De-industrialisation and the Reagan-Thatcher years made trade unions seem like a 20th-century artefact. But evidence of a revival in workplace organising can be found in one of the most modern corners of the global economy: the US technology sector.
After the election of Donald Trump, thousands of technology workers signed a pledge against building government databases for targeting individuals based on race, religion, or national origin. The effect was immediate, with numerous companies publicly declaring they would not cooperate with such a policy. Tech workers organised a protest outside Palantir, the data analytics company that received seed funding from the CIA and boasts Trump-supporting billionaire Peter Thiel as a founder and board member.
Such activists have a more nuanced understanding about the role of technology in the modern world than many of their bosses. They also comprehend their industry’s power to influence public policy. And their ranks are growing. The Tech Workers Coalition has become one focal point for radical politics in Silicon Valley. Established in 2015, it is part of a broader activist movement. “We want to give a voice to tech workers as a separate entity from their companies and their corporate PR, as often rank-and-file ‘techies’ are lumped in with the CEOs and entrepreneurs of the industry,” says an organiser with the coalition, Ares Geovanos.
Tech workers in Silicon Valley are not all elite graduates with high salaries – many struggle with cost of living issues that lead them to identify with more traditional sectors of the working class. Discrimination crops up repeatedly as an issue, particularly in relation to gender, with Google facing a lawsuit from former employees alleging disparities in pay and opportunities for women, as well as an ongoing investigation by the Department of Labor.
Relatively few US tech sector employers provide parental leave, sick leave and job security. These are bread-and-butter issues for unions, so it is no surprise that the work of organising labour has gained a new relevance. The coalition aims to organise not just engineers, but also collaborate with service and manufacturing workers associated with the industry, some of them going through unionisation processes themselves.