Aaron Petcoff (AP)
Ben Tarnoff (BT)

While the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the US economy, the tech industry remains its most profitable sector. While government institutions responded clumsily to the crisis, tech companies, large and small, offered convenience to consumers and employers alike. Tech companies have continued to extend their reach into our lives at work and at home.

There’s a bright spot to be found, however, in the continued progress that tech workers have made over the last year in organizing to put Silicon Valley founders in check. The research project Collective Action in Tech documented more than one hundred workplace actions in 2020 alone, despite the interruption of a global pandemic, along with a multitude of preexisting challenges.

The rapid growth of this movement over just a few years has far exceeded the expectations of even the most hopeful organizers and activists. The disenchantment with the supposedly noble principle to “do no evil” fueled high-profile protests against the moral bankruptcy of tech employers, which in turn gave way to greater skepticism and anger over an often exploitative and discriminatory workplace culture.

The global walkout of more than twenty thousand Google employees against sexual harassment in 2019 raised the aspirations of the movement and demonstrated that organizing in the tech industry is possible. It also drew the watchful eye of big tech employers. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint against Google in early December after determining that the company spied on its employees and retaliated against those who engaged in protected organizing activity.

Much of the organizing that’s taken place in the tech industry has occurred through informal networks, outside the official labor movement. But the success of workers at Kickstarter and the software start-up Glitch in securing union recognition has shown that unions have an important role to play, both in providing a legal foundation for collective bargaining as well as providing valuable organizing resources — most notably, the practical experience and knowledge of staff organizers. More recently, Googlers formed the Alphabet Workers Union, a membership organization to strengthen collective action within the company.

While union density in the United States across all sectors is abysmally low, the tech industry has a uniquely successful track record in avoiding unions. Few workers in the tech industry have any experience with the labor movement or the basic workplace organizing skills needed for building power on the shop floor.

What the movement has achieved already marks a significant turn in the history of the tech industry. But there are significant challenges to sustaining and extending these achievements. One persistent question has been how to effectively draw more of the industry’s white-collar workforce, who often receive significantly higher salaries and enjoy many of the other perks that come with having technical knowledge in high demand, into the movement, while bridging the divide between these workers and those in less advantaged layers of the industry.

Below is an exchange between Aaron Petcoff, a tech worker in New York City, and Ben Tarnoff, a tech worker and a founding editor of Logic magazine, exploring the story of the tech labor movement so far, with an eye toward its future.