2018 wasn’t the worst year of my life, but it was definitely the strangest. 2018 was the year I walked a picket line for the first time. 2018 was the year I became a protest medic. 2018 was the year I, along with 4000 of my closest friends, was a co-winner (along with 4,000 of my closest friends) of the Arms Control Association’s Arms Control Person of the Year. It was the year I finally got treatment for my screwed-up brain, the year I became a co-chair for my DSA local’s conflict resolution committee, and the year I decided to quit my job in protest over my employer’s collaboration with authoritarian regimes.
The core theme, for me, was a degree of labor organizing in the tech industry that I hadn’t thought would be possible for decades, if ever. What started as a few score people at most took on our employer, one of the most powerful companies in the world, and won a promise to let a lucrative defense contract lapse on purely moral grounds. With that lead, hundreds employees at Microsoft, Salesforce, and Amazon felt empowered to take on their own employers, too. When Dragonfly showed up a few months later, we were already prepared. When we learned just how far our employer would go to shield abusers, we took that infrastructure and built on it again, and we walked out by the tends of thousands.
For years, I think most of us in the small left-wing community within American tech despaired of seeing any labor movement in our industry. We’re well paid, and many of our coworkers are notoriously libertarian. And then suddenly this year, almost out of nowhere, there was a real tech labor movement. If we can keep building on this base, and if we keep demanding more control over the product of our labor, we will have the chance to fundamentally reshape the relationship between technology and humanity.
Going forward, I think the hardest part will be avoiding co-option. Tech workers are way too eager to trust their employers’ intentions. So we have to keep working to make sure it’s clear to everybody that management is not our friend, and does not share our concerns. We have to reject the half-measures meant to defuse anger without actually costing companies a single cent.
It’s not enough to cancel individual projects. These projects keep happening because the only people with a say in what we do and don’t do are the executives looking at our bottom line. To stop these projects happening, we need to keep fighting to have a greater say within our companies. Executives should not get to make our moral decisions for us, and 2019 has to be the year we take back that control over our own work. 2019 also has to be the year we force our employers to take harassment and abuse seriously. They cannot keep shielding bad actors from consequences. We have to fight for robust protections for employees, especially employees in more vulnerable and marginalized groups, so that we don’t keep providing safe spaces for predators to thrive. This is a basic workplace safety issue, and yet major tech companies continue to do nothing substantial about it. That won’t change if we just ask nicely.
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
In 2019, we have to be willing to make it more costly to ignore our demands than to grant them. That means that we as workers, not just at one company, but throughout the industry, have to be willing to reach for tactics that may be new and uncomfortable to us. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves like the mill workers who organized after one too many of them lost a finger to the saw, because our problems are less physical, and harder to see. But an unsafe workplace is an unsafe workplace. And how can we say we’re empowered at work if we can’t reject a project that goes against our most basic values?
This year and in the years to come, we are going to have to find new ways to organize, suited to a new industry and new kinds of work. But doing new things nobody has done before is the entire point of our industry, so that shouldn’t be an obstacle. The pressure to create terrible new weapons, whether of surveillance or of war, isn’t going anywhere. Our leaders want us to be like IBM in the 1930s. But the more effectively we come together as the people who actually drive our industry forward, the more forcefully we will be able to say “no.”