipped with the distinctive skill sets to develop the technologies on which their employers’ revenue depends. Engineers, then, have the ability to cause meaningful workplace disruption by withholding their labor. Corporate leadership knows this—a point that partially explains engineers’ comfort- able pay rates, which, for those in Silicon Valley, reportedly averaged $123,000 as of 2016 and topped $250,000 at a number of major firms— and seeks to prevent it. This relates to Silicon Valley’s modern-day thrust of spreading coding curriculum throughout schools, prisons, and economically depressed regions such as West Virginia via lobbying, nonprofits, and sponsorships: by making programming classes ubiquitous and deluging the workforce with historically low-earning coders, it is far easier to reduce the profession’s average salary and thus transform the job from white- to blue-collar.
Whether “Tech Won’t Build It” engenders a union has yet to be seen, given the nascence of the movement and the industry’s pattern of anti- labor maneuvering. Unions, it is essential to note, are burgeoning among the cafeteria servers, shuttle drivers, and other service workers of Silicon Valley. Occupational segregation, however, siloes these groups from office workers, impeding worker consciousness across class lines. Nevertheless, according to organizers, employees—namely, software engineers—are grasping not only their power as the builders of the technologies their companies depend on but also the ideological and material divisions between rank-and-file workers and executives. “I remember talking to some employees at one of the big [tech] companies very early on,” Miller said.
They were, like, “Yeah, we mess up a lot, but I believe the CEOs are always going to want to do the right thing.” I wonder, often, if those employees feel the same now that they did back when I talked to them in January of 2017.
With this in mind, Tech Workers Coalition, CoWorker.org, and other labor-rights groups are attempting to account for the novelty of work- place organizing for office workers in Silicon Valley and the broader tech industry. Leveraging the momentum of “Tech Won’t Build It,” they offer training on workers’ rights and organizing and host discussions of labor power across companies, a measure of maintaining the movement’s cohesion. Circulating petitions requires courage but is not, Ares concedes, “the most confrontational tactic.” Still, organizers are heartened to see workers, let alone those with no history of union representation, transcend corporate boundaries and influence each other with strategies of protest. “None of us are born knowing how to organize our workplace or run a campaign around something,” Miller added. “It behooves all of us to be comparing notes and thinking about the ways in which all of those behaviors fit together.”
…Tech Workers Coalition, CoWorker.org, and other labor- rights groups …offer training on workers’ rights and organizing and host discussions of labor power across companies ….
Regardless of the form this current of organizing takes, effecting real change will require tech workers to take a holistic approach that does not hinge on the contemporary presidential administration or the rhetoric of their bosses. It is an arduous task; scores of employees are new to understanding their place in the strata of capitalism, and even the most seasoned agitators incur the risk of corporate retaliation. Organizers, then, are faced with striking a balance between immediate and sustained coalition building—an undertaking about which they are equally cautious and optimistic.
“There’s the organizing that takes place in the short term, which is saying, ‘This isn’t where we want to put our labor,’” Miller said. “‘This is not what we want our company to do.’ And there’s the long-term work of imagining a new world. We don’t get that if we are not organizing now around our values and principles. This is how we find our people.”
Caption: Protect Net Neutrality Rally, San Francisco. September 2017
Photo Credit: Credo Action, Flickr
Julianne Tveten is a freelance writer and journalist covering the intersections of technology, labor, and culture, among other topics. More of her work can be found at juliannetveten.com.
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