Technical Labor and the Struggle Against Borders

As American capitalism’s regime of border violence continues to escalate, a new wave of labor actions by white-collar workers threatens the tech industry’s deep ties to the highly profitable defense and deportation industries. In recent months, petitions demanding that Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce drop contracts with ICE have each gained hundreds of signatures from workers willing to speak out against their employers. The Microsoft petition invokes “the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.” However, to achieve this will require not only action to address workplace conditions but workers’ control and administration of tech capital as part of a rationally planned economy. This can only be assured by expropriating the largest technology companies, abolishing borders, and reorienting production in harmony with the interests of workers and the environment.

The division of the planet into nation-states enforces a global division of labor and capital, in which hundreds of millions of hyper-exploited workers are constrained by national borders, all to facilitate the import and export of capital. The ruling class’s dependence on borders will only grow in the next period, as the ongoing crisis of capitalism intersects with a climate crisis that will force countless millions of climate refugees across the world’s artificial national boundaries. The development of new technology to bolster the deportation apparatus is an organic complement to the militarization of borders in general, as the threats to US capitalist predominance and stability go far beyond conventional armies or terrorism.

The tech sector’s connections with the military-industrial complex are not a question of a few individual contracts, but of a massive orientation that will require a massive working class intervention to abolish. So far, Google workers have been particularly active in protesting their employer’s many connections with imperialist governments. Google’s contract to build an engine to interpret drone camera footage was ended after 3,100 Google workers signed an open letter, with some workers refusing to work on the tool. Google workers have also spoken out against a project to supply a censored search engine in China, raising a strike fund of more than $200k in less than a day.

Amazon’s newly announced Washington, DC office is likely intended to bolster its prospects of winning the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud computing contract. This would be in addition to the $600 million CIA contract Amazon Web Services already has. IBM and Oracle have both publicly argued that Amazon is leveraging its monopoly position to unfairly dominate the bidding process for the JEDI program, pointing to the increasingly close ties between Amazon and the US state.

All of this flows from the class interests of those who control the tech industry, a layer of billionaires fundamentally intertwined with the rest of the capitalist class and its state. These interests have nothing in common with the interests of workers, even relatively well-paid workers. The brutality that manifests along national borders is mirrored by the exploitation of labor within the tech industry itself. These companies depend heavily on immigrant workers, ranging from the technically skilled H-1B visa holders from South Asia who staff many of the industry’s engineering offices, to East African warehouse workers in Minneapolis, whose ongoing struggles to organize have recently won concessions from Amazon. Higher-wage workers are organizing as well. In one of the most impressive episodes in the recent wave of labor actions on technology campuses, more than 20,000 workers walked out of Google sites across the world after the New York Times reported that Google has been protecting executives accused of sexual misconduct.

In an example of higher-wage workers going even further and forming a union, early in 2018, the company Lanetix fired its entire programming staff to root out a newly established union. These workers chose to organize after Lanetix dismissed one of their coworkers and discouraged programmers from discussing workplace conditions, implying that they could be replaced with cheaper workers in Eastern Europe. This is just one example of how wage inequalities across borders are leveraged to further exploit workers in rich countries. In November 2018, the fired employees won a court case awarding cash payouts from the firm. This is just the beginning of labor actions in this industry, as organizing around specific government contracts begins to take on more persistent forms.

Today the international working class stands at a crossroads: a world cut open by militarized and digitalized borders, or one helmed by the working class and organized for the benefit of all. The sickening dehumanization of workers at the southern border can only be ended with class struggle methods. The capitalist class has no role to play in dictating the ethical use of technology, and no interests in common with workers in the United States or elsewhere. Only the escalation of working-class action in the tech sector—linking up white-collar and low-wage workers in solidarity with refugee workers across the world—can fundamentally challenge the capitalist system that dominates technology production. Recent efforts by workers at the big tech companies are a promising beginning to this process.