The Making of the Tech Worker Movement: A 2021 Update

What can we expect from the tech workers movement in 2021?
Ben Tarnoff and Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya
Photo by Thom on Unsplash
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Trump’s victory in 2016 shocked Silicon Valley and catalyzed a generation of employee activism in the industry. Now, four years later, Biden has won the presidency. Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya spoke with Ben Tarnoff about what this might mean for the tech workers movement.

In May 2020, Logic Magazine published Ben’s piece “The Making of the Tech Worker Movement“. In it, he presents the story of how the present-day tech worker movement came about—the ways in which it was shaped by the politics of the moment and simultaneously sought to transcend it. We revisit some of these ideas in light of the changing political landscape of 2021.

NN: We started the year off with Google employees announcing a solidarity union, the Alphabet Workers Union. Members have characterized the union as an attempt to build on existing employee activism and provide a formal structure for organizing that offers greater protection for workers.

What does this announcement mean for the tech worker movement? Do you think solidarity unions (also known as minority unions) are the best way forward for employee activists?

BT: Perhaps the best way to understand the significance of the Alphabet Workers Union is to take a step back and consider the question of organizational form. What kind of structures should tech workers build to sustain and advance their collective power? Organizers have proposed a number of different answers to this question, and the answers tend to be specific to the layer of tech we’re talking about. For example, subcontracted service workers such as security guards and cafeteria staff have had a lot of success with conventional, NLRB-certified unions, joining Unite Here, the Teamsters, and SEIU, and winning wage increases and benefits through the contract negotiation process. Amazon warehouse workers may soon pursue this path as well. Workers at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama are going to hold a vote on unionizing, after a year that saw large numbers of their colleagues throughout the country organizing to demand better health and safety protections during the pandemic. 1 

When it comes to white-collar tech workers, however, the situation is more complex. Some white-collar tech workers have successfully pursued “official,” NLRB-style unionization, such as the full-time workers at Kickstarter and Glitch, and the subcontracted workers at HCL2, which does work for Google. But on the whole, and particularly within firms like Google where most of the white-collar collective action campaigns have been concentrated, the obstacles to this kind of unionization are significant. Defining the bargaining unit is tricky. You would have to exclude subcontracted workers. And because supervisory responsibilities tend to be widely distributed in these companies—there are a lot of “managers” with only a few reports—many people who should be in the union probably wouldn’t be able to join per federal rules. Finally there’s the challenge of winning a majority vote for the union across a large and distributed workforce.

So the question becomes, in the absence of an “official” union, what kind of organizing structures can workers build to establish continuity across different struggles and across the shifting workforce generated by the relatively high level of turnover that these companies have? A large percentage of the full-time employees at Google have joined since the Google Walkout happened. They don’t have a memory of that moment, or any direct experience of it. You need to have a way to bring those people into organizing conversations, and to transmit the lessons of past struggles. But how? 

NN: There have been a number of high-profile retaliation cases at Google, most recently Dr. Timnit Gebru. AWU spoke out against retaliation in their mission statement. What role do you think these cases have played in spurring workers to organize?

BT: Company leadership, at Google and elsewhere, has begun to retaliate against white-collar organizers over the past year in an increasingly brazen way. And leadership does not appear to be as vulnerable to public pressure as they had been previously. Google’s termination of Dr. Timnit Gebru is a good example. Such a move would’ve been harder to imagine a few years ago when management appeared to be more cautious about doing things that would create bad press for them or generate serious discontent among the rank and file. 

Dr. Gebru’s firing resulted in both. We saw a wave of negative media attention, and thousands of Google workers have signed a public petition in protest. Members of Dr. Gebru’s team have also been circulating demands internally that call for her reinstatement. Yet it seems unlikely that leadership will give in. After all, this is the same company that even the NLRB now says violated labor law when it fired employees for organizing in 2019. People at the top have clearly chosen to take a harder line. 

This is the context for the creation of the Alphabet Workers Union. It reflects one answer to the question of organizational form. As a “solidarity union” or “minority union,” the Alphabet Workers Union can sidestep some of the difficulties that I outlined above. Because it is not seeking exclusive representation rights over the workplace through an NLRB process, but is instead a members-only organization, it can be open to both full-time employees (what Google calls FTEs) and subcontracted workers (what Google calls TVCs, or temps, vendors, and contractors). This enables a more solidaristic, “industrial unionism” model of organizing that’s long been embraced by organizers within Google—the idea that collective action must be conducted on a wall-to-wall basis that includes everyone who performs work for Google, no matter their occupation or employment status.3 

The organizers of the Alphabet Workers Union are trying to implant this model within a formal, above-ground structure. Their hope is that by creating a well-resourced organization through membership dues, by partnering with a major national union like the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and by building explicit decision-making mechanisms that enable a degree of democratic deliberation and collective coordination, they can bolster, and ultimately intensify, worker struggles within the company. 

NN: Do you think AWU’s organizing effort can succeed?

BT: I think it’s an exciting step, but it’s also very much an experiment. And it’s an experiment that not all organizers within Google support. Kate Conger, in her New York Times piece that broke the news about the Alphabet Workers Union, reported that several workers who have been active in collective action at Google refused to join. Conger quotes Google organizer Amr Gaber in particular, who says that CWA was “more concerned about claiming turf” than about workers’ needs. On Twitter, Gaber has also raised concerns about the role of white supremacy in the creation of the Alphabet Workers Union, claiming that experienced organizers of color within the company were actively excluded. A former Google organizer, Kathryn Spiers, who was fired in late 2019 as one of the “Thanksgiving Four,” has also voiced some criticisms, while remaining supportive of the effort. “I support CWA/AWU where it helps workers learn about solidarity and mutual aid,” Spiers wrote on Twitter. “I reject it where it sucks the air out of more radical movements and where it tries to convince members change within the system is possible.”

It’s important to listen to these voices and to take what they’re saying seriously, even or perhaps especially among those of us outside of Google who have greeted the announcement of the Alphabet Workers Union with enthusiasm and optimism. Personally, I think the model of a workplace-based membership organization with a democratically accountable structure could play a powerful role in pushing the tech worker movement forward. But I also recognize that there is a lot of context that I don’t have access to surrounding the creation of the Alphabet Workers Union. And I would say unequivocally that the struggle against racism, sexism, transphobia, and all forms of oppression must be placed at the center of the tech worker movement. Without this struggle, and without the leadership provided by people of color, women, and trans people, the tech worker movement wouldn’t exist. 

More broadly, it also seems clear that experimentation with organizational forms will, and should, continue. There are tradeoffs to every approach. Different models may be appropriate to different workplaces and different struggles. But these are not matters that can be resolved abstractly, through intellectual debate. They must be worked out in practice, above all by the workers themselves. 

NN: As you’ve written about in the piece, the Trump election has been hypothesized as a catalyst for the tech worker movement. Can you say more about that, and how you came to that conclusion through your work?

BT: By the time Trump won in 2016, subcontracted service workers in Silicon Valley like janitors and security guards had been unionizing for years. But for collective action to migrate en masse from that layer of workers to the full-time white-collar employees of the tech industry, the Trump election proved pivotal.

There were two main consequences. First, the election raised new concerns about the social harms of the products and technologies that these workers were building. In particular, there was fear among the rank and file that tech companies would be enlisted to build the so-called “Muslim registry”, which was a campaign promise of Trump’s in 2016 involving a database of all Muslims in the United States. That fear became a starting point for broader conversations about the damage being done by the industry, which could intensify under a Trump administration.

The second consequence was a greater sense of distance between the rank and file and the leadership of these companies. In particular, this greater sense of distance was produced through the perception that, while many Silicon Valley leaders had opposed Trump during the campaign, once he had won, they seemed eager to accommodate him. There was a moment known as the Tech Summit in December 2016 when a number of major tech executives came to Trump Tower in New York to sit down for a meeting with the president-elect. There are photographs that emerged from this meeting that angered a lot of white-collar tech workers because they perceived, correctly, that no matter how oppositional the rhetoric of tech leaders during the campaign had been, they were happy to conduct business with the new administration. That raised a question: “Well, if we can’t rely on the leaders of our companies to do the right thing, what other avenues are available to us to take action?”

NN: In any of your conversations, did workers reference what the shift was like, from being a tech worker under the Obama administration to being a tech worker under the Trump administration?

BT: It’s important to emphasize that the types of products, contracts, and technologies that white-collar tech workers would take action against in the years following the 2016 election predated Trump. Palantir began building a digital records system for ICE back in 2014; Amazon Web Services already hosted immigration-related software for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by the time Trump was elected. The real push into machine learning and cloud technologies within the Pentagon began under Obama, not under Trump. And of course there’s a much longer history of collaboration between Silicon Valley and the national security state that dates back to the region’s origins as an industrial zone for semiconductor firms—the tech industry as we know it is very much a creation of the US military. 

So it wasn’t as if Trump was the first one to bring the Valley and the government together; in fact, the relationship between the two was much cooler under his administration than it had been under Obama. Nor was he the one to launch these various digital transformation initiatives at the Pentagon, DHS, and elsewhere. He was inheriting initiatives that had already begun.

This fact is sometimes used by those on the right, and occasionally those on the left, to accuse white-collar tech worker organizers of hypocrisy. Why did they not appear to care about these issues when Obama was in power? Why did it take Trump to stir them to action? The implication here is that white-collar tech workers are simply partisan Democrats, looking for ways to score points against a Republican administration.

Here’s what I would say in response. First, there have always been conversations among white-collar tech workers about the harmful consequences of the products they’re building. There have even been collective action campaigns conducted on this basis: in 2011, for example, Google employees pushed management to abandon a policy requiring users of the social networking site Google Plus to use their real names, arguing that this would endanger certain users. Similarly, the perception of distance between the rank and file and tech’s leadership class is not purely an artifact of Trump. That sense of distance has long been particularly acute among women, people of color, and trans people within the industry, and among those who occupy less prestigious and lower-paid positions—say administrative assistants rather than software engineers. 

NN: Socio-economic inequality has intensified during the pandemic. Much of this inequality also falls along the lines of race and gender. How do you think tech workers understand these issues of inequality? And how are they going to understand these issues after the pandemic?

BT: The heightened inequality of the pandemic manifests in the tech industry in one obvious way: certain workers can work from home, others can’t. So white-collar workers, whether full-time or subcontracted, enjoy much safer working conditions than warehouse workers and gig workers. This is typically how unequal resources and opportunities are distributed within tech: they follow occupational lines—that is, what kind of work you do and what your employment status is.

Other kinds of inequality are found across all layers of the workforce, in particular those associated with race, gender, and sexuality. These forms of difference have a significant bearing on how much people earn, what types of jobs they’re likely to do, their likelihood of being promoted, and their vulnerability to being terminated. If you’re a senior software engineer at Google, you’re at the top of the tech workforce hierarchy, but that doesn’t make you immune to those forces. These forces may manifest differently than they would for an Amazon warehouse worker, and a better-paid worker will obviously face less material hardship if terminated. But sexism, racism, and other oppressions are experienced across every segment of the industry.

Also, anyone can be fired at any time for almost any reason. In many European and East Asian countries, workers have real protections. By contrast, no one in this country has secure and stable employment, aside from unionized workers. (Incidentally, unionized cafeteria workers at Google are better positioned to prevent or contest a termination than Google software engineers.) I’m thinking again of the case of Dr. Gebru at Google. This is a high-profile person within the organization who was fired on the spot for being perceived as too much of a troublemaker. No one is safe in this environment, even if you earn a relatively high salary.

NN: We have this ten thousand plus word characterization of the tech worker movement at a particular instance in time. We’re revisiting that right now. What is one thing you’d like workers to take away from this piece at this present moment: December 2020, at the end of the Trump presidency moving into the Biden presidency?

BT: There’s been a lot of good reporting on white-collar tech worker organizing, but one misleading refrain has been that the phenomenon is best understood as a “culture war.” In other words, tech workers are “woke” and tech executives aren’t, so that’s why they can’t get along. I would hope that someone who reads the piece comes away persuaded that this is the wrong way to think about what’s been happening within the tech industry over the last four years.

It’s not a matter of different people having different sets of values. People do, in fact, have different sets of values. But these values can’t be understood without reference to the distinct class experiences of the individuals espousing them.

What do I mean by class? Class relationships are fluid and complex, but the basic binary—between capitalists who need profits in order to remain capitalists and workers who provide the preconditions for those profits—is always there. And one can find it even among the upper layers of the workforce at top tech firms. What has happened in recent years is that, through a process catalyzed by Trump, white-collar tech workers began to make demands that capitalists and their representatives couldn’t meet. As tensions rose, the basic class structure of the workplace became clear. It became clear who held real power over decision-making and who didn’t. It became clear that profit was leadership’s primary concern, and it became clear how the pursuit of profit contributed to the injustices that workers were protesting. 

This is not to suggest that we should adopt a thin, reductive view of what class is. As I try to explore in the piece, class is always articulated with relations of gender and race and sexuality. These are not subsidiaries or epiphenomena of class but are deeply entangled with how people are classed and how people experience class. Such entanglements are particularly important to the story of the tech worker movement. But without class analysis, we’re left with a superficial understanding of this story. Class analysis is essential for understanding where the movement came from, why it took the forms it did, and where it might go next.

Transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Read the full text of The Making of the Tech Workers Movement in Logic Magazine

Footnotes

  1. In Europe, many Amazon warehouse workers are already unionized.
  2. HCL has since retaliated by outsourcing work to Poland.
  3. For example, the organizers of the Google Walkout of November 2018 developed their demands with input from subcontracted workers, many of whom participated in the action. The following month, the organizers published a letter written by subcontracted workers demanding better treatment for “Google’s shadow workforce.
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