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techsuch May 9, 2021 0 Comments

Tech Workers Need to Keep OrganizingTens of thousands of Google workers in over forty offices around the worldrecently walked off the job to protest their employer’s handling of sexualharassment claims. Collectively, they are demanding an end to Google’s culturethat has fostered sexual harassment and abuse. Their demands not only includemore transparency around harassment incidents but also a commitment to endgender inequities in pay and opportunity, among other issues in the company.This protest against leadership in tech and others in recent years, signals arealization among tech workers that their interests and values differ vastlyfrom those of their bosses, and that the only way to fight for their demandsis to organize.Today, the fight centers on the rampant sexism within these tech giants. Buttech workers can and should fight the oppression and exploitation both withintheir companies and inflicted by their companies with the technology theybuild.To do so, tech workers must first realize that they too, despite their often-high salaries and office perks, are workers. And like any other kind ofworker, to advocate for their interests on the job, they need to getorganized.# Why Some Tech Workers Don’t Think of Themselves as WorkersWhen we think of tech workers, we think of free pizza, table-tennis workbreaks, casual attire, and six-figure salaries — hardly typical features ofthe working class in our minds. That’s no surprise: Americans typically thinkof income as synonymous to class. A large-enough paycheck qualifies you aspart of America’s upper-middle class.But this is the wrong approach to defining who is working class and who isnot. Under capitalism, class is defined by one’s relationship to — andownership of — the means of production. In tech, like any other industry,there are owners (the bosses, the executives, and the shareholders, who makemoney off workers’ labor) and there are workers (who can only survive byselling their labor).Workers create more value for the owners than what it costs the owners to hirethem. That additional value is then pocketed by the owners as profit.For example, the average Apple engineer, who makes on the lower end of a six-figure salary, generates $1.9 million of revenue for Apple. This means thatApple gets about 10-20 times the monetary value per engineer than what itcosts for to hire them.Why is this class distinction so confusing for tech workers? Why is it thattech workers don’t think of themselves as “workers”?One of the main reasons has to do with the conflation of tech bosses and techworkers. In the media, tech bosses speak on behalf of workers and are usuallydisguised, blending in with the same casual workplace attire to which mostregular tech workers are accustomed. You see this all the time at techconferences when execs, dressed casually in t-shirts and jeans, showcaseimplementations of new scenarios or use cases that are crafted by juniorengineers. (Ironically, these demos usually are beyond the exec’s owntechnical depth to produce.)Tech workers also conflate themselves with their bosses when they are led tobelieve that they too can be the next Zuckerberg and are just one good ideaaway from founding the next big startup. Hackathons, for example, in bothcorporate and academic settings, encourage this. Attendees are tasked withbuilding a small project within a few days to then get on stage and pitch to apanel of judges. The performance is not dissimilar to a founder pitching toventure capitalists for funding.As a result, many engineers take lower-paying jobs to work at startups inorder to “get experience” and learn what it’s like to start their own companyone day.Even in large companies like Amazon or Google, product teams are encouraged toact like a startup, to the extent that most have bought into the “open office”concept (despite the fact that startups only use open offices because it’s acheaper way to pack people into one space). At these large companies,engineers are coaxed into taking “ownership” or “driving” smaller componentsof a product (oftentimes components that don’t even matter), feeding theappetite of the founder-CEO inside of each tech worker.In this environment, tech workers are strongly encouraged to think ofthemselves as future CEOs instead of wage laborers. For the ownership class,it’s a cunning but intentional mechanism. In the mindset of becoming a futurecompany founder, tech workers are more than happy to work late hours and spendoff-hours on online education platforms like Coursera, learning appdevelopment or data science — all in the name of self-improvement and“investing in themselves.”But the reality is much less exciting. Despite their aspirations, most techworkers do not start companies. For those that do, over 97 percent of themfail before raising their first major round of funding, leaving founders burntout and usually at a financial loss. Even between an early-stage startup andone that is raising hundreds of millions in funding, the failure rate stillsits above the 80 percent mark.The perks that tech workers enjoy also have a darker side, playing into thesame ploy bosses use to extract as much value from their workers as possible.For many companies that provide free food, breakfast catering ends before 9 AMto encourage workers to get in the office early, while free dinners can onlybe reimbursed if they are delivered after 7 PM. The additional employeeamenities such as nap rooms, showers, and pool tables blend together work andlife, ruining any chance of attaining a balance between the two.Of course, these perks do not apply to all workers in tech. Instead they onlyimpact in-house tech workers whose jobs are to write code, designapplications, and manage products. Equally important, however, are contractworkers who consist of but are not limited to customer-service agents,security guards, janitors, and factory workers. Additionally, tech workersalso include those with precarious employment who include Uber drivers andMechanical Turkers. But unlike those working in-house, these contracted techworkers face much severe exploitation and abuse.# Why Should Tech Workers Care?It is crucial to understand that tech workers, like other workers, are stillsubject to a high degree of exploitation from their employers.While salaries have been relatively high for these in-house tech workersbecause their labor is in demand, we shouldn’t expect this to be permanent.Sooner or later, the labor supply for technical skills will catch up, andsalaries will start to even out.In the meantime, tech bosses will do what they can to lower wages and walkaway with even more profit. Execs at major tech companies have been called outfor colluding via anti-poaching schemes to suppress wages. As part of alonger-term strategy, these tech giants have also partnered with schools,supported coding bootcamps, and sponsored programs that teach minority youthgroups to code. MicrosoftM/a> works with Girls Who Code. Google maintains asubdomain dedicated to computer science education.Their goal in technology education is not to simply expand their consumer baseto the youngest and most marginalized of our society, but to increase thelabor supply of the future and subsequently drive down wages for decades tocome.Under capitalism, private corporations operate more similarly to dictatorshipsthan democracies. Workers have little or no say in what they build or forwhom. Any kind of dissent means putting your career at risk. The tech industryis no exception.In the advent of artificial intelligence, the questions of what tech companiesshould build and for whom have been increasingly scrutinized. Surveillancesystems for tracking factory workers, computer vision technology for droneweaponry, and facial recognition for immigration control are only a fewprojects to surface in headlines over the past few years. For the tech bosses,the objective is to maximize profits regardless of the ethical or politicalimplications.This happens systemically: shareholders put immense pressure on execs andupper management to maximize the bottom line, forcing them to be laser focusedon optimizing next quarter’s financial report. As a result, their goals can bein direct conflict with those of tech workers who care about the humanity ofthe technology they build, or at the very least, care about having an opinion.# Organize and Fight BackWhen it comes to making the decision of what to build and for whom, techworkers individually find themselves without a voice. What can be done to giveworkers the ability to make these decisions when their goals are oftencontrary to those of their bosses?Google’s abandoned Project Maven provides a useful example. In 2017, Googleworked with the US military on the project, an initiative to develop computervision software that increases the efficacy of drone strikes. After months ofpressure and backlash, Google execs formally called for the project’stermination.Journalists celebrated Google for living out its “don’t be evil” motto afterits decision to end the contract, quoting CEO Sundar Pichai about how “Googleshould not be in the business of war” as well as other statements positioningGoogle as a leader in the ethics of building AI products. But these headlineshad it wrong: Pichai and other execs didn’t turn away a multimillion dollarcontract with the military because of their moral high ground — they did it inresponse to the collective pressure that Google workers put on theirleadership.At first it was just employees from several different teams who knew aboutProject Maven, specifically teams from Google’s AI and cloud initiatives. Theybrought their disdain for the project in front of the head of Google’s clouddivision, Diane Greene. Their concerns, however, were dismissed and execsshowed no plans to slow down the project.The Googlers then changed strategies and began sharing their knowledge aboutProject Maven broadly within the company. The post they shared on an internalGoogle message board blew up. Thousands of employees immediately expressedanger and betrayal, and called for the termination of the project. DianeGreene stepped in, hoping to placate employees by saying that the project wasstrictly for non-offensive purposes.After seeing the overwhelming responses from employees throughout the company,the post’s writers were empowered to put even more pressure on the bosses.They understood the kind of leverage they could gain by banding together.Their next step was to write a letter calling for Project Maven’s termination,addressed directly to CEO Sundar Pichai. It was signed by thousands ofemployees.In the following months, groups of Googlers across the globe teamed up tocreate new initiatives that would pressure their bosses. One group started totrack and publish the number of resignations from Google because of ProjectMaven. Another group developed a methodology to get employees to askspecifically about Project Maven at every all-employees meeting. Googlers evenstarted to get support from other tech workers, including the Tech WorkersCoalition, who launched a petition externally.Eventually, Google execs caved to the pressure, cancelling their contract forProject Maven. For many rank-and-file employees, these several months were ashocking realization that tech bosses held vastly different values than theirown, prioritizing company profit over ethical concerns. It was also a light-bulb moment for many that unless organized, they were not the decision-makersin the company.# What About Unionizing?Learning from Project Maven, those of us who work at these companies must askourselves: how can we as tech workers begin to organize?The first step is to develop a collective voice that can pose a threat to thecompany’s bottom line. If a single Apple employee generates for Apple $1.9million in revenue per year, a thousand Apple employees on strike can costApple over $5 million in a single day, a number that no exec would want to beresponsible for losing.One way to organize our collective voice and build solidarity is for techworkers to unionize — an idea that the Googlers who led the termination forProject Maven had also considered. But why haven’t Googlers achieved this? Andwhy is there little precedence for it in tech?For one, tech workers, despite sometimes having brutal work hours, arerelatively comfortable with office perks and high salaries. Tech workers arealso known to move jobs quite frequently, with average tenures of no more thantwo years, making it hard for these workers to develop meaningfulrelationships with coworkers and loyalty for the community.At a macro level, unions are also at a historic low. In the 1980s, prior tothe tech boom, Reagan and subsequent presidents attacked unions, and the pro-boss, anti-worker climate of the proceeding decades has driven down unionmembership to its lowest in almost a century. It was in this climate, whenlabor was at its weakest, that the tech industry became the behemoth that isit today. As a result, many working in tech are millennials or even younger,and grew up in a culture of anti-unionism.The tech industry is also steeped in a culture of supposed meritocracy. Whileno longer practiced, companies like Microsoft used to “stack-rank” employeesto decide who was promoted and who was fired. In a team of five, each engineerwould be given a number to represent how well they performed compared to therest of the team. Rank 1s would be promoted while rank 5s would be fired.Promotions were said to be based solely on hard work and individualachievement, regardless of the internal finances of the organization.At these tech giants, promotions are more symbolic than anything else.Promoted employees make an additional 5 percent — not much more than pocketchange for execs. It’s an old trick. Throughout many industries, bosses havepromoted select members of the working class into the ranks of directors,partners, or executives — a small price to pay to maintain the illusion ofupward mobility and keep employees motivated and working hard.Part of the strategy that tech bosses have when building meritocraticinstitutions is keeping employees in competition with each other. When beingstack-ranked one to five, one engineer’s success is tied directly to thefailure of another. And when there is competition, there is no solidarity.Silicon Valley’s roots in the libertarianism of the 1990s and the so-called“Californian Ideology” also feed into the tech industry’s loyalty forindividualism and opposition to collectivism. The openness of the internet wassupposed to democratize information and enhance the individual, giving anyonethe ability and the incentive to build anything — the goal was to limit thepower of the state over the individual. Perfectly capturing this ethos isApple’s slogan Think Different, as well as their anti-government, 1984-themedadvertisement in which they announced the Macintosh. In this context, unionsrepresent unnecessary bureaucracy and is a hindrance to Silicon Valley’s needfor speed and innovation, where they will only stand in the way of individualaccomplishment and ingenuity.These historical and systemic forces that promote individualism overcollectivism, may make tech worker unionization seem far away. But the taskahead is not impossible. Tech workers must start to show solidarity with allworkers, especially low-paid contractors who often work within the samebuildings, cleaning, cooking, and keeping the space secure.The Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) provides a good example. In 2017, TWC membershelped the labor union Unite Here organize cafeteria staff at big tech firms.From small gestures like making pro-union stickers to physically supportingcafeteria workers as they came out to sign union cards — part of the processfor winning union recognition in the US, TWC worked with Unite Here to helpunionize Facebook cafeteria employees. While the union is only for contractedcafeteria workers, many members of TWC got to know the cafeteria workers andbuilt solidarity with the people serving them food every day.# Why Now?Like many industries before, tech is becoming an industry of conglomerates.Over the past few years, there have been more than a dozen tech acquisitionsvalued at over $10 billion. The tech giants — Google, Microsoft, Facebook,Apple and a few others — are becoming too big to fail. Their projects are nolonger just apps on a phone; they now span industries and countries, affectingpeople all over the world and in all aspects of their lives.With the goal to scale, these tech giants have quickly monopolized sectors ofour society. Facebook dominates social media. Netflix competes against sleep.Amazon has enough data and capital that it can identify gaps in the market andfill them all by itself. If an entity becomes a threat, it simply gets boughtout, allowing these giants to not only set prices, but also the rules.Unsurprisingly, these tech giants are also leaders in AI technology. With AI’spotential to track, surveil, and even harm populations, the stakes are higherthan ever. When AI is not being used for military efficiency or immigrationcontrol, it is used to weaken labor; replacing repetitive jobs or improvingworker productivity (for the same wages). In either case, the results are thesame: higher profits for the tech bosses.Under the Trump administration, tech workers themselves are now also at risk.The tech industry relies heavily on immigrant labor for both in-house andcontracted work, leaving hundreds of thousands of immigrant tech workersvulnerable to Trump’s anti-immigration policies. In an already misogynisticand racist industry, workers from marginalized communities are alsoincreasingly under attack as Trump empowers racism, sexism, and xenophobia ona national scale.It is in this world that tech workers must realize their class position andexercise their class power. Just as hundreds of women at Google led a walk outto demand an end to sexual harassment, tech workers must continue speaking outagainst billionaire tech-execs and say no to building technologies thatsupport US militarism, surveillance systems, and any other tools ofoppression.Thousands of Googlers have walked out to fight sexism. We don’t often seeprotests from tech workers, especially from those who relish the perks ofworking for a company like Google. But we should make sure this won’t be thelast.

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