Diginomica and the Salesforce Counsel of Despair?

Are we at peak Silicon Valley hubris yet?

Every tech CEO, it seems, has planetary level ambitions for our salvation and redemption at the tap of a mobile app screen. Tech is quite literally the new religion. Google commands itself ‘don’t be evil’, Facebook wants to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’. Salesforce boasts, thanks to it’s ‘Circle of Good’, “our communities are thriving and our youth are Future Ready, accelerated by our investments and employee volunteers.” Not bad going really, considering philanthropy efforts are normally just a side effort, a corporate ‘gig’, if you will.

There’s a lot going on in Silicon Valley a willing Pope could learn from and, as with any self respecting religious movement, there is huge reliance on rhetoric, evangelists and blind faith rather than hard evidence. Heretics asking awkward questions or caught using the wrong language quickly find themselves miscast, typecast or side cast.

Last weekend the Pope visited Ireland and had to face up to the consequences of generations of abuse and misuse of power. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, called time on church infantilizing of the population and for the start of a mature relationship with a church no longer at the centre of society. But on the same day, while Varadkar was celebrating the breaking of papal chains, the wonderful Angela Nagle was warning of our spiritual enslavement by another ideological power: Silicon Valley.

Nagle railed against the hypocrisy of global tech giants preaching equality while dodging tax and broader social responsibilities. She said:

“Today the most rapacious global corporate giants love nothing more than to celebrate female empowerment, gay pride, individual self-expression and freedom from the shackles of the past……. In recent years at gay pride, there have been so many floats dedicated to tech multinationals one could easily forget that it had ever been anything other than a North Korean-style ideological parade for the glorification of big tech.”

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with corporate advocacy for LBGTQ rights, indeed, it is admirable. But we have to judge a corporation on how it manages its complete footprint in society, its material impact, not just on the cherry picked subjects of its own choosing often calibrated for maximum PR benefit with least real effort.

Salesforce has been at the vanguard, if not the barricades, in Silicon Valley’s fight for social justice. It has been an evangelical champion of equality claiming it as nothing less than a ‘higher purpose’ for the company. Salesforce weirdly refers to its workforce as the ‘Ohana’ (Hawaiian for family) and pursue four pillars of equality — equal rights, equal pay, equal education and equal opportunity. To its great credit, Salesforce has taken principled stands against discriminatory public policy proposals in Indiana and Georgia albeit in the name of the Ohana.

Diginomica, a tech trade journal of sorts, has been an enthusiastic ‘premier partner’ and editorial supporter of Salesforce particularly on its equality stance. Diginomica’s Stuart Lachlan pledged: “we’ve been unashamed supporters of Salesforce’s battles for equality in the likes of Indiana and Georgia and will continue to be so in the inevitable struggles ahead…….. Ohana are on the right side of history.”

But Angela Nagle says the Silicon Valley rhetoric about equality doesn’t ring true in Ireland nor in most western countries where income and wealth inequality is soaring. She juxtaposes an Amazon with it’s flamboyant display at Dublin’s gay pride festival with an Amazon that has become a most inhumane and despicable employer.

Similarly, how do we square up Uber’s road to Damascus conversion on equalities after Susan Fowler’s whistleblowing compared with its continued denial of the most basic of worker rights to its vast workforce of drivers? I wrote about Deliveroo’s unfair decision to discriminate amongst its workers to award share options to its corporate staff while stiffing the 30,000 riders on whose backs its business is built.

At Salesforce too, we see troubling contradictions and a failure to live up to its own catechism of equality. While it preaches a higher purpose for equality for all, including its suppliers, it ignores and suppresses legitimate stakeholder concerns. The Salesforce Global Supplier Code of Conduct promises that suppliers must: “compensate employees fairly and follow local wage regulations or collective agreements; where these do not exist, compensate employees at a level that allows them to meet their basic needs.” And yet Salesforce is a reference corporate customer for Uber for Business which takes advantage of sweated labour with workers in London earning as little as £2 per hour. When my trade union went to Salesforce Tower in London to raise concerns about their contract with Uber we were given short shrift by building security and no executive would agree to see us. We raised a complaint on the Salesforce external whistleblower line listed in its supplier code of conduct but the complaint was almost immediately closed without any contact with us. When I raised the matter with Salesforce Chief Philanthropy Officer, Suzanne DiBianca she immediately blocked me on twitter.

But recently, the tables have been turned somewhat on Salesforce. Instead of the company challenging the equality record of others, 650 of its own ‘Ohana’ have been challenging the company from within over the human rights impact of its contract with the US Customs and Border Patrol agency (CBP). Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff unsuccessfully tried to head off the crisis by crudely offering a donation to the company’s biggest critic of its relationship with the CBP. Now, the ‘Ohana’ are calling on customers, partners and influencers to stay away from the annual sales conference next month.

Benioff insists the technology used by the CBP is not associated with the cruel separation of migrant children from their parents and refuses to sever the lucrative commercial deal with the agency. Its supporters at Diginomica helpfully speculate without evidence that it would be difficult to ‘simply cut it down’. Yet Google, when similarly challenged by its own ‘Ohana’, had little difficulty walking away from a lucrative AI driven drone programme with the US Department for Defence.

When I raised the subject of the staff called for boycott of Dreamforce on twitter last week, Dennis Howlett complained bitterly about my use of language. In his post he mischievously raised the spectre of a trade unionism of long ago, Marxism and even the Soviet Union. He even compared me to Derek Robinson, a 1970’s trade unionist and member of the Communist Party of the Great Britain. In several Diginomica articles including this one, a consistent complaint from Howlett is the supposed politicisation of my union’s dispute with Uber. But even a limited amount of background research would reveal to him the IWGB is an independent trade union and, unlike most British trade unions, is neither affiliated to the TUC nor to any political party. In the eyes of Diginomica then, precarious workers organising to protect their basic statutory rights are politically subversive but Salesforce’s entry into public debates in Georgia and Indiana is something to be applauded. Diginomica downplays demands from the ‘Ohana’ but attacks efforts of Uber drivers to ask Salesforce to honour commitments made in their Supplier Code of Conduct.

Howlett, deftly shifts the focus to an esoteric discussion about differing emergent models of corporate employee engagement with unlikely titles including ‘edglings’, ‘going horizontal’, ‘four leafed clover’ and ‘bottom up organisations’. Heady stuff but it isn’t worth a hill of beans to precarious workers at Uber, Deliveroo, Hermes, Amazon and others. Would any of these conceptual models have been enough to save Sandu-Laurentiu Sava or Kenny Chow? No. Could full implementation of corporate supplier codes like that of Salesforce make a real difference? Absolutely.

The truth is, despite all the corporate rhetoric about corporate activism, little has changed and it’s naive to assume the current generation of management are any more or less ethical than those who have gone before. The difference now is highly skilled workers, in a tight labour market, have been able to flex their muscles and bargain for important changes at Google and Uber even if they have been so far faced down by intransigent management at Salesforce. But this empowered engagement simply does not read across to the vast numbers of people whose jobs have been deskilled and find themselves swept into increasingly precarious employment. Fancy new organisational engagement models and rhetoric about equality have done nothing to halt the rise in income inequality now fuelling a dangerous rise in populism throughout the west.

Diginomica doesn’t do itself, Salesforce or the broader tech industry any favours when it too quickly comes out in defence of the corporate status quo and draws false conclusions about the politics of all the stakeholders including the firm. Besides, the truth is so much more interesting and fruitful to explore.