#TechSolidarity: Tech and Warehouse Workers Need to Stand Together

The history of the labor movement shows that big business will go to great lengths to keep workers divided and maintain their power.

by Sam Kern & Matt Smith on May 14th, 2020

Amazon is failing to protect its workers from the deadly spread of COVID-19. But it’s not just Amazon workers – or warehouse workers – who are speaking up about it.

When we met, my coauthor and I worked at Google and Amazon, as an engineer and warehouse cargo handler. We’ve never worked at the same company or held the same job title, but we share a goal: a more ethical tech industry that puts workers first.

My coauthor and I have different struggles (and COVID-19 is exacerbating those differences), but our problem is the same: workers have no real say over our working conditions. And when we “step out of line,” our bosses treat us the same: hiring union busting firms, firing organizers, and plotting smear campaigns against us.

Big tech doesn’t want blue-collar and white-collar workers like us to come together. Recently, Amazon fired two climate activists, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, in a blatant act of retaliation. But it wasn’t their climate work that was the last straw. The week before they were fired, Maren and Emily announced a virtual town hall for both white-collar and blue-collar workers, to support warehouse workers’ demands for COVID-19 protections.

At Amazon, prospective employees are told that “leaders are owners” who act “beyond just their own team,” but when workers speak up, they are fired for stepping out of line. Earlier this month, Amazon fired Chris Smalls after he helped organize a strike at the Staten Island warehouse to protest unsafe working conditions amid COVID-19, one of several retaliatory firings at Amazon warehouses.

We also saw employer retaliation at Google last November when four organizers were fired after advocating for tighter hate speech policies and to cut ties with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In December, Google fired Kathryn Spiers for creating a tool to notify her coworkers of their rights under NLRA.

We’re far from the days of “if you see something that you think isn’t right, speak up” (Google‘s official Code of Conduct). Now, the prevailing attitude of management is “don’t do anything to affect the bottom line.”

Until now, full-time tech workers, contract workers, and warehouse workers have mostly fought our battles separately. Over the past two years, white-collar workers have fought a series of battles against controversial contracts and anti-worker policies. Thousands of tech workers walked off the job last September to call for stronger corporate action on climate change. Since the walkout, both Amazon and Microsoft have announced major changes to their corporate climate policies.

In 2019, Google contractors at HCL Pittsburgh won their union vote. More recently, hundreds of warehouse workers circulated petitions and walked off the job, winning paid time off for all Amazon workers.

As COVID-19 spreads rapidly through Amazon’s warehouses, workers are now rallying around demands for basic health supplies, paid sick leave, and hazard pay for warehouse workers. In an op-ed in The Guardian, Chris Smalls cited a lack of cleaning supplies and protective equipment, pressure to work while sick, and low pay: “…Amazon has imposed mandatory overtime to keep up with the demand of everyone ordering online. The result is that Amazon employees are going to work sick as dogs just so they can earn $2 per hour on top of their regular pay. Do you know what I call that? Blood money.” 

High-profile walkouts have already been organized in New York, Detroit, Chicago and Milan.

Tech industry workers have won major victories – but what tech executives fear most is that full-time tech workers, contract workers, and warehouse workers will start standing up for each other. Why? Because companies know that we are more powerful together and that when workers unite behind common demands—whether for better workplace conditions or stronger action on climate—we can win.

The history of the labor movement shows that big business will go to great lengths to keep workers divided and maintain their power. During the major strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, employers often stoked racism to divide white and black workers. These attempts by big business to divide workers were aided by the leaders of the major labor unions, who barred black workers from joining their ranks.

During the Minneapolis trucking strikes of 1934, one of the primary objectives of the trucking bosses was to stop drivers from uniting with warehouse employees and other “inside workers”. The bosses knew that if drivers and warehouse workers united, they could shut down the entire industry to win their demands. This is exactly what happened in the historic 1934 strike, and workers won major victories on wages and union representation. This set the stage for the growth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which united workers across racial lines and job classifications, launching a new era of militant labor organizing, which resulted in huge gains for workers.

Just like the trucking industry bosses of the 1930s, tech companies like Google and Amazon have been diligent in their efforts to divide workers. Google and Apple are well-known for their shadow workforce and “black sites” of contractors, who enjoy fewer perks and less job security. Amazon is also notorious for its network of third-party and “independent” contractors, which divide workers into subclasses – as signified by different badge colors, to make this hierarchy explicit. 

But as tech hubs like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City grow, and as tech companies poach talent from one another, our networks increasingly overlap – we are roommates, siblings, partners, board game buddies. While management tries to pull us apart, the nature of the industry brings us closer together.

It’s time to connect the struggles in our industry, from workers’ rights to climate justice. As Amazon’s stock price climbs, even as their first (reported) workers die from COVID-19, it is clear that our companies are not incentivized to put human needs before profit. But as workers, we can fight for a new system, in which the needs of workers, the community, and the planet come first.

In one step towards this goal, tech workers from multiple companies launched the #TechSolidarity campaign, through which tech workers from around the world are publishing messages of solidarity on the Twitter account @TechSpeaksOut.

Scrolling through photos of workers holding messages of support, it’s possible to glimpse a future where even as companies try to silence, belittle, or dismiss their workers, we–their coworkers across the industry–will fight alongside them. We cannot sit by while profit drives the tech industry down unethical pathways.

To move the industry forward, tech and warehouse workers should make efforts to involve each other in their organizing, and we should actively support each other’s struggles by amplifying news about strikes, unionization drives, or workplace demands. We should also connect outside of the workplace by participating in broader political initiatives, as my coauthor and I have done through the Tax Amazon campaign in Seattle. This has allowed us to connect with other tech and warehouse workers across the industry who are interested in getting organized.

We must build the unity necessary to fight for and win each other’s demands. When our fellow tech industry workers call on us for help, we must be ready to listen and respond. This is what it means to be coworkers – an injury to one is an injury to all.