By AMY YI
SEATTLE (Feb. 14, 2019) — Tech workers have recently made national headlines for standing up to their ultra-wealthy bosses.
You may wonder, who cares what programmers are up to? But inside the tech industry, workers are getting organized.
On Saturday, Feb. 23, the Washington Labor Education and Research Center will be hosting a panel on “Tech Jobs and Organizing,” highlighting the momentum coming from within this sector as part of our Grand Re-opening Celebration & Conference, “The Best is Yet to Come: The Future of Jobs and Organizing.”
Sure, skyrocketing rents and an infamously high cost of living have become features, not bugs, of living in Seattle, just one more city in the constellation of rapidly gentrifying “tech boom” towns. It can be tempting to blame our worsening income equality on individual tech workers. But as unionists, we know that owner-employers and our economic system decide the balance of power, not the individual workers. Beneath the appearance of material comfort and elitism, there are comrades who are standing up to their employers’ shameful behavior.
Nationally and locally, tech employees have been standing up to the robber barons of our era, demanding accountability and better working conditions. Local Amazon programmers’ teamed up with the environmentalist group 350 Seattle. Google employees organized the #GoogleWalkout to address sexual harrassment. Both were brave and strategic actions.
350 Seattle presents climate change as necessarily tangled up with other social justice issues, as worsening climate change will exacerbate global and national wealth inequality, create conflict over resources and disproportionately affect the Global South. In late 2018, developers at Amazon leveraged their shareholder status to demand the logistics giant increase its transparency in the scale of its polluting practices and publicly share with its plan to address climate change, if it has one.
In November 2017, the coordinated global Google walkouts made headlines. Thousands of workers from Tokyo to Stockholm walked off the job and rallied for an end to gender discrimination in the workplace. Their demands included access to information about pay discrepancies among the genders and greater protections against sexual harassment on the job. These well-organized direct actions remind us (tech sector or not) that programmers, coders and developers are indeed workers — powerful collectively, powerless individually.
Like the rest of the 99% (currently those who make less than $400,000 annually), they are reliant on a wage that is a fraction of what their employers reap in profits. And like other non-union industries, tech workers are often treated as expendable and work in toxic, extremely demanding workplaces. A 2015 New York Times exposé revealed what it’s like to be a prestige worker at Amazon: competition and hostility between workers is enforced from the first day, workers are encouraged to snitch on each other and the long hours and pressure make it so that tears are a common sight. According to worker interviews, the tech behemoth would sooner push a coder who has cancer out of the company altogether, rather than risk losing a minute of productivity.
In terms of labor organizing specifically, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) were pioneers. Marcus Courtney, then a programmer at Microsoft, organized throughout the first tech boom of the 1990’s with the goal of forcing the corporation to collectively bargain. During that era some Microsoft workers thrived, but their peers’ situations were extremely precarious. Known as “permatemps,” or indefinite temporary contracts, some were denied stability while still being expected to do the same work. While collective bargaining was never attained, WashTech made a number of noteworthy gains, including organizing Cingular Wireless and AT&T workers, all while shining a light on the unjust practices of some tech companies.
The most recent iteration of tech industry labor organizing includes Tech Worker Coalition (TWC) and Game Workers Unite (GWU). Both organize for solidarity across collar and class lines. TWC defines “tech worker,” as any worker in the industry, from those in the sweatshop-like warehouses to cafeteria and security workers. They support organizing in the entire sector, no matter the workplace or collar. GWU has chapters all over the globe, quite literally an “international.” The organization “strives for solidarity with all oppressed people and groups,” and all chapters are mandated to keep this goal central.
Finally, it’s worth noting that coding bootcamps are everywhere. Coding is less and less tied to a computer science advanced degree and increasingly taught as a trade, a concrete skillset. There are many programmers and coders at the bottom rungs of these companies who may have attended a bootcamp but likely do not have a computer science background or a bachelor’s degree. These coders likely come from working class and working poor families, perhaps the first in their family to be able to earn a high wage — I’ve met a few.
Warehouse workers undoubtedly have it worse off than their white collar counterparts. However, it will take coalitions and organizing across collars, from the gilded office to the warehouse and back, to tame the greatest excesses of tech.
Amy Yi is a Labor Educator at the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center at South Seattle College.