Class warfare in high tech

The recent controversy in San Francisco over buses run by high technology firms between the city and Silicon Valley offices evokes a paradox. On the one side, I completely understand the concerns about rising rents and evictions.[1]

The technology industry’s newest wealth is swallowing up the San Francisco Peninsula. If Silicon Valley remains the center of engineering breakthroughs, San Francisco has become a magnet for hundreds of software start-ups, many of them in the South of Market area, where Twitter has its headquarters. (Half the start-ups seem to have been founded by Facebook alumni.) A lot of younger employees of Silicon Valley companies live in the city and commute to work in white, Wi-Fi-equipped company buses, which collect passengers at fifteen or so stops around San Francisco. The buses—whose schedules are withheld from the public—have become a vivid emblem of the tech boom’s stratifying effect in the Bay Area. Rebecca Solnit, who has lived in San Francisco for thirty years, recently wrote in The London Review of Books, “Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. Right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government.” Some of the city’s hottest restaurants are popping up in the neighborhoods with shuttle stops. Rents there are rising even faster than elsewhere in San Francisco, and in some cases they have doubled in the past year.[2]


I have also worked in the technology industry (and bounced out, landing hard on my ass, now three times). I remember once, probably in 1999 or early 2000, when working at Linuxcare, when I expressed concern about social inequality between the tech industry and the wider society, being told that “they” can all just work get jobs in high tech.

In his office, [Joshua] Cohen [a political philosopher at Stanford University] freely criticized the tech industry for its casual optimism in assuming that its products can change the world. He said, “There is this complete horseshit attitude, this ridiculous attitude out here, that if it’s new and different it must be really good, and there must be some new way of solving problems that avoids the old limitations, the roadblocks. And with a soupçon of ‘We’re smarter than everybody else.’ It’s total nonsense.”[3]

Cohen is right, and not everyone’s talents incline toward technology; “they” can’t all get high tech jobs and live happily ever after. Indeed, I’ve never recovered from the dot-com crash in 2001. And while I now believe that technology was the wrong career choice for me (my father, concerned that I was growing up without a career direction, chose it for me), I think that many tech workers who feel well-treated by their employers may not be seeing the larger picture. Many of them see little more than this:

The buses carry their wired cargo south to the “campuses” of Google, Facebook, Apple, and other companies, which are designed to be fully functioning communities, not just places for working. Google’s grounds, in Mountain View—a working-class town when I was growing up—are modelled on the casual, Frisbee-throwing feel of Stanford University, the incubator of Silicon Valley, where the company’s founders met, in grad school. A polychrome Google bike can be picked up anywhere on campus, and left anywhere, so that another employee can use it. Electric cars, kept at a charging station, allow employees to run errands. Facebook’s buildings, in Menlo Park, between 101 and the salt marshes along the Bay, surround a simulated town square whose concrete surface is decorated with the word “HACK,” in letters so large that they can be seen from the air. At Facebook, employees can eat sushi or burritos, lift weights, get a haircut, have their clothes dry-cleaned, and see a dentist, all without leaving work.[4]

This picture is hard to reconcile with how this same capitalist society treats other workers, not only like those at Wal-Mart, Amazon, and McDonald’s, but temporary and part-time workers on unpredictable schedules, and even fully-employed workers pushed to be ever more productive or who feel abused but are afraid to quit.[5]

But before we dismiss high tech workers as being born with a silver spoon in their mouths, as having the world handed to them on a silver platter, we ought to consider that in some ways, they too are being abused. They face competition from workers in lower wage locales, some imported here on H-1B visas even when (more expensive) workers are available domestically.[6] The Department of Justice, in a suit allowed to go forward by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, alleges that that “anti-poaching” agreements amount to collusion to keep wages lower.  And it seems clear that class warfare is being waged even within high tech firms, let alone with working classes and the poor in wider society, as an Intel human resources executive is quoted writing, “While we pay lip service to meritocracy, we really believe more in treating everyone the same within broad bands.”[7]

I have little doubt that some tech workers are being arrogant or at least oblivious, just like the one who told me the poor can all be employed by high tech. This isn’t helping. But we should all also remember that the game of pitting one relatively privileged class of worker against another less privileged class is not a new one: W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about collusion between Northern and Southern employers in the wake of the Reconstruction era—working class whites might still be poor, but at least they weren’t Black.[8] Howard Zinn similarly explains that the elite in U.S. history have preserved their position in part by giving just enough to just enough that the middle class would not combine its forces with the working class and the poor in an insurrection against the elite.[9]

This is class war, not as forecast by George Soros,[10] but as Warren Buffett has said is already being won by the very wealthy,[11] with a “divide and conquer” strategy.

  1. [1]Erica Goode and Claire Cain Miller, “Backlash by the Bay: Tech Riches Alter a City,” New York Times, November 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/25/us/backlash-by-the-bay-tech-riches-alter-a-city.html; Claire Cain Miller and Erica Goode, “Making San Francisco Accessible to More Than the Tech Elite,” New York Times, November 26, 2013, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/who-is-responsible-for-making-sure-san-francisco-is-accessible-to-everyone-not-just-the-tech-elite/; Will Oremus, “Eviction protesters block Google bus in San Francisco: Fake video of Google employee goes viral,” Slate, December 9, 2013, http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/12/09/eviction_protesters_block_google_bus_in_san_francisco_fake_video_of_google.html; Norimitsu Orishi, “New San Francisco Tech Boom Brings Jobs but Also Worries,” New York Times, June 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/us/san-francisco-tech-boom-brings-jobs-and-worries.html; David Streitfeld, “Activists Accuse Tech Community of Throwing San Francisco Under the Bus,” New York Times, January 21, 2014, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/activists-accuse-tech-community-of-throwing-san-francisco-under-the-bus/;
  2. [2]George Packer, “Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics,” New Yorker, May 27, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/27/130527fa_fact_packer
  3. [3]George Packer, “Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics,” New Yorker, May 27, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/27/130527fa_fact_packer
  4. [4]George Packer, “Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics,” New Yorker, May 27, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/27/130527fa_fact_packer
  5. [5]Susan Berfield, “Fast-Food Wages Come With a $7 Billion Side of Public Assistance,” Business Week, October 15, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-15/mcdonalds-low-wages-come-with-a-7-billion-side-of-welfare; Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/how_amazon_is_worse_than_wal_mart/; Peter Dreier, “Labor Board Sides With Workers: Walmart Can’t Silence Employees Any Longer,” Nation, November 19, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/article/177254/labor-board-sides-workers-walmart-cant-silence-employees-any-longer; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 18, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/18/breaking_wal_mart_faces_warehouse_horror_allegations_and_federal_labor_board_complaint/; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014, http://www.alternet.org/labor/amazon-keeps-unions-out-keeping-workers-fear-says-organizer; Richard Florida, “The 66%: America’s Growing Underclass,” Atlantic Cities, October 29, 2012, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/10/66-americas-growing-underclass/3618/; Robert Greenwald, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, directed by Robert Greenwald (Culver City, CA: Brave New Films, 2005); Michael Hudson, “Paul Krugman’s Economic Blinders,” May 14, 2012, http://michael-hudson.com/2012/05/paul-krugmans-economic-blinders/; Allison Kilkenny, “Cleveland Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/blog/177241/cleveland-wal-mart-holds-food-drive-its-own-employ%C3%A9es; Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/the-plight-of-the-employed/; Paul Krugman, “The Fear Economy,” New York Times, December 26, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/27/opinion/krugman-the-fear-economy.html; Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt, “Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, November 19, 2013, http://www.epi.org/publication/technology-inequality-dont-blame-the-robots/; Hamilton Nolan, “What Is Life Like For an Amazon Worker?” Gawker, July 29, 2013, http://gawker.com/what-is-life-like-for-an-amazon-worker-949664345; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-harsh-work-20130407,5976597,1009581,full.story; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405,0,716422.story; Alana Semuels, “Tougher workplace makes home life worse too,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-tougher-workplace-makes-home-life-worse-too-20130407,0,4926425.story; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat
  6. [6]Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” New York Times, January 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/business/apple-america-and-a-squeezed-middle-class.html; Tom Hamburger, “Romney’s Bain Capital invested in companies that moved jobs overseas,” Washington Post, June 21, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/romneys-bain-capital-invested-in-companies-that-moved-jobs-overseas/2012/06/21/gJQAsD9ptV_story.html; Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig and Zachary A. Goldfarb, “Obama’s record on outsourcing draws criticism from the left,” Washington Post, July 9, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/obamas-record-on-outsourcing-draws-criticism-from-the-left/2012/07/09/gJQAljJCZW_story.html; Iain Hollingshead and Emma Barnett, “The inside story about Facebook’s moderating sweatshop,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 12, 2012, http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/the-inside-story-about-facebooks-moderating-sweatshop-20120305-1ue47.html; Carlton Meyer, “America’s 20 Percent Unemployment Rate,” Truthout, April 10, 2009, http://www.truth-out.org/archive/item/83499:americas-20-percent-unemployment-rate; Robert Oak [pseud.], “ObamaCare gets outsourced amid unemployment crisis,” New York Post, January 18, 2014, http://nypost.com/2014/01/18/obamacare-gets-outsourced-amid-unemployment-crisis/; George Packer, “Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics,” New Yorker, May 27, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/27/130527fa_fact_packer; Kyung M. Song and Janet I. Tu, “Do visas for skilled foreigners shut out U.S. tech workers?” Seattle Times, May 4, 2013, http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020924182_h1bworkersxml.html; Anna M. Tinsley, “Texas engineer, whose wife sent Obama his résumé, still unemployed,” McClatchy, April 9, 2012, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/04/09/144558/texas-engineer-who-sent-obama.html; Jordan Weissmann, “The Myth of America’s Tech-Talent Shortage,” Atlantic, April 29, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-myth-of-americas-tech-talent-shortage/275319/
  7. [7]Mark Ames, “The Techtopus: How Silicon Valley’s most celebrated CEOs conspired to drive down 100,000 tech engineers’ wages,” PandoDaily, January 23, 2014, http://pando.com/2014/01/23/the-techtopus-how-silicon-valleys-most-celebrated-ceos-conspired-to-drive-down-100000-tech-engineers-wages/
  8. [8]W. E. B. Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction and the Racial Wage,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 242-245.
  9. [9]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  10. [10]John Arlidge, “George Soros on the Coming U.S. Class War,” Daily Beast, January 23, 2010, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/01/22/george-soros-on-the-coming-u-s-class-war.html
  11. [11]Ben Stein, “In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning,” New York Times, November 26, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/business/yourmoney/26every.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.