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How tech workers became activists, leading a resistance movement that is shaking up Silicon Valley
Employees at Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech companies are discovering their power to bend the trajectory of multibillion-dollar corporations.
By Sean Captain7 minute Read
When news broke in December 2016 that then president–elect Donald Trump would meet with some of the tech world’s most prominent CEOs—Apple’s Tim Cook, Alphabet’s Larry Page, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, among them—many tech workers were furious. In an industry that draws talent and ideas from around the world, Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign promises were abhorrent, and just meeting with him seemed like a tacit endorsement of these views.
His promises of mass deportations and a Muslim ban raised additional alarms for some: “If you’re going to target a sector of the population, it requires a database and collecting information on people,” says software engineer Ka-Ping Yee, who worked at the mobile money-transfer platform Wave during the election. “[Databases are] a necessary component of that particular evil.” And who was better poised to build them than the highly skilled engineers of Silicon Valley?
So Yee was heartened when his friend (and fellow Canadian) Leigh Honeywell, then a security manager at Slack, enlisted him to help draft a statement to both the incoming administration and tech leaders that Silicon Valley’s rank and file were not on board. “We were seeing what felt like a new energy in tech-employee organizing,” says Honeywell, who had volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign. The result was the Never Again pledge, signed by 2,843 engineers, designers, and other workers at companies including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Referencing the role of IBM’s punch-card technology in Holocaust record-keeping, the signatories vowed not to participate in the creation of any targeted databases for the U.S. government. And they laid out a playbook for worker-led resistance: Raise issues with leadership, whistle-blow, protest, and—as a last resort—resign.
Related: How a feminist security engineer helped kick off this wave of tech worker activism
Employees are now deploying this strategy with increasing frequency at some of the country’s biggest tech companies. In June, Amazon workers sent an open letter to Bezos, demanding that he stop providing the company’s Rekognition face-identifying technology to law enforcement and other government agencies. They also called for Amazon Web Services to stop hosting companies, such as Palantir, that service Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That same month, more than 650 Salesforce employees signed a letter asking the company to cease providing recruiting software to Customs and Border Protection. At Microsoft, 500 people reportedly signed a petition to get the company to stop offering cloud services to ICE.
“[Never Again] was the beginning of a shift where people started to think about their responsibility to not build harmful tools,” says Tyler Breisacher, a software engineer who signed the pledge. This past spring, Breisacher resigned from Google, in part over the company’s involvement in Project Maven, a Pentagon program to use artificial intelligence on the battlefield. That protest grew to include more than 4,000 employees, who wrote an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, declaring, “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war.” Two months later, in June, Google announced that it would not renew its military contract for 2019. Googlers were soon at it again, petitioning against—and resigning over—the creation of a censored search product for China, code-named Dragonfly.
Silicon Valley has deep roots in supporting the military-industrial complex. The internet began as a Defense Department research project, and was used for surveilling Vietnam War protesters. Generations of chipmakers quietly plowed their work into weapons systems. With the mainstreaming of technology, though, most of today’s engineers sign up to build consumer-facing services for individuals, even as their tech behemoth employers increasingly seek out military and law-enforcement contracts. As the political environment grows more contentious, these highly paid, highly trained employees are now leveraging their numbers to sway public opinion—and, in the case of Project Maven, kill a government contract potentially worth up to $250 million a year. With every protest, the gap between employee and employer grows.
The roots of employee rebellion in Silicon Valley lie in the recruitment process itself. Google sells job candidates on its mission to “develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible.” Facebook promises to “bring the world closer together.” Engineers with multiple job offers in a tight labor market can choose which employer best shares their values. “They are brought to the company with the idea that they will do something massively good,” says Yee, who, prior to Wave, worked at Google’s philanthropic division, Google.org, for seven years. Their disillusionment is all the more profound when they realize their consumer-facing employer is a defense contractor.
Big tech companies have a tradition of fostering open dialogue among employees, which makes voicing dissent easy. Google and Microsoft have regular all-staff, ask-the-CEO-anything meetings. Salesforce calls its workforce Ohana, a Hawaiian word meaning extended family, which cofounder Marc Benioff picked up on vacation; families sometimes disagree, and argue. Tech companies increasingly expect employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, says Forrest Briscoe, a Penn State University business school professor. These companies shouldn’t be surprised that the whole self includes political and ethical views, especially today.
It’s no coincidence that engineers are leading the revolt. “Engineering is regarded as a profit center for the company,” says Google Cloud Platform engineer Liz Fong-Jones, who assisted the Never Again campaign. “We’re expensive to replace, and that’s where a lot of our power comes from.” As a transgender woman, Fong-Jones has been leading dialogue about diversity issues at Google since 2010. Similar conversations around inclusion and pay equality have been filling employee chat rooms at other big tech companies. Engineers also tend to bristle when certain core values like privacy and free expression are threatened, says Danny O’Brien, international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “When companies go against those values, that’s when they run into problems.”
Related: How a transgender Google engineer fights prejudice with empathy
New causes are emerging. At a time when C-suite tech executives and VCs who fund the industry are becoming some of the most powerful people on the planet, engineers in the housing-starved Bay Area and Puget Sound cities still live in cramped quarters, despite average salaries of well over $100,000 a year. They walk through homeless encampments to catch luxury shuttle buses that whisk them to work. But the bus drivers, the corporate security guards, and the janitorial and kitchen staff they encounter don’t get free rides to work. Last year, Google parent company Alphabet reportedly had more contractors than direct employees. Most of these workers make a fraction of what their white-collar coworkers do.
“One of the issues that we want to attack, especially in the Bay Area, is income inequality,” says Matt Schaefer, a designer (and Never Again signer). Three years ago, he helped start the Tech Workers Coalition to build relationships between techies and the Bay Area communities they were moving into. TWC now has chapters across the country. Its members have joined to protest tech companies’ military contracts and back service-worker unionizing campaigns, such as the successful effort in August that won thousands of Silicon Valley security guards their first labor contract.
Tech workers are fighting for their own interests, too. Last year, a female engineer at San Francisco–based Lanetix, which makes software for the shipping industry, was fired after she reportedly began speaking up about workplace issues, such as paid time off and opaque promotions. Her fellow software engineer Björn Westergard says the dismissal kicked off months of strife that inspired staffers to unionize. Just before the hearing to schedule union elections in January, Lanetix fired the entire engineering staff. (Lanetix did not respond to Fast Company’s request for comment.) It was a reminder that employee activism has its limits. However, nearly all of the highly skilled engineers found new jobs within a few months.
Related: How a socialist coder became a voice for engineers standing up to management
“Tech workers [have felt] disempowered at their workplace, [like they] don’t have control over their work, over what they’re building,” says Ben Tarnoff, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based product manager and journalist, who covers the tech-worker movement. Tarnoff also belongs to the reemerging Democratic Socialists of America organization, which has found a toehold among Silicon Valley progressives. DSA tech workers in San Francisco have been key supporters of local policy efforts, such as a ballot initiative to increase funding for subsidized housing and homeless assistance, and are active in many of the protests over government contracts.
While the prospect of socialism sweeping through the tech industry seems as unlikely as, well, a reality TV star becoming president, workers are growing undeniably stronger. Unlike the too-easily replaced hands on the assembly lines of old, tech-knowledge workers—rare and highly prized—have considerable sway over companies. They don’t need to seize the means of production. They are the means of production, the one scarce resource that tech can’t live without.