labor There Is Something Missing From Tech Worker Organizing
This past election, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) launched a campaign for election day to be a paid holiday for all Amazon workers in the US. The group, which was formed in fall 2018 around a shareholder resolution demanding that Amazon create a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, announced in October that they’d collected over 6,400 employee signatures on their petition. They held a rally in downtown Seattle, and allied groups advertised Halloween rallies outside Amazon warehouses in several cities.
6,400 is an impressive reach that shows AECJ has developed effective ways of contacting employees despite a crackdown on distribution of petitions via corporate email, but it represents less than 1% of Amazon’s US workforce. Corporate workers I spoke to in the weeks leading up to the election said that the election in general, and especially the issue of time off to vote, wasn’t a topic of discussion with the coworkers they talked to on a daily basis. This isn’t surprising given that over 50,000 of Amazon’s corporate employees are in the Seattle area, and Washington State votes entirely by mail — in addition to the fact that according to the 2010 census, half the IT workers in and around Seattle were born outside the US. If AECJ thought it would be an easy issue because it was so prominent in the media, they were both right (it was motivating to their base of activists) and wrong (it didn’t engage the masses of other workers). Amazon did not concede to the demand, telling media that they already let employees request time off individually in accordance with local laws.
This is a common pattern in organizing in the tech industry: campaigns are formulated around ethical and social issues, which have limited success and are unable to escalate beyond petitions and public statements. Worker-based groups like AECJ (which is closely linked to environmental nonprofit 350 Seattle) seem to be responding to these failures not by learning from them, but by doubling down, publishing new petitions and calling on the workers who sign them to join community members in protest actions outside the workplace. Worker participation is touted in press releases, but their actions are no more impactful than if they were replaced entirely with the outside activists they accompany to rallies.
These issue campaigns often make demands that can only be satisfied at the top levels of the company, and stand to both cost the employer significant amounts of money, and to challenge their authority to decide what products to make and whom to sell them to. Other worker petitions at Amazon to stop advertising on Breitbart news, to move towards zero emissions and stop working with oil and gas companies, and to stop selling facial recognition software to police and to stop selling services to ICE contractors have played out similarly: signatories scattered across the company, most of whose day-to-day job is unrelated to the thing they want to see changed. The Microsoft and Tableau Software petitions and public rallies against ICE collaboration fared similarly to the election petition, with no movement from the company.
The most unequivocal worker win in the industry to date is probably the Google Maven protests, which involved not just a petition but a months-long campaign of constant confrontations of management, and (I would argue crucially) one key “team” of workers collectively refusing to work on a related project.
These concerns are what brought me to workplace organizing. When Trump was elected, the “progressive” side of the professional community of software workers started asking each other publicly, “what if Trump asks our employer to build the Muslim registry?” The early efforts that came out of that conversation, such as the Never Again pledge and industry mass meetings under the name “Tech Solidarity,” never led to building a stable organization, but they brought workers into informal groups like Tech Workers Coalition. For me, they planted the seed of the idea that workplace organizing was special: Facebook users couldn’t do anything to stop the company acquiescing if the US government demanded the company hand over information about users’ religions, but with enough organization, workers could. Through groups outside the workplace, I found other workers at my company who cared about the same issues.
None of us had been part of an organizing campaign before, although some had taken part in solidarity actions like pickets and phone zaps for other workers. We got advice and information about organizing wherever we could, from union staffers in the DSA to members of the IWW. We tried to do the things we knew we should do: having one-on-ones with supporters of our campaign, looking for creative ways to escalate. But we were never able to win any of our demands.
These issue campaigns, like AECJ’s election day demand, mobilize only the slice of the workforce that’s already politically progressive and engaged. Petitions are distributed through internal corporate channels that are normally used for socializing among workers who share these politics, and through tech media, which also only reaches a small percentage of the total workforce. There have been some efforts by organizing committees to train tech workers in relationship-building organizing skills like one-on-one conversations. But applied to these kinds of banner demands, the organizing faces two huge barriers: coworkers who aren’t agitated about the issue at hand are put off by their activist teammate, and it is incredibly difficult to move a massive company on a major business decision or policy issue as a very first undertaking.
The tendency to focus on policy issues rather than workplace grievances, and to mobilize mostly outside of the workplace, have held tech organizing back. In a way, the kinds of issue campaigns that have proliferated in the tech industry in recent years are what happens when “bargaining for the common good” is internalized so deeply within workers ourselves that we bend towards it even when we hold a huge amount of power to disrupt production and have no real need for public support. But for tech organizing to become effective, it has to engage in actual labor withdrawals and refusals — which would indeed grind these protested programs to a halt. And you cannot develop that capacity without convincing workers to fight for themselves, over their own issues.
Some of this has happened. The largest workplace action to date in the tech industry was the Google walkout, which mobilized 20,000 employees around the world for rallies demanding change around a number of workplace issues regarding harassment and gender inequity. It also won only lip service and half of one of its five demands. The reliance on a small activist base rather than broad organizing has meant that the handful of prominent leaders either quit or get fired. The lesson for other tech workers is that you should become an organizer only if you want to be famous and don’t care about losing your job.
Meanwhile there have been organizing efforts among the other workers employed by tech firms: warehouse and gig workers, and subcontracted office workers. (The warehouse organizing has likewise over-relied on a handful of high-profile activists.)
Some have suggested that the key to prevailing against companies like Amazon and Google comes down to uniting the struggles of corporate workers and these more vulnerable service workers. For example, in an extensively researched pamphlet for Logic, Ben Tarnoff argued that “the most radical realization facilitated by these encounters [between professional and service workers] would be the simplest: the idea that tech’s full-time office employees were also workers.”
But here too, tech worker organizing reaches a stumbling block. Tech workers have doubts about whether they should be organizing around their own issues at all, given their relative privilege as compared to the warehouse or gig workers who work under very different circumstances for the very same company.
The “solution” then becomes for tech workers to organize in sympathy with these other workers without actually pursuing their own grievances. There are serious problems with this. When it’s the first kind of organizing you do and the first topic of conversation in a one-on-one, it sets the tone: moral outrage and guilt. Highly paid and high-status workers who are politically “progressive” or even leftist feel intensely guilty: about having enough money when others don’t, about being “gentrifiers,” about being white or Asian-American in a good job that very few Black or Latinx workers have.
Our guilt makes us feel complicit with our managers and CEOs, which is a way of identifying with them. It encourages us to think that all we need to do is make the bosses feel as guilty as we do and they’ll fix things. I came up against this when talking to a coworker about an ethical issue we were both upset about: she said, “I’m sure my boss’ boss would support a campaign to change this.” The guilt framework leads us to think that all we need to do is appeal to decisionmakers’ hearts rather than putting pressure on them.
And guilt is perversely seductive: having a conversation where we admit our “wealth and class privilege” and commit to trying to somehow “use it for good” is catharsis that makes us feel clean without changing anything. It gives us a feeling of power but divorces us from our true power as value-producers.
Tech worker grievances
Afriend who once worked as a tester for Microsoft was still upset 20 years later when he told me how his boss proudly announced to him and his coworkers that they’d each made the company a million dollars. (They of course did not get a cut.) A couple of years ago, a coworker of mine was promoted to the highest-level position you could have without being a manager, probably making well over $200,000 a year counting stock. But the promotion announcement noted that he had single-handedly made the company $22 million.
Early on in my own career in the industry, I felt guilty about making a “good” salary. Why did I deserve to make more money than a teacher or a nurse? Of course, I don’t — they deserve a lot more too. But if I was making less it would go straight into the pockets of investors, not other workers. Tech workers’ labor has made six of the world’s ten richest people, and today computing and the internet are an integral part of every industry. Although some workers are highly paid, the differential between investor profits and employee salary is as stark as in any other industry, because workers are not organized.
The most powerful conversations I have had with fellow tech workers have not been about low-wage workers, or political issues, but about their own grievances: being disciplined for not putting in extra hours to do more than one person’s work, fearing they’d never be able to keep a job or get a new job in their trade because of differences in work style due to neurodiversity, spending six months trying to get their deadname removed from work documents where their coworkers would see it every day only to be told it’s not going to happen because it’s not a priority, not being able to get childcare to return to work after parental leave, fear of having to leave the job and the country with their family if they can’t get their work visa renewed, being discriminated against by a boss for race or gender while their employer spends thousands of dollars sending people to “diversity” conferences.
Different industry, same challenges
The only way we can help our more vulnerable coworkers, or pursue broader policy changes, is by developing our own power against the company. And this is possible. A software engineer told me a story about halting a coworker’s impending firing by organizing other workers to give statements in support of the quality of their work. At another major tech company, a group of low-paid subcontractors worked in an office alongside direct employees. When they found out one of their group was being harassed by a direct employee but had no formal recourse due to the different employer, they arranged a schedule so a different ally would make sure to work next to her each day so she was never alone with her harasser. These weren’t very formalized organizing efforts, but they still showed the strength there is in numbers, they built solidarity and got results. And they show a path to future solidarity: pace of work, unfair discipline, and harassment are grievances for high-paid professionals, warehouse workers, and app-based delivery drivers alike.
To win on any issue, workers need power we can exert against employers in the workplace. This is as true for the tech industry as it is for any industry, and for tech professionals as for any trade. Surprisingly small groups of tech workers have the power to halt Uber pickups, prevent shipping of items from every Amazon warehouse around the world, or disrupt services like Google Drive that businesses in other industries rely on. But to do that, they need to develop the confidence and capacity for collective action that comes from organizing around their own issues.
Every worker learning the first steps to organizing and thinking through how to apply it to their job can point out the places they feel their industry is unique, and to some extent that’s true, but with time we start to see the commonalities as well. Dividing us along the lines of so-called “skilled” and “unskilled” labor, sowing guilt, and trying to convince us to think we have more in common with the bosses — these are tactics that employers have been using for over a century. To organize effectively in tech, we must overcome these barriers, and we can learn from the organizers who have faced them before.