The following exchange is an interview between Commune Magazine and myself about organizing in tech with the Tech Workers Coalition in Seattle. The conversation is informed by feminist perspectives and the Xenofeminist Manifesto.
What are the social dynamics of Tech Workers Coalition?
There’s an emphasis on creating an authentic community network that’s not based on your employer, career goals, a particular skill or job type, professional development, or token identity group. We’re building relationships between people as workers, based on what affects us materially. So at least in my experience, Tech Workers Coalition has been the healthiest group I’ve worked with. It doesn’t mean there’s no conflict, but we can resolve conflict without bad blood, and we act toward one another in good faith. I feel like I’m going to jinx us if I talk about it. This is both unbelievable and impressive because as with any coalition, there are people with strong personalities and differing politics. But I trust everyone I am working with implicitly, and the fact that I keep trying to figure out why probably points to some past organizing PTSD.
Yes, organizing can be very traumatic! We want so badly to win that sometimes we plow over a period of building trust and listening to each other. You allude to having had experiences in the past. Do you feel like organizing in this way has helped you and could help others overcome past experiences?
I think I can still be pretty hypervigilant. But I have more tools in my toolbox, and can quell the certain anxieties that I might otherwise carry around as an organizer. I used to have more anxiety about not knowing everything that was going on. But if we are to have a relatively decentralized coalition, it’s important that I don’t make organizing decisions based on that anxiety. The truth is I don’t need to know everything that’s going on. If I find myself in a situation where I do, it means there aren’t other people who have been built up enough to take on tasks.
How does that relate to the town or city you live in?
Everyone warned me about the Seattle freeze, which is a phenomenon I didn’t experience. But I know some people have. It’s easy to feel alienated in tech, and in a city where many locals see tech workers as the root cause of gentrification. There are different types of self-care, but actual radical self-care moves you toward your community, not away from it. So in the end, building community with intention begets more intention and more mutual aid. I’ve personally benefited from that, not just from help during more precarious times, but also from ways that enable this work and make it sing. I try to return the favor whenever possible, or let the benefit come through in the organizing. I don’t know if this is unusual for Seattle, but I’m certain that with the proliferation of more transactional interactions in the gig economy, these kinds of relationships are rarer in urban spaces.
Urban spaces need more stuff like what you are talking about. What can tech workers offer that others cannot in terms of mutual aid?
Ultimately it’s labor, not money, that brings projects from start to finish, and I think people here prioritize labor. But organizing with higher-paid tech workers means there are resources. Money isn’t just flying around; we still have to book free community spaces and things like that. But when it comes down to smaller, immediate needs, it’s not a problem. If you need to be fed, someone can comp your meal. If you make a flyer and you need it printed, people can put up some funds. One unusual one: I’ve had tech workers cover the cost of my attendance to a conference — flight, registration, room, and board. I haven’t worked in tech in four years, and don’t make a tech salary, so I didn’t even give the conference any consideration until someone asked me about it.
What is the organization’s relationship to work?
It’s been a decade since the start of the recession, which is long enough for tech workers to see what the industry does to places like Seattle or the Bay Area. TWC is critical of tech optimism, but it’d be inaccurate to say that people are completely pessimistic. There’s always that question of “What if we stopped spending all this time on ad targeting, and put our skills toward something we actually gave a shit about?” It makes me think about all the scooters that get trashed — what they actually do versus what they represent. I think underneath it all, there are still people who want to build things and be creative in a way that isn’t hated or useless.
TWC is made up of workers, so we want workers to organize. We work with rank and file to build power between workers no matter their level of experience, skilled or unskilled, contract or full-time, blue or white collar, and even students and interns. TWC has a lot more representation of software engineers and higher-paid tech workers, but people are almost hyper-aware of the nuances between these roles. Things like who is more vulnerable or becoming increasingly vulnerable, whose labor is bankrolled by more exploited labor, who has more winnable objectives. At the very least it means showing up for workers, and for less vulnerable workers to be willing to stick their neck out to make this solidarity more than just symbolic.
How is it different from other organizations?
TWC is not trying to lead workers or be an authoritative presence. Ultimately, workers know their conditions best, and the more information and resources they have, the more effective they are when working together. Then there’s the rank-and-file emphasis. We’re not endorsing parties or soliciting foundation money. Historically, when conditions are made better for workers, it’s not because they phone banked for a sympathetic candidate. It’s because workers raised enough hell that people could no longer ignore it. Labor runs everything, so we are focusing on what works.
Can you define tech optimism (as an ideal not as it exists)? Or what could be a kind of revolutionary/anti-capitalist iteration of tech optimism?
As an ideal, I think most of us would agree that it is technology developed in service of the worker, and which aids in meeting people’s needs.
Have you witnessed an interesting moment of a less vulnerable worker using their privilege or position of power for a stronger solidarity?
One of TWC’s early actions was solidarity for food service workers at tech companies. When it came down to food service workers negotiating their contract, one of the smallest and yet effective things full-time tech workers could do was show up at the contract negotiations in support of what the other workers were doing. It was clear that the negotiating company didn’t expect software engineers to be there, and they didn’t know what to make of this show of support. I don’t like to lean on that story, though, because I would like for us to do more than that.
How does it make you feel to organize this way? Is it enough or does it feel limited?
I feel like I am effective here, and that other people enable me to be effective. There also isn’t intense pressure that later on becomes the source of burn out, especially when it comes to administrative responsibilities, which tend to be disproportionately placed on marginalized groups and particularly women and femmes. When you have opportunities to grow the work and you’re not simply alternating between moments of stress and relief, that is real support and real sustainability of organizing labor.
For a feminist take on organizing in tech, I do want to call attention to the Xenofeminism Manifesto, keeping in mind the broader goal of liberation for marginalized people. Virginia Barrat said the reason for why the cyberfeminism movement died was because the promise of liberation through tech fell apart when those communities were co-opted by oppressive forces.
In TWC we ask ourselves, “Does this help build worker power?” That’s an open-ended question, but it’s a strong compass. It helps direct what projects we take on, who we work with, how we conduct ourselves with people who are new to this — new to organizing, new to the left, new to seeing themselves as workers. How do we bring people in responsibly and help them develop in ways that don’t burn them out? How do we stay flexible and recognize that there are new and compelling ways to organize, in addition to the unsexy organizing mainstays that we have to make time for? Simone de Beauvoir talks about how we are taught to see ourselves in the third-person, and that influences our behavior, what we say, the way we dress, and how much power we think we have.
The Manifesto distinguishes “freedom-to” and “freedom-from,” which is something I latched onto. If we organize reactively, we’re limiting ourselves. We don’t want to simply protect one another from things we’re already up against. We want to also protect and support other forms the work takes, to really allow for it to flourish. Building power is learning to see ourselves in the first-person plural. For the moment, that seems closest to what true liberation feels like.
At the end of the day most humans are empowered by knowing they are useful and like you said effective. What kind of stuff are you really good at that is being utilized in the coalition or outside of it?
This is a hard question, because I don’t think it’s necessarily my skills that translate directly into my feeling of effectiveness. Even though I’m not new to organizing, I’m still implementing ideas and strategies that are new to me. The tech industry, being what it is, means we’ll be doing that no matter how many years of prior work we can draw from. I work in strategic comms, so some of my skills have been useful, like designing stickers, archiving, social media activity, or talking to press. But a shared vision, shared knowledge, and the desire to build up the autonomy of each person in service of the rest of the group is what has really been guiding the work.
Another thing about effectiveness: TWC has done a lot to connect conditions within the tech industry with what people see as more urgent issues, like housing justice, climate justice, imperialism, or detention. When I was doing racial justice work in Montana, it was during the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. People were going out to rural North Dakota in the dead of winter to support the water protectors, and of course a part of me felt that I needed to be there too. With each update, I wondered: “What the hell am I doing in Missoula?” But I also knew I’d be useless out there. I’m a city girl; I don’t have survival skills. Ultimately, they’d be taking care of me, and I didn’t want that. But in Seattle there was the push to get Wells Fargo to divest from the DAPL, which succeeded. In Montana, we helped coordinate a way to deliver requested supplies.
There’s this idea that we have to quit our jobs and go out and do work precisely in the location of struggle. But with globalization and technology, that can be multiple locations. And in fact, we should be fighting this fight on every front, not just directly at the border wall, or just directly inside Sacred Stone Camp. We have to be able to think creatively about ways to apply pressure, because those same people are in our communities too. To drop everything, abandon our community, and go out to attempt something we may not be equipped to do — rather than leveraging our own unique skills, our collective knowledge, and our networks — that’s actually letting oppressors off easy. How does imperialism manifest in Seattle, for example, and what can we do about it? How does homelessness manifest in the tech industry? Tech shapes all these issues, and it’s where the contradictions of capitalism are heightened. It’s also an industry where some of us are better equipped to take action.