How workers are reshaping Silicon Valley

Trade unions are challenging the tech utopianism of right-wing libertarians. 

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In common with many technology founders, Robert Noyce, nicknamed the “mayor of Silicon Valley”, made no secret of his antipathy for trade unions. He travelled to California in the 1950s to escape the grey suits and worker-management disputes of the East Coast.

Noyce’s technology company Intel had chosen the region for its liberal attitudes and labour markets. Unions were deemed an anti-enterprise throwback – the silicon frontier was the future.

Ever since, the tech industry has been fallow ground for organised labour. But in recent years, this has rapidly changed. Groups such as the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC), founded in 2014, help to organise workers and train them to demand better conditions. Growing criticism of companies’ military links has sparked a series of employee protests. Last month, Microsoft workers, outraged over a contract with the US army, sent its chief executive, Satya Nadella, a letter stating they would “refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression”.

After a similar revolt from employees last year, Google announced it wouldn’t renew a Pentagon contract for Project Maven, a programme developing artificial intelligence to help identify military targets. In December 2016, technology workers signed a joint pledge to oppose Donald Trump’s “Muslim registry” database, which would identify people by race, religion and national origin. They cited IBM’s involvement in the Holocaust; its German subsidiary helped administer the Final Solution, running Nazi censuses on punch-card tabulators. The workers’ anger reflected a growing awareness of the hypocrisy of Google’s former motto, “Don’t be evil”.

Rank-and-file rebellion undermines the liberal optimism typically associated with Silicon Valley’s workplace culture, where free catering, unlimited beer and ping-pong compensate for enervating hours. In their 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology”, British academics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron described the politics of the valley as a curious blend of left and right. Its alliance of hackers, artists and executives fused a New Left counterculture, opposed to sexism, racism and homophobia, with right-wing, anti-statist economics.

These West Coast radicals believed in the internet’s meritocratic potential to enhance freedom and disrupt the vested power of nation states. Mitchell Kapor, founder of San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation, epitomised this cyber-utopian spirit in a 1993 article for Wired magazine: “Life in cyberspace seems to be shaping up exactly like Thomas Jefferson would have wanted: founded on the primacy of individual liberty.” This libertarian streak explains why Silicon Valley can at once embrace social tolerance and economic stratification.

Unlike their parents, early West Coast entrepreneurs broke with the narrow politics of the postwar era, rejecting traditional institutions such as political parties, trade unions and state bureaucracies. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal cast government as a malign, corrupting force.

Anti-statism paved the way for their adoption of laissez-faire economics, exemplified by Wired magazine’s promotion of Republican Newt Gingrich, and entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s more recent embrace of Trump’s tax cuts.

Rather than workers, the new tech generation viewed themselves as creative entrepreneurs. As Barbrook and Cameron observed, “the cultural divide between the hippie and the organisation man [had] become rather fuzzy”. Silicon Valley recast the worker as a “digital artisan”, no longer merely clocking in for a pay cheque, but for the love of work itself. This attitude was epitomised by Apple founder Steve Jobs’s speech to a class of Stanford graduates in 2005: “You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.”

Groups such as TWC are breaking with this orthodoxy. The US writer Moira Weigel has observed how calling oneself a “worker” is a radical proposition; instead of casting work as an extension of the creative self, the word invokes a class distinct from the owners of technology companies.

Upstart unions now strive to build solidarity between white-collar programmers and the cleaners and baristas that service them. While early tech pioneers viewed unions as the dead hand of the past, Silicon Valley’s inequities have created the conditions for their rebirth.

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor. 

This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control