7 min read

Earlier this month, Logic Magazine, a print magazine about technology, hosted a discussion about the past, present, and future of the tech worker movement. This event was co-sponsored by solidarity groups like the Tech Worker Coalition, Coworker.org, NYC-DSA Tech Action Working Group, and Science for the people.

Among the panelists were Joan Greenbaum, who was involved in organizing tech workers in the mainframe era and was part of Computer People for Peace.

Meredith Whittaker is a research scientist at New York University and co-founder of the AI Now Institute, Google Open Research group, and one of the organizers of Google Walkout. Liz Fong-Jones, the Developer Advocate at Google Cloud Platform was also present, who recently tweeted that she will be leaving the company in February, because of Google’s lack of leadership in response to the demands made by employees during the Google walkout in November 2018.

Also in the attendance were Emma Quail representing Unite Here and Patricia Rosa, a Facebook food service worker, who was inspired to fight for the union after watching a pregnant friend lose her job because she took one day off for a doctor’s appointment.

The discussion was held in New York, hosted by Ben Tarnoff, the co-founder of Logic Magazine. It lasted for almost an hour, after which the Q&A session started. You can see the full discussion at Logic’s Facebook page.

The rise of tech workers organizing

In recent years, we have seen tech workers coming together to stand against any unjust decision taken by their companies. We saw tech workers at companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft raising their voices against contracts, with government agencies like ICE and Pentagon, which are just “profit-oriented” and can prove harmful to humanity.

For instance, there was a huge controversy around Google’s Project Maven, which was focused on analyzing drone footage and could have been eventually used to improve drone strikes on the battlefield. More than 3,000 Google employees signed a petition against this project that led to Google deciding not to renew its contract with the U.S. Department of Defense in 2019. In December 2018, Google workers launched an industry-wide effort focusing on the end of forced arbitration, which affects at least 60 million workers in the US alone.

In June, Amazon employees demanded Jeff Bezos to stop selling Rekognition, Amazon’s facial recognition technology, to law enforcement agencies and to discontinue partnerships with companies that work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

We also saw workers organizing campaigns demanding safer workplaces, free from sexual harassment and gender discrimination, better working conditions, retirement plans, professionalism standards, and fairness in equity compensation. In November, there was a massive Google Walkout with 20,000 Google employees from all over the world to protest against how Google handled sexual harassment cases. This backlash was triggered when it came into light that Google paid millions of dollars as exit packaged to its male executives who were accused of sexual misconduct.

Let’s look at some of the highlights from this discussion:

What do these issues ranging from controversial contracts, workplace issues, better benefits, a safe equitable workplace have to do with one another?

Most companies today are motivated by profits they make, which also shows in the technology they produce. These technologies benefit a small fraction of users while affecting a larger predictable demographic of people, for instance, black and brown people. Meredith Whittaker remarks, “These companies are acting like parallel states right now.” The technologies that they produce have a significant impact over a number of domains that we are not even aware of.

Liz Fong-Jones feels that it is also about us as tech workers taking responsibility for what we build. We are feeding into the profit motive these companies have if we keep participating in building systems that can have bad implications for users or not speaking up for the workers working alongside us. To hold these companies accountable and to ensure that all workers are being used for good and people are treated fairly, we all need to come together no matter in what part of the company we are working in. Joan Greenbaum also believes that these types of movement cannot be successful without forming alliances.

Any alliance work between tech workers and different roles?

Emma Quail shared that there have been many collaborations between engineers, tech employees, cafeteria workers, and other service workers in the fights against companies treating their employees differently. These collaborations are important as tech workers and engineers are much more privileged in these companies. “They have more voice, their job is taken more seriously,” said Emma Quail. Patricia Rosa sharing her experience said, “When some of the tech workers came to one of our negotiations and spoke on our behalf, the company got nervous, and they finally gave them the contract.”

Liz Fong-Jones mentions that the main challenge to eliminate this discrimination is that employers want to keep their workers separate. As an example to this, she added, “Google prohibits its cafeteria workers from being on campus when they are not on shift, it prohibits them from holding leadership positions and employee resource groups.” These companies resort to these policies because they do not want their “valuable employees” to find out about the working conditions of other workers.

In the last few years, the tech worker movement saw a huge boost in catching the attention of society, but this did not happen overnight. How did we get to this moment?

Liz Fong-Jones attributes the Me Too movement as one of the turning points. This movement made workers realize that they are not alone and there are people who share the same concerns. Another thing that Liz Fong-Jones thinks led us to this movement was, management coming with proposals that can have negative implications on people and asked employees to keep secrets. But now tech workers are more informed about what exactly they are building.

In the last few years,  tech companies have come under the attention and scrutiny of the public because of the many tech scandals whether it is related to data, software, or workplace, rights. One of the root cause of this was an endless growth requirement. Meredith Whittaker shares, “Over the last few years, we saw series of relentless embarrassing answers to substantially serious questions. They cannot keep going like this.”

What’s in the future?

Joan Greenbaum rightly mentions that tech companies should actually, “look to work with people what the industry calls users.” They should adopt participatory design instead of user-centered design. Participatory design is basically an approach in which all stakeholders, from employees, partners to local business owners, customers are involved in the design process.

Meredith Whittaker remarks, “The people who are getting harmed by these technologies are not the people who are going to get a paycheck from these companies. They are not going to check tech power or tech culture unless we learn how to know each other and form alliances that also connect corporate.” Once we all come together and form alliances, we will be able to pinpoint these companies about the updates and products these companies are building to know about their implications. So, the future basically is in doing our homework, knowing how these companies work, building relationships and coming together against any unjust decisions by these companies.

Liz Fong-Jones adds, “The Google Walkout was just the beginning. The labor movement will spread into other companies and also having more visible effects beyond a walkout.” Emma Quail believes that companies will need to address issues related to housing, immigration, rights for people. Patricia Rosa shared that for the future we need to work towards spreading awareness among other workers that there are people who care about their rights and how they are being treated at the workplace. If they are aware that there are people to support them they will not be scared to speak up as Patricia was when she started her journey.

Some of the questions asked in the Q&A session were:

  • What’s different politically about tech than any other industry?
  • How was the Google walkout organized?  I was a tech contractor and didn’t hear about it until it happened.
  • Are there any possibilities of creating a single union of all tech workers no matter what their roles are? Is that a desirable far goal?
  • How tech workers working in one state can relate to the workers working internationally?

Watch the full discussion at Logic’s Facebook page.

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