Why these young tech workers spent their Friday night planning a rebellion against companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook
A new class of politically mobilized tech employees are trying to save the industry from itself.
It’s about 7 pm on a blistering cold Friday night in Brooklyn, and about 300 mostly 20- and 30-somethings are packing into the bookshelf-lined office of an independent publishing house. As they unbundle their winter layers, there’s a sense of building excitement. Forsaking their typical end-of-the-workweek festivities, these young professionals are getting together to talk about something more earnest and more pressing.
Tech worker rebellion. Mutiny.
Most of them make their living on the payrolls of companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Uber, and many are increasingly disillusioned and in disagreement with the actions of their employers on key political and moral issues. Plucked from the last few months of tech news headlines, their concerns range from how to curb sexual harassment to the ethical use of artificial intelligence to the working conditions of contract employees.
The tech industry has widely been considered to be relatively apolitical (and even antisocial). But the growing popularity of grassroots organizing events like this one in major tech hubs like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle is a sign that tech workers — even those with six-figure salaries and generous benefits — are aware of the disparities between their colleagues and frustrated with the societal consequences of the tools they’re building.
They won’t be placated by free massages or avocado toast in the corporate campus kitchen.
As organizers scramble to make space for everyone coming in, attendees — most of them strangers to each other — chat and introduce themselves before a panel discussion. The famous political writer Naomi Klein is sitting in the audience on a folding chair in one of the front rows. The panel is mostly made up of young new leaders of the movement but also includes veteran activist Joan Greenbaum, one of the earliest programmers at IBM, who led early computer workers’ anti-war demonstrations in the 1970s.
“We’re interested in connecting, bringing together, and organizing the workers in tech to help us fight big tech,” Ross Patton tells the crowd. A software engineer for a pharmaceutical technology startup, he’s an active member of the Tech Workers Coalition, a group dedicated to politically mobilizing employees in the industry to reform from within.
“On [January] 30th, we have our first big action — we’re going to go to the city hearing on Amazon and demand no HQ2,” Patton says, and the audience applauds. The group opposes the estimated $3 billion in tax subsidies Amazon is getting from the New York state and city governments as a result of back-room negotiations for one of its two new headquarters, known as HQ2, set to be located in Long Island City, NY. Activist opponents want to see the company provide more benefits for the community, like paying to fix New York City’s crumbling subway system.
Meredith Whittaker, one of several organizers of last November’s Google Walkout, shares her experiences planning that historic event. Some 20,000 employees around the world walked out, making the Google protest one of the largest collective actions taken by workers in tech. It signified a political awakening to many who were angry with the industry’s history of cover-ups and payouts to high-powered executives accused of sexually harassing more junior employees. In this case, Google paid Android creator Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package after he was accused of sexual misconduct.
“You have only to look at a list of tech scandals from 2018 to get a sense of what we’re dealing with,” says Whittaker, who has worked at Google for more than 12 years and says she initially “went through the official channels,” raising issues internally. “I met with people, I sent it up the chain. And nothing was happening.”
A Google employee who recently resigned from the company, Liz Fong-Jones, tells the crowd about organizing thousands of employees within the company’s rank and file. Along with Whittaker and others, she successfully helped wage a campaign to get Google to drop its contract with the Pentagon, which wanted to use the company’s AI technology for military drone strikes.
The success of these recent actions relied on a body of politically mobilized workers who leaked details of the plans to the press, signed petitions, and even resigned in protest rather than work on the project.
For many tech workers, the defining call to action was Trump winning the election. For others, it was the Google Walkout or Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data-mining scandal. And some have experienced years of growing frustration with what they find to be the tech industry’s pursuit of profit at all costs, including ignoring ethical standards.
“I’ve worked in tech for 10 years, and I think in 2015-2016, when the election was going on, I hit peak disgust. I thought, ‘I don’t fucking believe in anything we’re building anymore,’” says Chris Bolman, 34, a former VP of marketing for a venture-backed advertising startup. He now runs his own company, Brightest, an app that connects volunteers with grassroots causes. This is his first visit to a Tech Workers Coalition event.
“There’s a ton of energy that hasn’t yet been fully harnessed,” Bolman says. “There’s a lot of people in tech who are really, really concerned about these issues.”
Some organizers of tech’s new worker movement worry about how to sustain pressure on companies even after the blowback from scandals like high-profile sexual harassment cases subsides.
Several activists at the event, including Fong-Jones, speak up to address that concern. To make continued impact, she says, “It’s going to take more than people stepping away from their desks for an hour or two” in protest.
After the 90-minute panel discussion, attendees stand together, fists raised, to take a photo in solidarity with the Los Angeles Unified School District teacher’s strike. Then the lights dim and people stick around to mingle and chat. It’s a regular Friday night again, and the mood shifts from eager and revolutionary to more laid back as people sip box wine from plastic cups and compare notes. Some flip through pages of Logic Magazine, which helped host the event.
A couple of earnest college students head to the front of the room to talk to the speakers who had just presented, asking them for advice on organizing. One of them, a computer science student at Columbia University, says he has ethical concerns about going into the industry and wanted to learn about how to mobilize.
“If I go into an industry where I’m building things that impact people,” he says, “I want to have a say in what I build.”