Tech is organizing

The prospect of labor organizing has long lived on the outer fringe of the technology industry. It’s long been assumed that highly skilled technology workers, particularly those in the most spectacularly successful Silicon Valley firms, were too spoiled with the industry’s famously lavish perks and compensation to ever consider forming unions. While that may still be mostly true, recent events make me wonder if a new moment is at hand. Spurred by ethical concerns over assisting the Trump administration, workers at Google recently forced a major change corporate policy, and others – publicly, at Microsoft and Amazon – are taking notice. Something new is definitely happening.

A few weeks ago, bowing to internal pressure from employees, Google withdrew from a contract with the Pentagon to work on the Maven program, a project to use advanced AI to better interpret images from aerial drones. One expected application of “Project Maven” was to improve the accuracy of drone strikes, which touched off significant internal debate at Google While executives and salespeople licked their chops at the prospect of lucrative Pentagon contracts (Google is currently bidding for a separate $10 billion cloud computing contract with the Defense Department), elite engineers and researchers at the company vociferously objected to their work being used for warfare. Nine cloud engineers in particular became internally known as the “Group of Nine” after they literally staged a work stoppage over the issue.

Such was the backlash that even despite strong support for the project from the executive suite (including Diane Greene, Larry Page and Sergey Brin himself), employee dissent forced the company to reverse itself, and Google pledged not to renew the contract when it expires next year. Moreover, the long-delayed publication of a set of ethical principles for the usage of Google’s AI technology was finally put into motion, culminating in a public presentation by Sundar Pichai.

It would be easy to chalk all this up to Google just being Google, whose unique culture of unconstrained, famously progressive internal debate simply won the day. But there’s more going on here too – namely, a telling shift in the balance of power in frontier tech between management and talent.

Those who pull the levers

For all we hear about tech buzzwords of the day – AI, machine learning, “the cloud,” and so on – the number of people who actually make these systems work is pretty small. AI is a perfect example. While hundreds of tech companies now include “artificial intelligence” in their pitch decks, there are really only a small number doing advanced work in this area, and Google is one of the few that matters. And while Google is a very large company, the number of engineers and other technical staff who actually develop and research AI is relatively small – likely in the low hundreds, split between Google.ai and its UK-based DeepMind lab. Competition for talent in this field is, famously, even fiercer than in other hot areas of tech, which confers those employees with a substantial amount of influence.

This same dynamic applies to different areas of tech as well, particularly in those where tech is used to scale to very large user bases. Take Facebook as an example. While Facebook has roughly 25,000 employees, a large majority of those are not technical personnel who are, in the strictest sense, essential to running Facebook’s platform. “Core Facebook” could be (and likely is) supported with an engineering staff numbering in the low hundreds. (You may recall that, at their time of acquisition, Instagram had a staff of 13 with a user base of 30 million; WhatsApp, 6 staff and 450 million users.) Likewise, of the thousands of Amazon employees working on AWS, the number actually required to maintain it day to day is almost certainly similar.

These engineers and researchers who are essential to operating and maintaining these platforms are extremely specialized, lavishly compensated and in incredibly high demand in the industry. As such, their management really cannot afford to lose too many of them. Amazon, long hostile to organized labor, could easily afford to close a fulfillment center or three to avoid unionization, but it could clearly not afford for AWS to not work. Although the word “strike” still conjures to mind the image of blue-collar workers picketing outside a manufacturing plant, it could equally look like a small group of distributed system engineers “forgetting” their login credentials one week, and watching as a network hypervisor comes crashing down, effectively paralyzing global industry.

There’s no wave of organized labor in tech, at least yet – but there are signs that employees are realizing their own power. Since the Project Maven debacle, Microsoft employees have begun to speak up in opposition to the company’s relationship with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Microsoft supplies ICE with critical tools like facial recognition software and its Azure cloud platform. In the past few days, Microsoft has already issued statements decrying the agency’s brutality under the Trump administration, but has not yet taken any action to sever ties. As word spreads within Microsoft, the whole tech industry is watching to see if employee dissent forces management to change its course.

There are now reports that Amazon employees are speaking up to demand the company halt sales of facial recognition technology to law enforcement as well.

To what end?

Until now, most tech workers have seemed to be satisfied with high wages and comfortable working conditions. It’s possible that this phenomenon will be short-lived – that once stories of Trump administration abuses subside, that these employees will shut up and go back to their well-paid jobs. Admittedly, that seems very likely to me.

An alternative possible future, however, is that the Trump era will spur the highly skilled women and men of the tech industry to demand more of their corporate leaders. With a historically tight labor market and a tech industry racing (and failing) to keep up with demand for its products and services, technology professionals have more leverage than ever.

What might tech employees actually want? For some, it may simply be that their company not sell [Product X] to [Customer Y] – but this strikes me as awfully short-sighted. It simply means that when [Customer Y+1] comes along, employees will have to re-mobilize anew, which may not succeed. A better set of demands might be one of these:

  1. (Least ambitious) Publish a set of ethical principles the company will not cross as it relates to the sale or use of their proprietary technology. This is what Google has opted for subsequent to the Maven debacle.
  2. (More ambitious) 1, plus a seat at the table; or, more precisely, on the company’s board, where they will win a voice over corporate strategy. Germany’s famous Workers’ Councils provide a great blueprint for how this might work.
  3. (Most ambitious) 1 + 2, plus a greater share of company profits. While front-line tech employees’ compensation is famously good, tech executives and investors still win the lion’s share. Perhaps those who generate the wealth should demand a bigger piece of the pie.

The environment for tech employees to demand more power is as good as it has ever been – and, perhaps, better than it will be again for a very long time. Our parents’ generation largely gave up the mantle of labor organizing, and that decision wrought decades of widening income inequality and consolidated corporate power. The opportunity to choose a different path is there before us now. Will we take it?

 

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