Beyond the meditation rooms, open-plan offices and TGIF at Silicon Valley

By Will Stokes

Published Oct 30, 2018 at 11:13 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

For the third day in a row, I found myself crying in the Dropbox meditation room. A glass box with interior curtains situated in the middle of the sales floor, it was neither soundproof nor private; the sounds of ringing desk phones and salespeople making cold calls made it an impossible space for meditation. Like many office perks in Silicon Valley, this meditation room was mostly designed for marketing, along with the ping pong tables and beer on tap. While virtue signalling towards employee wellness, these perks mostly served to lure people into entry-level jobs they are otherwise uninterested in or over-qualified for. The message was clear: research shows meditation can help workers be more productive, we’ll allow it in the workplace. But do it quickly, and get back on the phones.

I was hired out of college to do an unofficial “rotational programme” job at Dropbox. Recruiters and hiring managers sold a vision of endless opportunity, the ideal place to start your career. After getting your foot in the door with a year or two of sales and customer support, cushy jobs in marketing or product were right around the corner—roles were available in any area of the company you may want to specialise in, including new teams that hadn’t even been created yet. With a new COO and more focus on an IPO, external experience suddenly became more valuable than home-grown talent and for most of us that promised career growth never materialised.

Many Dropbox managers echoed a piece of advice that Google CEO Eric Schmidt once gave to Facebook’s now-COO Sheryl Sandberg, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” On this particular rocket ship, I found myself in a dead-end sales team with nowhere to grow. The managers who echo this metaphor never mention that many rocket ships do, in fact, explode.

I was eventually able to transfer to another team that I was interested in before changing companies altogether. However, not all entry-level employees have that same opportunity. Silicon Valley companies are increasingly hiring contract workers to do the jobs that entry-level full-time employees used to do. Reflecting back on the stress of those early years of my career in Silicon Valley, I now understand how my experience fits within a wider narrative of large tech companies exploiting their workers in a variety of ways.

Since the opening days of the United States’ recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, the public imagination has been fixated on the mythic office perks, astronomical pay, and outlandish benefits in the technology industry. However, these benefits are a reality mostly reserved for its upper echelon full-time employees and software engineers, leaving behind the scores of contract workers who test code, moderate content, drive shuttle buses and secure tech campuses. Google, for example, reportedly employed more contractors than full-time employees in 2018. These cost-cutting measures at large tech firms reinforce a neoliberal order that mirrors the widening income inequality across the United States. The same industry that is willing to pay top software engineers $1 million each year is equally able to achieve this by paying contract workers less than 50 percent of the median salary of full-time employees.

But workers have taken notice of this growing fad. Groups of contract workers across Silicon Valley are successfully winning union battles and subsequently reshaping the landscape of jobs in the industry. In August 2018, a union made up of employees from the industry’s four largest security guard contractors won their negotiations for health care coverage and a wage increase. In a ‘progressive’ industry that promises to ‘move fast and break things’, large tech companies have been stubbornly opposed to improving the lives of workers. The security guard’s union took five years to negotiate their health care coverage and wage increase deal—an eternity in the context of boom-and-bust Silicon Valley.

While blue-collar contract workers in Silicon Valley have been fighting for equality for a few years, it seems that the labour consciousness of white-collar contractors and even full-time employees has just begun to catch on. The polarised activism of the post-Trump era has contributed to single-issue worker organisation in Silicon Valley at an unprecedented scale. At Google, an open letter denouncing the company’s plans to sell AI to the Pentagon for use in drone strikes accrued thousands of signatures and publicly pressured their executives to change course. In the midst of the 2018 zero-tolerance crisis along the Mexican-U.S. border, Salesforce employees spoke out publicly against the company’s deal with Customs and Border Protection, encouraging other organisations to refuse the donations of Salesforce’s charity arm until they cancelled their relationship with the agency. While these public displays of defiance have yet to win any major concessions, the message has been clear: organised workers can publicly pressure tech firms to cater for their demands.

So what is to be done? For full-time employees of technology companies, the first step is to remove the rose-coloured glasses and realise that these companies are fallible and capable of treating their workers unfairly. Secondly, full-time employees should support the efforts of their company’s contract workers as they unionise or bargain for better health care, paid sick leave or overtime pay. Seek out internal groups or mailing lists that support these efforts, or simply ask your colleagues who are contract workers if there are any efforts in flight that you can lend your support to. Thirdly, leverage the already-established power of employee resource groups to put pressure behind these efforts. Imagine the pressure of “Black@”, “Pride@”, “Women@” and other employee organisations coming together to make demands for a higher minimum wage for cafeteria workers or for their executives to dismantle contracts with ICE.

Employee resource groups already hold a lot of power within tech companies and in many cases, they are already well-organised and self-administered. If you are a leader or future leader in one of these groups, it will be important to impart the DNA of intersectionality in your organisation. It is important to draw the linkage between the struggles of women, African-Americans or LGBTQ employees with the struggles faced by contract workers. When united, all groups can achieve more than they could by themselves. Amazon or Google can always replace an engineer, but it becomes more difficult to replace hundreds or thousands who are bargaining or striking together towards a specific outcome. And, in some distant future where these same employees may own the means of production that have made this industry one of the world’s most powerful, nascent unions and employee resource groups can be the bedrock of an intersectional coalition of workers that can finally achieve those distant missions to “not be evil” and to “make the world a better place.”

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