The November walkout of 20,000 workers at Google challenges us to see new possibilities of work. How to transform major corporations into ethical, democratic, and socially responsible institutions needed to be addressed. Many steps are required if democratic socialist ideas are to transform hierarchical institutions. As tentative as our understanding of the future of management and work organization is, DSA has made a good start toward envisioning a new way to work by laying out principles of civil and rational discussion. A truly democratic workplace would require a long process to achieve, but it would be a major change in our culture.
Protests in tech firms show that some employees are taking responsibility for the workplace and the ethics of the firm’s products. These protests represent a breakthrough when historically labor has been focused on working conditions but not on business ethics.
The walkout was a new tactic in Silicon Valley. The 20,000 Google workers involved were protesting grievances such as sexual harassment, a search engine for China, and work on artificial intelligence for the Pentagon. Silicon Valley has dreamed of individuals inspiring change by their work. Steve Wozniak, inventor of Apple’s first commercial PC, highlighted that ethic. As a skilled worker, he just wanted to make a product that impressed his peers. That motivation goes back to before the Middle Ages and guilds of skilled workers. Silicon Valley reflected that sentiment when highly paid workers would interact with their management when creating new products. Much to the delight of management, this sense of individualism marginalized the possibilities of unions. Now with the coarse example of Trump, and the attraction of ethical work goals and the Me Too movement, the need for collective actions is coming to the fore. Some Silicon Valley workers are appalled by management decisions are asking: Is Google an ethical company or just another profit-maximizing corporation? IT workers will have a say.
Silicon Valley culture is enshrined by mission statements affirming social goals. Salesforce even has a chief ethical and humane use officer. It is not surprising that their staff has objections to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection contract. In a survey, Apple employees responded like they worked for a utility serving the community. In some firms, workers expect that the company will work to address society’s challenges. Many tech workers know that some problems are systemic to our culture and cannot be solved by switching companies. And then there is Facebook, whose goal of bringing the world closer together is subverted by the profit motive that brought us Russian hackers who undermined our democracy. Growing concern over ethics and morality might change the social relations of work and management.
Another Silicon Valley mode of protest is employees using their stocks as a voice for change at shareholder meetings. This tactic can get their voices heard, but that doesn’t necessarily result in action. Workers could amplify their voices if they all organized together to influence the stock resolutions.
Having a union would matter, but even tech workers need to remember that traditional bargaining for wages and working conditions didn’t keep the United Mine Workers – so important in labor history – from being marginalized by automation in the mineshafts. The tech company workers, in the fast-changing world of automation trending toward AI, could find themselves in the same boat sooner than they think, unless they refashion union culture to actually take control of their work and therefore of the product as well.
The Google staff may have hit on a mode of communication via protest that can be used in more democratic settings. Having the right to address management or the board of directors as a group might be a right worth having. Yet, electing your board members would be even better. The Germans have corporate co-determination where the union and management are both on the corporate board. Silicon Valley corporations are being caught focusing on making money and not on ethical work or operations. This is most likely a problem for public corporations too. Running an organization for the public and workers and remaining productive and viable has not been a well-known human achievement, but needs to be explored if democratic socialism is to be real.
The Google protest may point out that the common sense of ethics and desire for progress in business might eventually lead to a democratically organized firm. Another possibility is that public service-oriented corporations could install public members on their boards by choice, public demand, or by staff demands. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has a bill proposing co-determination. There would be a value to a firm’s stability if its board were overseen and influenced by its customers, too.
We are entering a new period of business where organization in a more cooperative future is needed but yet to be discovered. Being a prized worker is great but as the song, The Internationale, in Billy Bragg’s version, goes, “Freedom is merely privilege extended Unless enjoyed by one and all.” When all people are treated equally, we will live in a new world.