However expansive its ambitions to change the world might be, the tech industry is not known as a hotbed of activism. Historically, tech employees went to work, got the job done, and didn’t talk much about politics.
But in the wake of Donald’s Trump’s election, political talk is nearly everywhere—at company-wide meetings, in discussions among coworkers in the cafeterias, and in employee resource-group meet-ups. For obvious reasons: Many of the policies and views of the Trump administration are anathema to most of the tech industry. In particular, the sector is heavily populated by immigrants—many founders and senior leaders are immigrants, and 60 percent of STEM employees in Silicon Valley are foreign-born (for comparison, only 17 percent of the overall American labor force is foreign-born)—and Trump’s immigration policies (both proposed and enacted) constitute a clear threat to both the industry’s profits and its meritocratic ideology. His brand of politics—“closed borders,” “alternative facts”—is at odds with the primacy the industry places on data, openness, and the free flow of talent around the globe.
Trump’s victory in November stunned many tech employees. Barrie Segal, a senior program manager at the database company MongoDB, said, “There was a lot of confusion and sadness. People were openly weeping in the office. I’ve never seen that before at work.” As one senior manager at a major tech company described it, “It was like a bomb dropped and people died.” (Despite the outpouring of anti-Trump sentiment in the industry, many people I spoke with and the companies they work for asked not to be identified on the record, citing sensitive political times. Such concerns indicate that there are limits to just how public and forthcoming the industry will be with its activism.)
In response, an uptick in activism is evident throughout the industry: Attendance at meetings of advocacy groups like the Tech Workers Coalition have spiked. New organizations like Tech Solidarity have emerged. Last week, at a rally held by a new group called Tech Stands Up, around 1,000 people showed up over the course of the afternoon in downtown Palo Alto to show their support.
Back in late January, in the days after Trump’s first executive order on immigration barring refugees and stopping all entry of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, more than 2,000 at eight Google offices walked out to protest the order. There was thunderous applause when Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, and its co-founder, Sergey Brin, spoke at the walkout. “It was a powerful moment,” said one senior manager at Google who attended. “I’ve never been to anything like that at work before. The walkout was definitely in support of what the leadership is doing. But not so subtly, it was also a challenge not to compromise.” Noting that the leadership team at Google would be exposing the company to risk by actively opposing Trump, the manager said that employees have been given assurances that executives are “using [their] influence behind the scenes” to stand up for what they believe is right. “But there was an unstated message at the walkout,” the manager said. “‘Don’t fuck this up.’”
Inspired by those Google employees, workers at Comcast organized their own protest. To coordinate logistics and share information, an internal channel on Slack, an instant-messaging app, named “Walk Out” was set up. Within days, 1,700 people had joined the Slack channel and about a thousand Comcast employees at offices in several states walked out. After the walkout, employees wanted to keep up their political engagement and extend their reach beyond their company, so they created another Slack channel, a public one called “Innovation Activism,” for connecting with people across the tech industry in Philadelphia, where Comcast is headquartered. Internal company Slack channels have been created so that employees can keep each other updated with political information about things like which organizations to support and the phone numbers of congressional representatives.
“Workplace politicking of this kind is highly unusual,” says Sarah Soule, a professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University (and a colleague of mine). “Typically, workplace activism is focused on issues internal to the firm. Workers go on strike because they are unhappy with pay or working conditions. They push companies to offer domestic-partner benefits or improve their environmental practices. The goal is to get the company itself to change its practices in some way.”
What is happening right now in tech is different: Rather than advocating for internal policies, employees are putting pressure on their companies to become vocal opponents of the Trump administration—by having CEOs make public statements, by turning down certain government contracts, by signing on to legal briefs contesting Trump’s policies. Of the 127 companies that signed onto the amicus brief filed in support of Washington state’s legal challenge to the immigration executive order, the majority are tech companies.
Coworker.org, a digital platform designed to give workers more of a voice at their companies through online petitions and internal social networks, has seen a substantial increase in engagement since election day. “For the past few years, most of the campaigns have been in the retail and service sectors among front-line workers like baristas and bank tellers,” says Michelle Miller, a co-founder of Coworker.org. “But since the election, a greater variety of industries are reaching out to us. We could double our staff and put one person just on tech and we still would not be able to meet the demand.”
Not only is this form of workplace activism rare, but this kind of rapid political mobilization is also rare. It usually takes place only under certain circumstances, like when people feel that their way of life is under threat. Such was the case after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. Prior to the accident, environmental activism in the surrounding area was minimal. But afterward, many of the middle-class residents living nearby, who had no previous history of political protest, came out en masse.
Called “suddenly imposed grievances” or “moral shocks” by researchers, events like Three Mile Island and the 2016 presidential election are galvanizing political forces because they generate intense concern, and people who become the most politicized are those most outraged and directly threatened by the grievance. Since tech is uniquely under threat both ideologically and economically, it is exactly the industry one might expect to take on a new activist vigor. This also sheds light on the lack of response in other industries. Notably, no old-school car companies, finance or insurance companies, food conglomerates, or large retailers signed onto the amicus brief or saw employees at corporate go off the job in protest—perhaps because under Trump they are less at risk.
For many in tech, this is the first time they’ve taken part in political activism in their lives. Aaron Martin-Colby, a Comcast engineer who helped to organize the walkout there, said, “I’ve never done something like this before. I’ve been reluctant to invest anything emotional into politics because of the gridlock. But Trump has the power to do a great deal of unjust harm. I’ve realized it’s important that I make noise.”
Taking their activism a step further, other companies are putting their own proprietary tools to work in opposing Trump. After the executive order on immigration, the social-gathering platform Meetup decided to hold a “resist-a-thon.” The company’s business operations stopped for two days and during that time employees launched over 1,000 “#Resist” Meetup groups in 1,000 cities. To lower the barrier to entry, they made joining these groups free and enabled anyone in the group to schedule an event. They promoted these groups to their 30 million members and partnered with organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union to distribute ideas for promoting activism, such as hosting an emergency meetup to talk about how to protect Planned Parenthood or meetups to provide training on how to organize. The “#Resist” Meetup groups launched on February 6. Within a week, they had 50,000 members. As of last week, they had over 120,000 members involved, 6,500 related events scheduled, and more than 45,000 people who had RSVP’d.
Explaining why Meetup has been so vocal, Kristin Hodgson, the company’s director of communications, said, “We are in an exceptional time. We decided that the ban was stepping on our values and was enough of an affront that we were motivated to speak up. It crossed the line. And we had a platform we could use. We chose not to stay quiet out of fear of what could happen.”
Relatedly, Trump’s presidency has had many tech employees increasing their expectations for the public behavior and stances of executives. “When Trump was elected, I no longer felt I had a leader in the government. I have to look away from my president,” says Segal, of MongoDB. “Who are the leaders now? I’m now looking at the executive team at my company: ‘You tell me what’s going on,’” she says. Some employees’ desire for information, guidance, and even protection has expanded what it means to be a leader for CEOs and top executives in the Trump era.
While the tech industry as a whole leans left, it nonetheless contains an array of views and ideologies, including a strong libertarian streak that runs through Silicon Valley. Indeed, the industry is not monolithic, and there are some in tech who support Trump. Most vocal among them is Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. Thiel has said that tech is out of touch with the needs of many Americans who are not benefiting from government as usual; Trump, he argues, is the change the country needs. Others in tech, a lot less vocal than Thiel, may also side with Trump, seeing his anti-regulation stance as friendly to business.
Besides Thiel, though, Trump supporters in tech are mostly keeping quiet. Given the pushback that top tech executives received for even meeting with Trump during the transition, something that is not unusual in normal political times, it’s understandable why employees with dissenting political voices would feel the need to stay under the radar at work. It remains to be seen if this minority of Trump supporters will decide to become more outspoken.
At the moment, those opposing him are the loudest. But beyond the industry’s business interests and values, there’s another reason why tech employees are more vocal than workers in other sectors: because they can afford to be.
Take, for example, the Never Again Pledge, which more than 600 designers, engineers, and business executives signed in December. It highlights the role businesses and governments have played in carrying out ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination and genocide. The signers vow not to participate in the creation of any databases of “identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.” They also committed to taking action inside their own companies to ensure this pledge is adhered to, including whistleblowing and resigning should they become aware of the misuse of data by their own companies.
“Publicly committing to quit is an unusual brand of what is called ‘insider activism,’” said Soule, the Stanford professor. “Normally, those inside companies who are pushing for change use a more limited repertoire of tactics because they are dependent on their employer for their livelihood.” Out of concern that they will be labeled a troublemaker or face some sort of disciplinary action, most employees tend not to push too hard for their companies to take tough stances.
But in the tech world there are not enough talented coders to go around; when recruiters are hounding the already employed, engineers may be emboldened to ask more of their companies. In fact, concerns about how their employers will react to workers’ public political stands appears to be more of an afterthought. This may be especially true for programmers, many of whom told me that if they needed to get another job, they could easily find one. “I could literally get a job tomorrow,” Martin-Colby, the Comcast engineer, says. “Especially if I [were] willing to move anywhere.”
The strong demand for highly skilled tech workers provides employees unusual leverage over the companies they work for and the industry they work in. “The tech industry relies on a special kind of labor that is hard to get,” says Brayden King, a professor at the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Tech companies emphasize diversity and tolerance because that is what their employees want. If tech employees begin to feel that their company is not living up to these ideals, they may start saying, ‘I’ll go to another company where my values are more aligned.’”
If employees get upset and leave, it could be bad PR for a company. “It really doesn’t matter if a boycott is led by consumers or employees,” says King. “When it creates unwanted media attention it can be a bad thing. If the public perception around a company changes and becomes negative, that can impact how current and potential employees identify with the company.”
On the flip side, if a company or its employees take a bold stance, that could be a big draw. As the Penn State business professor Forrest Briscoe points out, “For companies where employees participate in walkouts or other public actions it could demonstrate that they have a grassroots culture that is authentic to tech values like diversity and openness. It could be a great thing for recruitment.”
This may be at play in how Lyft has been positioning itself in contrast to its main rival, Uber. When the co-founders of Lyft issued a strongly worded statement against the executive order entitled “Defending Our Values” and pledged to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, it was a meaningful experience for many Lyft employees. “It was one of my proudest moments working at Lyft,” says Mike Lodick, an engineer who has been at Lyft for six years. “Everyone at Lyft was proud. Even people who used to work for Lyft were proud.” Lodick liked that Lyft’s response was swift, public, and strongly worded. In contrast, Uber’s response was seen by many as tentative and stilted, and contributed to 200,000 people deleting the app from their phones in protest.
Many employees who work at companies that signed onto the amicus brief expressed pride in their employer’s decision. “To me the amicus brief was a really big statement,” said a senior executive at a large tech company. “When I shared an article on it with our logo and headline on Facebook, a ton of my employee friends shared it out of pride. It was one of the most shared articles I've ever had.”
Similarly, Hai Thai, who is a Vietnamese immigrant and an engineer at Comcast who helped to organize the walkout there, described what it was like to see 700 of his coworkers march with him in Philadelphia: “I feel safer to see these folks supporting us. I felt like they were standing up for me.”
For employees who work at companies whose response has been more muted, the feeling is closer to embarrassment. “I was flabbergasted by the election outcome,” a senior employee working in sales at a large tech company told me. “And then after my company didn’t sign on to the amicus brief, I suddenly realized I work for the man.”
For some Muslim tech employees, their companies’ lackluster responses to the immigration executive order may even be taken as a threat to their safety. As one senior level tech executive who is Muslim said, with respect to Muslim employees at other companies, “The guys at Uber are going to be terrified. Based on the CEO’s reaction there, they are going to think, ‘This guy doesn’t care about me. I’m going to go somewhere where I feel safer.’”
Many tech employees are engaged in a kind of moral reckoning, in part because they may work for companies whose data systems could be used to administer Trump’s policies, and in part because of a history of being rather apolitical up until this moment. Based on her discussions with tech employees, Miller, the co-founder of Coworker.org says, “We are in a moment where tech employees are really thinking about who they are going to be right now. For a while, tech employees have had some discomfort with the technology they are creating—the data-mining and private data caches—and how that information could be used. But after the election, all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh my god! We’ve created an infrastructure that could be put in place to hurt people, to suppress and deport people.’” Lodick, the Lyft employee, echoes this. “I’ve never had to worry before about the U.S. government being the bad guy,” he says. “Now I do.”
Across the tech industry, companies are weighing whether to take more political stances—doing so may signal solidarity with affected employees, but it also risks drawing Trump’s ire. Yet, tech employees may force their employer’s hand. “If a large percentage of employees are prepared to take some kind of action in support of their position, senior management could start to feel squeezed,” says Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford.
Tech’s influence could be substantial, in part because of the demographics of the people who comprise it. People with more education and resources, like those in the tech industry, tend to play key roles in social-activism movements. “It’s often the most advantaged members who are leading the mobilization,” says McAdam. “The most privileged and least vulnerable members can be more active because they have less to lose.”