A Year of Tech Solidarity

Since Trump's election, tech workers have shown unprecedented interest in political organizing—maybe even unionizing—but as efforts like Tech Solidarity show, it's going to take a while to see real impact.

A year has passed since Donald Trump was elected president, and nearly as much time since Maciej Ceglowski began pushing tech workers to organize. The iconoclastic one-man owner and operator of the social bookmarking site Pinboard held the first meeting of Tech Solidarity in San Francisco last November, and since then Ceglowski has overseen more than 30 events across the country, from Los Angeles to New York, Portland to Atlanta. At a recent event at Civic Hall in New York City, Ceglowski said he has narrowed the focus of the events to two main topics: labor organizing in the technology industry, and money in politics—specifically, getting tech money into progressive politics.

However, despite having clear and defined priorities, Ceglowski told Civicist that he is immensely frustrated that his peers aren’t doing more.

“I’m really down on how apathetic people are in the tech industry,” he told Civicist during a phone interview shortly after the event at Civic Hall. “I mean they’re very concerned on the individual level but it doesn’t translate into any sort of action.”

Ceglowski continues to organize Tech Solidarity meetings, slowly building out the network, in the hope that when a crisis finally catapults tech workers into action, his group is ready to mobilize.

“I do feel that our industry and leaders have skated by with a lot of collaboration and a lot of taking advantage of this new context without paying any price for it,” he said. “That’s disappointing to me and I hope that we as tech workers can hold their feet to the fire better next year than we did this year.”

Ceglowski told Civicist that he has struggled to overcome a reluctance to get politically engaged from the very first Tech Solidarity meeting. He called for one in part because he thought it could be more productive to meet in person over donuts than “[be] negative on Twitter with everybody else.” (The donuts have since become a regular feature.)

Maciej Cegłowski speaking on the subject of “the web obesity crisis” (Photo:
Dushan Hanuska)

Ceglowski is a well-known technology and social critic and a regular speaker at tech conferences, so he had a large network to invite, but even so, many of the attendees at the first few meetings didn’t want to broadcast their participation.

“The problem was that everybody was really nervous about having their name on anything, and that’s kind of antithetical to organizing,” Ceglowski said.

When he asked why he thought that was the case, Ceglowski said, “Before Trump came into office it wasn’t clear how competent he would be or how competent the people working with him would be. As tech people we know the power of the data that we store and how irrevocable it is, so people were skittish about having their name associated with what was considered an anti-Trump organization, not knowing what that would entail months or longer down the line.”

Ceglowski worked to accommodate attendees of Tech Solidarity events by making it possible for people to come pseudonymously, but it kept him from forming a mailing list at first. Potential attendees had to contact him for meeting details. A lot of those fears have since subsided, but they impeded the group’s growth. (Attendance at events has ranged from 30 – 200 people, and Ceglowski estimates roughly half are first-time attendees each time.)

Ceglowski has continued to respect the wishes of attendees who don’t want word of their involvement to get back to their employers. At the Civic Hall event last month, he reminded everyone that they follow the Chatham House Rule, meaning nothing said by attendees could be attributed to them by name, unless given explicit permission. The speakers, representatives from Jess King for Congress, a campaign by a progressive, working mother running in Pennsylvania, and Kiron Roy, an Etsy employee trying to organize in his workplace, were all on record.

Ceglowski wants to focus on labor organizing because he believes it is one of the few levers that can be used to change the core behavior of tech companies. For progressives like Ceglowski, organizing tech workers is not merely about ensuring fair working conditions—many tech workers already enjoy excellent benefits and employment perks—but about pressuring companies to do better on a range of issues, from sexual harassment in the workplace, to user privacy and security, to election integrity.

“When you have a monopoly you can’t really have a consumer boycott,” Ceglowski said. “People can’t realistically not use Google or Facebook at this stage…shareholder pressure doesn’t work at all because the founders retain voting control…and the press, because they’re so reliant on Google and Facebook as publishing outlets…they’re part of the problem, and not the solution.”

Tech workers are a more privileged class than many blue-collar professionals who have organized, but they are also expensive to train and absolutely necessary for tech companies to function, so if they wanted to, they could wield a lot of power. “We have a good tradition of hacking stuff and using it to unexpected purposes, and one of the biggest tools available is labor law and the protections that it offers workers when they do stuff collectively at the workplace,” said Ceglowski. “I was trying to entice people into using those provisions to push some things that everyone was concerned about that the companies weren’t doing.”

The Never Again pledge, an initiative led by Leigh Honeywell, is one example of a tech-worker project that began at a Tech Solidarity event. The pledge informs tech companies, and the public at large, what many tech workers are not willing to do on behalf of the Trump administration. To date, more than 2,800 technologists have signed the pledge, which states things like, “we refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin” and “we refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable.”

However, organizing technologists is not an easy feat, even when the power imbalance between workers and shareholders is revealed for what it is. Earlier this year, the hedge fund Black-and-White Capital LP began forcefully and publicly pressuring the online craft marketplace Etsy to restructure some of its central operations, which eventually led to layoffs that reduced the company workforce by 23 percent and disrupted several long-term projects. Although Kiron Roy had no experience in labor organizing, he told Civicist that after the layoffs it finally “clicked.” He began talking to his coworkers about how they might respond to the changes.

Photo: Charles & Hudson

Roy quickly realized the impossibility of going from “nothing to union.” He came up with the idea of delivering a petition to upper management, a more attainable goal. But many of his colleagues who remained at the company were reluctant to participate because they didn’t want to risk their job or to face other consequences. Some of his coworkers found jobs at different companies rather than endure the uncertainty at Etsy. Others told him things like “this is pointless and will never accomplish anything,” or it “feels like you’re just fighting against capitalism.” Some were afraid of seeming like “spoiled brats.”

Roy said that he disagrees with some of these excuses, and is saddened by others. Although he has endured private conversations and good-cop, bad-cop routines from his superiors, Roy said he has been fortunate to never feel like his job was at risk. (Since the petition was published, a transfer to a different team within the company went off without a hitch, and he continues to get emails from recruiters at the same rate as before; he took time during his Tech Solidarity presentation to acknowledge this privilege.)

Over a series of small, after-work meetings with friends and co-workers, Roy drafted a petition and a set of demands. He refined those demands over time by sending it around to his coworkers for comment. Unsurprisingly, people were more willing to give feedback on something that had already been written than to help generate material from scratch.

Roy published the petition in August, and it has since garnered more than 1,000 signatures. A little over two weeks ago, Roy posted an update stating that one of the conditions—to recommit to a sustainable future—was met by a recent announcement by the CEO that outlined new ecological impact goals.

“This is the result of the hard work of Etsy’s values and impact team, as well as the petition and all of the signatures behind it,” Roy wrote. “Your voices helped make Etsy’s impact goals a priority for management.”

However, since the petition, interest in organizing has tapered off. Roy, who is new to labor organizing, said this might be a personal failure on his part. “It’s taxing,” he tells Civicist.

One could argue that the challenges of organizing in the digital age are even greater than before. It’s difficult to get people interested in meeting outside of work, especially when “outside of work” is so vague. Engineers and designers don’t work nine-to-five jobs, and when there’s a gray area between being on- and off-the-job it can be difficult to find time that feels appropriate to organize. Workers can’t start brainstorming in the office during “break times” because few tech workers, if any, have designated “break times” or “break rooms.”

And labor laws weren’t written for the digital age—Roy said one thing he has wondered is whether private channels on the company Slack would qualify as protected spaces for organizing.

Michelle Miller, the co-founder of Coworker.org, a nonprofit that helps workers in different sectors organize, says that Slack conversations are protected, provided they don’t take place during company time, or on company equipment. This means that workers who want to use the platform to organize should start their own private Slack team, and only use it when they’re off the clock.

Ceglowski says one reason he is raising money for progressive politicians and organizations is because it’s something technologists are actually willing to do. Even if they are reluctant to spend the time and energy on grassroots organizing, they can open their checkbooks for people who are. At the October meeting in New York, Ceglowski was raising money for Jess King, a progressive running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 16th district against an NRA-backed Republican incumbent.

“As I’ve talked to people and traveled around I’ve noticed that money is not getting to grassroots organizing efforts,” Ceglowski told Civicist. “There’s a lot of people working on big apps, working on national campaigns. There’s no shortage of funding, but it’s just getting eaten by the consultant class, basically the same people who lost the election in 2016.”

Miller, who knows Ceglowski, doesn’t think he should be so discouraged. “It takes a really long time for people to really start to engage in this kind of activism,” she told Civicist. “It’s scary. It’s hard. It’s slow. This is not showing up at a march and it’s not giving a little money here and there.”

She points out that many tech workers have never experienced the system working against them or their interests. “Imagine having to change your personality to a person who’s not going to follow the rules anymore,” Miller said. “I think people have to go through a lot of internal work and I am impressed with everyone who is brave enough to show up at these meetings.”

Derecka Mehrens, the co-founder of Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition working to organize low-wage workers in the tech economy, agrees. She says that organizing a group of workers is always hard, but especially hard if they are in an industry that has never really been organized in the past. “Anytime you’re the first to do something, you’re innovating the model, and no one to date has innovated that model,” Mehrens told Civicist.

While the slow pace of progress might be maddening for the people like Ceglowski pushing for it, Mehrens said she is more optimistic, too. Although she has worked in Silicon Valley for 16 years, this is the first she has ever heard of tech workers looking into unionizing. “There’s more energy around tech worker solidarity than ever before,” Mehrens said.

Miller said that since the election she has heard with some regularity from tech workers who have questions about the terms of their contracts. They’ll send an email, or drop into her DMs on Twitter to ask about their rights, whether this or that is a protected activity. Even workers who aren’t ready to organize are thinking more critically about NDAs and other workplace restrictions, she told Civicist.

“I know nobody wants to hear this but, I feel like this is a five to ten year thing,” Miller said.

Ceglowski says that over the next few months he wants to build out Tech Solidarity’s organizational structures. He would like to hand off coordination of New York events to activists here, to find someone to help him organize events in San Francisco and elsewhere, and to form a board.

“I’m just trying to keep it going and find the secret to making it a lasting force,” Ceglowski said.