Tech Workers for Bernie

Bernie Sanders wants to rein in Big Tech, but tech workers love him anyway. Why? Because tech workers, like all workers, recognize the impact that policies such as Medicare for All and student loan debt relief could have on their well-being.

Google employees walk off the job to protest the company's handling of sexual misconduct claims, on November 1, 2018, in Mountain View, California. (Mason Trinca / Getty Images)

The Financial Times recently noted, with some surprise, that California tech workers at Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Tesla, Netflix, Uber, and Apple were considerably more likely to support Senator Bernie Sanders over any other Democratic presidential nominee despite his vows to rein in Big Tech. But the Federal Election Commission data shouldn’t come as a surprise — tech workers have shown repeatedly that they care about the same issues that workers everywhere do.

Tech workers are sometimes viewed as a different breed of workers — members of the “labor aristocracy.” Highly skilled, highly paid, and seduced by the perks and exclusivity that come along with working for a company like Google or Facebook, it is often assumed that they align with their bosses instead of ordinary people.

The reality is not so simple. Yes, it’s true that many tech workers earn far above both the 2018 median US household income of $63,179 and median personal income of $33,706 (2018). Median pay at Google (including stock compensation) was $246,884 in 2018. At Facebook it was $228,651, and at Twitter, $172,703. But median pay is significantly lower at tech companies such as Apple which employs large numbers in its retail stores, and at Amazon, which directly employs many warehouse and logistics workers. Software engineers at Apple and Amazon earn an average base salary of roughly $120,000.

But the sky-high salaries of Google and Facebook engineers are not representative of most tech workers, either in California, elsewhere in the United States, or even, for that matter, at Google and Facebook. Contract workers, who make up an estimated half of Google’s workforce, earn substantially less and are entitled to few of the benefits that direct employees enjoy. The same goes for people-facing tech workers who fill customer service positions, and the armies of blue-collar tech workers (some of whom are directly employed by tech companies) who keep the sprawling Silicon Valley campuses running.

Moreover, Silicon Valley’s astronomical housing costs put a significant dent even in the high salaries enjoyed by elite tech workers. Add to this crippling student loan burdens and increasing health care costs and it’s clear that, while many tech workers lead a much more comfortable existence than most folks, they are not at the table with the billionaires and venture capitalists who run the show. Tech workers, like all workers, recognize the transformative impact that policies such as Medicare for All and student loan debt relief could have on their well-being.

Their support for progressive candidates goes beyond bread-and-butter issues, however. While workers at Google, Facebook, and Apple are often presented as worker bees, cheerfully falling into line behind their glorious leaders, in reality, tech bosses expend a lot of energy enforcing discipline and quashing dissent.

Nondisclosure agreements are de rigueur at many tech companies. Tech workers face intense pressure from company executives to present a sunny public face, and workers who talk to journalists or investigators about their work environments can face dismissal. Recall a much-publicized email from a Google executive to employees: “If you’re considering sharing confidential information to a reporter — or to anyone externally — for the love of all that’s Googley, please reconsider! Not only could it cost you your job, but it also betrays the values that make us a community.”

Industry-wide demands for discipline and secrecy suggest not only that Big Tech companies have a lot to hide, but also that as Big Tech business practices come to light (both to the public and, in many instances, to the people that work at these companies) tech workers are increasingly unwilling to toe the line. Many, as evidenced by the FT’s campaign analysis, support a progressive vision for change on issues such as global warming, surveillance, and militarism that clashes with the prerogatives of their bosses.

Amazon workers, for example, recently formed Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ). After Jeff Bezos’s pledge to donate $10 billion to his new “Bezos Earth Fund,” AECJ pushed back against the initiative (which some environmental groups have dubbed “hypocritical”), demanding to know: “When is Amazon going to stop helping oil and gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells? When is Amazon going to stop funding climate-denying think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and climate-delaying policy? When will Amazon take responsibility for the lungs of children near its warehouses by moving from diesel to all-electric trucking?”

Amazon has threatened to fire employees for speaking out against its environmental practices, but its workers are willing to take the risk.

Tech workers also recognize the role that their employers, and by extension they themselves, play in a host of other problems associated with Big Tech, such as the use of digital technology to surveil and oppress ordinary Americans, and the long-standing partnership between tech companies and US imperialism.

Google workers began organizing after they learned about a secret company program called Maven to provide artificial intelligence to the military to improve the speed and accuracy of sorting drone footage and photographs. The successful pressure campaign forced Google to back out of the contract. Meanwhile, Amazon employees have lobbied executives to stop selling facial recognition software to law enforcement, while tech workers at Microsoft and Salesforce have called for their companies to cancel contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Actions like these make it obvious why tech workers support candidates who want to rein in Big Tech, defund militarism, and lay the foundation for a just transition to sustainable energy.

More and more, tech workers recognize both the need to take on Big Tech and their own power to change how these companies operate. They are organizing together, building coalitions with other members of their communities, and, not surprisingly, supporting large-scale, progressive political change at the ballot box.