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The Power Of The Protesting Employee: Big Tech Companies Are Being Taken Over By Low-Level Workers

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by Eric Lieberman

Employees of powerful tech companies have been speaking out against corporate projects and partnerships, manifesting a trend that may indicate a power shift.

Battles between staff and companies are not new. In the mid to late 1800s and the turn of the twentieth century, labor unions became increasingly popular. They were considered a way to collectively advocate for better pay and working conditions — often leading to disagreements with top executives and sometimes turning violent. But while many fought for maintaining the standards of their employment or improving their circumstances, workers currently in the tech industry are filing urgent appeals to their respective CEOs that demand the termination of a single, albeit consequential project — with some threatening to leave.

Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce, a cloud computing company also on the Fortune 500 list, have all recently experienced internal unrest in which employees are unabashedly sharing their personal viewpoints and protesting leaderships’ decisions.

More than 650 Salesforce employees signed a petition contesting the company’s involvement with Customs and Border Protection (CBP). They fault the federal agency for using Salesforce tools and services because they do not agree with CBP’s recent efforts and the means it employs to stop illegal immigrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.

“Given the inhumane separation of children from their parents currently taking place at the border, we believe that our core value of Equality is at stake and that Salesforce should re-examine our contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices,” reads the letter, which was addressed to CEO Marc Benioff, according to BuzzFeed News.

The employees admitted to a change in border enforcement but clarify the move is insufficient.

“We recognize the explicit policy of separating children at the border has been stopped, but that simply returns us to a status quo of detaining children with their parents at the border,” they write.

The contentious immigration situation also sparked the ire of employees at Microsoft, who are fighting with the company over its partnership with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm,” reads the letter, which requests that “Microsoft cancel its contracts with ICE.”

Microsoft executives responded with a memo from CEO Satya Nadella and a detailed blog post from president Brad Smith. Both criticized the “inhumane treatment of children at the U.S. border,” and Nadella promised that Microsoft is not working with the government on the practice of separating families.

“Our current cloud engagement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is supporting legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads,” Nadella wrote.

None of the commentary deviates from previously espoused convictions. The leaders themselves have been consistently outspoken on key issues, especially related to immigration — at least after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

But even if there is accordance between the deep-seated beliefs of those at the top and those at lower tiers of the company, it doesn’t mean criticizing leadership is necessarily advisable to all.

“If an employee wants to use that power to pressure their employer to make business decisions based on the political predilections instead of business reasons that is certainly the employee’s prerogative, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a ‘good career move,’” Jennifer Grossman, CEO of the libertarian nonprofit The Atlas Society, and former senior vice president at Dole Food Company, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Instead, I’d recommend young professionals focus on showing up early, staying late, and avoiding bringing distractions into the workplace. If they focus on advancing professionally, they will broaden their future range of options to either become politically active or donate to causes which inspire them.”

Supported by some of the success unions and a collectively driven workforce have had in the past, Grossman, and Caleb Watney, a technology policy fellow at R Street, believe that workers often have leverage, but those in tech have considerable influence over the company that they comprise.

“Employees always have power because hiring an employee isn’t like hiring a contractor. Arguably, employees have more power than ever before: tight labor market, litigious culture, regulations, costs to retrain new hires,” said Grossman, a presidential speechwriter in the White House during the George H.W. Bush administration.

“When compared to other parts of the economy, workers at big tech companies are much harder to replace given the scarcity of their skills, and as such, have much higher salaries on average,” Watney told TheDCNF. “I think everyone instinctively wants to work for a company they believe is changing the world in a positive direction. It just so happens that tech workers have much more leverage and can shape that direction more actively than workers in other sectors.”

As for working with entities or projects deemed unseemly by many or evil by some, Watney says the complexity of tech companies’ business is a huge contributing factor. In other words, as the biggest in the industry expand into almost every sector of society — Amazon, for example, has stakes in film and show productioncloud computing, distribution, and grocery services — so too does the ethical questions behind some of the initiatives.

“Which means the workers at those companies will have more opportunities to shape the decisions that are made on these high-impact questions,” said Watney.

Employees and some in the public have criticized Amazon, along with Microsoft and Salesforce, after the American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents and communications showing Amazon offering a facial recognition tool to local law enforcement departments around the country.

Workers sent a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos demanding Amazon stop selling the software to the government out of fear it will be used in an invasive way and called for ending a cloud service agreement with Peter Thiel’s Palantir, which works with ICE.

But at the same time as passionate discussions occur, elsewhere companies are trying to suppress heated debate.

Google established a new set of rules in June, according to The Wall Street Journal, roughly a year after it fired engineer James Damore for internally publishing a memo outlining his views on gender and advocating for freedom of expression within work.

“A healthy company should and will encourage internal discussion of controversial issues it is involved in, and during those internal discussions, both parties have obligations — the employees to continue to do their jobs according to their general agreement and the employers to consider seriously what their employees are saying,” Stephen Hicks, a professor of philosophy at Rockford University and senior scholar at The Atlas Society, told TheDCNF.

But the amount of debate — “nonstop” according to another, more in-depth WSJ report — is effecting change at Google.

Google employees — despite rules that are more aimed at curtailing internal online discussion boards — were able to obtain a massive concession from their superiors. The tech giant decided to no longer work with the Pentagon on a drone surveillance technology project called Project Maven after some workers resigned and others threatened to do so.

Salesforce, on the other hand, is not severing ties with CBP, although Benioff says he is opposed to the family separation policy, and the company claims not to participate in that specific practice.

Like SalesForce and seemingly unlike Google, the other aforementioned companies haven’t yet reached a breaking point. As the tides of polarization seem to intensify, aggrieved employees may demand increasing changes from those they work for. The top officials of the players that make up the industry will have to decide how far they will allow that to continue, what is healthy, and what is unproductive.

“If there’s a business decision that’s going to provide substantial financial returns and yet also present significant risks, either in terms of a potentially distracting public relations crisis, or employee attrition, morale, and recruitment, then those alternatives need to be weighed carefully,” Grossman said. “That’s why companies pay handsomely for leadership that will make the right decision, chart the right course, because the wrong decision can mean financial ruin.”

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