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Shaking up Silicon Valley's workplace


Silicon Valley’s tech sector has always made headlines. Playground-like offices, all-you-can-eat buffets and even reports of micro-dosing LSD to fuel creativity have painted tech companies as disruptive and exciting. But beneath the fun-loving façade, office workers are allowed little say in what they build, and blue-collar workers are paid so little that many struggle to make ends meet.

Shaking up Silicon Valley's workplace

Unlike most senior business figures, the founders of tech companies—such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Elon Musk—are famous. They are elevated to public figures, with a very visible media presence. Their businesses appear to run like well-oiled machines, so much so that it’s easy to forget there’s anybody working for them at all. The men heading tech companies are notorious for making decisions alone, without consulting board members or colleagues. 

“We’re not used to thinking about the tech industry in terms of labour,” says journalist and tech worker Ben Tarnoff, writing for The Guardian. “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 labour of the former generates profits for the latter.”

But the balance of power is starting to shift. Creative workers are beginning to protest what they regard as their bosses’ immoral business decisions and demanding a say in what they build. Blue-collar workers are showing early signs of unionisation and demands for higher pay. If tech workers are able to unionise, we will see a different Silicon Valley—and a very different approach to tech and creativity.

Historically, unionising hasn’t seemed like a huge priority for the tech sector—particularly at the white-collar level. Comparatively high salaries, office perks and generous holidays are all markers of the profession, simultaneously keeping workers on side and convincing them of the company’s paramount importance. Indeed, Google’s co-founder Larry Page has remarked that the company should operate “like a family” and it has been rated by CNN and Fortune as the number one place to work in the world.

The white-collar struggle

In recent years, however, protest in the US has become more widespread and commonplace. Ordinary citizens in every industry are more aware of their rights, and their ability to shape and influence decisions made by those with more power. As Tarnoff later comments in the same article, “Workers have power because of the central role they play in the production process, and their capacity to disrupt it.” Coupled with this, some tech companies have attracted a recent wave of negative press attention. With Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Amazon’s alleged treatment of workers in its factories and controversy over YouTube’s payment of royalties, the tide of public opinion is beginning to turn against tech giants.

White-collar tech workers have been swept up in this as well, protesting the immoral business decisions of their bosses in several marches and walkouts across Silicon Valley. Workers aren’t striking over poor pay or conditions, but over dubious decisions they have the power to disrupt.

An article published in The Atlantic last September by Rick Paulas details some of the recent tech protests. In August, shortly after it emerged that Google had been working with the Chinese government to launch a censored search engine, workers at Google drafted a letter ordering their bosses stop their plans and put in place a “concrete transparency and oversight process” to avoid being shut out of company decisions that conflict ethically with the employees working on them.

Prior to this, in June, Google workers achieved a landmark success when their bosses announced the company wouldn’t renew its contract for the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which “involved drone video footage and low-res object identification using AI”. Over 3,100 Google workers signed an open letter, arguing this contract wouldn’t only “irreparably damage Google’s brand” but also move the company into “the business of war”. Since this time, more than 100 Microsoft employees protested their company’s contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in an open letter on an internal message board, protesting that the company should put “children and families over profits”.

Further to this, Amazon employees called on CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling Palantir’s face-recognition software to law enforcement, claiming that the technology would be used to “harm the most marginalized”. These recent protests—though still few and far between—suggest that white-collar tech workers are beginning to question the decisions that their bosses are making and demand a role beyond simply creating and building the product.

Equality at all levels

Historically, there’s been a hierarchical divide between blue- and white-collar employees at tech companies. Blue-collar workers are often outsourced, with tech companies looking to external providers for security guards, cleaners and cafeteria workers. Unlike those at the top of the financial tree, blue-collar workers don’t reap the benefits of office perks. There’s also a racial element to the division: “Black and Latino workers comprise 58% of the cleaners, bus drivers, caterers and other subcontractors working for big tech firms, but only 10% of the core tech workforce,” says Labour MP Chia Onwurah.

But the biggest division is undoubtedly pay. In 2017, the median salary at Facebook was $240,430. The same year, The Guardian reported the story of a couple who both worked at Facebook’s Silicon Valley cafeteria. They were living in a two-car garage with their three children, on salaries of $19.85 and $17.85 an hour.

Onwurah, who started her career working for a Canadian tech company, says that over a million people in the Silicon Valley area are on jobs that pay only $18 an hour—well below the US living wage of $22 per hour. Nicole, the cafeteria worker named in the article, commented, “They look at us like we’re lower, like we don’t matter.”

This only serves to drive a wedge between the blue- and white-collar workers of Silicon Valley. In an article for The Atlantic published last September, software engineer Steven Goldberg said: “Tech companies tell their employees, and those employees in turn tell each other, that their positions are deserved because they’re the smartest, which makes them fundamentally different and better than other types of workers, e.g., the ones who clean their offices and serve them food.”

The likelihood of blue- and white-collar workers collaborating and forming one conglomerate union seems slim. Arguably, a move like this would be more powerful and would make a bigger statement. But the more likely prospect is separate unions to promote their separate concerns.

Tech revolution

Several years ago, maintenance and repair technicians at Amazon filed a petition with the US National Labour Relations Board announcing their intention to form a union. Amazon hired a law firm to suppress the organising effort, and in January 2014, under immense pressure from management, the maintenance and repair workers voted against unionising.

As of 2017, Amazon reported that the median salary of its workers is roughly $13.68 an hour; Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos makes more than that every nine seconds. To tech companies and their shareholders, paying workers more represents loss of profit, but also a loss of the hierarchy.

While there’s no sign of unionisation at Amazon, Facebook’s cafeteria workers and Silicon Valley’s security guards have recently formed their own unions. Silicon Valley Rising (SVR), an organisation that organises blue-collar tech workers, is becoming gradually more and more prominent. The organisation’s website claims that it sees “a new vision for Silicon Valley where all workers, their families and communities are valued”. Their aims include “creating a new economic model that rebuilds the middle class”, “raising wages and standards for all workers so they can live and thrive here” and “build[ing] housing that is affordable and accessible”.

Maria Noel Fernandez, director of SVR, states: “If we can force conversations around the social ills that the industry causes or contributes to, like the displacement of long-standing communities, deportation and mass incarceration, we can give workers a reason to organise and make demands, even if they don’t feel exploited on a personal level.”

On the other hand, the focus of white-collar workers seems to be on single-issue campaigns like the ones listed above; Silicon Valley’s better-paid workers haven’t yet formed themselves into organised unions. Last summer, organisations including Silicon Valley Rising, the Tech Workers Coalition and elements of the ACLU ran a series of events called Tech Won’t Build It, where white-collar tech workers shared lessons from past protests and campaigns to get their bosses to drop controversial government projects. Held in tech hubs including San Francisco, Seattle and Cambridge, the events are also streamed online, opening them up to a wider audience. Though this isn’t official unionisation yet, it seems like a potential step in that direction, and a move towards these workers demanding more of a constructive say in the products that they build and how they build them.

In January, there was some justice for wronged tech workers. Software engineers at the cloud-based logistics company Lanetix attempted to form a union. In response, Lanetix fired them, and the National Labour Relations Board issued a complaint against Lanetix for violations of federal law. One of the fired Lanetix engineers, Björn Westergard, suggested creating a tech “hiring hall” that certifies workers and hires them out to employees if they meet particular conditions.

Indeed, there are a range of options in this area that might be of interest to techies, including reserving seats on company boards for employees, elected by their co-workers in order to represent their views.

While there might still be some division between the different strands of tech workers and what their demands are, any demands from workers to management ultimately stem from the same desire: for their voices to be heard. As Tarnoff commented: “These aren’t acts of altruism, but solidarity. They flow from the recognition that all workers have a stake in the world that their labour helps create.”

Sophie Nevrkla

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