Column: The fundamental target of big tech’s job cuts: keeping workers in check

Layoffs, Amazon, Microsoft Supporters of Amazon workers can be seen holding signs on the steps outdoors. Recently, the amount of union activity at Amazon and other tech firms has been growing. The recent massive layoff of employees has created feelings of insecurity, but will this lead to a decrease in union activity or will it have the opposite effect?




The start of 2023 in Silicon Valley began just as the conclusion of 2022 had: with thousands of tech employees losing their jobs. Shortly after the new year began, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy made it known that 18,000 employees were to be let go. Microsoft soon followed, revealing a cut of 10,000 employees, and Google announced 12,000 job terminations. IBM appears to be the next major tech firm to reduce its workforce, with close to 4,000 individuals expected to be let go.




In the wake of 2022’s job losses, which had a tremendous impact on Meta Platforms, Twitter, and Salesforce, an industry layoff tracker states that the tech sector has experienced a reduction of 220,000 jobs since the beginning of last year. If all of the laid-off tech employees created their own city, it would be one of the bigger ones in the United States; surpassing the size of Des Moines or Salt Lake City in population.




A common query is this: Why have a number of corporations that have been highly successful and are still thriving declared a succession of large-scale redundancies? What could be the cause of this?




Analysts and reporters are claiming that the tech and media companies are being forced to become more efficient by tightening their belts following their pandemic hiring sprees. Those in charge of the cutbacks are attributing it to the current economic climate. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai stated that they had hired for a different market than the one they’re in now. Amazon’s Andy Jassy indicated that they had faced uncertain and tough times before and would do so again. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella mentioned that some regions are in a recession and others are expecting one.




The U.S. tech industry has not yet experienced a recession. Although inflation is an issue, hundreds of thousands of jobs were created in the U.S. last month. Nevertheless, some shareholders have been vocal about the need to reduce the number of employees even further.




Critics have suggested that it is simply avarice that is behind the layoffs, pointing to the billions of dollars in stock buybacks tech companies authorized in the past year. Elizabeth Lopatto of The Verge discussed the issue with industry analysts and concluded that the companies are doing layoffs because it is now the norm, even though it usually costs them money. The fact that all the layoffs are happening so quickly gives the companies the opportunity to make them seem like an inevitability.




It’s possible that the solution to the puzzle is straightforward.




Malcolm Harris, author of “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World”, described the regular layoffs in Silicon Valley as “breathing” – something that is cyclical and necessary. In his words, the layoff cycles often have “very little to do with long- or even medium-term strategy except as it pertains to creating an insecure workforce.”




Given that the current economic landscape is far from ideal, a tech CEO might agree that layoffs are becoming more attractive due to the tight labor market that is forming. This is evidenced by a surge in organizing among tech workers.




In the past two years, salaries for tech employees have experienced a sharp rise and their influence has become more notable. For the past five years, those in the tech industry have been pushing for modifications that upper management has found more and more difficult to accept.




At Google, employees spoke out against gender inequalities which ultimately led to the company dropping a defense contract. Amazon and Microsoft employees protested against their companies’ lack of action in addressing climate policies and both made pledges to reduce their carbon emissions. Additionally, workers at Facebook and Twitter rallied against content moderation decisions regarding the former President and his presence on the platform after Jan. 6, 2021. A subset of Google employees created the Alphabet Workers Union in collaboration with the Communication Workers of America union. Additionally, Amazonians established the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, and Microsoft employees at the ZeniMax video game subsidiary formed the first certified union to be recognized by the company.




The results of organizing tech workers may be minimal, but their expanding salaries and developing organizing abilities could be hazardous for the tech giants’ profits and the popular concept of executive autonomy in Silicon Valley. Last year’s mass firing at Twitter by Elon Musk, as well as his public demand for only “hardcore” coders to stay on, could serve as a cautionary tale, as other tech executives have said that his approach stimulated them when cutting down jobs at their own businesses.




Employees in a sector that was typically anti-union had begun to create relationships, organize, and strengthen their unity. The mass firing that occurred suddenly can be a major setback to the advancement of this cause.




The tech workers who were let go described the firings to me as being arbitrary; even those with good reputations and positive reviews were shown the door without any discernible pattern. Many were perplexed as to why they were not included in the firings while their coworkers were.




Alejandra Beatty, a technical program manager at Alphabet’s Verily, said she was taken aback when she was let go this month. She noted that she was an exemplary employee in her Colorado office, having been deemed one of its “pillars.” Furthermore, she said she was not even permitted to return to the office as a visitor. Beatty also pointed out that many of those who were let go were undertaking essential duties to keep the company’s “core products” functioning.




Letting go of personnel in a sweeping and seemingly arbitrary fashion is effective in creating a feeling of fragility and even apprehension for those who stay on.




Skylar Hinnant, a senior quality assurance tester at Microsoft’s ZeniMax, expressed her devastation, noting the harsh reality for those who were let go, their families, and those that fear for their own job security long-term.




Hinnant remarked that he was aware of many people who were let go from Microsoft – it happens to everyone. “No matter how important your job or how skilled you are as a programmer, if the algorithm decides you need to be terminated, that’s it.”




Alejandra Beatty proclaimed that the current situation is bringing attention to the true nature of the industry. Even though they possess advantages such as benefits and specialized training, workers can still be fired without warning like anyone else.




Beatty was highly active in the AWU, expressing her thoughts on reproductive rights during media interviews. She was always polite and constructive, and believed her ideas were very well-received by leadership. Now, she often wonders if her dismissal was in retaliation, but ultimately concluded it was impossible because the layoffs were too vast and impersonal. “I believe I was simply another statistic that the consulting firm used to determine the dismissals,” she remarked.


Reports show that tech employees’ accomplishments are deteriorating. According to [Bloomberg], at businesses such as Twitter, Meta, Amazon and Redfin, who had guaranteed to enhance personnel diversity, the cutbacks drastically reduced departments devoted to DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) projects.


On Tuesday, employees from Cognizant, a major contracting business of Alphabet and YouTube, submitted a claim to the National Labor Relations Board indicating they were being subjected to repercussions for the declaration that they were joining the AWU. The laborers assert Alphabet altered its policy to make the relocation to Austin, Texas, obligatory for all employees, with the failure to comply resulting in “voluntary termination.” This, according to the employees, is in violation of NLRB regulations that forbid any significant policy alterations once the organization process has been made public.


In 2015, Apple, Google, and other tech titans were forced to shell out $415 million after a lawsuit accused them of conspiring to keep workers’ wages low via a “non-poaching” pact among the respective CEOs. This incident clearly indicates the lengths to which the tech industry is willing to go to suppress pay and power of its employees.


However, even without being retaliatory, the current huge reductions in department staff can still have a destructive and destabilizing impact, which could help the tech giants gain dominance over their employees and make them more vulnerable.

Beatty remarked that, “all the good stuff, such as the nice comp and the added bonuses, don’t really matter much if you’re continually fretting over whether or not you’re going to be the next to be fired without warning.”

Google employees were often met with a cold and clinical treatment when it came to layoffs, such as having their keycards deactivated on arrival at work, being denied access to their email accounts and not even given the opportunity to say farewell to the people they had worked with for many years.


The technology industry appears to be gambling that these mass layoffs, governed by algorithms, will not just decrease labor expenses, but will also serve as a reminder to tech personnel of their precarious status and the power that the corporations still possess. This wager has usually worked out in the past and has turned the tech titans into some of the most affluent companies ever.

However, there is also an opportunity that this time, the outcome could be unique.

Beatty commented that the Alphabet Workers Union’s gathering was “very galvanizing”. The assembly occurred right after the redundancy news was made known. She remarked that “over 1,000 people attended and another 800 attempted to join in after it had already begun. It was so immense that it exceeded Zoom’s capacity, making it impossible to do breakout rooms.”

Hinnant, who works in quality assurance for ZeniMax, is also one of the organizers for the recently established union at Microsoft. “The union has caused a lot of people to consider organizing,” he commented. “I have acquaintances at Microsoft, Google and other industries, and I got numerous calls from them.”

In contrast to the massive job losses experienced in the tech industry in the past, there is now a burgeoning organization of workers offering resources and assistance to those who have been let go, similar to how a city like Salt Lake City would serve its citizens.

According to Beatty, one of the initial measures taken by the AWU was to create a Slack channel and Discord server as a way for unemployed individuals to communicate, provide support for one another, and circulate job opportunities.

Beatty expressed her appreciation for having a space to converse with people who were affected by the situation, noting that even those who weren’t laid off joined in to offer their well-wishes.

In the near future, the channel was flooded with thousands of people who had just been laid off, not only from Google, but Meta and other parts of the industry. “The channel was incredibly helpful in understanding the ins and outs, the do’s and don’ts, and it also provided a sense of community for those who were feeling overwhelmed,” she noted. “It also provides a great opportunity for networking, as we allowed a few recruiters in. It’s a difficult time for all of them, but at least they have a chance to connect with each other.”

Workers gave out on-the-spot counseling, aiding those who were unable to access their emails, computers or HR contacts. According to Beatty, “It really helps to have people who can assist you when you’re feeling overwhelmed. There are people who are on visas or who are on parental leave and they’re worried about what will happen to them. I was collecting some of these queries to pass along and one guy with a visa asked if I could inquire about when he will be deported.”

Beatty and Hinnant both agree that the current situation has served to boost enthusiasm for organizing among tech workers. “It really demonstrates the value of people organizing not only within the Microsoft domain, but throughout the sector,” Hinnant states. “This has been an eye-opener. A wave of changes is on the horizon, and there’s no way to prevent it.”

Beatty is still wounded by the job loss, however she wishes to make it worthwhile. “If I get nothing else from this,” she expresses, “I would like to witness AWU prosper greatly. Then the hardship will have been worthwhile.”


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