Trump era ramps up tech worker revolt
Technology companies are facing a new crisis as their employees press executives to rethink their work with the Trump administration and in many cases drop lucrative federal contracts.
The controversy comes amid heated national debates on immigration, law enforcement and surveillance — issues on which Silicon Valley’s workforce wants the industry to take a stand.
In the past month, workers at Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Salesforce have organized and written letters calling on CEOs to cancel or review contracts with government agencies whose work the employees say raises ethical questions.
The groundswell of opposition to many industry practices and projects is forcing executives to revisit their work, a marked shift in how they operate.
“I think it seems to be a part of a growing trend in how employees are looking for jobs. They’re trying to find companies that they feel have similar values to them,” said David Hess, a University of Michigan Ross School of Business professor of business law and ethics.
“Once they then get into the workforce they want to make sure the companies still have similar values.”
The industry has long been at loggerheads with President Trump. In the president’s first year, tech companies took a prominent role in opposing his ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries.
But that opposition has been ramped up by new controversies, in particular the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings and concerns about the use of tech tools for surveillance and law enforcement.
Tech workers are citing historical examples, saying they don’t want to see their companies take on roles that parallel IBM’s work during the Holocaust when it leased Nazi Germany punch-card machines that helped them identify and track Jewish people.
Such concerns spurred workers at Google to organize against the company’s Project Maven — an artificial intelligence tool the Pentagon used to improve its drone warfare, according to Gizmodo.
Workers at other companies quickly followed suit.
Microsoft employees are pushing CEO Satya Nadella to drop the company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in protest over the agency separating children from families caught crossing the southern border illegally.
“We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” they wrote in a letter to Nadella. “As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit.”
At Amazon, workers banded together to oppose the company selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies out of fears the technology could harm marginalized communities.
Salesforce workers earlier this week penned their own letter to CEO Marc Benioff urging him to review its contract with Customs and Border Protection, also out of concern with the administration’s family separation policy.
Those actions have garnered some early successes.
Google said it would not renew its Project Maven contract with the Pentagon, reportedly because of pressure from employees.
Salesforce Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet met with employees in response to their letter, a source with knowledge of the meeting told The Hill.
And Nadella sent employees an all-staff email disavowing ICE’s work in separating families at the border and saying that Microsoft’s contracts did not pertain to those practices.
Employees say that they want to see more action though.
One Microsoft employee involved in organizing the letter opposing the company’s ICE contract told The Hill that Nadella’s response did not go far enough.
“The response was empty. It was shallow. He just said ‘we denounce it.’ It didn’t do anything,” the employee said.
Amazon has yet to publicly respond to worker activism at its company.
A spokesperson for the Tech Workers Coalition, a labor group for industry workers, said the spike in organizing is partly because of the nature of some of the industry’s contracts.
“These are multimillion-dollar government contracts. So they’re not off-the-shelf technology, but are actually designed for surveillance, detention and deportation,” the spokesperson said. “They require regular maintenance and support from tech workers, many who are immigrants or come from immigrant families.”
The Tech Workers Coalition has voiced its support for employee-organizing efforts and more generally workers rights in the tech industry.
Not everyone is supportive of the new worker activism in Silicon Valley, though.
Lawmakers have criticized Google for saying that it wouldn’t renew its contract with the Pentagon, while noting that it still has a partnership with Chinese phone maker Huawei.
Huawei has raised national security concerns in the U.S. over the company’s close ties with China’s government.
“While we regret that Google did not want to continue a long and fruitful tradition of collaboration between the military and technology companies we are even more disappointed that Google apparently is more willing to support the Chinese Communist Party than the U.S.,” a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) wrote.
Conaway called Google’s actions “disappointing” in a statement to The Hill, questioning having “lucrative partnerships with morally questionable foreign entities that are not in America’s best interest.”
Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work shared similar concerns during a conference on Tuesday.
“They say, ‘What if the work is ultimately used to take lives.’ But what if it saves American lives? 500 American lives? Or 500 lives of our allies?” he said.
Much of that criticism though is coming primarily from conservatives or GOP lawmakers, who are unlikely to sway the overwhelmingly left-leaning Silicon Valley workforce.
Hess said it’s unlikely the protests will slow down. He said the activism is part of a growing trend that is seeing both workers and the general public press corporations to take stands on controversial issues.
Hess pointed toward pressure on companies to come out against Trump’s travel ban and bills in states like North Carolina and Texas targeting transgender rights.
“Trump has created a sense among some groups that the government isn’t going to protect things they care about,” said Hess.
“So now people see companies [as] another place to pressure … to get results.”