Matt Schaefer and Kristen Sheets, Tech Workers Coalition
Kristen Sheets and Matt Schaefer, by Gretchen Röehrs
Over the past couple of years, the Tech Workers Coalition has served as a hub for tech organizing in the Bay Area. Since the election, it’s become an important part of the emerging anti-Trump infrastructure. In January 2017, its members helped organize a protest outside of the Palo Alto headquarters of Palantir—a data-analytics company co-founded by Trump adviser Peter Thiel that helps various federal agencies track and deport Americans—that received significant media attention. And the organization has continued to coordinate actions and campaigns throughout the Bay.
We spoke to Matt Schaefer and Kristen Sheets, two Tech Workers Coalition members, about obstacles and opportunities for tech organizing under Trump. Matt is currently a UX designer and engineer with Loconomics Cooperative, and Kristen Sheets is a tech worker and socialist activist with the International Socialist Organization. They shared their insights about how tech workers can use their strategic position for social change.
This interview took place in early 2017.
What is the Tech Workers Coalition? When was it founded, and what does it do?
Matt Schaefer (MS): The Tech Workers Coalition is a home for progressives in tech in the Bay Area. We're an all-volunteer community organization. Our active participants include workers in the tech industry, members from labor union locals, community organizers, and friends. While our direction has evolved, we started as a small group about two years ago with the purpose of being a point of connection between progressives in the tech community who were newcomers to the Bay Area and existing community members and organizations.
Tech’s involvement in the community typically happens through companies, their social responsibility teams, and executives. We want to cultivate a voice and role for workers. We think workers will have a different perspective and will want to engage their own communities in ways that their companies won't, or can't.
Our biggest focus prior to this fall was raising awareness of Silicon Valley's so-called invisible workforce—the thousands of subcontracted service workers (janitors, cooks, security officers, and others) who work on large tech campuses in Silicon Valley, but who lack livable wages, recognition, and a voice on the job.
Recently, we've been partnering with SEIU United Service Workers West to support unionizing security guards, and rallying fellow tech workers to demand Palantir be more transparent, accountable, and reject the Trump agenda, among other efforts.
The stereotype is that tech workers tend to be either apolitical or libertarian. Does that match your experience? Or is there a constituency for left-wing politics in tech?
Kristen Sheets (KS): I don’t want to discount the ideological hurdles involved in organizing tech workers around left-wing causes. But I’ve definitely noticed a new spirit of social consciousness among tech workers, even before the election. And I think it has a lot to do with the less desirable aspects of tech work.
Everyone hears about the ping-pong tables and the free lunch and the crazy benefits. What they don’t hear about are the grueling hours, and the fact that many of the people who work at these companies aren’t actually employees—they’re contractors. Contractors don’t only include service workers on tech campuses—janitors, cafeteria staff, and bus drivers—but also a huge layer of white-collar workers who do the same work as their full-time counterparts but are paid much less, don’t have benefits, and don’t have job security. Often they’ll be asked to leave their jobs with only a day's notice.
Even salaried tech workers face certain obstacles. If you’re a computer programmer in San Francisco making a salary of $100,000 a year, and you want to live within a few miles of downtown, average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3,000 a month, which is probably more than half of your monthly take-home income. It’s obviously much, much worse for the vast majority of people who don’t have that sort of income. But I think it’s an eye-opening experience for many tech workers.
They’re making six figures, but they’re still not able to save money and live in the city where they work. They work hard and earn good money, but it doesn’t go very far, because there are more billionaires in San Francisco than ever. That’s a radicalizing force. I believe that’s why Bernie Sanders had such resonance among tech workers.
And now there’s Trump, who’s presumably radicalizing many more tech workers, particularly as they see the leaders of their industry fail to stand up to him. What do you think people who work in tech have most to fear from Trump?
MS: As usual, marginalized populations are probably in the most dire situation when it comes to the new Administration.
Workers at tech companies in Silicon Valley include contracted service workers, a majority of whom are people of color. Non-unionized service workers in Silicon Valley generally do not have affordable access to healthcare. Trump has vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which will make the situation even worse. And now unions are concerned about the possibility of a nationwide "right to work" law which would effectively gut their funding. Tech workers need to stand with service workers in these fights.
Silicon Valley has failed to create an inclusive work culture and to develop a diverse white-collar workforce. Women, people of color, and LGBT workers in tech are already working in this difficult context, but now must also contend with Trump's modeling and outright instigation of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.
Moreover, many tech workers are in the US on visas, some of whom are from countries recently targeted in Trump's immigration order. They now have to deal with increased uncertainty and instability.
In the face of this, tech workers need to maintain extra vigilance. They need to garner the courage to speak up and resist if their work is being used by the Administration. Trump can't build a Muslim registry without tech. He can't build surveillance tools without some support from tech. He can't target an entire population of undocumented immigrants without tech.
But refusing to build those tools may carry consequences for tech workers. When it comes to organizing against Trump, how much do tech workers worry about potential retaliation from their employers?
MS: I’ve had workers tell me that they are concerned about retaliation should they speak up, or speak on the record with members of the press. Maybe they aren’t necessarily worried about being fired. But they fear not being promoted, or not receiving a pay increase like their peers.
Also, workers in tech typically don’t stay at the same company for very long, which means that they’re regularly looking for work. I can see them being concerned that the companies they’re hoping to work for in the future wouldn’t look kindly on a history of speaking out in public or publicly organizing.
I understand these concerns, and I’ve thought about how my own involvement might affect my future employment prospects. However, I also want tech workers to at least ask the question, if a potential employer doesn’t want to hire you because you stood up for what was right, do you really want to work for that company?
Not everyone has the privilege to ask that question, but many of us do. Frankly, some kinds of tech workers—engineers, for example—have quite a bit of leverage at the moment. They have more room to speak out than they might expect. You can ask any hiring manager—good engineers are really expensive to replace!
KS: Certain things are safer than others, and safer for different people. An undocumented contract worker is in a very different situation than a salaried citizen worker.
But the outrage against Trump is so broad. It’s not controversial to dislike Trump, whereas it was a lot more controversial to speak out against Obama—even if some of his policies were very much in line with some of the policies that Trump is pursuing.
I think that’s helped a lot. Trump doesn’t have a mandate. He was the third most popular choice in the general election after not voting at all and voting for Hillary Clinton. I think that’s helped encourage people, and let them feel less afraid that their views will make them marginalized.
We’ve already seen tech workers adopt a range of tactics in order to push their companies to refuse to collaborate with Trump. What do you think the most effective path forward is?
MS: Become involved. It’s early and there’s an overwhelming set of possibilities for how to participate. The one thing I would avoid is to get caught up on choosing the best or the right path. Pick a path and run with it. Don’t be isolated. Along the way, you will learn where your skills and inclinations work best, and you’ll gravitate toward that.
KS: I think the question of tactics is going to be a major conversation over the next four years. We’ve already seen protests be an incredibly important tool. For tech, it’d be cool to see the strike weapon on the table. History shows us the tactics that will change the world for the better—the tactics that will not only get rid of Trump, but change the conditions that we’re all forced to live and work under.
We’re talking about tactics that are quite old—protests, strikes, and so on. How useful is the technical skillset of tech workers in the fight against Trump, versus old-school, low-tech organizing?
MS: I think tech workers have a lot to learn from veteran organizers, and veteran organizers have a lot to learn from tech workers. I see a tendency for tech workers to gravitate to online organizing with social media and collaboration tools. They’re amazing at getting the word out, hitting the right channels, and mobilizing people quickly in geographically dispersed groups.
On the other hand, more traditional groups work really well person-to-person. They train on how to relate to one another in the contexts of the struggles that they’re fighting. They also better understand some of the power structures at play, and how to approach them.
Traditional organizations need tech workers’ technical skills, and tech workers need to draw on the accumulated knowledge of the history of organizing on the ground. It goes both ways.
KS: Yeah, I think the two approaches go hand-in-hand.
There are definitely ways that old-school tactics can get updated to modern contexts—the anti-SOPA actions that happened a few years back were similar to a strike or a boycott in certain ways. At the end of the day, there are certain approaches that we’ve seen work time and time again. Of course, we need to continually assess them and bring them up to date with what our current conditions are. I don’t think we can repeat the general strike of the 1930s in San Francisco today, for instance. But I think there are important lessons to learn from those old-school tactics.
To pull off a strike, of course, you’d need a union. What do you think about the possibility of a tech workers union? Do you think the current wave of anti-Trump organizing in tech might lay the groundwork for a union?
MS: I can’t say. Although I do think that tech workers need a vehicle for applying pressure on their company leaders. They also need a vehicle for creating change within their organizations.
For years, we’ve been talking about the diversity and inclusion problem in tech companies. Unfortunately, very few of the large companies seem to be making any progress on this issue. Industry issues abound: ageism, unequal pay, discrimination, and data privacy concerns, just to name a few.
KS: We’ll have to see. The discussions people have been having about a tech workers union have been really exciting. But I think it’s a long way off, for a number of reasons.
Unions have been under attack for decades. That’s not going to change under a Trump presidency—it’s going to get worse.
On the other hand, this election has caused a lot of people in tech who were pretty complacent to think differently about how the system works and whom it works for. They’re asking new questions and raising new demands. That’s inspiring. And I hope it doesn’t lose momentum.
The Tech Workers Coalition is trying to build infrastructure and organization around that energy, so we can keep the struggles going. Because if we actually want a tech workers union, it’s going to be a long fight. We’re going to need to be extremely organized and have a lot of people on our side to win.
How much do tech workers think of themselves as workers—as opposed to, say, entrepreneurs or future founders?
KS: Increasingly, I think people are understanding that their conditions are actually those of a worker. They’re realizing that they have a specific relationship to production that’s extremely different than that of an entrepreneur or a CEO.
One problem is there’s a conflation in popular media between the tech worker and the tech executive. You see this all the time. There was an article awhile back about a really awful eviction that happened in the Mission where a kindergarten teacher and her daughter were evicted from the apartment they lived in. The headline said, “Tech Workers Evict Kindergarten Teacher.” But when you read the article, you realized those people aren’t tech workers, they’re executives.
When you look at the fight ahead, how do you see the Tech Workers Coalition fitting into the broader picture of tech organizing against Trump?
KS: One of the major strengths of the Tech Workers Coalition is its focus on labor and class. I think that’s unique. Currently, most tech workers—and most people in general—don’t typically engage with politics around the question of labor and class.
The Tech Workers Coalition doesn’t see tech workers as a special kind of worker. But we understand that we do have a strategic position with regard to our place in production that we can leverage to stand in solidarity with other workers—not only with the service workers who work as security guards and bus drivers in our workplaces, but with all workers.
The dominant approach among well-intentioned people in tech when faced with a problem is: I can build an app that’ll fix that. And sure, technology is awesome and most of us work in tech because we find building tools to solve problems interesting. But the structural problems we have in society won’t be fixed by an app. We’ll need to think a lot bigger than that to solve these problems.
A different approach is: tech work is crucial to every industry at this point, and it’s done by a fairly small group of people. You can shut down quite a lot with a relatively few number of workers if you collectively decide to.
This has been a free interview from Tech Against Trump, a book by Logic chronicling the rising tide of anti-Trump resistance by tech workers and technologists. It previously appeared in Jacobin.