In a Direct Challenge to Their Employers, Tech Workers Begin to Organize

3 min
A growing number of tech workers are mobilizing and exploring the idea of organizing.  (Creative Commons)

#TechWontBuildIt.

This was the theme of two unprecedented meetings earlier this week in San Francisco and Seattle. Tech workers, including engineers and programmers, gathered for a forum put on by the labor advocacy group Tech Workers Coalition.

The meeting in San Francisco was standing room only. More than 100 tech workers from both small companies and major corporations like Google and Facebook talked about how to organize, challenge their powerful employers and stop the companies they work for from creating products and services they find unethical. This meeting was the latest in what is becoming a rising wave of tech worker activism and protests.

Much of the dissatisfaction from tech employees has taken the form of open letters to CEOs and board members. Employees at Google recently spoke out against work on military drones. The company later decided not to renew its contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. Salesforce and Microsoft workers are currently criticizing contracts with immigration agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Many of the workers at this latest meeting were fearful to talk to media and would do so only if reporters agreed to anonymity. Many of them said they were forced to sign agreements that prevent them from talking directly to the media. One worker said he had once spoken to the media, and afterward was told by his company that he would be fired if he did so again. He has since hired a lawyer.

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Workers at the meeting said that fear of harsh reprisals by major tech companies has kept many employees from speaking their mind or organizing across companies.

The Tech Workers Coalition, which hosted the meeting, began as a support organization helping service workers like bus drivers and cafeteria workers on tech campuses unionize and secure contracts with higher wages and benefits. The thought was that tech companies would take the demands of service workers far more seriously if engineers and programmers on staff showed solidarity.

The coalition has now evolved into an advocacy and resource group to empower tech workers who want more say in what their employers build and who they work with. It is a loose group of workers with no central organizer. Those in the group actively avoid using the word "founders" because of negative associations with what they call the capitalist-driven ethos that has become pervasive in Silicon Valley.

At the meeting, tech workers discussed how venture capitalists and board members bent on increasing profits are leading big tech companies to unethical decisions. Several times workers referred to IBM's infamous collaboration with Nazi Germany. The company won a bid to provide technology that helped the Nazis classify, organize and murder Jews. Tech workers at the meeting spoke about the leverage that they have as engineers to stop powerful tools from being built for those who would abuse them. Hence the slogan: #TechWontBuildIt.

One woman organizer involved with the Tech Workers Coalition said she had never before seen something like this in the industry. Another tech worker came in the middle of the meeting with his wife and an infant strapped to his chest in a Baby Bjorn. He'd heard about the coalition from a colleague at work. He said he couldn't give his name for fear of reprisal from his employer, but he said he was happy to see something like this was finally happening in the industry.

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