The case for building worker power at Microsoft

Microsoft’s collaboration with U.S. federal agency Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appears especially morally shaky in light of recent revelations.


June 19, 2018

Since yesterday, the US political news cycle has been dominated by coverage of ICE, catalysed by the release of a video showing children being separated from their parents and detained in cages at the border:

For long-time critics of the agency, this newest revelation is simply the latest in a long litany of inhumane treatment by ICE agents, and this new “forcible separation” policy under the Trump administration isn’t that much worse from what was going on under the Obama administration. On the other hand, judging from the strength of the public outcry, this latest development is shocking enough that it may be a watershed line in galvanising resistance against ICE.

What does this have to do with building worker power at Microsoft? More than you’d think. It so happens that the US-based technology company has been providing cloud computing services to various US federal agencies. Among them, ICE:

The agency is currently implementing transformative technologies for homeland security and public safety, and we’re proud to support this work with our mission-critical cloud. Microsoft blog post from January, 2018

To add fuel to the fire, Microsoft recently announced that it was acquiring GitHub, a former darling of the technology startup world that has since become infrastructurally crucial to software development. GitHub itself has faced backlash around its ties to ICE in the past - the CTO of ICE was invited to speak at a conference earlier this year (the invitation was later rescinded). What’s more, the rumour in the tech community is that ICE is hosting their codebase on GitHub as well.

All this goes to show that Microsoft is currently playing a key role in providing the services that enable ICE to function - despite the fact that ICE is currently executing policy that many would find morally repugnant.

A nod to history

This is not the first time a US technology company has collaborated with a government to facilitate the inhuman treatment of people who were considered to be an “other.” The most infamous example concerns IBM, and its alliance with the Nazi regime through its German subsidiary - and the subsequent role it played in the operationalising of the Holocaust - has been detailed in a book by Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust. The situations may not be identical, but the parallels are more than just illusory, and comparisons are already being made between Microsoft’s complicity in ICE’s actions and IBM’s complicity in the Holocaust.

In the case of IBM, the decision to maintain the relationship with Nazi Germany was made at the top, by its founder Thomas Watson. There is no record of any significant objection to the decision among IBM’s employees, either in the US - who may not have been fully aware of the situation in Germany - or in Germany itself - who, given the political climate at the time, may have been either too afraid to speak out or simply untroubled by the proposition. If there had been, who knows what might have happened? Technology needs workers to build, operate, and maintain it. Agency rests, as always, at the level of the human being. And human beings always have a choice, even if it is not exactly a clear one.

Going beyond a statement

So far, criticism of Microsoft in this regard has mainly been via the medium of Twitter, and the main catalyst appears to be this tweet thread from Sunday:

Soon after, several tweets calling on Microsoft employees to protest the relationship began to pick up steam:

In response to the criticism, Microsoft released a statement distancing itself from ICE’s forcible separation policy:

We urge the administration to change its policy and Congress to pass legislation ensuring children are no longer separated from their families. Microsoft spokesperson via email, as reported by Motherboard

That they’ve released a statement on the matter is a good sign, even if the actual sentiment is significantly weaker than that of other technology companies like Airbnb. But those words are meaningless if they are not backed up by actual action, especially since Microsoft is in a position to do so as they have an existing service relationship with ICE. Management does not seem to have decided to do anything drastic on the matter yet, and it is unlikely that they would without further pressure - ideally from below, by workers who actually have a chance at having their concerns heard.

As of time of writing, two Microsoft employees were considering leaving the company in response to the way this has been handled by leadership, as reported by Gizmodo yesterday. One contractor stated on Twitter that he would be terminating his contract, and an intern has expressed discontent with Microsoft’s relationship with ICE.

This is a start. Workers getting frustrated with their working conditions is an excellent catalyst for building a larger movement around collective power, which could then become a bridge toward large-scale structural change in the industry. In the case of the recent teacher’s strikes in the US, for instance, a combination of grievances around benefits and effective organising managed to secure important gains beyond the initial disputes.

On the other hand, it is not without risk; software engineers at Lanetix were fired earlier this year after attempting to unionise. But the risks are lower for employees who, through their role in the company or their personal accomplishments, have high amounts of leverage, and the risks are even lower with enough support from their colleagues. So a key first step would be to build internal support, through whatever avenues make sense in each individual’s situation. The recent incident of Project Maven, whereby Google’s contract with the Pentagon was terminated due to employee backlash, is a useful case study, and this interview with a Google employee about how it happened is instructive.

There is no alternative

If employee action within the tech industry can be so effective, why has there been so little of it until now?

Part of the reason surely stems from the prevailing ideology within the industry, especially for those among its upper echelons, where excellent wages and the seductive idea of “meritocracy” collide to produce an institutional dearth of open class struggle. The result is a strong hostility to the idea of organised labour, as Alex Press writes for n+1.

A core manifestation of this ideology is the belief that technology is somehow “apolitical” - that technology and politics are separate spheres, and that “politics” should be kept out of decisions around technology. In practice, this means abdicating responsibility over political issues to the market, which is conceived of as the apolitical instrumental par excellence. Rather than intervene in ethical quandaries that challenge the status quo - anything that could be considered remotely “political” - the standard response is to avoid such considerations by simply following the principle of profit maximisation.

Of course, such a worldview is inherently misguided, not least because it completely overlooks how the very idea of what is considered “political” is itself a social construct shaped by - what else - political conditions. Ultimately, the market is little more than an exculpatory tool, a shield for deflecting blame by veering away from the “political”, even though the decision to assert the primacy of the market is itself a political decision.

This has led to a situation where technology is overwhelmingly developed and deployed according the whims of the market, based on the judgment of company leadership. But as we are starting to see, relying on founders and investors to behave ethically despite financial incentives to do otherwise, without democratic accountability, is not working. That much power should never be invested in a few individuals at the top, removed as they are from everyday life.

The only real alternative then is to entrust those at the bottom: the workers. It may be that some are still dazzled by all the wealth of the industry - the perks stemming from all that tech money sloshing around - and cannot see past that just yet. But the illusion will not last forever, and speaking anecdotally, there has been mounting evidence of tech workers waking up politically in recent years. A growing number are realising how morally bankrupt their industry has become and now want to do something about it. The problem is not necessarily lack of frustration; instead, it is the lack of obvious avenues for channeling that frustration.

A rising tide

Another line of reasoning for justifying the status quo is that even if Microsoft decided to pull out of the contract, there are so many other companies that could take it up instead - Amazon, or Google, or even one of the many smaller competing companies who would love a large contract like this. For an individual worker, the argument goes like this: it is fine for me to work on this project even if I find it morally questionable, because if I do not, someone else will.

But that is not an argument against exercising worker power in one company. That is, in fact, a very compelling argument for building worker power across the entire industry. The current distribution of power within the technology industry, whereby so much wealth and power is concentrated among a few giants, is bad on neoliberalism’s own terms, because monopolies distort markets. Yet this also presents an upside for workers: if enough people were able to get together and organise at these companies, they could have a disproportionate impact on the industry. In our modern age, considering how we rely so heavily on digital technology, this could create massive strategic leverage over other parts of the economy, opening up new possibilities and paths for resistance.

None of this is to say that workers’ power should be championed as leading to inevitable moral outcomes. These arguments would not apply for police unions, or a union composed of ICE agents, for example. On the other hand, the tech industry, despite the role Microsoft is now playing, is not an inherently violent arm of the state. Many people join the tech industry for varying reasons, because they genuinely believe that the industry is making the world a better place, or because it is where the money is, or because what they enjoy what they do. Many people in the industry self-identify as politically progressive, and that is an opening that should be taken while it lasts.

Aiming for or seizing worker power is a transitional process. It is not the case that tech workers are naturally morally virtuous by being tech workers, nor should they be entrusted with this much power in the long run. Rather, it is a strategic point of leverage, and one that takes advantage of the present conditions and relations in production, along with the fact that many in the industry are appalled at some of the recent moral quandaries being faced. In the long run, control over decisions of tech companies should be made much more democratic than invested in a few elite individuals with cushy tech jobs, who are overwhelmingly from a narrow demographic background. But that is not on the cards right now. Given the current political climate, especially in the US, it is hard to see avenues for reforming tech that do not involve augmented worker power to some degree. The only feasible starting point is to work within the structures that exist, seize power where you can, and change the structures once you have that chance.

If not now, then when?

Given the amount of anger this incident has generated within the last 48 hours, this feels like it has potential to be a pivotal moment within the tech industry. The sheer unadulterated cruelty of the situation with ICE could politicise a lot of people within the industry. This could be the last straw, spurring workers to resist and organise in a way they have never done before.

On the other hand, this is unlikely to be the pivotal moment. There will, in all likelihood, never be one truly pivotal moment. In reality, these process are more likely to unfold as a gradual series of moments, each one more uncomfortable and ethically challenging than the last, and each one still potentially justifiable. Ethical lines are always blurry, and it is easy to convince yourself that you are still on the right side.

After all, the links do not end with ICE and Microsoft. The US military-industrial complex certainly has not evaporated since Eisenhower’s day; it has just been given a digital upgrade, concealed behind colourful logos and quirky mottos. Most of the tech giants have some sort of contract with various repressive arms of the US state, and some startup founders are trying to get into the game as well. Moving beyond the military connection, the entire way the tech industry is structured - with its propensity to put the profit motive ahead of any other concerns - is going to produce an ecosystem where ethical considerations are sidelined. There will be more pivotal moments to come.

Personally, I can imagine an alternate universe where I had stayed in the tech industry, and maybe even taken a job at Microsoft. In that situation, I am not sure what I would do now. In this alternate universe, whatever sequence of events had kept me in the industry would have made me an entirely different person, with a different value system and different levels of tolerance on ethical issues. Maybe I would have done a cost-benefit analysis and decided that speaking up was not worth the possibility of losing my job or even just mildly inconveniencing some people in management. Maybe this incident would not have been troubling enough to give me the courage to do what I thought was right.

I am not sure what I would do. I am not in that situation, and in some ways, it is unfair of me to ask those who are to risk their careers over something like this. On the other hand, it is also more than unfair that children are being subjected to dehumanising treatment by an agency that contributes to Microsoft’s bottom line while Microsoft’s software engineers rake in six-figure incomes from their ergonomic desks. The ones to blame for Microsoft’s decision are upper management, not the rank-and-file employees, but at this time, in these conditions, it is the employees who have the greatest possibility for changing it.

Use your leverage while you still have the chance, or you may forever live to regret it.

If you want advice on organising within the tech industry, the Tech Workers Coalition is a good place to start. Send a DM to @techworkersco on Twitter or an email to [email protected]


author

Wendy Liu

Wendy Liu is a software developer and (reformed) startup founder who built the website you’re on right now. She studies inequality at LSE and is an economics editor for New Socialist. You can find her on Twitter @dellsystem.

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