A New Kind of Labor Movement in Silicon Valley

Employees at Google and elsewhere are protesting their bosses’ business decisions. Will that evolve into a more sustained labor movement?

Workers holding signs and protesting in front of an Apple store
Robyn Beck / Getty

In August, not long after The Intercept revealed that Google has been working with the Chinese government to launch a censored search engine, workers at Google drafted a letter demanding that their bosses stop their plans and put in place a “concrete transparency and oversight process” to avoid being blindsided in the future by projects that conflict ethically with the employees working on them. To date, according to Buzzfeed, more than 1,400 people have signed the letter.

The letter is the latest evidence that tech workers are interrogating their roles in changing the world. Before this, organized white-collar tech workers’ biggest success occurred in June, when Google announced it wouldn’t renew its contract for the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which “involved drone video footage and low-res object identification using AI.” To the more than 3,100 Google workers who signed an open letter, this contract would not only “irreparably damage Google’s brand” but also pivot the company into “the business of war.”

Since then, more than 100 Microsoft employees protested their company’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in an open letter on an internal message board, citing their belief that the company should put “children and families over profits”; Amazon employees called on their boss, Jeff Bezos, to cease selling Palantir’s face-recognition software to law enforcement, claiming that the technology would be used to “harm the most marginalized”; and, in response to a Customs and Border Protection contract, Salesforce employees who felt the deal “inhumane” organized a boycott campaign to get other companies to refuse Salesforce’s donations.

It’s a markedly different approach to labor organizing than the traditional one, involving exercising worker power through unions. While tech’s blue-collar workforce began organizing itself over the past couple of years—for example, Silicon Valley security officers and Facebook’s cafeteria workers have formed their own unions—it was a rare occurrence when, in January, software engineers at the cloud-based logistics company Lanetix tried to unionize. In response, Lanetix fired them, according to a complaint the engineers filed with the National Labor Relations Board. (Lanetix didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

More typically, efforts to organize white-collar tech workers have begun and ended with single-issue campaigns. Earlier this summer, organizations including Silicon Valley Rising, the Tech Workers Coalition, and chapters of the ACLU began a series of events called Tech Won’t Build It, in which white-collar tech workers share lessons from past campaigns to get their bosses to drop controversial government projects. The events are held in U.S. tech hubs including San Francisco, Seattle, and Cambridge, as well as being streamed online. “The common thread of these campaigns [is] tech workers demanding a seat at the table where decisions are being made about what technology is being built,” Ben Tarnoff, a journalist and tech worker who moderated some Tech Won’t Build It events, said.

Some tech activists imagine a more sustained labor movement—if not a broad-based union, then at least some strong industrywide coalition, including both blue-collar and white-collar workers, that can seek long-term change rather than one-off concessions. While single-issue campaigns are a good start to mobilizing worker power, they are limited in what they can accomplish. Government contracts refused by one company can be taken up by others, and workers who object to a firm’s practices can be replaced by others who don’t. Whether white-collar employees’ protest letters could evolve into something more, though, remains a lingering question.

As Studs Terkel wrote in the introduction to his 1974 oral history Working, “The blue­-collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan.” Still, there has long been a cultural divide between blue-collar workers, who have traditionally been unionized, and white-collar ones, who often haven’t been. That rift is now apparent in Silicon Valley, where the median salary for employees at Google and Facebook has risen to more than five times the typical wages of the region’s security guards (who are typically employed by outside agencies that contract with tech companies). Programmers are well paid—they even get free lunches—so why would they feel the need to organize?

Wendy Liu, a former Google employee and the economics editor for New Socialist, a left-wing publication based in the United Kingdom, argues that white-collar workers should try to form a more cohesive labor movement with their blue-collar brethren in part because the status quo is impermanent. She points to the proliferation of coding boot camps—where workers spend intense hours learning new programming skills—as an indicator that wages for white-collar workers might not always be quite so high. While the camps may make individual workers more marketable, the growing supply of programmers will push down pay for all. “Most programmers I know seem to think their jobs are safe,” Liu said. “But not all of them will be.” And, Liu notes, if other workers don’t push down wages, computers will. “Precarity is trickling up to white-collar professions.”

Already, the notion of being “well paid” has a different definition in the Bay Area than most anywhere else. In June, a survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that due to the high cost of living, families in three Bay Area counties, including San Francisco, are considered “low-income” if they make below $117,000 a year. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is more than $3,000 a month. That means that many material needs actually aren’t being met, even on a $100,000 salary.

Even for those who feel like they’re doing fine, organizers argue, concerns about their role in drastic and visible income inequality across the Bay Area might inspire a kind of solidarity-through-shame. “I was at a conference, and someone said, ‘I realize that I may be a gentrifier. What do I do?’” Maria Noel Fernandez, the campaign director for Silicon Valley Rising, which organizes blue-collar tech workers, said. “If we can force conversations around the social ills that the industry causes or contributes to, like the displacement of long-standing communities, deportation, and mass incarceration, we can give workers a reason to organize and make demands, even if they don’t feel exploited on a personal level.”

And yet so far, protests about how technology is being designed and used haven’t expanded into a broader drive to organize all tech workers as one faction. Tech companies offer programmers and engineers high salaries after grueling interview processes, a system that reinforces the idea that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy in which you just have to work hard enough to be successful. This seems to convince some workers to view the company they’re working for as their life’s top priority, with everything else in the distance. “Tech companies tell their employees, and those employees in turn tell each other, that their positions are deserved because they’re the smartest,” Steven Goldberg, a 33-year-old software engineer in San Francisco, told me in an email, “which makes them fundamentally different and better than other types of workers, e.g., the ones who clean their offices and serve them food.”

In 2015, Goldberg began working at BuildingConnected, a tech company that streamlines communication for construction companies. He had heard a co-founder mention that one of the company’s core values was “transparency,” so he decided to take his management up on it by organizing an effort to bring about worker-pay transparency. Management agreed, then balked. What surprised Goldberg most, though, was the reluctance of other co-workers to join in his campaign. “The coworkers I spoke to were generally in favor of pay transparency in principle, but their reticence was specifically due to management’s opposition, which demonstrates the general fear of upsetting the ‘friendly boss,’” he said. “Tech folks manage to maintain a right-libertarian worldview the same way anyone else does—by having access to the resources necessary to insulate themselves from the harmful effects of their philosophy.”

Until organizers can convince all tech workers that they’re in the same fight together, independent of salary numbers and skill sets, worker power will be fractured. But if there was ever a time in labor history when the bridge between coders and cleaners could happen, perhaps this is it. Rising inequality, the Trump Administration’s anti-immigration policies, and the coming-of-age of a generation of desperate millennials realizing they’ll never have enough money to retire or buy a house are all potential recruitment tools for unions.

“People are starting to come to terms with the fact that Silicon Valley isn’t that great after all,” Liu said. “They’re coping by joking about it—it starts at a level of Twitter jokes—but then eventually it becomes this bigger movement, coalescing around the need to reform and change the structure. That requires building collective power, and a realization that their interests as workers are ahead of the interests of the Elon Musks or Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.”