These criticisms are understandable. The decades-long decline of the labor movement has left it so weak that many Americans know little about its history. In fact, workers have often organized not only to improve their wages, but also to gain more control over their work — especially when it had an outsize effect on the world. In the 1970s, employees at Polaroid and IBM, two major tech firms of their day, protested their companies’ business with South Africa’s government while it enforced apartheid.
The suggestion that people who work at tech companies are too privileged to organize also seems dubious. Alphabet Workers Union membership, for instance, includes contractors who do not enjoy the high salaries or generous benefits of senior software engineers. And even better-compensated tech workers routinely experience racism and sexism. Is it a privilege not to be insulted or assaulted at work? Studies show that harassment both reflects and reproduces inequality, by preventing victims from seeking promotions and raises, if not pushing them out of the company altogether.
Critics of the tech worker movement also imply that collective action is suitable only for the most immiserated workers. But organizing can help protect people against many kinds of harm, especially in a country where most people can be fired at any time for almost any reason. Indeed, about a month before the Alphabet union launched, Timnit Gebru, a high-profile Black woman computer scientist who helped lead Google’s ethical-artificial-intelligence team, said the company fired her for being too critical of its hiring practices and the biases built into artificial intelligence systems.
With Trump’s departure from office, the sense of crisis that proved so mobilizing — and unifying — may fade. But the contracts and conditions that workers have protested remain in place, as do the networks they have formed. The workers pushing for changes in tech firms may forge more direct relationships with policymakers like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the party’s biggest advocates of robust antitrust enforcement against Big Tech. Both senators have tweeted in support of the Alphabet Workers Union.
But any regulation is likely to be slow moving. For better or worse, in an era of extreme corporate concentration, organized workers within the ranks of a company like Google may be the strongest lever the public has for forcing tech executives to be transparent and accountable.
In the ongoing debates over platform power, one set of voices will be coming from inside the house.
Mr. Tarnoff and Ms. Weigel are cofounders of Logic magazine and the editors of the recent book “Voices From the Valley: Tech Workers Talk About What They Do — and How They Do It.”
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