“This is part of a growing movement,” the organizers wrote in a news release, “not just in tech, but across the country, including teachers, fast-food workers and others who are using their strength in numbers to make real change.”
That high-paid tech workers would find solidarity of purpose with striking teachers and hotel workers demonstrates a major shift in attitude in Silicon Valley, long a bastion of high-tech, libertarian, anti-union individualism. As Scheiber puts it,
For decades, Silicon Valley has been ground zero for a vaguely utopian form of individualism — the idea that a single engineer with a laptop and an internet connection could change the world, or at least a long-established industry. Class consciousness was passé. Unions were the enemy of innovation, an anchor to the status quo.
There is a faultline in high tech’s conceptions about work, what we can think of as the entrepreneurial mindset, that implicitly disenfranchises the rank-and-file. The idealization of genius founders and senior management, the obsession with cultural fit and cultural design, and part of a libertarian, almost Ayn Randian, unquestioned beliefs that underlies high tech society.
One of those beliefs is that the high tech workers in these companies aren’t ‘workers’ like the people serving food in the cafeteria, or the receptionists in the lobby, or the security guards walking the halls at night. The premise is that the tech workers are incipient managers, future founders, CEOs in waiting, just a business plan away from being billionaire world-beaters.
But apparently, workers at Google and other companies aren’t buying it anymore.
The Google payout of $90 million to Andy Rubin, the father of Android, is just the precipitating event in this most recent flare up in the realignment of high tech workers, who are now officially asking for a seat at the table, and not just a chance in the Silicon Valley lottery. They have awakened to the con job built into the high tech mythos, and want to change the terms of engagement and shake off their abiding sense of powerlessness.
The question is how far this sense of individual powerlessness has spread within Google. The walkout organizers argue that the feeling is quite widespread — extending from software developers to hardware engineers and from employees to contractors.
Some observers agree. Michelle Miller, co-founder of CoWorker.org
, which educates workers in tech and other industries on how to assert their labor rights, said that employees at Google “had to start thinking of themselves as some kind of collective” last year after a memo by an employee asserted that women tend to be innately less capable of certain technical work.
The question remains whether this sense of collective identity of Google’s rank-and-file will become something more concrete than the one day protest movement. Is there a place for high tech unions in Silicon Valley?
“What we see is Amazon evolving into a corporation whose headquarters is virtual and whose physical presence will span the globe,” said Charles R. T. O’Kelley, director of the Berle Center on Corporations, Law and Society at Seattle University. “Instead of being headquartered in one place and moving to a second headquarters, Amazon is going to be, and be thought of as, everywhere.”
This, after all, is how Amazon sees its destiny: to become not just the everything store, as it was branded a mere five years ago, but the everything company. People will buy groceries from Amazon, be entertained by Amazon shows, pick up snacks at Amazon Go stores, see all the ads they need on Amazon, find a plumber through Amazon, communicate through Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant — and that is just the beginning.
The Onion takes this idea to the logical conclusion:
“After a search for a new location lasting more than a year, a massive dome was seen descending from the sky and enclosing the whole nation Friday as Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos announced to a horrified American populace that it was now living inside his company’s second headquarters.”
Maybe the reality is that Amazon’s headquarters is wherever Jeff Bezos is, and he has homes in Seattle, New York, and Washington.
Leading economists are not convinced that the hikes — in both red and blue states — amount to a nascent pro-labor public groundswell.
Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama, tells Axios that the economic and public policy environments have become decidedly less favorable for labor.
“A lot has changed,” Krueger said. “Unions are weaker and the chance of unionization is lower; labor laws, such as an emphasis on arbitration over allowing the courts to adjudicate workers’ rights, have shifted against workers; employer concentration has increased, especially in national markets, etc.”
The bottom line: David Autor, an MIT professor and one of the world’s most respected labor economists, said low unemployment would have to continue for many years to reverse the decades of flat wages. “And even if that were to come to pass (which it has rarely done),” Autor tells Axios, “it’s far from certain that this would restore the sizable fall in labor’s share of national income since 2000.”