With Great Tech Comes Great Responsibility
With Great Tech Comes Great Responsibility
The history of tech worker organizing is long. This timeline is not exhaustive, but highlights key challenges and tactics that are reflected in our present time.
There's nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.
A group called Computer People for Peace formed in New York City and petitions the Association for Computing Machinery to adopt principles opposed to the Vietnam War, foreign wars, discrimination in tech, and software that violates user privacy. The group was involved in various organizing over the years, including the production of a newsletter called Interrupt, the distribution of anti-war pamphlets, and a campaign for the release of the Black Panther and computer programmer Clark Squire.
We oppose the war in Vietnam, U.S. military presence throughout the world, and economic and political subversion of other nations. We oppose discrimination as practiced in the computer field. We oppose the establishment of mass data banks which pose a threat to our privacy.
— Computer People for Peace
That same year, a collection of professors, students, technology workers, and others formed Science for the People to protest the involvement of the scientific community in the military and the use of science in military endeavors.
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) was founded after manufacturing leaks at IBM and Fairchild Electronics caused widespread birth defects and health issues for communities in Silicon Valley. Members of the community, tech workers, law enforcement, emergency workers, and environmental activists banded together in response to the crisis, forming SVTC. Since its founding, SVTC has led multiple education campaigns on proper disposal methods for hazardous materials in the tech industry and conducted research on the effects of such materials on workers and the community (1).
An organizing drive among largely-immigrant janitors at Shine Maintenance, an Apple contractor, saw over 130 people join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877. Once the company became aware of the union drive, it began requiring residency documentation; almost none could provide the required verification and were fired. The campaign kicked off a series of janitorial union drives, resulting in a contract with Apple janitors in 1992, another contract at Hewlett-Packard, and hundreds of new members for SEIU.
One of the key tactics used in the union campaign was a publicity attack against Apple, as explained by Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877:
Apple spends a lot of money on its image and our strategy attacked it. We helped people to understand that the company was exploiting immigrant janitors and we forced Apple to take responsibility – we told Apple ‘it’s your system – you control the contractors; you’re causing the exploitation.
Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877
Workers at a Versatronex factory in Sunnydale, California, striked. The strike was the first in Silicon Valley for years, described as a possible “harbinger of increased organizing activity in this bastion of the non-union shop.” The workers, mainly Latinx circuit board manufacturers, complained of poor training handling hazardous materials and dangerous conditions; the workers eventually won recognition of a union, one of many similar fights in Silicon Valley at the time.
The Tech Workers Coalition was founded after full-time tech employees began meeting with and organizing alongside subcontracted workers, including cafeteria workers, security guards, and janitors. These initial meetings helped tech workers learn from each other and allowed tech workers to identify ways they could support subcontracted service workers struggling for unionization and greater economic protections. These forums helped workers across fields recognize their shared interests and needs within the tech industry. Since its founding, TWC has supported various unionization efforts for subcontracted service workers and supported the efforts of tech workers fighting for ethical and political causes within their companies.
More than 3,100 Google employees signed a petition, demanding that the company end Project Maven — a Pentagon contract that would have seen Google develop artificial intelligence to improve drone targeting by analyzing video imagery (2). The petition followed many heated staff meetings and difficult debates internally and even prompted some Google employees to resign publicly as a form of protest (3). Following the petition, Google was hesitant to end the contract, and it took an additional two months of worker organizing before the company publicly announced that it would not renew Project Maven.
In August 2019, Mijente released a report detailing the ways in which tech companies like Palantir and Amazon were profiting from ICE’s growing digital infrastructure. As part of the #NoTechforICE campaign, college students, tech workers, and the public began petitioning companies to end their contracts with ICE. College students pledged to not work at companies with ICE contracts and organized an international day of action demanding Palantir cancel its contract with ICE. Tech workers protested their companies’ contracts with ICE by publicly quitting or deleting code they had written.
In September, over 1,500 Amazon employees walked out of work to protest the company’s negative environmental impact. The walk out was historic, the largest corporate walkout in the tech sector in recent memory, following months of organizing internally at Amazon. In advance of the walk out, workers submitted shareholder proposals, organized petitions, and composed a letter demanding the company take greater action in response to climate change. Organizers were inspired by watching similar walkouts at other tech companies, pledging to push the company to reconcile its ethical stances with its actual environmental impacts.
(1) Daniel A. Cornford. Working People of California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
(2) Daisuke Wakabayashi and Scott Shane. “Google Will Not Renew Pentagon Contract That Upset Employees.” The New York Times. June 1, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/01/technology/google-pentagon-project-maven.html
(3) Scott Shane, Cade Metz, and Daisuke Wakabayashi. “How a Pentagon Contract Became an Identity Crisis for Google.” The New York Times, May 30, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/technology/google-project-maven-pentagon.html