A history of the tech worker uprising

Tech-sector workers have enormous market-power: companies find it easier to raise cash than to use it to hire qualified developers.

Almost every business -- not just Big Tech -- is bidding on tech talent. People mock Google's "Don't Be Evil" motto, but when you're courting workers who have their pick of employers, offering a chance to do meaningful, ethical work is a huge differentiator that can mean the difference of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The poorly understood corollary of this is that whenever Google contemplates something evil, those same developers walk off the job, and those potential millions leave with them. Google's leadership knows this, and while it doesn't prevent them from doing evil, it does change the internal calculations when evil is on the table: when evil costs you something, it needs a much bigger upside before it is profitable enough to pursue.

Every tech company has its own version of "don't be evil" (Facebook's is "bring the world closer together"). Even if the corporate leadership pays lip service to this motto, the all-important workforce sometimes takes it to heart.

Ever since big tech's leaders attended a meeting at Trump tower with a newly elected fascist who wanted to deport huge slices of their workforce and use big data to create concentration camps, big tech's workforce has been up in arms, founding groups like the Tech Workers Coalition and connecting their work to the problems in the world around them.

From Microsoft to Google to Salesforce to Amazon and beyond, the tech industry's workforce has become a pitiless and unstoppable force against big tech itself.

The tech industry as we know it today owes much of its existence to the rejection of militarism in technology (Vietnam's data-driven bombings, etc) and the growth of a "tech counterculture." Today, a new counterculture is a-borning.

Tech workers are fighting for their own interests, too. Last year, a female engineer at San Francisco–based Lanetix, which makes software for the shipping industry, was fired after she reportedly began speaking up about workplace issues, such as paid time off and opaque promotions. Her fellow software engineer Björn Westergard says the dismissal kicked off months of strife that inspired staffers to unionize. Just before the hearing to schedule union elections in January, Lanetix fired the entire engineering staff. (Lanetix did not respond to Fast Company’s request for comment.) It was a reminder that employee activism has its limits. However, all of the highly skilled engineers found new jobs within a few months.

“Tech workers [have felt] disempowered at their workplace, [like they] don’t have control over their work, over what they’re building,” says Ben Tarnoff, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based product manager and journalist, who covers the tech-worker movement. Tarnoff also belongs to the reemerging Democratic Socialists of America organization, which has found a toehold among Silicon Valley progressives. DSA tech workers in San Francisco have been key supporters of local policy efforts, such as a ballot initiative to increase funding for subsidized housing and homeless assistance, and are active in many of the protests over government contracts.

How tech workers became activists, leading a resistance movement that is shaking up Silicon Valley [Sean Captain/Fast Company]