In our undemocratic digital world, people have little power to shape the tools that affect their lives. But tech workers could change that
An unprecedented wave of rank-and-file rebellion is sweeping Big Tech. At one company after another, employees are refusing to help the US government commit human rights abuses at home and abroad.
At Google, workers organized to shut down Project Maven, a Pentagon project that uses machine learning to improve targeting for drone strikes – and won. At Amazon, workers are pushing Jeff Bezos to stop selling facial recognition to police departments and government agencies, and to cut ties with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice). At Microsoft, workers are demanding the termination of a $19.4m cloud deal with Ice. At Salesforce, workers are trying to kill the company’s contract with Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The media has been following this story closely. But so far it has missed an important part of the picture. Journalists have largely described these campaigns as examples of “employee activism”. That isn’t quite right. The reason these campaigns have gotten traction isn’t because they’re led by activists. It’s because they’re led by workers. They’re labor actions, in other words – and that’s what gives them their power.
Workers have power because of the central role they play in the productive process, and their capacity to disrupt it. Google workers flexed this power to force their bosses to abandon Project Maven, just as their counterparts at other companies are flexing it now. Big tech firms can ignore activists. They can lobby Washington into submission, and bribe thinktanks and nonprofits into serving their interests. But when their own workers take collective action – workers who are expensive to hire and expensive to train – management has to listen. Because workers in revolt threaten the profit engine itself.
We’re not used to thinking about the tech industry in terms of labor. When the media talks about tech, it typically focuses on the Musks and the Zuckerbergs, and treats their voices as representative of the whole. But tech, like any industry, is composed of workers and owners. The labor of the former generates profits for the latter.
Workers have power because of the central role they play in the productive process, and their capacity to disrupt it
Amazon was not built by Jeff Bezos, any more than the transcontinental railroad was built by Leland Stanford. They were built by the people who were paid to build it. They were built by the workers who did the work.
By neglecting the labor dimension of the rising tide of tech worker unrest, the media has also overlooked the broader goal of the emerging movement it represents. In my own conversations with its participants, they’ve explained that they don’t want to just keep pressuring their CEOs into dropping certain contacts. Rather, they want a seat at the table where decisions are made. They want to help determine how the technologies are built – and if they’re even built in the first place. As a letter written by Amazon workers explains: “We demand a choice in what we build, and a say in how it is used.”
The reason is simple: they’ve learned that management can’t be trusted to make these decisions alone. Management must always prioritize one thing: the bottom line. That’s not because specific executives are greedy, but because the position they occupy compels them to place profitability and shareholder value above all else – even if it means selling technology that helps Ice lock children in cages.
This puts management on a collision course with the workers who care about the destructive effects of the tools they’re building. “Before the campaign, a lot of Googlers had never considered the fact that their values might not be aligned with the values of leadership,” one of the Google organizers who fought Project Maven told me. That misalignment is now being acutely felt at many companies, as workers are discovering the distance between them and their bosses.
When Microsoft workers demand putting “children and families above profits”, or Amazon workers condemn the fixation on shareholder value as “a race to the bottom”, they are identifying a basic antagonism between their concerns and those of management. They are powerless to act on these concerns as individuals, however, because a tech firm is structured along the same lines as any capitalist firm – when management tells you to do something, you do it.
Only by coming together can tech workers have a voice. Only through collective action can they “ensure that technology is built for social benefit and not just for profit”, in the words of the Google organizer I spoke to. Achieving this goal will ultimately require tech workers to create new structures of their own. It will require developing the organizing networks around their campaigns into more formal levers of control.
In my conversations, tech workers have floated a range of proposals. One involves allocating some seats on a company’s board to workers, to be elected by the rank-and-file. Another is unionizing – something that a group of software engineers tried to do at a small company called Lanetix earlier this year. (They were all fired, and the National Labor Relations Board just issued a complaint against Lanetix for multiple violations of federal law.) Björn Westergard, one of the fired Lanetix engineers, has a third suggestion: creating a tech “hiring hall” that certifies workers and hires them out to employers only if certain conditions are met—similar to how the Hollywood guilds work.
People outside the industry might wonder why they should trust tech workers with more power. After all, tech workers already earn relatively high salaries, particularly at the big firms. If they gained more leverage, wouldn’t they just use it to demand even more money? On the other hand, if they did try to shape technology for social benefit, isn’t that a recipe for the worst kind of paternalism?
The reason to support giving tech workers more control over their work isn’t because they’re somehow hardwired to make better decisions than their bosses. It’s because they have the potential to democratize that decision-making process by enabling more people to participate in it.
Our digital world is deeply undemocratic. People have little power to shape the tools that shape their lives. Technology treats them as pockets of data to be mined, as parcels of attention to be harvested, as cogs of a labor process to be rationalized, as members of a community to be criminalized.
The workers who create that technology can help push it in a more democratic direction – not by acting on behalf of people, but in coalition and in solidarity with them. This is already happening: the tech worker campaigns have been strengthened by alliances with scholars, community organizers, immigrant rights activists, and groups like the ACLU. Tech workers have also played an important role in supporting the unionizing efforts of tech’s other workers: the service staff on Silicon Valley campuses, who struggle to make ends meet despite working for some of the richest companies in the world.
These relationships offer a promising starting point for building broader coalitions. The aim should be to bring the creators, users, and targets of technology together, from the Amazon software engineer to the Amazon warehouse worker to the immigrant deported with the help of software running on Amazon Web Services. These are the kinds of solidarities that can empower tech workers to put people over profit, and serve society rather than shareholders.
Such an undertaking might sound utopian. But it has plenty of precedents to draw inspiration from. Organized teachers regularly take collective action to help their students, just as organized nurses take collective action to help their patients. These aren’t acts of altruism, but solidarity. They flow from the recognition that all workers have a stake in the world that their labor helps create.
Tech workers are also tech users. They also have to live in the world that their technologies help create. They may earn more than most, but very few of them are rich enough to insulate themselves from the dystopian implications of algorithmic warfare, algorithmic policing, and algorithmically enriched billionaires hoarding so much of society’s wealth that they have to burn it in outer space.
When Silicon Valley says it’s building the future, this is the future it means. Other futures exist. Tech workers have the power to make them possible.
Ben Tarnoff is a columnist for the Guardian US. He is a founding editor of Logic