Lessons from the Long Sixties for Organizing in Tech
Radical Tech Workers of the 1960s and 1970s: Lessons from France, Italy, and the US for Organizing in Tech Today
By Christine Andrews and R.K. Upadhya
Contrary to popular narratives, organizing among technical workers has a vibrant history, including engineers and technicians in the 1960s and 1970s who fought professionalism, individualism, and reformism to contribute to radical labor organizing. The current tech workers’ movement can draw from these past organizers’ strategies and challenges in learning to navigate the contradictions and complexities of organizing in tech today.
Over the past year, tech worker campaigns against issues including unethical technologies and sexual harassment have sparked a surge of articles incredulously proclaiming the beginning of organizing in tech. How is it, journalists ask, that workers in an industry so long at the center of individualist and entrepreneurial America are now suddenly starting to shed their libertarian leanings and engage in collective action?
In fact, organizing among techno-scientific workers is nothing new; such efforts have been made around the world for decades, with varying levels of success. In particular, looking to the movements involving techno-scientific workers in France, Italy, and the United States during the late 1960s and through the 1970s can spark deeper reflection on challenges and strategies for contemporary tech worker organizing.
Europe saw an incredible amount of radical organizing among various kinds of technical workers during the social upheavals of 1968. These movements illustrate the importance and potential of solidarity with workers of all skill sets as well as the necessity of engaging with the education system and its production of new workers. On the other hand, the experiences of technical workers in the US in the 1970s–as documented by Science for the People (SftP)–shows the necessity of not underestimating how disruptive the ideologies of professionalism and individualism can be for our organizing. Before all else, professionalism and the way it muddles the class position of techno-scientific workers must be confronted. As the SftP editors said in 1973,1
Revolutions are not brought about by ambiguous people. On the other hand, those who recognize their ambiguous situation do not respond to propaganda which denies that ambiguity. It seems, therefore, that our primary tasks are: (1) to develop cadre whose subjective class position is unambiguous (2) develop strategies to sharpen class conflict at the workplace and hence remove the source of the ambiguity. In the last analysis (the revolution) one can only be on one side. Then, we will have to know which side we are on.
Leading the Charge in France
The 1960s were a time of great technological change with heavy impacts on society and the economy. In France and Italy, high-tech industries were on the rise, in new fields like electronics, telecommunications, and petrochemicals. At the same time, older industries like automobile and steel manufacturing were seeing dramatic changes from the application of automation technologies. This accumulation of technology required an increase in technical and scientific labor, leading to an influx of students enrolling in vocational colleges to upgrade their knowledge and skills. This changing nature of the factories and schools is the context for the explosive student protests and labor strikes that gripped the two countries in the late 1960s.
In May 1968, France saw some of the most widespread and entrenched social unrest that any Western country had ever seen. The movement began with students at several elite universities protesting against authoritarian structures, but rapidly spiralled into a massive general strike that saw at least ten million workers rebel against corporations and the state. The unrest culminated in the dissolution of parliament, large material gains for workers, and deep changes across the structure of French society.2
A key dynamic that emerged during the strike wave was the participation of workers in skilled technical positions. One of the initial labor actions of the general strike took place at Sud-Aviation, a major aircraft manufacturer. There, skilled technicians joined with the rest of the workers in their rebellion–a relatively new phenomenon, and one that contradicted narratives that such workers were inherently disinterested or opposed to militant labor organizing. The aircraft factory had been the site of tensions for some time, and the upheaval from the student protests inspired the workers to take their struggle to the next level. A large number of young workers, employed in occupations ranging from manual laborers to highly-trained technicians, occupied the factory and locked senior managers in their offices. Their demands, while originally centered on increasing wages, quickly advanced to more complex issues regarding access to training and democratic management of the firm.3
In other cases, technicians in strategic positions acted directly against the state’s attempts to manage the crisis. A major strike at the national broadcasting agency saw thousands of media technicians, producers, and journalists intentionally upend the government’s ability to control the narrative around the mass unrest. In a similar incident, a government technician strike disrupted communication between the Ministry of Interior and police headquarters. Like at Sud Aviation, these workers not only demanded better conditions, but also control and autonomy in their workplace.4
Some of the most interesting analyses of the French general strike were advanced by Serge Mallet, a former cadre of the Communist Party of France who had become disillusioned with orthodox analysis of the working class as a permanent and monolithic fixture. Mallet paid special attention to the pattern of new types of workers becoming militant during the events of May 1968, and argued that this resulted from dynamics regarding the nature of technology and the workers closest to it.
One of these dynamics was that workers in the new occupations were more difficult to replace because of higher skill requirements. This expedited trade unionization, with rates of unionization in high-tech sectors often exceeding that of traditional sectors. However, these newer strata of workers did not stick with traditional union demands, which almost exclusively concerned wages and benefits. Increasingly, they veered into questions of workplace governance and self-management, as seen in places like Sud-Aviation. In other words, workers in high-tech firms weren’t satisfied by higher salaries; this relative economic privilege simply allowed them to shift their focus to deeper and more qualitative demands.5
Mallet explained this tendency as a consequence of the relationship between workers and technology. Assembly-line workers were typically highly alienated from technology, as it was almost always a force of pure domination and a tool of managerial control. On the other hand, those whose work was more deeply intertwined with the technologies they worked alongside were keen on maximizing their own control over these systems–a possibility they understood as technically feasible, but blocked by the hierarchies and traditions of the capitalist workplace. Mallet saw the desire to gain techno-scientific mastery and pursue creative passions around technology inevitably pit technical workers at all levels against the very nature of capitalist management.6
Mallet also argued that one of the clear militant edges of the French uprisings were young workers with vocational training. They tended to be recent graduates who, upon entering the factories, realized that their jobs didn’t give them the money, security, autonomy, or enjoyment that they had been promised. As he describes,
They had thought they were entering the industry of tomorrow and they found the traditional sweatshop, the autocracy of foremen less qualified than they, the absurd strait jacket of stop watches and time clocks.7
These young workers were the least privileged of the workers in the new high-tech industries, were the first to radicalize after the failures of the union-sanctioned strikes of early 1968, and were the first to join the student protests. Their militancy was a strong influence on the older, more skilled workers in the firms, who had a similar draw toward the idea that modern industry should be “democratically directed by the producers and using the capabilities of modern industrial technology to cut physical fatigue and fragmented work to the minimum.”8
Mallet’s observations of French techno-scientific workers can be applied to the current tech worker movement to a striking extent. As in France, certain types of tech workers today are in high demand, giving many increased security in pushing back against management on issues of job quality and workplace governance. Meanwhile, coding bootcamps–arguably analogous to the old French vocational schools–are producing new tech workers who quickly discover a massive gulf between what they were promised and the realities of industry. Overall, the key lesson from France 1968 is that relatively high wages are no predictor of how militant workers can get in the quest to seize control over their lives.
Breaking Down Divisions in Italy
Widespread social unrest also enveloped Italy in the late 1960s for many of the same underlying causes related to rapid technological changes and stagnant labor conditions. Tensions boiled over in 1968 and 1969, climaxing in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969 when massive protracted strike waves shook the country. As with the French uprisings, this movement challenged not just low wages but also the very nature of corporate hierarchies. Unrest was largely driven by poorly paid migrant workers; but, as in France, the movement also drew in technical, white-collar workers for the first time.9
The first visible round of this new militancy was in early 1968, at Sit Siemens, a large telecommunications firm. The labor force was highly stratified, featuring a large pool of female assembly-line workers, as well as many technicians and clerical workers. Grievances, even among the less privileged, were less about wages and more about the associated health concerns and required speed and intensity of the work. Therefore, when major strikes began breaking out, a large minority of white-collar workers joined in, even though they had largely been excluded from the process of drafting demands. This new dynamic was a stark contrast to the fierce divisions between blue- and white-collar workers in other industries like automobile manufacturing, where office workers were largely opposed to the strikes, and thus attracted much hostility from the strikers.10
This phenomenon spread as the year continued. At Borletti, an appliance factory, a growing movement of white-collar militants made strong efforts to rectify their past stances of buying into their ambiguous middle-class status and opposing protests by the blue-collar workers. This turn was not the result of some new-found altruism; it was a response to the failure of a white-collar strike in the winter of 1968, which the blue-collar workers had not supported. The incident demonstrated to workers, at Borletti and beyond, that serious progress could be made only if real solidarity was built between different strata of workers.11
In the fall of 1968, an especially novel struggle emerged at SNAM Progetti, a division of the state oil company with a large proportion of technicians in its workforce. In October, hundreds of workers of all types occupied the offices, demanding worker representatives to be incorporated into the governance of the company and the right to access education to counter deskilling. The occupation and demands were coordinated with a general assembly of all the workers, circumventing the official unions. A similar movement emerged at Sit Siemens around the same time, where the strikes of early 1968 advanced into holding general assemblies during mass occupations of the factory.12
As in France, these trends attracted the attention of left-wing Italian intellectuals. One of these was Sergio Bologna, a university professor who, like Serge Mallet, was an ex-cadre of the official Communist Party, and was intrigued by the dynamics unfolding among techno-scientific workers. The University of Bologna happened to have many “worker-students” who had full-time jobs in local industries and were taking classes part-time. A key group of these were technicians at SNAM Progetti who had enrolled in Bologna’s sociology class, and used the space to connect theory with the realities of their working lives. These same workers would later be involved in the three-month strike and occupation in the fall of 1968. Indeed, just as Mallet observed in France, Bologna saw workers, students, and intellectuals connecting with one another across Northern Italy, especially around regional technical schools. Student groups composed of future technicians, scientists, and engineers developed radical ideas around science, technology, and automation, which soon percolated from the schools into the factories.13
Bologna agreed with Mallet that techno-scientific workers are faced with a contradiction between the promise of professional autonomy and the realities of monotony and micromanagement. But unlike Mallet, who argued that the structural position and demands of this skilled strata could make them a vanguard class for larger worker movements, Bologna saw the successful spread of militancy among technicians and other white-collar workers as being contingent on the militancy of other types of workers and the ability to build solidarity across occupational boundaries.14
This kind of cross-occupational solidarity is crucial for the tech worker movement today. While organizing amongst programmers and other technical workers is important, the reality is that less privileged and non-technical workers in the tech industry have been organizing for much longer, and arguably instigated the initial spread of class consciousness among their better paid coworkers. Tech Workers Coalition, one of the groups that has emerged out of the current tech worker movement, was originally founded by white-collar tech workers in 2015 who wanted to support union drives among food workers on tech campuses, and has since expanded into a wider organization for white-collar workers to fight for their own interests as well. Moving forward, occupational solidarity will be critical in continuing the momentum of the tech worker movement, and keeping it based in class solidarity, not charity or reformism.15
Engineers Against Professionalism in the US
As in France and Italy, radicalism emerged among technical workers in the US during the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the original run of Science for the People reveals forgotten analyses on the prospects for organizing techno-scientific workers, particularly engineers, and reveals important dynamics around technical workers, capitalism, and class struggle. But unlike the lessons from Europe, which give reason for optimism about how the contemporary tech worker movement can unfold, the experiences in the US in the 1970s show that serious and complex challenges lie ahead.
One key challenge was divisions between occupations, similar to what workers encountered during Italy’s Hot Autumn. For example, SftP described how American defense engineers in the 1970s were given elevated status over other types of workers, with an unusually high level of control over their work. This made seeing themselves as workers, who should be in solidarity with other workers, very challenging.16 Other technical workers faced a similar dynamic: their substantially better work conditions and relative power in many workplaces caused tension with less privileged workers.17 This phenomenon can be clearly seen today in tech, where workplaces tend to be heavily stratified by job type and employment status. The archetype of the well paid, benefit-laden engineer stands in contrast to legions of much more poorly paid and poorly treated workers, such as contractors and those with less esteemed roles like customer service.
Compounding this problem are the ways in which professionalism and individualism have created major barriers to techno-scientific workers viewing themselves as workers. Defense engineers were trained by education, work, and society to value individual and technical solutions over collective problem solving, and as being deeply inculcated with professionalism not just as a career philosophy, but as an overarching identity.18 Other types of engineers were also subject to a contradiction enforced by everyone from the government to educational institutions to corporations between their identities as professionals and their roles as workers. They heard the same individualistic narratives from all of these sources, as well as society at large, about how to view themselves and how to solve problems, creating a high barrier to class consciousness.19 Indeed, an analysis of the history of unionization efforts among engineers up through the 1970s named the largest institutional opponent as the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). This association worked to protect and further engineers’ rights as individual professionals, but at the expense of collective action and cross-occupation solidarity.20 The professionalism espoused by groups like the NSPE was part of a wider socialization process of engineers and other technical workers, which involved not just professional associations but also the education system.
Professionalism continues to be a key problem today, with computer science departments, tech companies, and tech-related communities all centering ideas of individual achievement, entrepreneurship, and the wisdom of the tech bosses. A 1974 SftP article, “Pushing Professionalism [or] Programming the Programmer,” lays out the consequences of failing to confront this ideology all too presciently:
The critical question now is how will programmers resolve the emerging contradiction between their self-interest and management’s desire to facilitate a self-regulated workforce of programmers. Will the resolution take the form of passive acceptance of management’s version of “professionalism” while working conditions, hours and wages deteriorate? Will it take the form of a narrow trade unionism which calls itself professionalism but which seeks to defend the remaining special privileges of programmers to the detriment of other workers? Or will programmers begin to identify their self-interests in common cause with other workers who confront the same management–the secretaries, keypunch operators, janitors, machine operators, and production workers? The latter course of joining with other workers will occur only if politically conscious programmers actively struggle for it; otherwise some form of management-inspired professionalism is the only alternative. Although less virulant [sic] than sexism or racism, a professionalism which grants special privileges and status to a few skilled workers is one more weapon in management’s arsenal of divide and conquer.21
Despite these obstacles to labor organizing in tech, Pete Barrer and Larry Garner identify potential grievances that could motivate even the most privileged and professionalized workers. For defense engineers, declining work stability and deteriorating conditions in the field are identified as potential inroads for organizing. In addition, engineers were increasingly frustrated with work that they viewed as meaningless.22 A related argument is that the intellectual and creative energy behind many technical workers’ jobs leads them to desire greater control over their work than capitalism can truly offer–just as Mallet observed in France. This was especially true when they were supervised by non-technical managers, who struggled to retain the respect and subservience of highly technical workers.23
These grievances were leveraged by several SftP-aligned organizing campaigns. One major campaign occurred in 1970-71 in New York, through the Committee to Plan a Computer Union. The effort sought to include all job types in the field, and planned to cover work stability, mobility, and autonomy in the workplace. Despite the participation of experienced worker-organizers in the effort, it ended after only a year with a declaration that technical workers did not understand that their work was not meaningful, and the only way for technical workers to do meaningful work would be to leave the industry. Garner points out that this shows a fundamental lack of understanding that organizing technical workers should revolve around building class consciousness and worker power from where workers already are.24 This is, of course, both the most basic and most difficult part of organizing workers who are unclear about their class position.
A few years later, SftP reported on another union drive, this one at a large Silicon Valley company among techno-scientific workers who were frustrated not only with comparatively low wages, but also with the pace of the work and the management of projects–issues of workplace governance that also drove organizing among French and Italian technical workers. However, the company launched a large-scale anti-unionization campaign that caught the organizers off-guard and alarmed the business union they had allied with, which soon abandoned the campaign. In retrospect, the worker-organizer who reported on the ordeal acknowledged the risk of relying on a business union instead of developing their own skills and resources and the error of being unprepared to combat anti-union actions, but he also pointed to his inability to identify with less radical coworkers who were fearful of the potential consequences of organizing. He did not examine the failure to develop strategies that could mobilize workers, reach past fear, and radicalize through experience rather than ideology.25 This, however, is always key to organizing, regardless of the types of workers involved.
These two failed campaigns were quite the contrast with the relative success of technical worker organizing in France and Italy. One key variable is, of course, the very different histories of unions in each country–labor organizing in the US never built the cultural and institutional power that it did in Europe (for example, a durable Labor Party). However, the real lesson for would-be organizers is not about structural or historical factors, but about organizing strategy. We must understand that given the cultural and material conditions of today, organizing a movement of militant techno-scientific workers who reject professionalism in favor of class solidarity will require a grueling and lengthy battle against deeply rooted institutions and attitudes. The necessity of connecting with fellow workers as workers with a shared stake in the problems of the workplace and the industry, rather than as ideologues peddling particular politics or lifestyles, is a key component of organizing in tech.
The observations of Serge Mallet, Sergio Bologna, and Science for the People provide not just a hidden history of organizing techno-scientific workers, but also important lessons for the present situation of workers in the tech industry. Despite involving disparate industries and job roles, the experiences of these older generations of technical workers are remarkably similar to what we are facing in the tech industry today, and may face in the future. They organized not just against stagnant wages, but also against work speedups, lack of workplace democracy, and hierarchies among workers.
Perhaps more importantly than the similarities in grievances and circumstances, the past highlights potential downfalls in organizing, and lessons for our organizing work today. The first challenge of organizing is always guiding people to see, or understanding how they already see, the ways in which their situation at work frustrates them, and that they can change it through collective action. There are many potential grievances to leverage in order to organize even the most privileged technical workers, from desire for creative control over work, to tensions with managers who lack technical skills. We may also find that deteriorating job stability, disappointment from emerging bootcamp graduates, and increasing organization among the most precarious tech workers will continue to spread the seeds of solidarity and militancy throughout the tech industry.
While an initial understanding of the need to organize can provoke workers into some amount of mobilization, only a visceral understanding of their exploitation as workers under capitalism can generate sustained action under duress. As these past stories of tech worker organizing show, this isn’t a matter of merely understanding ideology, but rather of people feeling and understanding their exploitation through their own work and life experiences. As organizers, we can help by contextualizing experiences within realities of capitalism, rather than focusing only on mobilizing for particular work condition changes or on pushing people toward ostensibly meaningful, useful, or ethical work. A large part of this, particularly when moving toward sustained organizing, is doing the intense, time-consuming work of unraveling the capitalist values instilled in people throughout their lives, and struggling with them through and beyond fear, instability, and isolation.
Organizing revolves around people and relationships, but strategic realities are also key. As past workers discovered, we need to find ways to break through job role hierarchies to build solidarity without losing sight of the very real differences between various types and demographics of technical workers and workers in the tech industry. We need to proactively and consistently combat anti-organizing campaigns from companies as well as other sources pushing professionalism, individualism, reformism, and so-called “responsible unionism” over militant and collective actions. As part of that, we must believe in and support our own and other workers’ abilities to organize without dependence on business unions or other outsiders.
There is great need and potential for organizing tech workers now and into the future. Some efforts have already started. Tech Workers Coalition is involved in workplace and solidarity-based organizing, Science for the People covers a range of STEM activism and organizing activities, Industrial Workers of the World supports workplace organizing in all industries including tech, and Democratic Socialists of America has a working group for tech-related activism and organizing. And regardless of whether there are explicit organizations around you, it is vital to organize and build solidarity with coworkers, neighbors, and friends on your own terms. However people choose to organize, a great deal more analysis and on-the-ground effort will be needed to disrupt the deeply instilled professionalism and individualism of tech workers, and to build and sustain a powerful and radical tech worker movement.
About the Authors
Christine Andrews is a software engineer and worker-organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s been organizing in the tech industry for about a year and working in it for several.
R.K. Upadhya is an engineer, writer, and organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a member of Tech Workers Coalition and the Industrial Workers of the World.
- Editorial Collective, “Which Side are We On?” Science for the People V, no. 3 (May 1973): 4-5, https://archive.scienceforthepeople.org/vol-5/v5n3/forum-class-position-technologists.
- Alissa J. Rubin, “May 1968: A Month of Revolution Pushed France Into the Modern World,” New York Times, May 5, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/world/europe/france-may-1968-revolution.html
- Sergio Bologna and Giairo Daghini, “May ‘68 in France,” Viewpoint Magazine, June 21, 2018, https://www.viewpointmag.com/2018/06/21/may-68-in-france-1968/
- George Katsiaficas, The Global Imagination of 1968: Revolution and Counterrevolution (Oakland: PM Press, 2018), 185-6.
- Serge Mallet, Essays on the New Working Class, ed. Dick Howard and Dean Savage (New York: Telos Press, 1975), 41-2, 204-5.
- Mallet, Essays on the New Working Class, 66.
- Mallet, Essays on the New Working Class, 62.
- Mallet, Essays on the New Working Class, 62-3.
- Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, 2nd Ed. (London: Pluto Press, 2017), 93.
- Robert Lumley, States of Emergency: Cultures of Revolt in Italy from 1968 to 1978 (London: Verso, 1990), 175-8.
- Lumley, States of Emergency, 199-200.
- Lumley, States of Emergency, 200-2.
- Sergio Bologna, “1968: Memoirs of a Workerist,” Viewpoint Magazine, January 12, 2016, https://www.viewpointmag.com/2016/01/12/1968-memoirs-of-a-workerist/
- Wright, Storming Heaven, 95-7.
- Moira Weigel, “Coders of the world unite: Can Silicon Valley workers curb the power of Big Tech?,” The Guardian, October 31, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/oct/31/coders-of-the-world-unite-can-silicon-valley-workers-curb-the-power-of-big-tech.
- Pete Barrer, “Engineers in the Working Class,” Science for the People III, no. 4 (September 1971): 9-12, https://archive.scienceforthepeople.org/vol-3/v3n4/engineers-in-the-working-class.
- Larry Garner, “Computer Workers as Professionals,” Science for the People VI, no. 6 (November 1974): 28-31, https://archive.scienceforthepeople.org/vol-6/v6n6/computer-workers-as-professionals.
- Pete Barrer, “Engineers in the Working Class,” 9-12.
- Larry Garner, “Engineers and Unions,” Science for the People VI, no. 6 (November 1974): 23-7, https://archive.scienceforthepeople.org/vol-6/v6n6/engineers-and-unions.
- Larry Garner, “Engineers and Unions,” 23-7.
- Phil Kraft, “Pushing Professionalism [or] Programming the Programmer,” Science for the People VI, no. 4 (July 1974): 26-9, https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~schwrtz/SftP/MagazineArchive/SftPv6n4s.pdf.
- Pete Barrer, “Engineers in the Working Class,” 9-12.
- Larry Garner, “Computer Workers as Professionals,” 28-31.
- Larry Garner, “Computer Workers as Professionals,” 28-31.
- Len Gilbert, “Organizing in Silicon Valley,” Science for the People VIII, no. 1 (January 1976): 10-3, 30-1, https://archive.scienceforthepeople.org/vol-8/v8n1/rumblings-of-organizing-in-silicon-valley.