2018 has been an excruciating exercise in achieving, and then discovering new definitions of, rock bottom. Public confidence in the tools of democracy eroded, replaced for most Americans with trust in tech monopolies—many of which spent the year showing us how wrong we were to offer them stewardship over any aspect of our data and our lives. It was also the year rank-and-file workers, rich and poor, made their voices heard in earnest from inside these companies.
One of the major hurdles keeping tech workers from organizing is that many aren’t employees at all—they’re contractors, who perform their jobs without benefits and with the expectation they could be let go at any moment, for any reason. Approximately one out of five Americans fall into this category of work, according to an NPR/Marist poll earlier this year, and several tech companies base their entire business models off the intentional blurring of employee and independent contractor for their own legal and financial benefit.
In spite of that disadvantage, cafeteria workers at Airbnb’s corporate headquarters managed to unionize with the United Auto Workers. Six months later, security contractors, many of whom were tasked with guarding the headquarters of Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google, successfully ratified a union contract with SEIU United Service Workers West.
Class action lawsuits by workers on a variety of gig work platforms like Uber and Lyft continued apace, until an unfavorable ruling from the Supreme Court effectively nullified that as a tactic for recovering wages. Still, a licensing cap, unemployment eligibility, and the nation’s first for-hire vehicle pay floor were recently enacted in New York City for rideshare driver, after years of tireless work from advocacy groups, setting living-wage precedents that are likely to be taken up by other metropolitan areas. Labor lawyers are now attempting a new legal gambit which could drown Uber in a sea of costly arbitration claims.
Among workers tech companies deign to acknowledge as legitimate employees, there were more reasons to be optimistic—which admittedly is a strange way to feel during the death throes of neoliberal democracy. Thanks in large part to a coalition of Whole Foods employees agitating for better working conditions, and criticism of the company’s practices by Senator Bernie Sanders, Amazon and all its subsidiaries instituted a $15/hour minimum wage policy. In Europe, where organized labor tends to have a bigger footprint, Amazon warehouse workers held a strike to coincide with the holiday shopping rush for the fifth year in a row. Last week activists with Awood Center, who managed to bring company executives to the bargaining table over issues like religious freedom and the pace of work, held a peaceful, hundreds-strong demonstration in front of a fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota—which, to our knowledge, is the first public worker protest against Amazon in the country.
It would seem something about making a living at the pleasure of the richest man in modern history during a time of widening inequality and stagnating wages must be particularly galling: even antiquarians picked up a stunning win against Bezos this year, with 600 rare book sellers striking in protest of their treatment by Amazon subsidiary AbeBooks, which threatened to drop sellers in a smattering of countries, including South Korea, the Czech Republic and Russia. Three and a half million titles were pulled from AbeBooks as a result of the protest—and AbeBooks conceded to seller demands soon after.
Of course what’s been most surprising this year have been the various actions from higher up the corporate food chain of these firms, beginning with Google employees’ protestations over working on technology for drone AI at the Pentagon’s behest as part of Project Maven. Since then, discomfort about the industry cozying up to military and law enforcement interests (especially ICE and CBP) have led to calls to cancel contracts by staffers at Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Salesforce, and Accenture, as well as resignations at Google. Currently, Google has opted not to renew its Maven contract, CEO Sundar Pichai is slated to testify before Congress next week, and lawmakers continue to press Jeff Bezos on the specifics of the questionable facial recognition software he’s sold to law enforcement agencies.
The restrictive practice of forced arbitration, especially in instances of sexual harassment, continues to be rolled back through concerted employee action. This year alone saw these policies—which be foisted onto high-paid engineers and contract workers alike in fine print—rescinded at three major firms: Facebook, Uber, and Google. In the latter’s case, all it for victims of harassment or assault to have their cases heard in open court was a coordinated, thousands-strong employee walkout. Following that success, a senior engineer at the company, Liz Fong-Jones, has raised over $100,000 in funding to put towards a general strike, and has vowed to quit Google if changes aren’t made by February.
Each of these anecdotes is, of course, a tidy simplification that belies the long, quiet toil that went into organizing these actions, and the even longer state of poor conditions that necessitated them. Those security guards for example, started organizing five years ago, and had their union recognized nearly two years ago. Bargaining stalled. Nothing is simple or clean-cut.
And especially in this realm of action, the results are far from guaranteed. Where Google capitulated on a number of demands, Amazon waited five months before privately responding to employee concerns. Amazon and Tesla, both immensely powerful companies led by sickeningly wealthy men, have both been accused of union-busting during the course of the year. The fact is: many of these disputes don’t end well for workers, though their success rate is arguably much higher than waiting on the noblesse oblige of management.
It’s worth stating the grassroots movement in the tech space isn’t happening in a vacuum. Far from it. The past 12 months have seen mass actions from Marriott Hotel workers, fast food employees, and incarcerated Americans in over a dozen states. In education, successful wildcat strikes by West Virginia teachers bred similar actions of varying scale in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, and North Carolina; graduate students led walkouts at Columbia and the University of Illinois while others joined unions, like at Harvard, Tufts, and Brandeis; Harvard cafeteria workers and healthcare workers at the University of California initiated strikes for better pay and conditions. Las Vegas hospitality workers authorized what would have been a city-wide strike in May, as did hundreds of thousands of Teamsters in the ranks of the UPS less than a month later. Laid off Toys R Us employees even managed to secure $20 million (up from $0) in severance from the private equity firms that led to the chain’s bankruptcy.
Organized blue- and white-collar backlash toward tech monopolies is nowhere near reaching critical mass, and for all the strides that have been made in 2018, there’s lots of work left to do. To see Americans demanding dignity in their work in an industry highly resistant towards employee organizing feels like a monumental shift in power. These may be some of the richest, most influential, and most powerful companies in history, but they still have a hell of a fight on their hands.