2019 was the year that tech workers had enough
“I’ve never had another job where, after three years, I make significantly less than when I started,” one of the Instacart organizers, Vanessa Bain, told CNN Business. Bain, who is based in Menlo Park, California, has worked primarily for Instacart for four years and been a key agitator against the startup for the majority of that time. “We are regular workers trying to find our footing.”
The campaign marks a fitting end to a year that has seen widespread protests across the tech industry. Gig economy workers at companies like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart have waged new pressure campaigns over long-standing issues such as pay transparency, wage protections and job security. Meanwhile, rank-and-file staffers at giants such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft are banding together to push back on issues ranging from gender discrimination and climate change to questionable government contracts, worker retaliation and the use of forced arbitration.
Altogether, there’s a new sentiment among tech workers: their employers’ power must be checked.
Workers are using social media platforms like Twitter, Medium, Facebook and Google to organize virtually and spread their messages. There appears to be a sense of camaraderie among the workers challenging the companies they work for — contract workers, employees and competitors are all championing similar causes.
“When one group of workers does something, it has an emancipatory impact on other workers,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law expert and an associate law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “It opens the possibility. The Google walkout absolutely influenced the May Uber strike.”
But some companies now appear to be reaching a limit in how much they’re willing to appease and tolerate dissent from their employees and contract workers.
Tensions rise in Silicon Valley
From Google’s perspective, the content of the notification was irrelevant. “The decision would have been the same had the pop-up message been on any other subject,” read a copy of an email from Royal Hansen, VP Technical Infrastructure Security & Privacy, provided to CNN Business by a Google spokesperson.
In a statement, a company spokesperson said the company engages with “dozens of outside firms to provide us with their advice on a wide range of topics,” adding that “to suggest this particular firm had anything whatsoever to do with … any internal policies whatsoever … is absolutely false.”
“To ignore the range of issues just breeds more distrust and will lead to more aggressive forms of protests in the future,” said Thomas Kochan, George Maverick Bunker professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “American companies haven’t quite grasped the lessons of history yet,” he said, referring to companies like General Motors and Ford in the 1930s and early 40s, which sharply resisted unionization of their workers. “It will come back to haunt them.”
Workers get creative in pushing back at tech companies
As hard as it’s been for high-skilled employees at the big tech companies to push back, it’s even harder for the millions of gig economy contractors trying to be heard.
In November, Uber drivers rallied outside the wealthy homes of some early investors in Uber — on the day the stock lockup period ended — to bring attention to the working conditions and low wages of workers.
It’s just one example of a new approach to protesting in the industry: Don’t just go after the company, go after their stakeholders, too.
“The hope is that if we call out Costco and get them to stand behind us, Instacart will see that it is not okay,” said Schana Cummings, a contract worker for Instacart in San Diego who also volunteers for the Working Washington PayUp campaign.
In a statement, an Instacart spokesperson told CNN Business, “our relationship with all shoppers is important and we take their feedback very seriously. We recognize we have more work to do but we remain committed to listening to and applying that feedback to improve their experience.”
Costco did not respond to a request for comment.
Some Instacart workers are “looking outside the gates of their workplace,” said Katie Wells, an urban studies foundation postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University who researches the social and economic effects of on-demand services.
“I think we are seeing a shift in where people believe power exists,” added Wells. “It is no longer the boss who is going to make the world better. … It is about drawing attention, about getting the public to care.”