Tech workers have traditionally shied away from organizing. That’s changing.
There’s a fight on inside Microsoft. White-collar tech workers who have traditionally shied away from political activism starting to mobilize in their workplaces.
In the midst of last week’s growing uproar over the Trump administration’s family separation policy, Twitter users began circulating a blog post from earlier this year in which the company proclaimed how “proud” it was to support ICE, the agency responsible for immigration enforcement.
The post described how Microsoft would help ICE to “utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.” Since ICE is currently consumed with the work of separating children from their families, a practice the UN has condemned as a human rights violation, such facial-recognition software could aid the agency in identifying people for deportation or detainment.
Alerted to the relationship by the blog post, Microsoft workers expressed outrage over the company’s $19.4 million contract with ICE. The company briefly edited the post to remove the glowing language about ICE, according to Gizmodo, then posted a statement describing its “dismay” at the administration’s family-separation policy. Microsoft did not address whether it would cancel the contract.
It wasn’t nearly enough. By Tuesday, an open letter signed by more than 100 Microsoft employees had been posted to company’s internal message board, the New York Times reported. The letter, addressed to CEO Satya Nadella, called for the cancellation of the contract and the creation and enforcement of a “clear policy stating that neither Microsoft nor its contractors will work with clients who violate international human rights law” — as well as greater transparency on contracts the company signs with any government.
The quick response among the company’s employees is indicative of a larger trend across the tech industry. Immediately following Trump’s election, tech workers mobilized, pledging not to build the database for the administration’s proposed “Muslim ban,” and protesting outside of Palantir, the company many saw as the likely candidate for building the database.
While tech workers as a group tend to lean to the left on social issues, they’ve also shied away from workplace organizing and workplace protests, in part due to comfortable salaries. But the Trump administration has ignited a sense of distrust among Silicon Valley’s white-collar workforce.
A revolt is moving quickly through Silicon Valley
The relationships built in the first wave of organizing were reactivated during current protests, which have extended beyond concerns about deportation. At Google last month, engineers rose up to express their anger over Project Maven, a contract to provide the US Department of Defense with AI to analyze drone data.
According to several current Microsoft employees who spoke to Vox, employees of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other tech giants are in regular contact, sharing strategies and blueprints. “They’re very closely in touch [with each other],” one Microsoft employee, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, told me.
Another Microsoft senior engineer told me the company’s fumbling attempts at damage control only added to the outrage internally. In a statement sent to Microsoft employees and posted publicly on Wednesday, Microsoft CEO Nadella claimed that the company “is not working with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border” — which struck many employees as hair-splitting. The statement backfired, leading more of the company’s employees to sign the petition to cancel the contract.
“The way they’ve gone about trying to assuage our fears has only muddied the waters more,” the senior engineer said. Pointing out the disconnect between the company’s numerous public statements in favor of immigration reform and the contract with ICE, she said she expects this flair-up will have long-term consequences. As for herself, she said: “It’s making me ask questions I wouldn’t have asked a week ago.”
And she’s not alone. Some employees have stated that they are considering leaving the company, while other high-profile members of the tech community have backed out of conferences associated with the company in solidarity with those organizing internally. Additionally, more than 200 developers at GitHub, a leading software development platform just acquired by Microsoft, which itself has faced criticism for its relationship with ICE, pledged not to continue working with the platform should the contract stand.
Plus, there’s a revolt happening at LinkedIn, a subsidiary of Microsoft. According to one current employee at the company’s Sunnyvale, California, campus who requested anonymity, LinkedIn workers have been doing their own organizing since news of the ICE contract broke last week.
When asked how broad the support is at LinkedIn for the campaign to cancel the ICE contract, the employee told Vox that he suspects nearly half of the employees are upset about the contract. With LinkedIn’s thousands of employees and position in Silicon Valley, this organizing is significant in its own right.
For one Microsoft worker, it’s a chance to have real impact. “Tech companies provide the machinery for coordinating between ICE agents, for tracking down immigrants,” they said. “If tech workers decide that they’re not going to build that, if they decide that they’re going to put their bodies on the gears, then they can stop it.”
Workers organizing at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are learning from each other
The unfolding story at Microsoft is just one development in a fast-moving revolt by tech workers against the Trump administration. The Google protest over the drone-related Project Maven was another key inflection point. After a months-long campaign that included a work boycott by what Bloomberg described as a group of particularly influential software engineers known as the Group of Nine, the company announced it would not seek another contract when the current one expires next year.
“We owe a huge debt to the Google employees who were able to get Project Maven not renewed by standing up,” said the senior engineer at Microsoft. “I don’t know if this would have happened if they hadn’t acted first, as it provided a very good blueprint for us.”
As the pressure mounts at Microsoft, a parallel campaign has emerged at Amazon. Amazon workers, community organizations, company shareholders, and more than 50,000 members of the public demanded the company stop selling Rekognition, a widely criticized facial-recognition technology, to all governments and government agencies, including ICE.
And coordination is growing: A number of those at the center of these campaigns are active members of cross-company organizations like the Tech Workers Coalition.
Asked what comes next, multiple Microsoft employees mentioned the possibility of protests in the works. The LinkedIn employee mentioned efforts to search through Department of Defense press releases and internal company resources to find other, potentially troubling, contracts.
Meanwhile, Science for the People, an activist group primarily made up of science educators and working scientists, will be picketing in solidarity with Microsoft workers outside of Microsoft’s flagship store in New York City Monday night.
This revolt has unfolded at a pace befitting an industry obsessed with speed and disruption. It’s a heartening first step toward increasing the political engagement of tech workers, which will be necessary if they will ever truly reign in these tech behemoths.
Tech workers need to organize with low-wage workers at their companies.
It remains to be seen if these workers can build the internal networks and connections to political organizations necessary to sustain their efforts. (In a notable shift from past disdain around using the term, the open letter at Microsoft was signed Microsoft “workers,” not “employees.”) But if — and, hopefully, when — they win the cancellation of the ICE contract, momentum is with them.
I spoke with a financial technology professional and organizer with Tech Action who agreed with the hopeful tone of those involved in the Microsoft campaign. But he also emphasized the potential limitations of tech campaigns that ignore the reasons these companies partner with indefensible agencies in the first place.
The “dirty work” pays very well, he pointed out, via Signal. So “if they lobby to stop the dirty work, they kill their own jobs.” Many white-collar Microsoft workers are angered by the company’s ICE contract, in part because “they or their parents were immigrants, or refugees,” according to one current employee. But every Microsoft employee who spoke with Vox stated that they did not believe there had yet been sustained coordination with the Microsoft workers who are most affected by Trump’s policies — the immigrants who work on Microsoft’s campuses as janitors, cafeteria staff, or security guards.
Pulling hourly, low-wage workers into the campaign wouldn’t only make sense because many of these workers may be directly affected by the administration’s immigration policies; it might also introduce white-collar techies to working-class criticisms of their employers.
Such criticisms include concerns related to pay, benefits, and the effect these companies have on the communities in which they’re located. After all, as the Tech Action organizer told me, at some point the focus of an effective resistance within tech will need to incorporate a view of owners and investors of tech companies themselves as the enemy — not just ICE and Trump.
Whether those at the center of the Microsoft campaign and their counterparts at Google and Amazon can reach these workers remains an open question. However, the growing recognition among white-collar workers that their labor is a precondition to the carrying out of unjust policies — and that if they withhold that labor, they can help bring these policies to a halt — is critical.
For an industry that has seemed almost allergic to the language of class, the current wave of resistance marks an exciting start.
Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin and a PhD student in sociology at Northeastern University. You can follow her on Twitter @alexnpress.
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