Aatif Awan, a vice president at LinkedIn, was rallying to action a few hundred people milling around a plaza in the center of Palo Alto, California, many in bright-blue shirts with a fist and the words “TECH STANDS UP.”
“Take your phones out of your pocket, and open your calendar app right now,” he commanded. “Now look at your schedule for tomorrow.”
Awan wanted employees to pledge in meetings with their immigrant colleagues “that you will stand up for them” and fight an executive order from the president restricting entry to the United States from several majority-Muslim nations.
After the ban went into effect, nearly 100 tech companies signed onto a legal brief opposing it. But at the Palo Alto gathering, convened Tuesday to protest the Trump administration, tech workers called for more vociferous opposition.
“We want to show the higher-ups, the C-Suite, that employees are behind this movement,” said Javed Ali, a designer who has worked for several technology firms and is currently developing a plug-in that would provide “pre-made content” to battle with trolls spreading Islamophobic messages on social media.
Event organizers hoped outrage over Trump’s actions—one attendee called it “my woke-up-ness”—would stir to action highly-paid members of an industry that’s often ignored the concerns of the less fortunate.
“I’m here to get to the people who want to change the world, but who are beginning to get that that takes more than algorithms,” said Laura Impellizzeri, of Legal Aid At Work, an organization that provides free services largely to low-income workers for wage claims, discrimination, workplace safety and other issues. “I’m trying to take advantage of this moment to get money and raise awareness.”
Brad Taylor, the event’s organizer, and a software engineer at the personalization engine Optimizely, said he was also encouraged by employee initiatives putting pressure on executives, such as a petition by IBM workers against their CEO’s overtures to the Trump administration.
“The people in this industry have so much power because we’re in demand,” Taylor said. “So let’s use that to support our janitors and our baristas and let’s demand that companies who put up slogans like diversity and inclusion put them to work.”
Fighting for the tech industry’s least privileged workers has in the past fallen to labor and community groups and to nonprofit coalitions like Silicon Valley Rising, who have helped to begin to organize the tech world’s service workers, an army of subcontracted labor tens of thousands strong. In recent months, security officers in hundreds of Silicon Valley sites have formed a union, as have cafeteria workers at Intel’s headquarters. Unions sent speakers to the “Tech Stands Up” rally, including Jacky Espinoza, a barista at Intel, who spoke of living in a cramped apartment with several relatives because they couldn’t afford housing in the area.
She called on companies “to protect all immigrant tech workers, not just the high-skilled immigrant tech workers.”
“No one has come and talked to me about it yet, but maybe I got them to think about it,” she said in Spanish.
Matt Schafer, a software engineer, is also a volunteer organizer with the Tech Workers Coalition, which began in 2015 as a way of “breaking down divisions between service workers and white collar workers” in the sector, as he puts it. The coalition pushes initiatives such as FairHotel, urging conference-goers to stay at hotels that pay their staff good wages.
Ann Badillo, an executive coach, was “pumped” about helping to organize the event. “I made a living through Silicon Valley. And now I have the bandwidth and time and the pocketbook,” she said. “It’s like being at a start-up. We’ve got that real discipline to ship a product. That’s what we do.”
As the last remnants of the crowd began dispersing from the rally Tuesday — distracted, perhaps by unconscionably beautiful Palo Alto weather, or by Rachel Maddow’s tweet about Trump’s tax returns — Brad Talyor was still preaching.
“America has been around for 240 years,” he said, “and while that sounds like a long time, we are still just a start up.”