In the latest podcast episode of Delete your account, Roqayah Chamseddine and Kumars Salehi talked to Ares and Kristen, volunteers with the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC), about how they function and organize to bring social justice and solidarity to the tech industry.
What is the Tech Workers Coalition?
The Tech Workers Coalition is a democratically structured, all-volunteer, and worker-led organization of tech and tech adjacent workers across the US who organize and offer support for activist, civic engagement and education projects. They primarily do work in the Bay Area Seattle, but they are also supporting and working on initiatives across the United States. While they work largely to defend the rights of tech workers, the organization argues for wider solidarity with existing social and economic justice movements.
The podcast discusses the evolution of TWC (from facilitating Google employees in their protest against Google’s Pentagon contract to helping Google employees in “walkout for real change”), pushback received, TWC’s unionizing goal, and their journey going forward.
A brief history of the Tech Workers Coalition
Tech Workers Coalition started with a friendship between Rachel Melendes, a former cafeteria worker and Matt Schaefer, an engineer. The first meetings, in 2014 and 2015, comprised a few full-time employees at tech companies. These meetings were occasions for discussing and sharing experiences of working in the tech industry in Silicon Valley. It’s worth noting that those involved didn’t just include engineers – subcontracted workers, cafeteria workers, security guards, and janitors were all involved too.
So, TWC began life as a forum for discussing workplace issues, such as pay disparity, harassment, and discrimination. However, this forum evolved, with those attending becoming more and more aware that formal worker organization could be a way of achieving a more tangible defense of worker rights in the tech industry.
Kristen points out in the podcast how 2016 presidential elections in the US were “mobilizing” and laid a foundation for TWC in terms of determining where their interests lay. She also described how ideological optimism of Silicon Valley companies – evidenced in brand values like “connecting people” and “don’t be evil”, encourages many people to join the tech industry for “naive but well-intentioned reasons.”
One example presented by Kristen is of the 14th December Trump tower meeting in 2016, where Donald Trump invited top tech leaders including Tim Cook ( CEO, Apple), Jeff Bezos ( CEO, Amazon), Larry Page (CEO, Alphabet), and Sheryl Sandberg ( COO, Facebook) for a “technology roundup”.
Kristen highlights that the meeting, seen by some as an opportunity to put forward the Silicon Valley ethos of openness and freedom, didn’t actually fulfill what it might have done. The acquiescence of these tech leaders to a President widely viewed negatively by many tech workers forced employees to look critically at their treatment in the workplace. It’s almost as if it was the moment, for many workers, when the fact those at the top of the tech industry weren’t on their side.
From this point, the TWC has gone from strength to strength. There are now more than 500 people in the Tech Workers Coalition group on Slack that discuss and organize activities to bring more solidarity in the tech industry.
Ideological splits within the tech left
Ares also talks about ideological splits within the community of left-wing activists in the tech industry. For example, when Kristen joined TWC in 2016, many of the conversations focused on questions like are tech workers actually workers? and aren’t they at fault for gentrification? The fact that the debate has largely moved on from these issues says much about how thinking has changed in activist communities.
While in the past activists may have taken a fairly self-flagellating view of, say, gentrification – a view that is arguably unproductive and offers little opportunity for practical action – today, activists focus on what tech workers have in common with those doing traditional working-class jobs.
Kristen explains: “tech workers aren’t the ones benefiting from spending 3 grand a month on a 1 bedroom apartment, even if that’s possible for them in a way that is not for many other working people. You can really easily see the people that are really profiting from that are landlords and real estate developers”.
As Salehi also points out in the episode, solidarity should ultimately move beyond distinctions and qualifiers like income.
TWC’s recent efforts in unionizing tech
Google’s walkout for Real Change
A recent example of TWC’s efforts to encourage solidarity across the tech industry is its support of Google’s Walkout for Real Change. Earlier this month, 20,000 Google employees along with Vendors, and Contractors walked out of their respective Google offices to protest discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. As part of the walkout, Google employees laid out five demands urging Google to bring about structural changes within the workplace.
To facilitate the walkout, TWC organized a retaliation hotline that allowed employees to call in if they faced any retribution for participating in the walkout. If an employee contacted the hotline, TWC would then support them in taking their complaints to the labor bureau. TWC also provided resources based on their existing networks and contacts with the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB).
Ares called the walkout “an escalation in tactic” that would force tech execs to concede to employee demands. He also described how the walkout caused a “ripple effect” – since seeing Google end its forced arbitration policy, Facebook soon followed too.
Protest against AI drones
It was back in October when Google announced that it will not be competing for the Pentagon’s cloud-computing contract worth $10 billion, saying the project may conflict with its principles for the ethical use of AI.
Google employees had learned about Google’s decision to provide and develop artificial intelligence to a controversial military pilot program known as Project Maven, earlier this year. Project Maven aimed to speed up analysis of drone footage by automatically labeling images of objects and people. Many employees had protested against this move by Google by resigning from the company. TWC supported Google employees by launching a petition in April in addition to the one that was already in circulation, demanding that Google abandon its work on Maven. The petition also demanded that other major tech companies, such as IBM and Amazon, refuse to work with the U.S. Defense Department.
TWC’s Unionizing goal and major obstacles faced in the tech industry
On the podcast, Kristen highlights that union density across the tech industry is quite low. While unionization across the industry is one of the TWC’s goals, it’s not their immediate goal. “It depends on the workplace, and what the workers there want to do. We’re starting at a place that is comparable to a lot of industries in the 19th century in terms of what shape it could take, it’s very nascent. It will take a lot of experimentation”, she says.
The larger goal of TWC is to challenge established tech power structures and practices in order to better serve the communities that have been impacted negatively by them. “We are stronger when we act together, and there’s more power when we come together,” says Kristen. “We’re the people who keep the system going. Without us, companies won’t be able to function”.
TWC encourages people to think about their role within a workplace, and how they can develop themselves as leaders within the workplace. She adds that unionizing is about working together to change things within the workplace, and if it’s done on a large enough scale, “we can see some amount of change”.
Issues within the tech industry
Kristen also discusses how issues such as meritocracy, racism, and sexism are still major obstacles for the tech industry. Meritocracy is particularly damaging as it prevents change – while in principle it might make sense, it has become an insidious way of maintaining exclusivity for those with access and experience.
Kristen argues that people have been told all their lives that if you try hard you’ll succeed and if you don’t then that’s because you didn’t try hard enough. “People are taught to be okay with their alienation in society,” she says.
If meritocracy is the system through which exclusivity is maintained, sexism, sexual harassment, misogyny, and racism are all symptoms of an industry that, for its optimism and language of change, is actually deeply conservative. Depressingly, there are too many examples to list in full, but one particularly shocking report by The New York Times highlighted sexual misconduct perpetrated by those in senior management.
While racism may, at the moment, be slightly less visible in the tech industry – not least because of an astonishing lack of diversity – the internal memo by Mark Luckie, formerly of Facebook, highlighted the ways in which Facebook was “failing its black employees and its black users”.
What’s important from a TWC perspective is that none of these issues can be treated in isolation and as individual problems. By organizing workers and providing people with a space in which to share their experiences, the organization can encourage forms of solidarity that break down the barriers that exist across the industry. What’s next for TWC?
Kristen mentions how the future for TWC depends on what happens next as there are lots of things that could change rather quickly. Looking at the immediate scope of TWC’s future work, there are projects that they’re working on. Ares also mentions how he is blown away by how things have chalked out in the past couple of years and are optimistic about pushing the tendency of rebellion within the tech industry with TWC.
“I’ve been very positively surprised with how things are going but it hasn’t been without lots of hard work with lots of folks within the coalition and beyond. In that sense it is rewarding, to see the coalition grow where it is now”, says Kristen.