Silicon Valley’s Anti-Unionism, Now With a Side of Class Warfare

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Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP/Corbis

Since BART workers went on strike last week, shutting down the Bay Area's primary mass transit system and interrupting millions of commutes, the relationship between the Silicon Valley tech community and labor unions has come under the microscope. Sarah Lacy, the founder of tech blog Pando Daily, ignited a minor firestorm when she suggested, in a Marketplace story about the BART strike, that the tech industry's ethos of "you work really hard, you build something and you create something" was "sort of directly opposite to unions." In the same story, Richard White, the CEO of a San Francisco tech company, suggested a solution to the strike: "Figure out how to automate [BART drivers'] jobs so this doesn't happen again."

Both comments provoked outrage, including from me, and the backlash has lasted even though the BART strike (now in a 30-day contract negotiation extension period) has not. But the shock at anti-union sentiments expressed by the tech elite, mine included, obscured one salient point: Namely, Silicon Valley's hostility to organized labor is nothing new.

In fact, a form of anti-union sentiment has been baked into the tech world's culture from the very beginning. Robert Noyce, the co-founder of Intel, so-called "Mayor of Silicon Valley," and one of the inventors of the microchip, once declared that "remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we'd all go out of business." Noyce and his fellow tech pioneers saw Silicon Valley's creation as an opportunity to break free of the traditional labor model, which they viewed as helpful for building cars and mining for ore, but not for the quick-moving, always-changing world of technology creation.

"In the very early stages of Silicon Valley, there was really a strong utopian strain," says Leslie Berlin, a scholar of early technological companies and historian at the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. "The idea was 'We’re starting communities, and we’re going to do things differently than the East Coast model, where you pit labor against management.'"

This utopian paternalism was a different political rationale for anti-unionism than the libertarian streak that has come to Silicon Valley in recent decades. Early tech founders weren't opposed to regulation, taxes, or government intervention in all arenas. They simply wanted to avoid unionization at their companies. And they did it by providing above-market wages to employees, giving generous health-care packages, and doling out stock options. These perks (and their descendants, like Google's free dancing classes or Facebook's communal bicycles and candy shop) had the effect of keeping workers happy and less likely to want to organize. Crucially, it made working in Silicon Valley feel different than working in other industries, even if making microchips in Palo Alto wasn't all that different, labor-wise, from stamping out crank shafts at General Motors. An AP story from Christmas Day 1983 titled "Labor Unions Are Absent in Silicon Valley" explained that the lack of labor organization in high tech was due to "an amalgam of competitive pay and benefits, dedication to labor relations – with more than a touch of boosterism – and a sense that the valley is special and its people a breed apart."

The mystique of the entrepreneur, more than overt union-busting techniques of corporate managers, is the reason why Silicon Valley's tech industry has never had a successful large-scale labor organization, according to Berlin. Simply put: Tech workers have been so coddled that they simply don't feel the need to unionize.

Which is not to say that tech workers have never tried. In 1982 and 1983, workers at video-game maker Atari mounted a campaign to protest wage cuts and imminent layoffs. But the effort was muddled and ill-organized, and by the time the workers actually secured the rights to hold a vote over collective bargaining, the movement had shrunk to only 200 workers. A decade later, a strike of about 55 workers, mostly Latina women, at a plant of a Sunnyvale circuit-board manufacturer called Versatronex succeeded in drawing attention but had the impact of effectively putting the company out of business. The failure of tech workers to reach a single declarative union organization led many labor experts to conclude that Silicon Valley was simply unorganizable.

Today, despite being largely socially progressive and voting overwhelmingly for Democrats in national elections, Silicon Valley is probably America's least-organized labor industry. (The strikes that do occur here are largely among custodial employees, such as the 2008 janitors' strike that left several large tech companies cleaning their own bathrooms.) Partly, this is because Silicon Valley is no longer a manufacturing hub. Most of today's tech giants outsource their physical production of chips and gadgets, if they have any, and keep only their white-collar workforces in Silicon Valley. And those workforces, like the ones of old, are kept fat and happy through institutionalized perks and high salaries. It's also because tech company managers remain hostile to the idea of labor unions and are good at quashing unrest when it surfaces. (Case in point: Apple's 2011 attempt to educate its managers on "union awareness.")

Could Silicon Valley workers unionize, even if they wanted to? It's a question that has dogged labor scholars for years. Alan Hyde, a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark and the author of Working in Silicon Valley: Economic and Legal Analysis of a High-Velocity Labor Market, thinks they could, although their organizations might not take the form of an industrial union in the way we think of them. Hyde writes in a 2002 paper that "the brutal truth is that Silicon Valley attained its present technological and economic preeminence without formal employee organization" and isn't likely to adopt it soon. But he also sees new kinds of organizations for tech employees as being capable of collective action — such as those organized along ethnic or gender lines inside individual companies, rather than an industry-wide union.

"Could the ethnic pride and energy of Silicon Valley's immigrant communities fuel successful organizing for programmers, as it has for janitors?" he asks.

When it comes to supporting traditional, UAW-style unions, though, the truth is that Silicon Valley is probably beyond reach. This generation's tech moguls have gone far beyond Noyce's claim that the technology industry should be free of those kinds of slow-moving, collective-bargaining organizations. Frequently, they now think every industry should be. Steve Jobs once called teachers' unions "the problems" with modern schools. Marc Andreessen, the ubiquitous venture capitalist, said at a conference last year that "there may have been a time and a place for unions, but not sure I see it anymore." And George Packer's New Yorker story on Silicon Valley, as well as his profile of PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, traced the merging of the tech world's paternalistic futurism with the libertarian, anti-regulatory sympathies of some prominent tech leaders.

Anti-union views aren't unique to Silicon Valley gazillionaires — they're shared by free-market boosters everywhere. But comments like Lacy's and White's in response to the BART strike revealed something new. Namely, portions of the tech community are not only observing the destruction of unions as a long-term sociopolitical trend, but actively cheering it on as an example of an intellectual "maker" class beating out working-class "takers." The old Silicon Valley anti-unionism came from narrow corporate self-interest; the new seems more broadly ideological.

"The notion that 'These workers are expendable' is a fundamentally different attitude toward workers than 'Let’s make sure they have these benefits so they don’t want to unionize,'" Berlin said.

In other words, it's not Silicon Valley's rejection of organized labor that should surprise us. It's the class hostility that now often rides along with it.