Essay

Tech Workers of the World, Unite?

Union workers protesting at Twitter in San Francisco. Photo by Bloomberg.
Union workers protesting at Twitter in San Francisco. Photo by Bloomberg.

The Silicon Valley technology worker doesn’t quite fit the profile of the exploited proletarian: The average high-tech salary in San Francisco is $156,518, according to one estimate. Compared with a fast-food worker, let alone a child laborer in Asia, the high-tech coder-laborer class—typified by the well-educated, male software engineer—has no reason to complain.

Perhaps that explains why so little time is spent exploring tensions between workers and capital in the technology industry. Neither of these camps are, in the global scheme of things, particularly aggrieved. And the Valley’s free-market ethos, one that celebrates individual responsibility far more than collective action, helps keep any tensions in the shadows.

Outsiders don’t even recognize much of a difference between owners and workers. Tech industry protesters in San Francisco, angry about gentrification, spend most of their time rallying outside Google buses, not venture capital firms, and don’t see much daylight between tech’s bourgeoisie and its proletariat. And for most of the world, glossing over this particular class fission is perfectly fine. (Tensions between venture-backed companies like Uber and the blue-collar workers whose full-time jobs they’re upending are a different matter and are likely to play out in dramatic ways over time.)

But I think technology startup employees should eye their bosses—venture capitalists and founders—a lot more warily. And that’s even more true at established tech firms. Companies are undercutting employees at every opportunity, whether it means colluding to underpay software engineers, outsourcing jobs around the world, underpaying foreign workers on H1B visas, playing hardball in equity negotiations or lobbying governments at the local, state and federal level for laws that are friendly to tech companies.

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“The concept of the union is just an anathema,” says Mr. Zaharias. “No one thinks they should be in a union. All the employees think they’re better than the rest.”


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The technology industry’s free market ethos—and the sense of self-regard that often extends all the way down the ranks—is likely to remain an obstacle to more socially conscious, collective change.

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