Now is the Time for Worker Power in the Tech Industry

by Wendy Liu

27 June 2018

Patrick Nouhailler/Flickr

Among the upper echelons of the tech industry, where high wages meet an institutionalised lack of class consciousness, there is strong hostility to the idea of organised labour. But the tech sector is too important to cede control of it to capital, and lately there have been more and more reasons why tech workers need to build collective power.

Every day seems to bring fresh dispatches on the dire state of the tech industry: the tech multinationals dodge taxes; Uber and Deliveroo mistreat workers; Twitter allows alt-right vitriol to run rampant. You’d be forgiven for thinking the entire sector was filled with amoral individuals, especially when so much coverage of the industry revolves around the almost comical villainy of a few luminaries at the top – Elon Musk’s Twitter meltdowns; Peter Thiel’s desperate pursuit of immortality; Mark Zuckerberg’s uncanny resemblance to a robot.

What’s often missing from the dominant narrative is discussion of the rank-and-file employees in the industry. Without their continued acquiescence, the system would fall apart, and the tech barons would have no power. For various reasons, however, these workers have rarely challenged the status quo – at least, until recently.

A turning point?

In the last few weeks, some tech companies have faced major internal controversies as employees spoke up against collaboration with the US military or law enforcement. So far, success has mainly been limited to Google: mass employee mobilisation forced the company to terminate a project to improve the Pentagon’s drone strike targeting capabilities, and an impressively small number of engineers hampered the company’s ability to bid for military contracts simply by refusing to work on a feature. Some campaigns are still ongoing, most notably at Microsoft, Amazon and Salesforce, where there has been growing unease with tech companies’ complicity with US border enforcement agencies in the wake of recent revelations of inhumane conduct by ICE.

It’s hard to overemphasise how unprecedented this sort of backlash is for this industry, where the traditional role of rank and-file workers is to silently implement decisions made by leadership, whom they often look up to. Contrary to the stereotype of tech workers having lots of autonomy in the workplace, autonomy is typically limited to minor product decisions; larger decisions involving company direction are made by executives and guided more by profit considerations than ethical concerns.

Historically, there have been few successful efforts to challenge that model through building worker power. For many tech workers, the idea of joining a trade union seems ridiculous – unions are often thought of as a relic of an older time, irrelevant to the meritocracy that is the tech industry.

The class composition of the industry.

Why is this? If we take a structural approach to the tech industry, we see that the workforce is effectively bifurcated in such a way as to contain potential challenges from below. Those with high leverage over production – say, senior software engineers who know how the systems work – are paid exceedingly well, often partly in stock, and given lavish perks. This is especially true in Silicon Valley, where a frothy startup investment environment forces tech companies of all sizes to offer lavish benefits in order to compete for ‘talent’. Correspondingly, workers with the most leverage over production are convinced they are not actually workers, and that their interests align with their company instead of their class. This amounts to a strategic isolation of the few employees with the most power to disrupt production, who are then showered with material benefits to dissuade them from ever exercising that power.

This certainly presents a massive structural challenge. However, material factors are never the whole story, and as we’ve seen lately, there has been growing concern around the unethical aspects of the industry from within. At the moment, anger is directed at the most visible manifestations of the US military-industrial complex. If this frustration is properly channelled, however, it could lead to a broader and more radical politicisation. It could be the catalyst for a larger campaign to address the deeper injustices that lurk within the tech industry, like the hidden exploitation upon which so much tech wealth is built, or the slow creep of the tech sector into public spaces. Any sort of challenge along these lines is not going to come from the top; it’ll have to come from below.

Why tech?

So why does it matter if the tech sector is organised? What is its importance to a broader socialist programme?

The short answer is that control over technology is strategic. As digital technology underpins more and more of the economy, control over the sector becomes increasingly key and could have disproportionate effects on the status quo.

Ultimately, worker power in the tech industry should be seen as a necessary step, not heralded as a moral good in itself. The reason tech workers have such high leverage with regards to production has to do with the role of technology in a capitalist system, which is to suppress labour while empowering capital. Control over technological advances should, then, be a key part of any socialist strategy. Building worker power in the industry is merely a means to that end – in the long run, such control should be truly democratic, not limited to a few highly-educated individuals with similar demographic backgrounds. Getting there, though, requires a larger political vision. In the meantime, we work within the here-and-now, using strategic openings to curb the worst excesses of the tech industry as a bridge to building power for workers as a whole.

The road ahead.

All this is uncharted territory for the tech industry, and there are a lot of unresolved questions. Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) is at the vanguard of this effort, and they’re only about two years old with much to figure out still. The fact that TWC is based primarily in the US poses additional challenges when it comes to institutional affiliation, as the trade union movement there is much weaker than in the UK, and there is no US equivalent of the Labour party.

The road ahead may be unclear, but this may be the best chance we’ve got. There is a mass movement between where we are now and where we could be – between using collective power to reject the world we don’t want, to actually building the world we do want. The time to start building that movement is now.


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