build relationships between techies and the Bay Area communities they were moving into. TWC now has chapters
across the country. Its members have joined to protest tech
companies’ military contracts and back service-worker
unionizing campaigns, such as the successful effort in August that won thousands of Silicon Valley security guards
their first labor contract.
Tech workers are fighting for their own interests, too.
Last year, a female engineer at San Francisco–based Lanetix, which makes software for the shipping industry, was
fired after she reportedly began speaking up about workplace issues, such as paid time off and opaque
promotions. Her fellow software engineer
Björn Westergard says the dismissal kicked
off months of strife that inspired staffers to
unionize. Just before the hearing to schedule
union elections in January, Lanetix fired the
entire engineering staff. (Lanetix did not respond to Fast Company’s request for comment.)
It was a reminder that employee activism has
its limits. However, all of the highly skilled engineers found new jobs within a few months.
“Tech workers [have felt] disempowered
at their workplace, [like they] don’t have
control over their work, over what they’re
building,” says Ben Tarnoff, a Cambridge,
Massachusetts–based product manager and journalist,
who covers the tech-worker movement. Tarnoff also belongs to the reemerging Democratic Socialists of America
organization, which has found a toehold among Silicon
Valley progressives. DSA tech workers in San Francisco
have been key supporters of local policy efforts, such as a
ballot initiative to increase funding for subsidized housing and homeless assistance, and are active in many of
the protests over government contracts.
While the prospect of socialism sweeping through
the tech industry seems as unlikely as, well, a reality TV
star becoming president, workers are growing undeniably stronger. Unlike the too-easily replaced hands on the
assembly lines of old, tech-knowledge workers—rare and
highly prized—have considerable sway over companies.
They don’t need to seize the means of production. They
are the means of production, the one scarce resource that
tech can’t live without.
Their disillusionment is all the more profound when they realize their
consumer-facing employer is a defense contractor.
Big tech companies have a tradition of fostering open dialogue
among employees, which makes voicing dissent easy. Google and Microsoft have regular all-staff, ask-the-CEO-anything meetings. Salesforce calls its workforce Ohana, a Hawaiian word meaning extended
family, which cofounder Marc Benioff picked up on vacation; families
sometimes disagree, and argue. Tech companies increasingly expect
employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, says Forrest Briscoe,
a Penn State University business school professor. These companies
shouldn’t be surprised that the whole self includes political and ethical views, especially today.
It’s no coincidence that engineers
are leading the revolt. “Engineering
is regarded as a profit center for the
company,” says Google Cloud Platform engineer Liz Fong-Jones, who
assisted the Never Again campaign.
“We’re expensive to replace, and that’s
where a lot of our power comes from.”
As a transgender woman, Fong-Jones
has been leading dialogue about diversity issues at Google since 2010.
Similar conversations around inclu-
sion and pay equality have been fill-
ing employee chat rooms at other big
tech companies. Engineers also tend to bristle when certain core values
like privacy and free expression are threatened, says Danny O’Brien,
international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “When
companies go against those values, that’s when they run into problems.”
New causes are emerging. At a time when C-suite tech executives
and VCs who fund the industry are becoming some of the most pow-
erful people on the planet, engineers in the housing-starved Bay Area
and Puget Sound cities still live in cramped quarters, despite average
salaries of well over $100,000 a year. They walk through homeless
encampments to catch luxury shuttle buses that whisk them to work.
But the bus drivers, the corporate security guards, and the janitorial
and kitchen staff they encounter don’t get free rides to work. Last year,
Google parent company Alphabet reportedly had more contractors than
direct employees. Most of these workers make a fraction of what their
white-collar coworkers do.
“One of the issues that we want to attack, especially in the Bay Area,
is income inequality,” says Matt Schaefer, a designer (and Never Again
signer). Three years ago, he helped start the Tech Workers Coalition to
Big Idea N
Jeffrey Wigand, former head of R&D
for the third-largest tobacco company,
broke an NDA to help expose how
Big Tobacco misled the public about its
products’ addictive properties and ignored research about cancer-causing
ingredients. His advocacy helped lead
Employees of the $4.6 billion grocery
chain Market Basket revolted when
the company replaced CEO Arthur T.
ees and customers first, in favor of
more shareholder-friendly leadership.
Workers enlisted customer support
to shut down stores, which led to the
return of Demoulas.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin
Kaepernick led an effort for players
to kneel during the National Anthem to
protest police violence against African
Americans—and, by extension, the
NFL’s celebration of law enforcement.
No team has signed Kaepernick since
the end of the season, prompting him
to sue the league for collusion.
1995 2014 2016
TECH WORKERS DON’T
NEED TO SEIZE THE
MEANS OF PRODUCTION.
THEY ARE THE MEANS