Can Tech Workers Stop the Layoffs?

At a time of mass layoffs in Silicon Valley, tech workers urgently need to organize. The myths those workers have come to believe about themselves can make that organizing difficult — but those myths aren’t insurmountable.

Mass layoffs have hit the tech industry. Can workers organize to stop them? (David Odisho / Getty Images)

“About to be great furniture deals on Craigslist,” the tweet reads. Accompanying it is a spreadsheet detailing the thousands of employees laid off by Silicon Valley tech companies in recent weeks.

Each line lists deep layoffs: Twitter fired half its seven thousand full-time staff; Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, let go of eleven thousand workers; a range of other valley companies have laid off hundreds more. “510 ads for Aeron chairs already,” another user replied. A screenshot shows a glut of Craigslist ads, each with rows of the distinctive, streamlined swivel chairs ubiquitous in tech offices.

Derisive tweets about the thousands of workers losing their jobs reflect a familiar antipathy for tech workers. Techies have a reputation as a highly compensated class of workers with strong market power and a deep socioeconomic disconnect from the people who live and work around them. Tech work is seen as a sure bet: computer science degrees are increasingly popular, supposedly paving the way to high-paying jobs in an ever-growing industry.

This security has been shaken by the rolling tide of layoffs that has crashed over the tech industry. Although these mass layoffs are reaching across the industry, large hiring and firing events are not infrequent in tech. Empty Aeron chairs have become indexes of the boom-bust job cycle that powers the tech industry but plagues tech workers. Despite seeming to be the winners of the global economy, tech workers trying to protect their jobs confront vanishingly little history of worker mobilization and a union-suspicious culture. These workers have few protections against layoffs and increasingly uncertain mobility to other jobs. When these fired workers are not US citizens, they face a visa crisis.

Workers attempting to mobilize others also confront structural challenges. Tech workers are far from the shared factory floor. Many work remotely, across different states and countries. At companies like Apple, company teams are kept apart in separate offices with different access codes, and the firm’s rules about nondisclosure can stifle communication between employees. A software engineer might wonder why they should even try to organize their workplace to protect jobs. Mobilizing fellow workers seems difficult, risky, and unlikely to succeed.

How do workers build labor power when it seems impossible? A new book by Sidney A. Rothstein, Recoding Power: Tactics for Mobilizing Tech Workers, offers not exactly optimism but options. Rothstein argues that although the tech industry is hostile to unionization, the very nature of its hostility — in particular, a culture that venerates profit above all else — offers opportunities for creative workers to exploit.

The book compares four cases of mass layoffs in the tech industry, two in the United States and two in Germany. Through extensive interviews with workers, Rothstein shows that successful mobilization begins with workers convincing each other that their jobs can be saved, using language they already find credible. He calls this process “recoding,” which involves taking up the language that managers use to justify layoffs and challenging its content without disputing its underlying logic.

Workplace Culture Matters

For example, workers at Siemens in Germany had a “works council,” an internal organization of workers that represents their interests to management and is a common formation throughout the country. The council distributed pamphlets arguing that management had failed to grasp that product development relied on keeping skilled workers, and that “retaining expertise [was] critical to ensuring long-term profitability.” These workers developed their own counterproposals for how to protect both jobs and profit, connecting job security to long-term growth and criticizing poor management decisions.

These arguments galvanized other workers because they relied on a language and way of reasoning that resonated with their view of the industry. Workers were able to “recode” pro-market discourse and use it as a starting point for mobilizing other workers.

Rothstein shows us that workplace culture matters, and collective action must draw upon workers’ sense of their own identity and worldview. Many in tech perceive themselves as financially literate professionals with an enlightened relationship to markets. Successful mobilization relies on drawing on this worldview and speaking workers’ language. In the tech industry, this leads to the surprising conclusion that appealing to pro-capitalist discourses may be the gateway to mobilizing workers against management.

Tech culture venerates market success, and many in Silicon Valley (and beyond) seem to think that markets not only do determine all corporate decisions but that they should. Rothstein, following several economists and sociologists, calls this ideology “market fundamentalism,” which claims both causal and normative force and is a product of neoliberal elevation of the market over all else in society. Managers use the discourse of market fundamentalism to their advantage to convince workers that organizing would be pointless.

The trouble for tech workers is that, under market fundamentalism, it is markets that are to blame for layoffs — not management.

According to this popular view, boards and managers simply interpret the whims of the market, and market downturns should be reflected in job losses. In management terms, this is often referred to as “right-sizing.” When workers attribute layoffs to legitimate demands of the market, they are unable to identify any specific actors to blame. Recoding allows workers to lift the veil and reveal managers’ agency — and their own. It allows them to understand that managers create job insecurity through over-hiring practices and by prioritizing other goals (such as investing in product development, advertising, or keeping cash on hand) over creating stable jobs.

When workers are able to find fault with managers’ claims about layoffs — without disputing their claims that jobs should be secondary to the growth and stability of the company itself — their protestations are more likely to resonate with tech workers. Rothstein’s account may be appealing to those who are concerned with the practical problem of job precarity that tech workers face, as he suggests that tech workers are able to protect jobs without first undergoing deep cultural change within the tech industry.

At first blush, this may appear to readers like a cynical scheme for tech workers to protect their jobs while harboring a pro-market, anti-solidarity ideology. After all, this mobilizing strategy works precisely because it affirms this professional class’s belief that pursuit of company profit margins is more important than worker solidarity. In other words, the tech worker solidarity outlined by Rothstein seems to exist only in the service of business interests. Is the best we can hope for in tech organizing loose coalitions of software engineers critiquing the business decisions of their bosses?

This critique notwithstanding, tech workers may not ultimately have to choose between the pragmatic tactics that protect jobs now and the ambitious work of cultivating pro-union culture in the long term. The book’s interviews with workers suggest that mobilization (even when framed as an alternative to formal unionization) helps workers conceive of their own power, which may then allow them to imagine alternative ways to wield their power in relation to management — each a necessary (though perhaps insufficient) step toward unionization.

Recoding for All Workers in Tech

If workers see themselves and managers as cogs in the machine of the market, collective action is impossible. If workers recognize management’s power as possible to overcome — and recognize their own — it becomes possible to save their jobs. Believing success is possible is a crucial step of mobilization. Once workers can envision their own success, they find creative ways to build leverage over management.

Rothstein emphasizes creativity itself as a key tactic. Workers have to be willing to use existing structures in new ways. We can see some general patterns among the cases of successful mobilization.

In several cases, access to company business data is a crucial resource. This suggests that, with greater transparency about how companies are managed, workers will be better able to unveil layoffs as active decisions by managers rather than the demands of an amorphous market. Data allows workers to interpret management decisions themselves, reveal business motivations, and ultimately see how their job losses are avoidable.

But examples from failed tech mobilization experiments show us that challenging management rationalizations of layoffs is insufficient. Workers must also build strategic capacity and economic leverage. They have to coalesce around some central organization to disseminate information, coordinate action, and build tools to aid their efforts. They also need to develop strategies that directly challenge a company’s finances through tactics such as threatening a company’s public image or pursuing legal action.

Rothstein’s book offers promising tactics not only for American workers but also for those workers afforded “thicker” state protections (although these are rapidly diminishing in the global spread of neoliberal policies). Through the German cases examining Siemens and Infineon, the book also shows that, even in countries with institutional protections for workers and historically higher unionization rates, these advantages can be negated if workers believe that their jobs are simply a reflection of market demand.

It is important to note that Rothstein’s case studies focus on full-time salaried workers. These are software engineers and product designers at companies like IBM, Apple, and Google who benefit from some legal protections against mass layoffs. These workers can communicate with each other through existing networks of workplace communication.

Further, these full-time workers are more embedded in company culture and therefore better equipped to be able to see its weaknesses and reappropriate it. In contrast, contract workers have fewer institutional and cultural resources for recoding and tend to have more limited communication with full-time workers and each other. It’s not clear that Rothstein’s recoding tactics can work for workers with so few resources.

As the tech industry increases its reliance on contract workers (as well as on armies of subcontracted food and janitorial workers who function as the metabolism of tech offices), workers across the tech industry will have to increasingly mobilize across worker classifications. It seems unlikely that recoding company discourse around profit maximization will appeal to underpaid custodial staff or remote engineers on limited contracts.

Empowering or Immobilizing?

Nevertheless, this book’s insights on recoding management discourse may also have some relevance beyond workplace cultures that deify market forces. The growing role of diversity rhetoric and social responsibility goals in corporate discourse may offer opportunities for workers to reappropriate language and mobilize around it. The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), for example, made up of workers at Google, has consistently drawn on the company’s own motto, “Don’t be evil,” to mobilize Googlers and pursue worker protections and benefits — including for contract workers.

Despite this promising direction, AWU has rejected formal recognition by the National Labor Relations Board, which would allow them to collectively bargain for a contract and file formal grievances with Alphabet. They instead operate as a “minority union,” a voluntary union with no formal power. This suggests that even successful worker mobilization campaigns may ultimately fail to transition into legal unions (and thus leave workers to rely on management’s good-natured willingness to engage with workers’ complaints and demands).

Even if workers can use pro-market discourse to their advantage in a given campaign, it seems unclear whether this can ever lead to robust worker power. Can mobilizing within market fundamentalism, rather than directly challenging it, ever lead to full unionization, if collective bargaining is a fundamental rebuke to venerating profit above all else?

Further, we may wonder whether mobilization that relies on minority unions (in the American context) or work councils (in the German context) may reaffirm rather than challenge the difference between white- and blue-collar workers. On the one hand, unrecognized unions allow contract workers and full-time employees to participate in the same workers’ organization. On the other hand, work councils and unrecognized unions may be popular among tech workers because they allow them to remain separate and exceptional from the class of “regular” laborers. They remain professionals with shared interests, whose market power allows them to protect their jobs without threatening company profits — unlike their conception of unions.

Nevertheless, it is precisely tech workers’ belief that their value is tied to the market value of their skills that makes them vulnerable to the whims of the market. When tech workers believe in their market exceptionalism, they render themselves more vulnerable to market crashes, because they do not pursue unionization or other formal protections against job loss in the boom-bust hiring cycle that tech relies on.

Despite these worries about the future of tech unionization, Rothstein’s book offers a crucial reminder that we must grapple with the ideological landscapes that workers actually inhabit. Recoding Power shows how prevailing industry culture provides real resources to which workers already have access. In Silicon Valley’s increasingly closed ideological context, co-opting these pro-market discourses — rather than rejecting them entirely — might be the most effective way forward.

It seems clear that deep cultural change will be necessary if we want to see the tech industry embrace formal unionization and develop greater solidarity with service and contract workers. The question remains: Can this pragmatic approach empower workers and eventually lead to cultural change? Or does deeper investment in market fundamentalism make cultural change impossible?