Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
In the technology industry, labor organizing can get tricky.
When Eric started at Google a few years ago, he thought it would be different from other tech companies—more careful about its impact on people around the world. Google, after all, was the firm that had (until recently) put “Don’t be evil” in its official code of conduct. But his idealized vision of the company has clouded recently.
Earlier in 2018, around a dozen Google employees resigned in protest after learning of their company’s involvement in the U.S. military’s Project Maven, which integrates artificial intelligence into existing drone warfare technology. After pushback, Google did not renew its contract with the Pentagon. The company has been hit with charges that its search algorithms regularly highlight false and politically motivated sources of information. And in Auguest, The Intercept reported that Google has been developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese government, internally called Project Dragonfly. According to the New York Times, a letter with around 1,400 employee signatures circulated on internal forums at Google, demanding more transparency and discussion around the ethical consequences of the company’s decisions.
“It boils down to the fact that people were working on Dragonfly, and didn’t even know it,” Eric told CityLab in a telephone interview. He works as an engineer at the company, but asked us not to use his real name, because of fears of retribution from his employer. He declined to say whether he signed the letter, but he does stand by its demands. “I want to be able to make informed, moral decisions about my work,” he said.
But his growing concerns about Google’s role in the world don’t make him want to leave the company, he stresses: They make him want to stay.
“I’m going to try to make a difference as long as I can,” he said. “I believe in my coworkers whom I’ve talked to and who’ve spoken out over the last couple of months—they give me hope.”
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress this year to address charges of liberal bias on the platform, he called Silicon Valley an “extremely left-leaning place.” Many conservatives are quick to agree: Zuckerberg and other industry leaders have often positioned themselves in opposition to the current administration, especially its immigration agenda, for example. And right-leaning tech workers, most famously the fired Google engineer James Damone, have complained about an ideologically oppressive atmosphere inside the industry. In a post on an internal message board this week, one Facebook employee characterized public liberalism as a “political monoculture that’s intolerant of different views” at the company, according to the New York Times. President Trump joined this chorus, (wrongly) charging Google with not promoting his State of the Union address on its search platform.
But the left has its own rich set of concerns about the tech sector. Social media platforms have been criticized for enabling anti-immigrant attacks and housing discrimination, among other things, and industry positions on labor rights and the role of government regulation are unlikely to appeal to the average progressive voter. The deeper history of Silicon Valley reveals similar contradictions: Many technology corporations have longstanding ties with the U.S. military, and have partnered with oppressive regimes elsewhere in the past. More recently, the Bay Area’s IT workforce has been accused of harboring hidden “alt-techie” white nationalists among its ranks.
Countering these tendencies is a progressive wing of techies, who are organizing to voice ethical concerns about their companies’ practices, from the inside. At Microsoft, one flashpoint was the company’s contract to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); at Amazon, it was sale of facial recognition technology to police departments; at IBM, it was the CEO’s letter to President Donald Trump, offering up his company’s services. The common theme in this strain of worker activism: Silicon Valley needs to take more responsibility for its impact on the world.
That includes the impact companies have on their local communities, too. When a tech giant moves to town, disruption often follows—a boom of hiring and economic development, paired with neighborhood upheaval, rising costs, and widening inequality. It’s a mixed bag of ripple effects that residents of the Bay Area and Seattle, especially, are familiar with. Some organizing groups are rallying tech workers to mitigate the hostile effects of their own industries on the cities they occupy, and urging them to forge local connections.
“What’s really tragic about the current context or dynamic of the civic conversation, especially in the Bay Area, is that tech is seen as the enemy,” said Catherine Bracy, the co-founder and executive director of the TechEquity Collaborative—an organization born in the wake of Uber’s 2015 announcement to purchase an old Sears department store in downtown Oakland. “And part of that is a reflection of the fact that people who work in tech don’t get out enough. They’re not connected to the community.” Bracy’s background comes from this intersection of tech and civics: After working on the Obama campaign’s technology team, she served as the director of community organizing at Code for America.
Uber’s planned Oakland move came years before the wave of crippling revelations regarding data breaches, labor practices, and rampant sexism at the company that helped doom former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. But even then, the city was up in arms. “Uber is coming for Oakland’s soul, all right,” warned a 2015 headline in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Uber never ended up moving the 2,500 employees it planned to into the old Sears complex, and is now poised to sell the building to someone else. But these same concerns underpin discussions about the city that will be the site of Amazon’s new headquarters. Activists and officials warn that the rising inequality unleashed in Seattle—that fuels its homelessness problem—will follow Amazon to its new HQ2.
Bracy says changing this narrative starts with overhauling economic and policy structures entirely. “A growing tech economy isn’t going to lift more boats if we can’t change the economic context within which the tech economy is growing.” In the Bay Area, she says, that means addressing the housing crisis. Together with policy makers, TechEquity Collaborative is championing a ballot initiative to repeal California’s Prop 13 property tax protections for commercial and industrial properties, which would bring $6 to $10 billion a year back into the state’s budget for public education and local services.
In cities across California’s Tech Belt, it’s been mostly city councilors and local activists who have led the push to strike better deals between the tech powers that be and their cities, like by passing taxes on businesses to fund affordable housing. And it’s been traditional labor organizers from the Service Employees International Union/United Service Workers West that recently won hard-fought wage increases and paid holidays for security guards; and Teamsters that have been protesting labor conditions for corporate shuttle drivers for years.
But groups like the TechEquity Collaborative aim to empower employees to partner with the community members already doing this work to help hold companies accountable from within—and make more fundamental changes in the cities they call home. And while other tech organizing coalitions have stemmed from an internal locus, the TechEquity Collaborative is working more horizontally, engaging tech employees across the Bay Area in an effort to form a cohesive local political bloc.
“What does it mean when [tech] growth is seen as a negative for most of the community, and what would need to change in order for that growth to benefit everybody?” said Bracy. “For a company to make an announcement like Uber did and for it to be met with celebration and not fear?”
The technology workforce is younger than those in traditionally unionized industries, and it’s been slower to organize—this industry was built to disrupt, but not necessarily via picket lines. Without a centralized bargaining structure, employees have turned to grassroots modes of digital dissent, developing coalitions and demands through message boards and social media.
And along with a healthy knowledge of how to use social networks to build momentum comes the savvy to know that those networks are being monitored. At Google, employees have started whisper networks on internal messaging services to voice concerns about controversial projects, despite those fears. From there, conversation has evolved into petitions, often housed on digital collective bargaining platforms like Coworker.org, which offers digital tools to workers organizing campaigns within large corporations.
Once they got enough support, these petitions were circulated internally. The petition opposing Microsoft’s contract with ICE was started by Color of Change, a civil rights organization—and expanded organically to include signatures from hundreds of employees at Microsoft. Employees presented it to the CEO on a thumb drive, per the New York Times.
This internal pushback follows criticism of Silicon Valley’s well-documented issues with diversity, and the demands from within to rectify them. In a recent piece about the industry’s nascent labor movement in The Baffler, writer David A. Banks asks “are these two sorts of campaigns—internal reform of company hiring practices and jockeying for control of external impacts of the company—synergistic or at odds?”
According to some workers, internal pushes for diversity are very much entwined with the call to cut ties with ICE, police, military, and the current administration. “You can’t disconnect the people who have set [these companies up] from how they view the world, and it’s definitely a very narrow view,” Eric said of Google, where employees pushed for a new, more inclusive harassment policy after a very public culture war around differing ideas of free speech. “In terms of the projects we take on, but also in terms of the ethics of the company as a whole.”
In many instances, tech workers of color have attended meet-ups hosted by organizations like Color of Change or reached out to them off-the-record because they feel marginalized within their offices, according to Brandi Collins-Dexter, a senior campaign director at Color of Change.
“The combined number of black workers at Google, Twitter, and Facebook can fit on a jet plane,” she said. These and other employees of color “don’t always feel like they have power internally,” she added, “so they look to organizations like ours to turn up that pressure externally to force a response internally.”
(CityLab reached out to Google and asked a series of questions on the company’s stance on employee pushback and diversity issues; we’ll update if the company responds.)
Michelle Miller, the head of Coworker.org, has seen her digital portal used for a number of workers’ campaigns. The organizing happening in Silicon Valley around immigrants’ rights, surveillance, and police violence may seem of a different scope, but it is very much in line with what labor organizing has always been about—“a way of forming collectives around issues that people care about, so they can advance them inside the company.” So it takes a different approach than, say, a traditional union, although there has been some talk about unionizing to bargain for higher ethical standards.
Compared to unions elsewhere, power also skews differently in Silicon Valley because wealth manifests differently. Unlike the teachers and public employees who’ve marched for better pay and health care in states across the country this year, many tech workers already enjoy the benefits of six-figure salaries and political clout.
“Unions serve a purpose: To create power to balance out corporate power,” said Bracy. “Tech workers have their own power already, inherently. What we want them to do is use that power to influence the industry.”
To that end, some workers are also looking inward, to the hundreds of janitors, and cooks, and salespeople that keep these companies running without benefits or six-figure salaries or stock options, nor a union to advocate for those rights. Google employs a huge group of subcontractors that at one point this year outnumbered direct employees. This “shadow workforce” of temps, vendors, and contractors, as Bloomberg reported, feel like—and are treated like—“second-class citizens.” The TechEquity Collaborative is working on developing an industry standard on how tech companies engage with subcontracted labor, trying to use their leverage over the vendors that farm out the workers to solidify better working conditions.
“The ends are not better conditions for tech workers,” Bracy said. “The ends are a more responsible industry.”
But is that big-picture goal really feasible? Silicon Valley’s practices, after all, are fueled both by profit-seeking and a “move fast, break things” mentality. Petitions can just as easily be circulated as forgotten; contracts just as easily broken as re-signed. If Google won’t help the Pentagon, another tech company surely will. Is it naive to believe that internal organizing will fundamentally change the way the industry operates?
Whatever the answer, organizing has intrinsic value, according to Miller. It’s more about “building up the muscle; the networks; the relationships that are necessary for people to actually, in the long term, have control and agency over their lives and over these corporations and many of the institutions in our culture,” she said.
Critics of these tech companies from both the left and right should agree on one thing: These firms are cultural, economic, political monopolies in most capacities. So the way they operate internally and the impact they have externally need to be scrutinized. Organizing internally to achieve that is far better than sitting back and letting them proceed unrestrained, Miller insists.
”We want to have some kind of internal check on the system,” she said. “It might not be the most ideal the most perfect check, but the people who are working there who are drawing lines in the sand about what they will do and what they will not do are an incredible start.”