The Industry

“A Collective Aghastness”

Why Silicon Valley workers are demanding their employers stop doing business with the Trump administration.

People walk into Google's New York offices on March 5, 2018 in New York City.
People walk into Google’s New York offices on March 5, 2018 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the past month, workers in Silicon Valley have demanded that the large tech companies where they work stop doing business with federal agencies associated with the ghastlier policies of the Trump administration and local governments—and in some cases it’s worked. Google said it would not renew a contract with the Pentagon to build an A.I. system for military drones after thousands of employees signed a petition and dozens quit in protest. Orlando, Florida’s police department dropped Amazon’s facial-recognition tech after a public outcry that included criticisms from Amazon employees opposed to the activity. Microsoft is keeping a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement despite demands from more than 100 of its employees who believe doing so signals a complicity with the administration’s hard-line immigration policy.

This activity has been facilitated by the Tech Workers Coalition, a volunteer group of professionals in the tech industry that has worked on a number of labor, justice, and equality issues in recent years. For Slate’s technology podcast If Then, we recently spoke with Tech Workers Coalition member Paige Panter, who has worked as a product manager at a number of Silicon Valley startups, about the efforts to unionize support workers in Silicon Valley, the industry’s historic aversion to organized labor, and why companies are listening to their employees’ concerns about doing business with President Donald Trump’s government. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

April Glaser: Tell us a little bit about the Tech Workers Coalition. What is it, and when did it get started?

Paige Panter: The origin story of Tech Workers Coalition begins with a handful of full-time employees [of tech companies] getting in the same room with subcontracted workers, cafeteria workers, security guards, janitors at some of our companies, getting to know each other, sharing about our respective workplace experiences, understanding what they were up against and why they were fighting to unionize, understanding the ways that their fight for economic survival looked different from ours, but at the same time, finding common ground by talking about our struggles at work and how to make a life in the Bay Area, in Silicon Valley.

And so Tech Workers Coalition’s earliest work looked like forums and conversations that brought together workers representing a diversity of Bay Area and Silicon Valley walks of life. We had what the mainstream imagined as techies or tech workers showing up for subcontracted service workers who were in union drives and contract-negotiation campaigns. For example, last year, Facebook’s cafeteria workers in South Bay unionized.

So workers coming together to talk about the variety of issues we face in our workplaces, like, pay disparity, discrimination, and at the same time, being transformed by witnessing the victories of these brave workers who are fighting for things like livable wages or a voice on the job. It wasn’t long before it clicked that if we wanted to have any meaningful influence on our employers and workplaces, we should follow their lead of building worker power and collective voice.

Will Oremus: It started, as you said, as a forum for solidarity between full-time employees at tech companies and these tech contractors, and certainly unionizing some of the contractors, getting them better working conditions, is part of it. At what point did it also become a way for tech workers across companies to come together on political causes, and was that kind of baked into the mission from the start? Or is that something that has grown up over time in response to global politics and national politics?

Yeah, definitely. I would say that there’s three main areas we think of as far as what makes someone look for something like Tech Workers Coalition or what gets workers agitated and thinking on these issues. The first area, like I just talked about, is we’ve definitely seen people want to start these conversations around the desire to improve lives and working conditions for all workers around the industry—show solidarity with workers who don’t get the same advantages and compensation as engineers and other pampered, full-time employees.

The second big area that we’ve seen, and this is definitely true for me, are things about your workplace experience, like being discriminated against, pay disparities, not having a voice in the job, or just burnout, or like, “I don’t like my manager.”

And then the third area has been consistently things like we’re seeing right now, ethics of products and how the things that we’re working on intersect in a society that’s increasingly being eaten alive by the internet and consumer culture. I think right now, we’re seeing that it’s this third category that’s really had the power to catalyze workers that probably were getting increasingly uneasy with their position in the system.

It feels less like a tipping point to me than a swelling or a sea change or the perfect storm of the right conditions where, as workers, we’ve all had this building sense of how high the stakes are since the 2016 election against a backdrop of uncertainty of, “Who am I, and how do I navigate the world of jobs?” and questions like that. And then the conversation that was raised with Cambridge Analytica to this moment where, if you’re an Amazon engineer and you’re reading in the ACLU about a deep learning–based image-recognition product you’re working on, and you know very well what law enforcement could do with a database of millions of faces, or you work at Microsoft and you were able to kind of tune out the ramifications of its contract with ICE until we saw the images of violence and violations of the human social contract on the border—I think the workers who are speaking out right now, for them, what was a growing unease kind of instantaneously became a collective aghastness at the way their daily work was connected to it.

Glaser: You said there have been other issues beyond just the products that companies are making that have caused workers to want to come together and push for change internally. And one of those is the abysmal diversity numbers at Silicon Valley companies. It seems that there is more gusto now around stopping some of the work with the government now that Trump is in office than around diversity stuff or around solidarity with low-paid workers that work in Silicon Valley. Can you talk about what’s changed now?

Maybe sharing my personal journey would help a little bit. My own entry into Tech Workers Coalition was around 2015 when our work was really focused on solidarity efforts and how to show up for workers at our companies who are in union drives or contract renegotiations. At that time, I had been working on this HR software product that we hoped would be a big game-changer for issues around civic discrimination and bias and who gets hired at what companies for which jobs. So this is, like, 2014, Google’s releasing data for the first time on the diversity of their workforce, and the conversation about lack of equal representation in tech is finally getting some attention.

Anyways, this diversity and inclusion product I was working on in my day-to-day experience had me disillusioned with software-based interventions for the kind of injustices I was seeing around my workplace and my peers’ workplaces. I felt like I was getting a front-row seat to the evils of how the VC system works as far as who decides what products get built and deployed in the first place or what problems are valuable to solve.

And then I was also kind of starting to see the discrimination in jobs as hard-coded and baked into the system. And especially learning how little execs were really interested in trying to change that. And so that awareness was growing in me in the sense that top-down interventions seemed like a lost cause.

And I had ended up at a Rainbow PUSH Coalition event. This is Jesse Jackson’s org, which is influential at getting Google to release their diversity data. In the main conference hall, we’re watching Intel’s CEO get congratulated for these sweeping promises and lip service to diversity goals that probably will never meaningfully materialize. And then, moments later, in a side panel, I’m hearing from a group of service workers, talking about some of the same things I was feeling, like, “We can’t just wait on execs to step up and make change in things that don’t necessarily promote profits or the bottom line.” And these workers were like, “We’re not waiting. The system doesn’t incentivize them to ever make our lives livable, to pay us so we don’t have to commute from Central Valley to San Jose, so we’re taking matters into our own hands and we’re getting organized and getting better wages and a voice on the job.” And they introduced me to Tech Workers Coalition.

Oremus: It’s interesting because Silicon Valley and organized labor haven’t always gone hand in hand. And I think there’s been a sense among a lot of people in Silicon Valley, probably especially the entrepreneurial class, that unions are an obstacle to innovation. You have people like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who sees organized labor getting in the way of his goal to save the world and establish a colony on Mars and get us off carbon and all that. There’s this kind of tension between the Silicon Valley idea of move fast and break stuff, or being agile, being mission-driven, and some of the values that unions have historically stood for, like job security and stability and fair wages and that sort of thing. Are attitudes changing, or among whom are the attitudes changing in Silicon Valley to think that maybe unions do have a really important role, or, labor organization of various forms has an important role to play here?

I think a lot of what you’re describing is the individualism that we associate with the American West and the frontier and Silicon Valley innovation. But I always felt like I was trained to relate to my daily community with this posture of inflation. Like, “What do you do? Where do you work?” And there’s this script you say to prove all the ways that you get sense of self and identity and importance from your work. And like, “I’m so busy and I’m so stressed ’cause my job is so important.” And we’re also trained to hide any struggles or challenges that are too—problems that are too big to solve. Like, “Maybe, actually, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to turn this job into what I really want because our leadership has a habit of only mentoring men,” or, “My job is just stressful and not rewarding, but I’m afraid to lose it because I have no idea how to get the next one.”

Anyways, with Tech Workers Coalition, we lead with kind of that format that says, “Let’s talk about what’s not great about your job,” and for me, it became the first authentic community I knew where we could broach those subjects transparently and vulnerably and honestly.
And in my experience, just exchanges with another friend or worker or person, they build this certain kind of connection and authenticity when you’re not just leading with what’s great about it, when you also talk about what’s not great about it.

We’re leading with this format where we’re dealing with really tough, systemic injustices, but at the same time, they don’t get bogged down in this usual despair that workplace complaining often does. Instead, it feels hopeful because in just a moment, where we bring up an issue with a peer or a co-worker, it already feels like change is possible or we’re already starting to work toward something better. That’s, in essence, what Tech Workers Coalition aspire to be, a clearinghouse or a resource center for workers who are trying to imagine together better workplaces, work lives, work experiences, rather than waiting on it to be handed down to us from above.

Glaser: One thing you mentioned there was the subject of authenticity, which is something that we don’t see a lot of in Silicon Valley. We have startups that are preaching a product that doesn’t exist yet that’s going to do wild things, and this culture of optimism often doesn’t reflect reality. And one place where that really came into stark contrast last week was with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s response to criticisms the company was getting for having a contract with ICE. Microsoft has a $19.4 million contract with ICE. Some of its employees wrote a letter to the company’s leadership asking them to end the contract. And in response, Nadella said that they just provide document services and email services and calendar services for ICE, and that they’re not separating families, kind of ignoring the fact that in order to separate families, you need a bureaucracy behind you that includes emails and documents and calendars. And he was saying that he doesn’t support this policy but, at the same time, has a contract with the agency that’s running it. This seems like one of those examples where we have Silicon Valley being really optimistic or saying that they stand on the right side of things, and then on the other hand, profiting immensely off of the very groups that are doing the bad thing. Do you have any thoughts about how we’re starting to see these kind of discrepancies of actions vs. words in Silicon Valley?

I’m reading so many articles where workers within Microsoft are speaking up and saying, the old paradigm where the cloud is pro-human at best and neutral at worst is over, and these workers are speaking up about the fact that they understand when Microsoft contracts with ICE, it’s not this off-the-shelf thing that’s already prebuilt and, “Oh, they’re just using our email,” or whatever. Workers are actually customizing that architecture to the problem set of catching and deporting immigrants. And some of those workers are immigrants themselves or come from immigrant families or have peers who immigrated. This is when workers say, “I can’t deny any longer the moral implications of my work.”

Oremus: So, because of my personal political views, I actually sort of cheered when I saw that tech workers were rising up to oppose contracts for killer drones or to get their companies not to support ICE in the midst of the family separation policy. But I read something today that challenged my viewpoint. I’d be curious for your thoughts on it. This was an article in Defense One, the defense industry publication. And the author was making the case that the U.S. military and intelligence communities need more innovation, not less, that they’ve been too conservative with regard to technological change, that they’re not embracing new technologies, and, as a result, that the U.S. risks being outflanked in some ways by tech-savvy rivals, whether it’s China or Russia, North Korea, or nonstate actors. I totally get opposing the military-industrial complex, but are there also tech workers who you work with who have a different view of it, I mean is there some disagreement within the tech community? Are there some people who feel like there’s a sense of patriotic duty to work with the Department of Defense or something like that?

I don’t know. I don’t want to speak for other workers, but my sense, or what I’m reading in these stories and hearing from friends who work within these companies, is that we’re just kind of getting into territory where ethics haven’t been defined yet, and so that is the primary work to be done. And in the meantime, we’re also seeing that this artificial intelligence concept is largely an overhyped marketing strategy like so much of our industry seems to turn out to be and that deep learning is not as intelligent as it might have been marketed as, and that seeing things like Uber putting its self-driving car thing on hold as long as they’re working through human fatalities.

I think there’s just a sense when you are, and again, this is coming from workers within these companies who are working on the products at hand, there’s this sense that they’re not fool-proof, it’s really not that intelligent of artificial intelligence. And so that’s what the uproar is about, and I just trust those voices since they’re the ones within the product teams and organizations.

Glaser: Do you have any sense of what’s next? I mean, I think that there are probably a lot of government contracts that are signed throughout the tech industry, and these contracts are very, very lucrative. Do you think that this is going to be an ongoing campaign to stop working with the U.S. government so long as the U.S. government is engaged in things like family separation, or at least stop working with the military? Do you see this as kind of reaching the pinnacle, or do you think that we’re actually going to see things continue?

I think as far as Tech Workers Coalition’s vision for the future, it kind of is just, this is the strategy, which is workers talking to each other about what concerns them, finding a voice at work, working together to take action and make change. So I don’t want to speak to what’s next within these different companies, I think that’s going to be decided by those workers themselves and probably partnering with users and other stakeholders in the conversation. I think whatever they decide they want to get done, they will get done, because we’re seeing that people are kind of, “This moment is now and the movement is now,” where anytime any worker is talking to another worker and out of that partnership improving the things they’re concerned about, I think that’s the moment that we’re in.

And I would just say that if you are a worker grappling with concerns about something in your work life or your workplace or the products you’re working on, all you need to do or all you can do is start by finding one or two other concerned peers and start a conversation from there.