Silicon Valley has deep roots in supporting the
military-industrial complex. The internet began as a
Defense Department research project, and was used for
surveilling Vietnam War protesters. Generations of chip-makers quietly plowed their work into weapons systems.
With the mainstreaming of technology, though, most of today’s engineers sign up to build consumer-facing services
for individuals, even as their tech behemoth employers
increasingly seek out military and law-enforcement contracts. As the political environment grows more contentious, these highly paid, highly trained employees are now
leveraging their numbers to sway public opinion—and,
in the case of Project Maven, kill a government contract
potentially worth up to $250 million a year. With every
protest, the gap between employee and employer grows.
The roots of employee rebellion in Silicon Valley lie
in the recruitment process itself. Google sells job candidates on its mission to “develop services that significantly
improve the lives of as many people as possible.” Facebook
promises to “bring the world closer together.” Engineers
with multiple job offers in a tight labor market can choose
which employer best shares their values. “They are brought
to the company with the idea that they will do something
massively good,” says Yee, who, prior to Wave, worked at
Google’s philanthropic division, Google.org, for seven years.
Yee, who worked at the mobile money-transfer platform
Wave during the election. “[Databases are] a necessary
component of that particular evil.” And who was better
poised to build them than the highly skilled engineers
of Silicon Valley?
So Yee was heartened when his friend (and fellow
Canadian) Leigh Honeywell, then a security manager at
Slack, enlisted him to help draft a statement to both the
incoming administration and tech leaders that Silicon
Valley’s rank and file were not on board. “We were seeing
what felt like a new energy in tech-employee organizing,” says Honeywell, who had volunteered for the Hillary
Clinton campaign. The result was the Never Again pledge,
signed by 2,843 engineers, designers, and other workers
at companies including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google,
and Microsoft. Referencing the role of IBM’s punch-card
technology in Holocaust record-keeping, the signatories
vowed not to participate in the creation of any targeted
databases for the U.S. government. And they laid out a playbook for
worker-led resistance: Raise issues with leadership, whistle-blow,
protest, and—as a last resort—resign.
Employees are now deploying this strategy with increasing frequency at some of the country’s biggest tech companies. In June,
Amazon workers sent an open letter to Bezos, demanding that he
stop providing the company’s Rekognition face-identifying technology to law enforcement and other government agencies. They also
called for Amazon Web Services to stop hosting companies, such as
Palantir, that service Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That
same month, more than 650 Salesforce employees signed a letter asking the company to cease providing recruiting software to Customs
and Border Protection. At Microsoft, 500 people reportedly signed
a petition to get the company to stop offering cloud services to ICE.
“[Never Again] was the beginning of a shift where people started
to think about their responsibility to not build harmful tools,” says
Tyler Breisacher, a software engineer who signed the pledge. This past
spring, Breisacher resigned from Google, in part over the company’s
involvement in Project Maven, a Pentagon program to use artificial
intelligence on the battlefield. That protest grew to include more
than 4,000 employees, who wrote an open letter to Google CEO Sun-dar Pichai, declaring, “We believe that Google should not be in the
business of war.” Two months later, in June, Google announced that
it would not renew its military contract for 2019. Googlers were soon
at it again, petitioning against—and resigning over—the creation of a
censored search product for China, code-named Dragonfly.
WORKERS HAVE LONG FOUGHT
EMPLOYERS FOR BE T TER PAY AND
UPRISINGS HAVE BEEN MORE RARE.
HERE ARE A FEW NOTABLE EXCEPTIONS.
BY DAVID LIDSKY
Disturbed by sexualized uniforms
created a protest group called
Stewardesses for Women’s Rights
(SFWR) and argued that their employers’ practices impeded their roles
as safety officers. Their high-profile
activism eventually helped end this
Though Hormel meat-packers in Austin, Minnesota, initially went on strike
over 23% wage cuts, the effort quickly
became a broader critique of the coziness between national unions and
management and cities that grant employer concessions to secure new jobs.
The effort failed, and Hormel hired new
workers at lower wages. (Continued)
1985 1972 The Protest Formation
Big Idea N