Editorial: Tech Workers Flex Their Leverage in Collective Action

  • Workers protest against Google's handling of sexual misconduct allegations at the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Tech workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your golden chains. And probably not even those.

Yes, labor militancy has emerged in a surprising new arena in recent months — the tech sector, where pay is high, schedules flexible and benefits rich. Some number of software engineers and other tech workers have apparently concluded that lavish compensation is no compensation at all for losing their soul. Which it isn’t. And at a time when much of the rest of the American labor scene is quiescent, some may detect in these activist stirrings hopeful signs of renewed appreciation for the potential of collective action in the marketplace.

Last week, thousands of Google employees around the world walked off the job briefly to protest the company’s treatment of women and its response to sexual harassment claims. The proximate cause of the job action was outrage prompted by a New York Times article disclosing that the company had bestowed millions of dollars in exit packages on male executives who were facing credible claims of sexual harassment, while remaining silent about their offending conduct.

But unrest about Google’s treatment of women in its workforce was already present before the article was published. This was reflected in the demands made by those who organized the walkout: an end to the practice of private arbitration of sexual harassment claims, which requires a waiver of the right to sue and often includes confidentiality agreements; publication of a report on instances of sexual harassment at the company; and more disclosure of salary and compensation information, with an eye toward ensuring gender equity.

Tech employees are not focused solely on issues pertaining to the workplace. Increasingly, these talented individuals are asking questions about how the work they do will be used. Protests by employees have scuttled a Google project with the Pentagon to use artificial intelligence to scan battlefields for possible drone-strike targets. Employees have also pushed back against Google’s plans to launch a censored search engine in China, while workers at Amazon and Microsoft have protested the use of their facial recognition technology to aid police and federal immigration agents.

The Associated Press, in a story published in the Sunday Valley News, labeled this spate of activism as “a revolt of the Haves.” While true in a sense, the disparaging overtones of the phrase ignore a fundamental transformation of the American labor scene. Because so many jobs are low-skilled these days, many workers have lost the power that mass collective action once afforded them. They can simply be replaced by other low-skilled workers.

But it’s different in the tech sector, where talented workers are highly sought-after and not easily replaceable. As a result, they have significant leverage in their dealings with employers, who are obliged to show them respect and pay attention to their concerns. That these workers are choosing to use that leverage not only for their own benefit but also to bend their companies in a moral arc is highly commendable, even if the risk to their personal economic status may be small. In some sense, these employees are idealistic enough to take seriously the Silicon Valley ethos embodied in Google’s original slogan, “Don’t be evil,” and they propose to hold their giant employers accountable when these companies forget what they claim to be: a force for good.