Salesforce Employees Join #TechWontBuildIt Fight

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Progressive groups in San Francisco picketed outside Salesforce Tower on Monday morning, July 9th, calling on Salesforce to cancel its business contract with US Customs and Border Patrol.

Progressive Alliance and allied organizations ‘press conference’ outside of 415 Mission St (Salesforce Tower). Photo Matthew Gerring

The protest and press conference was a response to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who rejected demands by hundreds of Salesforce workers who asked that the company cancel its contract with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the organizers said in a statement.

Salesforce employees made their demands in an open letter on June 25th:

Dear Marc,

It has come to our attention as Salesforce employees that our products and tools (Einstein AnalyticsAnalytics Cloud, Community Cloud, and Service Cloud) are being used by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to modernize its staff recruiting process, manage border activities, and engage with citizens.

We are particularly concerned about the use of Service Cloud to manage border activities. Given the inhumane separation of children from their parents currently taking place at the border, we believe that our core value of Equality is at stake and that Salesforce should re-examine our contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices.

We cannot cede responsibility for the use of the technology we create–particularly when we have reason to believe that it is being used to aid practices so irreconcilable to our values. Those values often feel abstract, and it is easier to uphold them when they are not being tested. They are being tested now.

Many of us choose to work at Salesforce because of Salesforce’s reputation as a company that stands up against injustice. We agree that the business of business is to improve the state of the world. We want our work at Salesforce to have a positive impact on our friends and neighbors, not to make us complicit in the inhumane treatment of vulnerable people.

As members of the Salesforce Ohana, we believe that Salesforce must stand with the families facing irrevocable and unimaginable harm at the hands of CBP. We believe that the moral and ethical emergency that CBP’s practices have created and in which we have become complicit compel us as an Ohana and you as our CEO to take action by re-examining our contractual relationship with CBP and speaking out against its current practices.

We recognize the explicit policy of separating children at the border has been stopped, but that simply returns us to a status quo of detaining children with their parents at the border. We believe it is vital for Salesforce to stand up against both the practice that inspired this letter and any future attempts to merely make this destructive state of affairs more palatable.

We believe that we must craft a plan for examining the use of all our products, and the extent to which they are being used for harm. We feel this is necessary to make good on our promise of being in the business of improving the world. Dismantling the structures of inequity is every bit as crucial as building foundations of care if those improvements are to last.

The demands of Salesforce employees follow similar actions by workers at IBM, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, who are demanding their company cancel contracts with the federal government in response to Trump administration policies.

Kevin Ortiz, an organizer with the San Francisco Progressive alliance, said the action was “inspired by” Salesforce workers making demands of their company, but no protesters or organizers identified themselves as Salesforce employees. Ortiz said he believes that’s out of fear of retaliation. But according to reports from Buzzfeed News, 650 Salesforce employees signed an internal petition against the CBP contract.

Progressive Alliance and allied organizations ‘press conference’ outside of 415 Mission St (Salesforce Tower). Photo Matthew Gerring

“I think the level of agitation is very high in the industry just because of the egregious nature of the human rights abuses that are going on”, Ares Geovanos, an organizer with the Tech Worker’s Coalition, said.

The Tech Worker’s Coalition, which endorsed today’s press conference, held an open forum on July 2 on the recent actions by tech workers. Over 100 people attended, which Geovanos said was the group’s biggest ever meeting.

The group started in San Francisco in 2015, and experienced a huge spike in membership in 2016 following Trump’s election. Geovanos said attendance has remained steady at its regular meetings ever since. It’s also added two new chapters — one in the South Bay (aka “Silicon Valley”), and one in Seattle, home of Microsoft and Amazon.

At the group’s monthly meetings, tech workers can learn basic workplace organizing skills, both from other tech workers and more experienced union organizers. Geovanos said the skill shares have helped TWC members learn the most basic building block of organizing — learning to talk to their coworkers about politics and workplace issues one-on-one.

He said the recent actions by tech workers at major companies were all independently organized. But the Tech Worker’s Coalition has almost certainly played some role in helping connect newly energized tech workers on the political left.

Tech Worker’s Coalition logo

Peter Abrahamson, a former Amazon employee who now works at a startup in San Francisco, said he can’t imagine the recent protest by tech workers at Amazon emerging only from the company’s culture as he knew it.

“To the extent that people are organizing Amazon, it has to be through other organizations,” he said.

He said the Tech Worker’s Coalition provides a safe space for tech workers to grapple with political issues.

“If you’re in more general activist circles, as a tech worker and especially when I was working for Amazon, I’m very self-conscious because I am — according to certain narratives — I’m the enemy,” he said.

Organized tech workers have so much potential power for the same reason so many people on the left consider them “the enemy” — they work for massive corporations that are the very center of power in the global economy.

As the tech industry is more and more dominated by just a few companies, those workers have greater and greater leverage. For workers at those companies, old-school union organizing tactics can have an enormous impact.

For other kinds of tech workers, it’s not so simple.

A generation ago, the biggest ideological fight in the tech industry was over free and open-source software — whether corporations would be able to control the software that runs on your computer, or whether you would have the freedom to modify it.

Today, although most people still use mostly closed-source software, almost all of the most powerful software tools that exist — the software that engineers use to write all the software — are free or open source, available for anyone to use.

That’s because of licenses that not only allow, but require, some of the most powerful software that exists to be copied and used by anybody who wants it. And that means that engineers are sometimes powerless to stop software they wrote from being used for purposes they don’t want.

Progressive Alliance and allied organizations ‘press conference’ outside of 415 Mission St (Salesforce Tower). Photo Matthew Gerring

Yuvi Panda, a software engineer at UC Berkeley who attended the open forum, put the problem this way:

“If I find out in four years that software I wrote four years ago was used in a drone strike… there’s nothing I could have done about it, because I wrote it before I knew any of this.”

One example of this dilemma comes from the most successful tech worker protest so far — tech workers at Google successfully pushed the company not to renew a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to use machine learning for drone targeting software. Google defended itself in part by saying it was only providing the Defense Department with open-source software.

While Google won’t directly work on that particular project, the Department of Defense can still use the powerful machine learning software Google gives away for free. And because of how open source licenses work, there’s nothing that Google, or its employees, can do about it.

“Everybody sort of agrees this is a problem,” Panda said. “A lot of people who are ideologically open source, they only are ideologically open source. It’s not connected to any wider political ideology. They don’t really have the vocabulary or the historical precedent to talk about what’s happening, and what our options are.”

One option is a boycott — open-source software developers recently threatened to withdraw their code from Github, a code-hosting website recently purchased by Microsoft, unless Microsoft cancels its contract with ICE.

But that boycott wouldn’t stop any bad actors from using that code for evil.

For now, the debate among tech workers about how to stop their work being used for evil continues, and groups like the Tech Worker’s Coalition is helping those workers find each other.

“It goes against the cliche that tech workers are either identified completely with their CEO or are super libertarian,” said one tech worker at the open forum who asked to remain anonymous. “These are the politics I’ve always had, and it’s nice to be with people who share in that.”

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Matthew Gerring

Matthew Gerring

I'm a journalist and software engineer based in San Francisco writing stories and code to help make better sense of the world. I write about tech, labor, housing, and poverty.

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