Wednesday, Jan 17, 2018, 10:45 am
Tech Workers of the World, Unite!
In just a handful of years, the tide of blue-collar organizing has risen in Silicon Valley. Security officers and shuttle drivers across tech firms, workers at Tesla’s Fremont manufacturing plant and cafeteria workers at Facebook and Yahoo, have united in pursuit of more equitable working conditions.
Such momentum marks a resurgence of working-class solidarity—a response to the untenable blights of excessive hours, scant-to-nonexistent benefits and pay rates inadequate for even bare necessities. Yet the trend constitutes a mere fraction of organizing efforts necessary for the tech industry. In recent years, Silicon Valley has become home to a movement calling for all rank-and-file members of the tech labor force, including handsomely compensated engineers and other white-collar employees, to view themselves as what they are—workers—and organize for the benefit of their communities.
There are numerous barriers to uniting blue-collar and white-collar workers in Silicon Valley, not least of which is tech executives’ tradition of rigorous anti-unionism. This ethos dates back decades, rooted in the counterculture-inflected view that technology would be a democratic, pioneering tool of individual liberation from “big government.” Termed the “Californian Ideology” by media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in 1995, this philosophy adopted, as Moira Weigel noted last year in The Guardian, tenets of “personal liberty” and “market deregulation”—that is, the proliferation of free enterprise, unchallenged by workers or governments. These tropes have seeped into the environments of high-tech companies, encouraging individualism and “entrepreneurialism” among white-collar employees.
The ideology appears in ostensibly rosy working environs: pristine buildings, comparatively high salaries, on-site amenities, casual dress codes, internal motivation posters and reminders to do the right thing. Such settings are key to keeping employees content, as business rags observe. The fine print, of course, is that workers will have little desire to confront companies willing to lavish them with luxuries and nurture their enterprising spirits. Unlike their low-wage counterparts, many higher-paid office workers often aren’t living under dire economic circumstances—quite the contrary, in some cases. This gap, in part, explains why the prospect of white-collar organizing among tech workers is a relatively new one.
Yet some white-collar tech workers, particularly programmers and engineers, are recognizing the need for change. Conceived as recently as 2016, activist groups such as Tech Workers Coalition (TWC), Tech Solidarity, and Silicon Valley Rising (SVR) promote tech-worker rights and labor awareness across class lines. TWC organizer Ares Geovanos emphasizes that many white-collar employees don’t necessarily view themselves the way their companies goad them to—an important distinction for fostering worker consciousness. “Does a person working in the marketing department at Google see themselves as an entrepreneur? Probably not,” he told In These Times.
Moreover, media portrayals of Silicon Valley professionals are often one-dimensional. The notion that white-collar workers might object to their employers’ propaganda and seek a fairer living doesn’t exactly pervade mainstream news outlets, which largely concentrate on the most advantaged engineers, Geovanos noted. “The belief among tech workers that they are privileged can prevent them from looking at their grievances, but this is really only true for white male engineers with a degree from a high-profile institution,” he said.
Additional targets of such organizing are volatile working conditions and insufficient pay relative to cost of living. Service workers aren’t the only members of the tech labor force who work as independent contractors; many IT professionals work at-will, even at flush Silicon Valley firms. White-collar tech employees, too, face the threat of automation with little to no recourse. Consider the mass 2016 firings of Facebook’s “Trending” news editorial staff.
What’s more, Bay Area software engineers, among the tech sector’s most highly paid employees, are often rent-burdened. They must dedicate more than 30 percent of their salaries to live close to where they work—thanks largely to the gentrification catalyzed by their own employers.
High-tech organizing wouldn’t simply benefit engineers and other high-wage workers: It could be a service to users as well. A principle of the Californian Ideology is that technological platforms are apolitical blank slates. However, TWC urges programmers and other professionals to consider and react to the notion that their companies’ products are deeply political. To grasp this point, one must only look to Facebook’s race-targeted ad platforms or Twitter’s censorship of Black activists, among myriad other examples. “You might be working...at Palantir, building a Muslim registry,” Geovanos said, referencing the CIA-backed surveillance company. “There might be Muslim people who are working on these things who don’t necessarily have the power to speak up at risk of losing their jobs.”
For this reason, TWC encourages professionals to consult with their fellow workers about grievances, rather than the corporate custom of airing them to one’s manager. “We want people to consider talking to their co-workers first to see what type of agreement there is among the rank-and-file people. And once you establish connections and some affinity with your co-workers … you’ll be in a much stronger position to get those demands met,” Geovanos said. Modeling this form of collective action, tech employees—including some from TWC—have already refused to cooperate and placed pressure on Palantir not to compile the aforementioned registry.
In addition, white-collar professionals who organize can potentially better the lives of those who transport, feed and clean up after them. White- and blue-collar workers in Silicon Valley, as in nearly every industry, are inextricably linked: Every high-tech office job in Silicon Valley generates many more service jobs. As highly specialized builders of platforms used by millions—if not billions—of people every day harbor an incredible amount of power. “I think many high-tech execs are much more concerned, much more threatened, by the prospect of white-collar organizing than the traditional service-sector blue-collar work that we’re doing,” Ben Field, co-founder of Silicon Valley Rising, told In These Times.
Collectively withdrawing labor for political reasons, while rare, isn’t unheard of in Silicon Valley. Thanks to the work of grassroots groups, many engineers walked off the job in May in protest of the Trump administration. Yet low-wage contractors in Silicon Valley are often far more vulnerable when taking similar collective action. “We are stronger when we fight together,” Geovanos said, “and an organized white-collar workforce would be able to mobilize for other struggles.”
Communication between white- and blue-collar workers, then, is imperative to building solidarity. Yet this is no easy task. Though they may work on the same campus, occupational segregation separates classes of workers. Activist organizations are seeking to bridge that gap, emphasizing that all workers share a struggle, regardless of which part of the building they occupy. “People just aren’t really used to breaking down those barriers. That’s definitely something where we push and encourage,” said Geovanos.
“I think there’s room for improvement there, but there are certainly many white-collar workers who have engaged with efforts to organize cafeteria workers and Google bus drivers and security officers,” Field added. “Also, although they are already organized, the janitors have had a number of big campaigns, one of which was last year. White-collar workers have—some of them—been engaged in all of those efforts.”
Whatever form this organizing takes, it marks the start of the process of liberating workers from labor that constrains them economically, socially and morally. Tech workers, despite the propagandistic narratives of their employers and the media, can’t ignore the politics of the present simply because they’re told they’re building the future. Now that the momentum of collective action is building, the time is nigh for tech workers across the spectrum to defy the individualism that has long confined them and unite.
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Julianne Tveten writes about technology, labor, and culture, among other topics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Capital & Main, KPFK Pacifica Radio, and elsewhere.
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