Those active in the Tech Workers Coalition came out to support Salesforce employees who are speaking out against the company. Sam Harnett/KQED
Those active in the Tech Workers Coalition came out to support Salesforce employees who are speaking out against the company. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

The Latest Tech 'Disruption': Labor Organizing

The Latest Tech 'Disruption': Labor Organizing

4 min

It’s 7:15 in the evening and standing room only. Workers from some of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley sit along the walls of a small, stuffy room at the Women’s Building in San Francisco. About a dozen others jockey for space in the hallway. Many are here straight from work, carrying backpacks and purses laden with laptops. The nervous energy is palpable.

As the room settles, a few volunteers from the Tech Workers Coalition tack a sign along the back wall. It says: “Tech Workers Demand Justice.”

“This is a safe space,” says one of the organizers to the crowd. “Raise your hand if you’d like to speak, and I’ll add you to the list.” Hands shoot up, and for two hours, more than 100 tech workers listen and talk openly and critically about the companies they work for. The conversations range from frustrations over the lack of diversity to worries about their company’s relationships with the government.

One anecdote that came up again and again throughout the evening: how IBM had built technology to help Nazis murder Jews. At one point, a person standing at the back of the wall said it was up to workers to make sure something like that didn't happen again. He said that if we don't build it, no one will. The crowd murmured in agreement.

“I often feel like my co-workers just want to focus on building tools and building apps and are not worried about these larger issues,” said one of the volunteers from the Tech Workers Coalition. She was hesitant to talk, and preferred to stay anonymous. She works for a well-known tech company, and believes giving her name could put her job in jeopardy.

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This latest meeting at the Women’s Building in early July was the first, according to the Tech Workers Coalition, of what will be an ongoing series of forums to educate and assist tech workers who would like to collectively organize. The organization describes itself as an all-volunteer group for employees in the tech industry who are unhappy with what their companies are building and the direction of the industry. And in this politically charged age of the Trump presidency, members of the coalition say the organization is growing.

Barriers to Organizing

Over the last few years, a number of tech worker organizing groups have formed in the Bay Area. Some, like the TechEquity Collaborative, are trying to get those who work in the industry more plugged into the communities they live in and impact. Others, like Silicon Valley Rising, focus on the labor organizing of service workers on tech campuses — the bus drivers, security guards and cafeteria staff who are scrambling to get by as the industry’s wealth transforms the region.

But overall, labor unions have had little success enticing the relatively well-paid workers in the industry — the programmers, engineers and product managers. The reasons why are often complex. Some tech workers who spoke at the meeting said big tech companies have created cultures that discourage workers from organizing, like forcing employees to sign nondisclosure agreements, which discourage communication between workers from other companies and also the media.

A flyer from a recent TWC forum urges tech workers to organize. (Sam Harnett / KQED)

Isolation and Involvement

By 9 p.m., organizers of the forum at the Women’s Building in San Francisco had to wrap up the discussion, leaving a list of people still waiting to speak. Workers spilled into the lobby, continuing the conversation, exchanging contact information.

Many of the forum’s key organizers were women and people of color. Others, like Ares Geovanos, a mechanical engineer, pointed out that many of the people who have chosen to organize have had non-conventional paths into the tech industry.

“You get a lot of people that have done boot camps and stuff or maybe they were baristas, you know,” Geovanos says. “They haven’t been indoctrinated with a lot of the mythology of the tech industry.”

Geovanos says his parents were working-class immigrants, and he worked in residential construction for four years. Doing that job, Geovanos says, let him experience class struggle in a way he wouldn’t have at a privileged university or high-paying tech job.

“We’re not taught the history of the labor movement in-depth,” Geovanos says. “It’s kind of hidden from us, obscured from us even at work.”

He now organizes sessions through the Tech Workers Coalition to teach tech workers about the labor movement, and he’s bringing in experts like longtime organizer Gifford Hartman to help lead these conversations.

Hartman has been a part of the labor movement since the 1980s. Back then he built a contact list for people upset about things like South African apartheid and the CIA’s involvement in Central America.

Today Hartman gives walking tours to tech workers interested in learning more about labor and organizing efforts in the Bay Area.

“If people are never given the history of fighting back, they never try to fight back. They don’t know what they’re building on,” said Hartman during a recent tour of the Embarcadero, which revisited the key sites of the 1934 General Strike in San Francisco.

As Hartman spoke, a tech worker on the tour brought out a notebook and pen, and began taking meticulous notes.

Old Tactics, New Protests

Recently, in addition to meetings, volunteers in the Tech Workers Coalition have taken traditional organizing tactics to push for change within tech companies. They helped organize a rally to show solidarity with Salesforce workers, upset with the company’s relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. More than 650 people signed an open letter to the company.

It’s the latest in a slew of outward calls to action. Microsoft employees recently spoke out against the company’s ongoing business with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Amazon workers are criticizing the company for providing facial recognition software to police departments. And Google employees urged it to drop its contract to develop military drone technology.

While these actions have gotten some press and response from the companies themselves, the number of employees participating is relatively small compared to the size of the companies. The Tech Workers Coalition says it is hoping to stoke the fire of this nascent activism and to create a sense of solidarity in the industry so other workers will feel comfortable speaking out.

“As we start to grow and as we get stronger, it will be easier for people to stand up and be to more public about this,” remarked one tech worker, a programmer, who didn’t want to give his name. “For the time being we have to carve out a way to take action that still protects us."

He hopes these first steps in organizing are a signal to tech workers: You aren’t alone. He says if enough of them come together, maybe they won’t have to hide who they are or what they think.

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