Employees at several of the world’s biggest technology companies have been exercising newfound political power where they work, pushing their bosses on business ethics with help from established and fledgling nonprofit groups.
Most of the highly paid professional workers at Alphabet Inc’s Google, Microsoft, Amazon.com and other tech companies have little experience with labor unions, and many have avoided other civil movements. But several organizations such as Tech Workers Coalition and coworker.org are helping techies learn new skills like building consensus across workgroups, drafting effective petitions and protecting themselves under labor law.
More established groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also growing more active in Silicon Valley, engaging companies on more topics and helping workers who want to raise issues with management.
Political concern grew following the 2016 presidential campaign. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in April before the US Congress about concerns ranging from lack of data protection to Russian agents using Facebook to influence US elections. Recently, activism among Silicon Valley employees has accelerated.
Last month, workers and rights groups persuaded Google not to renew a contract to supply artificial intelligence tools to help the Pentagon analyze footage from drone aircraft. More than 4,000 employees signed the petition which argued that the project could lead to more automated killing.
“We have all this power, and we’re learning to recognize that and apply it, because we are the ones actually building stuff,” said coalition member Tyler Breisacher, who helped spread word on issues within Google before joining a smaller company in May.
In what has become a regular ritual, more than 50 tech workers shared an evening meeting last week in San Francisco’s Mission District. Attendees said they traded stories about accomplishments and tips on sounding out potentially sympathetic coworkers while reducing the risk of termination.
The event was one of a series in the tech hubs of San Francisco and Seattle held by volunteers in the loosely structured Tech Workers Coalition. Formed in 2015, its membership has surged since the 2016 election.
“We have a broad network of community groups, unions, and non-profits that we collaborate with, but the best education comes from other workers and their past struggles,” the coalition wrote in response to emailed questions. Another relative newcomer, coworker.org, coaches on campaign strategy and media relations.
After the petition drive, Google employees are debating whether, when and how to go public in the future. Many said they would rather be heard internally, earlier in the product cycle.
As Google engineer and activist Liz Fong-Jones put it in a recent talk to software developers: “Ethics crises are a process failure.”
While Google has always prided itself on an open and freewheeling corporate culture, activism is newer to other big tech employers.