These are the public notes from the January 6 meeting of Bay Area Tech Solidarity (BATS), held at ThoughtWorks, who generously donated their venue. If you'd like to participate in future BATS events, please email me or contact me on Signal (+1 415 610 0231).
—Maciej Ceglowski, January 2016.
This struck me as an extraordinary display of weakness. Our CEOs didn't look like the masters of the universe. They looked like middle managers stuck at a corporate retreat that had run out of donuts.
You know what told me that they were afraid? It wasn't the fact that they flew out on command, or agreed to have Trump's kids sit in on the meeting. It wasn't their failure to say even one word against Trump's calumnies against immigrants, or his bragging about sexual assault.
It was those neckties! Those were neckties of fear. They hadn't been worn in twenty years, and no one knew how to tie one. But they put them on for Trump.
Trump lavished our CEOs with praise, and told them they could call him any time on his private number. Left unspoken was the corollary, that he expected to be able to call them any time, and that they would take his call.
So we saw last month how far our management will bend to pressure from above.
But a curious thing happened. While they were having their meeting, tech employees were signing the neveragain.tech pledge. This document, drafted by Leigh Honeywell and Ka-Ping Yee after our first Tech Solidarity meeting, pledged people to quit their jobs rather than work on a Muslim registry, or its equivalent. It also committed them to work on reducing data retention.
Within a few days, the pledge had gathered nearly 3,000 verified signatures from all over the industry, and from many of you here.
And an odd thing happened. Companies that previously refused to go on the record about a Muslim registry were suddenly falling all over themselves to issue statements that they would never, ever work on one.
In a strict sense, these claims are disingenuous. As the security researcher Thomas Ptacek has pointed out, we already have a Muslim registry—it's called Facebook. The government is one subpoena away from whatever information it wants about Muslims or undocumented inmmigrants.
But the pledge has a deeper significance. It's the first time since SOPA that tech workers have come out in numbers for a political fight, and the first time I can remember that they've done it on an issue that is outside tech, and in defiance of our own management.
What we saw in Trump tower is that the leaders of our industry will bend to pressure from above. But we also saw how vulnerable they are to pressure from below.
Our job in the next four years is to make sure the pressure from below is always greater.
If you are on an H1-B visa, you signed the tech pledge and you decide to quit on principle, do you know how much time you have before you have to leave the country?
That's right—you're out of status the same day. So make sure you quit on principle in the morning, so you have time to get yourself and your family to the airport.
If you are on an H1-B visa and you walk out on strike, they *cannot* fire you. You're in a protected category.
It would be foolish not to use the most powerful weapon we have available to us, American labor law.
Organizing is important because there are so few points of leverage against big tech companies. Boycotts won't work—these services are monopolies, and besides, we're not even their customers. The advertisers and publishers that pay Facebook and Google are, and they're not going to take a stand on principle.
Shareholder pressure won't work, because these companies are structured so that founders retain control no matter what.
Pressure from the press won't work. Journalists have the attention span of a week-old puppy, as we saw in the recent election. And how hard do you think media companies will be willing to go against their biggest publishing platforms?
The only real point of leverage against these companies is employee pressure. Engineers are difficult to hire, expensive to train, and require months of onboarding to reach full productivity. Competition for good tech employees is fierce. Companies can't afford to alienate their employees.
For that reason, we have to get serious about collective action using the full tools that labor law gives us, up to and including forming trade unions at the major tech companies.
Stranger things have happened this year.
That said, many of us don't work at big tech companies. So we have four invited guests here today who will be talking to us about their grass-roots work in the Bay Area, and hopefully how we can get involved and effectively help them.
I'm a civil rights attorney, executive director of CAIR San Francisco. Here's a question for this small group: what does $200M buy?
[audience] - A shitty database?
- A couple of Facebook campaigns?
What it buys in my world is eight years of anti-Muslim propaganda, organizing, and rhetoric. I could pay myself into retirement and fund many more years and workers with that kind of money.
Leading up to election, we saw anti-Muslim bus ads in Michigan, Chicago, and New York. These ads used pictures of bin Laden, the Fort Hood shooter, and the list goes on.
The idea that there are kids in our communities who have seen anti-Muslim messaging daily for the past 8 years is horrendous. And we wonder why over 50% of kids in schools in California have experienced bias-based bullying In the Sikh community, if they wear turbans, they get pulled. Ditto for hijabs.
Bus ads. [Anti-Muslim] advocacy days. Next week our elected officials in DC will start the process of confirming this horrendous cabinet that includes Jeff Sessions.
Obama oversaw kill lists that killed US citizens abroad, agents provocateurs who targeted poor and violently ill people in mosques an asked them to blow up civilian targets. That was under Obama. What will Trump do?
Anti-Muslim forces are not just rallying at a national level. They're changing middle school curricula, to make sure US students don't learn about any religion besides Christianity.
And these advocacy groups are showing up at the capital.
Our folks need to reach out to elected officials, and they need technologicaly better ways to do it. People don't want to make phone calls. Elected officials will say to us without blinking "we didn't hear from your community."
They're buying anti-Muslim messages and advocacy days. The other thing they're doing is teaching law enformceent to racially profile. They're getting education from people who are full-time anti-Muslim activisits. They are taught that we are not to be trusted. And the Democrats say that we should be on the front lines of fighting ISIS.
I am on the front lines of fighting for the US Constitution.
25M a year goes into training law enforcement around the country, so that when there's an al-Qaeda threat, they think that the most efective way to fight it is to talk to Muslims who have been to Pakistan, and ask them if they've been to a training camp. Three days before the election, we started to get a flood of phone calls from people who had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The FBI was showing up at their doors, saying there had been a threat around Election Day, and "we want to ask you a few questions." One of the few things we gain from this harrassment is finding out the stupid questions they're asking:
"Do you know anyone in al-Qaeda?"
"Do you know anyone supporting al-Qaeda?"
"Do you know who sent any money to al-Qaeda?"
They're hoping they'll knock on al-Qaeda's door in San Jose, and al-Qaeda will tell them about it. The FBI visited 150 people of color in San Jose in three days, all chosen based on their national origin.
That was under Obama. That was three deays into the election, including Election Day itself. And they wonder why we worry.
In the 10 days after the election, we documented and verified 111 anti-Muslim incidents. One of the other tech challenges is how to verify what happened when people reach out for help. Every bad [fabricated] story undermines the next hundreds of real ones. So these 111 incidents were verified stories. What doesn't make it into that count is the families who called us and said, "we're afraid of sending kids to school today", "we're afraid of going to work today." "Should I shave my beard, or not wear my head scarf?
Over 30% of those stories came from California. I imagine you would join me in disbelief about a call I received from San Jose state: "I was walking in broad daylight, and someone came up and pulled off my headscarf." I was in disbelief that this happened in Silicon Valley. It's impacting the tech sector, our neighborhoods, our communities.
When we saw the tech pledge, it gave us such a sense of solidarity and energy, and wanting to connect to you all, because we need allies and we are in this together.
ALC was founded by Japanese-American attorneys who fought to overturn the conviction of Fred Korematsu, who refused to go register and submit to Japanese American internment in WWII. After 9/11 when ALC saw what was happening to Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslim communities, regardless of faith (because they're all binned as Muslim in the eyes of the authorities), so the ALC really stepped up. We do education outreach, direct service, policy and impact litigation, for immigrant rights, criminal justice, housing, workers' rights. We are intersectional hub.
Have people heard of NSEERS? Have people heard there was a victory with rescinding the program at the national level? Let's unpack that, because knowledge is power. When we look at what is a potentially a muslim registry, what that might be built on, there are a few models.
(1) Japanese internment is a model that has actually been referenced. Maybe that's a model that we can apply.The internment camps were never declared to be completely unconstitutional. And they could involve citizens as well as immigrants.That's one strand.
(2) The second strand, the reason I became an attorney, is NSEERS. Immigration law has always to an extent required us to know who is entering and who is leaving the country. That means collecting biometric data at points of entry, from visa holders up to citizens. That's fine. The problem is when those programs become discriminatory based on our values and Constitution, which protects us based on race, religion, national origin and so on. After 9-11, Kris Kobach, who is now on the Trump transition team, created NSEERS. Boys and men age 16 and up from what the government considered to be suspect countries were required to follow three steps:
1. Register at the port of entry
2. Register when they exit the country
These two I think we understand.
The third piece was controversial: they required that this population to go in on a regular basis and check in with immigration officers.
The challenge was that the "suspect countries" were predominantly muslim. It started with Iran and Iraq, then expanded up to 25 Muslim majority countries. As such, we have already had a "Muslim registry" legally on the books.
These men either got a notice (notice was not always properly given, which created a lot of problems) they had to go in for registration, or for F1 student visas, the universities were required to report any violations to immigration.
During these interviews, questions were asked not only about immigration biometrics, but also what Zahra alluded to: What are your political ties, who's your family, assuming that because of the country of origin they were automatically suspect. We go back to this logic of what happened to Japanese-American community—that your country origin renders you to be a national security concern to the government.
Because this was controversial, and because a separate program U.S Visit was implemented, in 2011 the government decided to take those countries off the list. So the NSEERS program still existed, but it was sleeping—dormant. It couldn't be acted on unless the countries were listed again.
Two years later, the DHS Inspector General did an independent review and decided that NSEERS was a failed anti-terrorism program, based on the data of no known terrorism convictions.
Over 80,000 men complied, 13,000 put into deportation, 2,000 were detained on the spot. And the result: "no known convictions".
As advocates, we've had a really hard time getting data about this program. We know the data collected about this program was sent to other DHS systems. We really don't know how it's being used. The ADC nonprofit on the East Coast believe that data has been used in other ways to target these communities.
But we have a big information gap on how this information was used, and why. The Center for Constitutional Rights and DRUM in NYC recently filed a Freedom of Information Act to get more information.
Then comes this insane election, and a suddenly serious conversation about doing this again. A big coalition came together to take this program off the books. They said—"let's remove this once and for all". That was the great victory that we had that the Obama administration followed through on.
But we have to be vigilant. This buys us time, but does anyone think that by removing a dormant program, that Muslims or those perceived as Muslims aren't going to face challenges?
We also have to be vigilant that a new program is not created.
Those are the things that we need to watch out for.
We talked about internment, about NSEERS, and the third thing: how much info is in social media and data available through data mining companies. How do we anticipate what could be coming?
For immigration enforcement programs, we know they subcontract quite a bit to private and tech companies, particularly in border enforcement. So we need to watch out for the interface between the private sector and these agencies.
Also, the Feds need local law enforcement, or the private sector, or universities to help in this work. I break this out so we can be super vigilant.
So don't get fooled by talk of a "country of origin" database—that means a Muslim registry.
Even if it's "just" for immigrants and non-citizens, we can't turn down the heat just beacause of that.
What do we need to be vigilant about?
- Any new program, or resurrecting NSEERS
-Contracts to private companies
-Any kind of abuse of data
All of the organizations presenting today have a social media presence if you want to continue to learn. And we need to understand your programs much better.
The second is to continue to talk together, maybe do a full other event on surveillance and facial recognition technology etc.
Third, the CREDO petition campaign, which is a natural fit. Definitely get involved and connected with them. CREDO, Muslim Advocates, and a larger coalition of over 20+ organizations are working to put pressure on various tech companies to take a pledge to not create a Muslim regsitry. As an Iranian-American from a family in tech, it's awesome to see you here and work in solidarity with you.
I'm the co-founder and director of coworker.org. We got started with pro bono help from ThoughtWorks, so it's nice to be here! Coworker is a platform where we figure out how to apply technology and expert intervenion to figure out how to help workers improve their conditions in new ways. We offer campaigns where they can do a decentralized campaign around the country. Data services to reduce data asymmetry between workers and employers, and spot patterns across the workforce. We also do media strategy and outreach strategy to help them imagine their workplace as a new kind of place.
We have 40K starbucks baristas, uber drivers, bank tellers, lots of other workers using our platform to experiment with new approaches to labor organizing.
A month ago, IBM employees started a campaign on our site in response to the CEO's letter suggested collaboration with trump based on our technology platform. So far 700 people have signed on, and there has been a ton of articles and media coverage.
The campaign asserts that
1: collaboration is a violation of core values and
2. all employees have the right to refuse to work on any programs attached to these government contracts.
One of the things I shared at the NY meeting is background on what we understand about labor law, and how it applies to our platform. Now, I am not a lawyer. Imagine this part of the talk as if I told you informally over beers what it means to have protected activity. Labor law is codified in the National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, 1935, which was passed in the context of a much more industrial workplace. Most of the Wagner Act is set up for the way labor unions work that are able to negotiate contracts. Section 7 of the Act says that any two people joining together can't be fired. They can't be induced to stop activity, either through threats or through promises of a wage increase. Both positive and negative pressure are violations. You're protected long as you have at least one other person. Generally, if you do anything, have someone else help you! Do not do it using work equipment, don't do it during work hours. As long as you're advancing your interest in the workplace, you're protected.
However, the NLRA doesn't cover managers or independent contractors. That's another reason groups like us are emerging. We're trying to change how we build the broad-based labor movement that allows everyone to participate. Obviously Uber drivers are all independent contractors. There are a lot of ways we can assert our needs in the workplace while labor law catches up.
I encourage you to think about the ways you can form collectives in your workplace. I know a lot of folks are thinking about ethical challenges, the question of who do you want to be when you go to work, how you want to use the incredible talent you have to shape the world.
I'd like to share one story with you. Back in October 2013, a group of Wells Fargo bank tellers started campaigning around insane sales quotas that forced bank tellers to pressure people who didn't need them to open new accounts, push bad products. Their jobs were on the line. They were upset from a workers' rights perspective, but they were even more incensed over the ethics of it. These quotas were forcing mostly poor people to get financial products they didn't need or want. About 3000 tellers joined over the three years. I heard stories about how they would go to the car and cry, because they were overwhelmed. They got hooked up with the committee for better banks, stuck with it when no one was paying attention. And this summer, Wells Fargo was finally held to account for all of the ways they were stealing from customers since 2007, the CEO had to go get grilled by Elizabeth Warren, which is thrilling footage. And they won! Bank tellers, who don't have a lot of clout, won! So when I think about your power, and your ability to use your brains to shape the infrastructure that you work in, I feel very optimistic.
I'm from the Asian Women's Shelter. We offer domestic violence and human trafficking support and social services for victims of both. I want to call your attention back to Asian Law Caucus’ presentation. Since 9/11 many people in the Arab community and the Muslim community have had a hard time calling us. They don't want to air dirty laundry, and don't want their men to be arrested.
AWS was founded in 1988 to address language access. In SF in 1988, when a victim of domestic violence or trafficking sought help, when they didn't speak English, there was no help for them.
Today we have services in 40 languages, from Asian languages to Arabic, Russian, Spanish. We always welcome more language advocates. We pay $20/hour.
There are two kinds of clients we have: those who live in the shelter, and those who do not. We have 50 mothers and children staying in the shelter for two months or so, until they can sort out housing. After three months in the shelter, we work with them to find safe housing.
There's a transitional housing system in SF. If that doesn't happen, we work to support them with rental subsidies for a year. You know how difficult it is to find housing in SF or the Bay Area. You can imagine if you left a situation with nothing how difficult it is to do that.
I'm proud that our organization pays attention to language and cultural needs. If you need kosher food or halal food, or certain religious ceremonies, we have to pay attention to that. It is exactly those religious and cultural needs that are most often taken away from them.
With 40 languages, you can imagine that things take time. When I ran our support group, we usually did five languages. So just the first sentence, "welcome, this is a safe space", can take us 30 minutes to cover.
Most of people outside the shelter are our transgender clients and human trafficking clients. What I do is meet weekly or biweekly and work with them towards a new life free of violence. I connect them with schooling, legal services, I look for job training to them, make sure they have food, anything that needs to be done. Whatever it takes to get them somewhere safe.
Most clients don't speak English, or speak very little English. So I send them to our ESL classes, and always work with our interpreter. Our program has been a sanctuary not just for survivors, but those escaped from homophobia and transphobia.
Our budget is only $2M/year, we help 50-70 people per year. The cost to support a client for a year is about $18K. If you want to donate to us, $100 pays for 5 hours of interpretation, or one healthy dinner for the whole household in the shelter.
$100K gets you a rent subsidy for five families, or pays for a person like me, including my benefits. So it's not really a lot. What's in the future? California and the city say they won't change our budget—70% of our budget comes from government. But we don't know about the Federal piece.
Please check the Tech Solidarity events calendar for the next meeting of Bay Area Tech Solidarity. Everyone is welcome; everyone gets a donut.