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Which Side Are They On?

As Silicon Valley software engineers begin to organize, can they build solidarity with their blue-collar colleagues?

Silicon Valley employees have been racking up headlines lately. Not for building a marginally thinner phone or a new libertarian digital hellscape for us to dump our personal information into. In fact, it is quite the opposite: software programmers want their companies to start living up to their idealistic credos. They are taking “Don’t be evil” literally, much to the chagrin of management.

In April, New York Times columnist Kevin Roose penned a call to arms, encouraging the nascent movement to recognize its own power:

You are your employers’ most valuable assets, and your bosses are desperate to keep you happy. As tech companies take on increasingly vital roles in global commerce and culture, you have the power to shape the way they operate and the ethical standards they uphold. If you want change, all you have to do is organize and speak up.

“That seems farcical to me,” says Björn Westergard, who has every reason to cast side eye on Roose. No one in the Lanetix C-Suite was desperate to keep Westergard happy. Instead, he was fired earlier this year along with over a dozen other engineers for trying to unionize with NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America (CWA). “I think [that’s] the only reason someone would write an op-ed like that. It’s a cheap way to hitch your wagon to hot journalistic buzzwords,” says Westergard. As tech worker dissent “goes viral” (to use a recent Wired magazine headline), reporters on the movement—and even the movement leaders themselves—are in danger of losing perspective. Westergard warns, “I think people are latching onto the idea of tech unions basically in ignorance of labor history. So, they just imagine, ‘oh yeah one day all the workers get the idea in their heads that they’d like to unionize and then they just do it and they make demands.’” The reality, of course, is more complicated.

A lot has changed since the midcentury heyday of American labor organization and widespread union membership. Both the nature of the work and how it is organized in the workplace are very different and so tactics have to keep pace. Such is the arduous task of Tech Workers Coalition (TWC),, Tech Solidarity, Silicon Valley Rising, and other not-quite-a-union affinity organizations that are helping tech workers coordinate political campaigns. In a recent dispatch for n+1, Alex Press spoke to Jason (not his real name), a Boston-based software engineer who describes the ease with which a small cadre of disaffected techies could establish what Press calls a “digital picket line.” Jason imagines that Slack’s engineers “could without too much difficulty push out a change that made it so that any message that got sent would push a message about the purpose of the strike [to the user].”

Recently there has been concerted effort to end contracts with government agencies like the Department of Defense and Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce. About a dozen Google employees even resigned, and thousands more signed a letter in protest over Project Maven, an AI program meant to automatically review and sort drones’ camera footage. In a refreshing departure from the hairsplitting over what is technically legal that usually dominates Democrats’ defense of such projects, these workers made a flat-out moral argument. One Google engineer anonymously told Wired, “People who signed up to be tech heroes don’t want to be implicated in human rights abuses.”

It would be hard enough to corral a bunch of Pollyanna programmers into a bargaining unit that would effectively confront management, but things aren’t even that straightforward.

All this high-stakes heroism is certainly admirable and, so far, a net positive to leftist causes. But what will they do when the tactics are less flashy and the fight hits closer to home? Will “tech heroes” come to the rescue of their own cafeteria workers, many of whom might be immigrants barely scraping by? This happened at least once, where Tech Workers Coalition, itself founded by a cafeteria worker-turned-organizer, along with an engineer, successfully helped some five hundred Facebook cafeteria workers unionize with UNITE HERE. TWC’s Medium page also scolded Vox Media for planning to hold its 2018 Code Conference at the Terranea Resort, which was then fighting a lawsuit filed by Sandra Pezqueda, a former dishwasher who was fired after reporting her boss for sexual harassment. (The conference was held there anyway, just weeks after Pezqueda settled with the resort out of court.)

Are these two sorts of campaigns—internal reform of company hiring practices and jockeying for control of external impacts of the company—synergistic or at odds? Do white and blue-collar workers have enough in common to act in solidarity with one-another? “Personally I, actually, oppose efforts to start talking about unionizing among software engineers,” says Fred (not his real name), one of the co-founders of the organizing committee of the tech action working group of the New York City DSA chapter—just “Tech Action” for short—who sees many white-collar workers as too politically inexperienced to start organizing properly. Echoing Westergard, Fred observes, “I think a lot of people have this naive feeling of, like, I’m new to socialism, I’m new to organizing, hey let’s unionize my workplace!” For these workers, management has been a receptive debate partner—an entity that has its own interests but genuinely wants to know what you think about how a project is going or where everyone should go on the company retreat. Demanding a union is a bright red line workers don’t even know exists. Fred warns, “I don’t think they appreciate just how truly aggressive the boss is going to be if they are not careful about that kind of discussion.”

It would be hard enough to corral a bunch of Pollyanna programmers into a bargaining unit that would effectively confront management, but things aren’t even that straightforward. Thanks to peer management techniques that mirror their products’ ability to inculcate users in their own ad targeting, employees are often charged with small bits of hiring, firing, and promotion work. Fred continues: “I’m involved in interviewing. I’m in hiring committee meetings where I give my input as a technical interviewer about candidates. So, you might say I’m part of hiring. And then you have peer bonuses, which is a big thing at Google, where you can recommend a $500 bonus for some peer who did a good job.”

This makes organizing difficult—not because the management-worker line is blurred but because management themselves can move that line as it suits them in labor negotiations. Westergard recalls that in his fight with his former employer, “management has through their lawyers told the [National Labor Relations] Board​ that half of the people who tried to join the union were managers, including myself and the woman they first fired. They’re claiming we were in fact supervisors all along.” Before the firings both the workers and management were clear about who had supervisory status. But once it was time to argue in front of the National Labor Relations Board employees became supervisors and actual supervisors became innocuous-sounding “chapter leads.”

Peer job performance reviews and other power-diffusing management techniques aren’t found in all departments, however. In fact, they end quite abruptly at the doors of cafeterias, security booths, and janitors’ closets. These workers who have the most to gain from unionizing are not technically employees at all. They are, instead, employees of  lesser known companies like the Compass Group, who boasts on their website that they are “the foodservice company you’ve never heard of that’s quietly changing how you eat—in ways that are better for your health and the planet.” The real reason you’ve never heard of them may have less to do with modestly saving the ecosystem and more about dodging flak.

For all their talk of disruption, subcontracting is one area where Silicon Valley firms are happy to adopt standard business practices. “For thirty years we’ve seen companies subcontract away their non-core business,” says Stephen Boardman, the communications director of SEIU-United Service Workers West, which has been organizing Bay Area security guards and janitors for years. “There are very few companies that are keeping their custodial and security firms.”

The Compass Group, Flagship Facility Services, Bon Appétit Management Company, First Security Services, and Hallcon are just some of the real employers of janitors, cafeteria workers, security guards, and bus drivers of better-known companies like Facebook, Google, Intel, and Cisco Systems. Instead of hiring people directly, Silicon Valley firms essentially lease entire departments.

Subcontracting’s precarious nature attacks the social bonds that are necessary for worker solidarity.

Subcontracting has a big impact on the quality of life of workers and the bottom line of their employers. Indeed, most of the people I spoke to for this story pointed to a 2017 New York Times article by Neil Irwin that profiled two janitors—one working at Eastman Kodak in the ’80s and one working at Apple today—and how the former rose in the ranks to senior management while the latter has no foreseeable path toward similar advancement. Irwin concludes that this “approach has made companies more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders. It has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.”

A fact sheet from Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition of labor unions, churches, and grassroots organizations, gives a comprehensive picture of whose backs this profit has been built on: 58 percent of blue-collar subcontractors are Black or Latino, many are women. Their average annual pay is only $19,900, which is partly why 59 percent of blue-collar subcontractors face unaffordable housing costs. Even lower-level coders and other white-collar positions hired through a subcontractor take home, on average, 35 percent less than their directly-hired counterparts. Given that these subcontracted positions have grown three times as fast as actual employee positions over the last twenty-four years, this is the real future of Silicon Valley employment. Not only do these jobs pay very little, they don’t last very long. The same New York Times article that profiled the two janitors also reported that most subcontractor jobs last about a year.

And it is this precarity that creates a twofold challenge for organizers. First, it has the practical effect of making firings easier and retaliatory lawsuits harder. If cafeteria workers start demanding better pay for fewer hours the company can just cancel their contract with the subcontracting firm and fire the entire staff all at once. It makes firing individuals easier, too, because if Google, who’s buying the services of Bon Appétit to staff its cafeteria, says a worker has to go then all Bon Appétit has to do is say a major client is unhappy with their job performance. Google doesn’t have to give cause for the firing, though they would for a real employee.

Secondarily, and much more perniciously, subcontracting’s precarious nature attacks the social bonds that are necessary for worker solidarity. “I’m very reluctant to ask about their employer,” says Fred, “because I’ve heard stories of even just asking that question—and someone overhears it—they can maybe get back to someone and it really jeopardizes the workers’ situation.” Being a subcontractor also means you are cut off from all of the retreats, parties, and other informal gatherings where bonds are formed. Fred adds, “you’re not really going to have any social connections with anyone else in your workplace.”

Of course, the employees aren’t staying long themselves, and given how in-demand their specialized labor can be, quitting and moving to another job is in serious competition with organizing. In our discussion about the specific challenges of organizing software engineers Westergard mentions how quitting is often in competition with organizing: “When I was involved in [Industrial Workers of the World] campaigns at Starbucks you did often hear people say they would quit because it’s a way of avoiding making a decision of whether or not to support the union, but when pressed they would concede, ‘yeah, I can’t really get another job.’” Some software engineers on the other hand, “could credibly say, ‘yeah but I can actually get another job. I’m deleting recruiter spam all day. Of course, I can get another job.’” Women, however, are still routinely cut out of the boys’ clubs that confer jobs, and so it is no coincidence that at Lanetix they were the ones who, according to Westergard, “accurately recognize[d] that banding together and pushing back against management to a degree was in their short-term interest.”

If organizing across collars is going to work, it will need to overcome a deeper, more fundamental rift between populist and progressive theories of change.

Forging solidarity across these two camps—software engineers making six figures who can quit and find gainful employment elsewhere and subcontracted cafeteria staff who can barely afford their tiny far-flung homes on their precarious salaries—is extremely difficult. Even under the best of circumstances, union organizers work exceptionally hard to get everyone to agree that their fates are linked. Everyone doesn’t start singing “The Internationale” at the first meeting. Instead, organizers have to convince the teenage libertarian that he deserves a better salary and the apathetic, “I’m not political” person to fight for more days off. Unionization campaigns are about finding a hardship everyone faces and overcoming it together. Someone who is sympathetic to the cause but not materially affected by the outcome of organizing is a wild card.

Higher ideals about who your company does business with and how your work supports fascist regimes is absolutely worthy of praise and support, and it can be animating, but the sort of sustained work that builds union power has to come from something near and dear to everyone in the workplace. Westergard puts it this way: “If these groups [TWC, Tech Action, and so on] fail to also appeal to the short-term and particular interests of software engineers, it will prevent the movement from growing beyond those who already have a broad political outlook (like myself). If it does not grow, it will not be a force which can hinder or help the marginalized.”

Fred agrees, observing that if “you are just a group of progressive liberals that have a moral sense of ‘we’re so privileged and we have to extend that privilege to others’ . . . yeah, you are going to see the inherent inequalities and you’re going to want to address it. But you’re not going to have the shared interest that actually makes you fight . . . because you have something at stake in this too. And the other side is also going to like it a lot more if you’re not just paternalistically saying ‘I’m fighting on behalf of you!’ [Instead] you’re identifying what you have in common and fighting for that as well.”

Fred and Westergard were adamant that they are speaking only for themselves and not their respective organizations, but their advice is hard to dispute. The movement, it seems, needs fewer tech heroes and more humble tech workers willing to do the less glamorous work of distributing union cards and watching cafeteria workers’ kids while they participate in a picket line. It also, somewhat counterintuitively, has to engage simultaneously with the working conditions of well-off software engineers—or organizers risk building on a shaky foundation. Finding out what sucks, even for the best paid workers, might be the key to a broad coalition.

Fred says that popular issues in Tech Action meetings include “working hours, time for vacation, [and] clear vacation boundaries, not always being on. We have done a lot to relate these ideas to popular issues in the tech industry like discrimination and diversity.” Part of that work is dismantling the idea that Human Resources is on your side. Realizing HR’s true purpose—insulating management from lawsuits, surveilling workers to catch organizing efforts early—is enough to break some of the notion that management will ever negotiate in good faith.  

If organizing across collars is going to work, it will need to overcome a deeper, more fundamental rift between populist and progressive theories of change. In a recent interview on Citations Needed, Thomas Frank (The Baffler’s founding editor) observed that progressivism “is reform from the top down, as opposed to populism, which is reform from the bottom up. Populism is working-class people getting together and making change, and progressivism is members of the professional class seeing that something is not working right and fixing it. And they don’t get along, populism and progressivism, they don’t like each other historically.”

They don’t like each other for precisely the same reason that Fred and Westergard dismiss Roose and his cheerleading op-eds. Such facile power grabs take the momentum of a broad campaign and sheepdog it into a smaller, essentially reformist project. They also feed the dangerous notion that powerful people bestow rights on the little people simply because they have good morals.

There is no guarantee that a union of affluent software engineers will axiomatically fall on the right side of history. Even autoworkers, that venerated core of twentieth century American organized labor, according to the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, sided with management when they joined the American Road Builders’ Association, a pressure group dedicated to convincing the federal government to build the American highway system and all the other supporting infrastructure for car-oriented, racially segregated suburbia. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents employees at both Lockheed Martin and Boeing, regularly posts fawning press releases about veterans but has very little to say about the injustices perpetrated by drone warfare or conventional bombing. Can we count on employees at Uber working on autonomous cars to support drivers? Will Axon (né Taser) employees be willing to confront their role in what Gramsci called the “integral state” of private firms supporting the state’s legitimate use of violence?

“In some sense every capitalist firm is engaged in an objectionable enterprise,” notes Westergard. “The only way you can have a labor movement is if you’re willing to make some sort of compromise with, I think, the ultimate goal of furthering some sort of class interests and ultimately moving beyond a capitalist society.” Grappling with these larger issues, while important, is beyond the reach of organized labor at the moment. Westergard adds, “we aren’t really at a point where institutions exist that could be making those decisions.”

It’s worth remembering that deep within the founder-focused ethos of Silicon Valley is a pesky belief in meritocracy. They “feel that they made it, they earned it.” Says Fred, “It was their own merit, their own individual talent that got them a nice job being able to ‘do what they love’ and . . . I don’t think there’s enough there to work with to get such a person to risk something out of a sense of collective interest of all the workers in the workplace.”