Tech Workers: Friends or Foes?

Tech workers’ high pay doesn’t mean they’re not workers — and it won’t always protect them from their bosses.

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the TechCrunch Conference at SF Design Center on September 11, 2012 in San Francisco, CA. C Flanigan / WireImage

The transformation the tech boom has wrought upon the Bay Area stands in sharper and sharper relief as years of out-migration by those who are priced out cements social inequality. If the Bay Area is no longer for them, who is it for?

The easy reply is that the Bay Area is being remade by and for tech workers against the interests of the poor. This idea animates a general antagonism towards tech workers, which manifests in several ways. The protests blockading employee buses in 2013 centered on private usage of public bus stops and lanes, as well as gentrification and tax breaks for tech companies, which undermine public transit — but they contained an undeniable dose of techie hate.

A culture war of sorts simmers today. Some on the Left see techies as a rich invasive species that is causing gentrification and deepening inequality. In Rebecca Solnit’s analogy, tech workers are to landlords evicting tenants what ivory buyers are to poachers killing elephants. What’s more, these same tech workers are responsible for creating platforms and services that disrupt the livelihoods of taxi drivers and turn scarce housing stock into hotel rooms.

Tech bosses claim that their companies empower people, generate positive energy, make it easier to share (for a fee), and create a more equal world. It is no wonder then that the industry attracts profound skepticism and hostility from those excluded from or displaced by it, not least because its messianic ethos swims awkwardly in a decidedly non-messianic sea of cash. But it’s a mistake to direct that hostility at tech workers themselves.

The tech industry’s borders are difficult to define — spanning Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple. It employs miners, call center workers, assembly line operators, and software developers, all around the world. The focus of much media attention and misplaced ire — and of this article — is the software developer, software or hardware engineer, programmer, or interface designer in Silicon Valley. I use the term “tech workers” as a proxy for this cluster of occupations.

Of course, tech companies employ many people beyond this narrow definition of a tech worker — service workers, drivers, clerical workers, project managers, as well as temporary and subcontracted workers. They enjoy far fewer of the comforts of the tech worker life, so it is mistaken to see all Google employees as a scourge upon the Bay. But for now, I will focus on the tech workers who are closest to product engineering and development.

What About the High Pay?

One thing that makes tech workers such an easy target in the culture wars is their high pay. But the wages in tech are not a collegial gift from the employers or a profit-sharing payout. The current high salaries in tech come from two factors. One is that not a lot of people have these skills, so there’s less competition driving pay down. The other is that workers in this particular job make a lot of money for their employers (as with professional athletes, who are also workers).

There is also more fluidity between worker and capitalist in tech than in other economic sectors. Founders of startups are capitalists — their interests align clearly with their investors. On the other hand, even if the first employees receive an ownership stake to compensate for a lower salary, the stake is typically not large enough to enable them to live life as rentiers in the unlikely scenario that the startup succeeds. The truth is, the vast majority of tech startups do not succeed and do not leave their founders and early employees with fortunes. The most likely outcome for early startup employees is that their ownership stakes will be worth nothing, and the next most likely outcome is that they’ll be worth a large bonus but not enough to stop working.

Setting aside meaningful ownership stakes, large pay packages can enable tech workers to, over time, accumulate enough wealth to make money off of it, be it through rental properties or financial investments. This isn’t fundamentally different from many other industries in which the most skilled layer of employees can make enough to accumulate wealth over decades of work.

The only difference is the higher salaries in tech, so the layer of workers who can escape the necessity of wage labor is larger, and their escapes can happen sooner. Paysa’s data suggests that many tech workers make around $250,000 a year when stock shares are included. Several years of pay at that level will yield much more than a down payment for a house in the Bay Area. Tech workers making this kind of money may eventually accumulate enough wealth to start worrying about it.

It is no secret that the equity pay for tech talent, which runs around $100,000 a year at the big tech companies, is meant to be a golden cage. The shares take time to vest, incentivizing the employee to stay at the company even if work conditions worsen or better offers become available elsewhere. In addition, stock shares at some companies aren’t easily convertible into cash, particularly if the company isn’t yet publicly traded, so the value of the shares is subject to significant uncertainty (including the possibility of being worthless). Finally, it is worth reiterating that the definition of tech worker for the purposes of this article is narrow.

Most tech company employees don’t get anywhere near this compensation. Most tech workers outside of the West Coast (Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Los Angeles) and Wall Street don’t get these large salary plus equity packages; instead, they enjoy what used to be called a middle class living. That said, a significant minority of tech workers, concentrated at the high profile Silicon Valley firms, make enough in bankable equity to substantively alter their class position, even if they formally remain workers. Their employment relationship aside, concerns about protecting their wealth will push their outlook to align more closely with capitalists and small proprietors, and not with the mass of the working class.

Still, tech bosses are doing their best to lower wages by colluding to suppress tech worker pay, moving software design and development work to countries with lower labor standards like India, and automating aspects of tech work itself. Tech workers’ relatively high pay doesn’t mean they’re not workers, and it won’t always protect them from the power of their bosses, though it may free them from the necessity of work.

Workers Are Not “Gentrifiers”

Tech workers, especially in West Coast cities, are at the center of debates on gentrification, epitomized by a San Francisco Chronicle article headlined “Tech Workers Evict Kindergarten Teacher from Mission Apartment for ‘Using Appliances.’” As it turned out, the “tech workers” referred to in the headline were a VP of product development and a marketing manager — bosses, not rank-and-file workers. Setting that aside, it was not their position as tech workers which enabled them to evict the teacher — it was their position as landlords. To confront the power of tech workers who own rental properties, we must confront them as landlords, not as workers.

This isn’t to say that many tech workers aren’t happy with gentrification. Some are proudly so — arguing for the privatization of public playgrounds or complaining about the homeless ruining the city (though the author of that letter is a founder, not a rank-and-file worker). But their opinions about the transformation of the city are distinct from their power to enact that transformation, which lies squarely with landlords, business owners, and politicians.

It is not as though tech workers desire or demand to pay more for a given apartment or meal, nor are they opening fancy grocery stores or buying parcels to develop condos. Landlords can make more money by remodeling apartments and charging higher rents, restaurant owners can profit more by charging higher prices, and now in tech hubs there’s a larger pool of people who can afford to pay those prices. The profit incentive in a booming housing and food market, not a “techie onslaught, is what’s driving gentrification.

The solution to gentrification is encroachment on the property rights of landlords. We have to fight for expanded rent control, vacancy control, taxing empty and second homes, further restrictions and a moratorium on evictions, public housing, and housing as a social right — not for tech workers to voluntarily exclude themselves from the rental market. We have to fight for a living wage for all — not for lower wages in tech.

Tech workers may be the most identifiable face of gentrification, seen in your bars, your parks, your cafes. But pinning gentrification on them gets the power dynamic wrong and has the convenient benefit of shielding landlords, developers, and small business owners from scrutiny, many of whom have nothing to do with tech themselves — they’re just taking advantage of the boom.

Ruining the World?

An additional line of attack on tech workers is that they’re creating tools that are ruining the world. AirBnb accelerates gentrification. Uber casualizes driver labor. Facebook brings more advertising and consumerism into our brains. Blaming this on rank-and-file tech workers is as misplaced as blaming oil-field workers for fracking. Under capitalism, the decision of what to produce and how to produce it rests entirely with the owners of capital, the employing class.

Sure, tech workers voluntarily agree to take these jobs, as do oil-field workers, but as a general principle, socialists do not blame workers for seeking out the best wages they can get. And if a particular tech worker is well-off enough to quit their job at Uber over principles, there will be someone else who needs that job — that’s how capitalism works. It’s why (semi-legitimate) coding academies and programming lessons in elementary schools are spreading around the country.

There are important shades of difference in the choice of work. If you’re the person designing the newest swarm of armed drones, the latest digital dragnet, or a Muslim registration system, you’re probably lost to the cause of socialism. But that’s not the majority of tech work.

Tech workers do get to make meaningful design choices, a rebuttal that has come up repeatedly in this argument. That decision-making ability is shared in common with engineers in almost every other industry, but company executives ultimately set the direction of product design and approve or reject substantive features.

It would be hard to argue that dark patterns in application or website design are more pernicious than knowingly selling faulty vehicle ignition switches that kill people. Yet General Motors executives quashed proposals from engineers to redesign the faulty switches and keys, at least in part due to cost concerns. Executives also control design choices in tech, and the responsibility lies with them. Moreover, software engineering does not have the collection of standards bodies (e.g., ASCE, ASME, ASTM) and certifications (e.g., PE) that impose accountability — independent from managers — on auto and other kinds of engineering. That means independence against the boss’s desires, and therefore responsibility, is even weaker among tech workers.

Instead of arguing against technology or tech work itself, we should advocate for democratically harnessing technical expertise and engineering know-how to satisfy human needs, alleviate the burden of labor, and fix environmental damage. Engineers tend to be a highly rational bunch, and they may be open to the idea of collectively and deliberately deciding how to apply their talents, instead of remaining subject to market signals suggesting that the world wants another Snapchat clone.

The desire for rational application of technical talent can align with the worldview of tech workers themselves, who would have more fulfilling work under socialism.

Tech Workers as Engineers

Tech workers should definitely be viewed as workers, but they are engineers, which presents a few key organizing challenges.

The first is that some software engineering jobs have negative effects on other workers. Many, though not all, tech workers are integral to the employing class’s current efforts to flexibilize, speed up, or eliminate other people’s work. Amazon is leading efforts to monitor and intensify warehouse work, and this process extends to call centers and delivery drivers. The end result is fewer, and increasingly stressed, workers. The artificial intelligence systems being developed by researchers at Facebook, Google, and Uber threaten to kill jobs in trucking, customer service, and the legal profession.

Adding to the tension, tech work generally requires a sophisticated education, which is accessible mostly to people from privileged backgrounds. Thus it’s likely that the tech workforce is disproportionately made up of people from affluent households (in addition to being disproportionately white and male).

Tech workers are also more likely to buy into the idea that individual merit and achievement was the basis for their success, so others should work harder to live better. This gives libertarianism a wider appeal among tech workers than among other workers. And again, tech workers’ pay allows them to accrue real wealth; they won’t become billionaires, but many could become millionaires.

That means that solidarity and the risk of workplace struggle is not their only, and probably not their best, path to improving their living conditions. It is at least as easy for a tech worker to quit their job and find another better one as it is to attempt to organize their coworkers. The tight job market enables tech workers to be assertive in their demands at work, but the high pay makes it less likely for those demands to be openly economically antagonistic to their employers. And many tech workers are on a path out of the working class.

For these reasons, workplace organizing among tech workers is not likely to revolve around wages, benefits, and unionization in the near-to-medium term. It has and will likely continue to revolve around oppression — like the rampant sexism and sexual harassment faced by women in tech, the industry’s woeful lack of sexual and racial diversity, and the rights of immigrant tech workers.

But that’s not the whole story. The leftward shift among younger people certainly is expressed among tech workers, who skew young. Bernie Sanders seems to have done well among them. The Tech Workers Coalition is leading grassroots organizing of tech workers around a variety of issues, including refusing to create a Muslim registry, supporting unionization efforts of service workers at tech campuses, and orienting to the grievances of the less well-off tech employees.

Socialists must welcome and support these developments, even as we understand the limits that tech workers’ contradictory class position places on their potential for organizing collectively as workers to fight their bosses.