The proletarianization of tech workers

If there is hope, it is in the proles.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readSep 10, 2023
Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic WPA photo ‘World’s Highest Standard of Living,’ picturing a line of poor Black people standing in a breadline before a billboard proclaiming ‘The World’s Highest Standard of Living: there’s no way like the American Way’ around an image of a white, propserous family enjoying a drive in a large luxury car. The image has been altered so that the lined up workers and the family in the car blink in and out of existence, replaced by the ‘code rain’ effect from the Wachow

The last time I saw the late, great Eric Flint was at the 2018 World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, California, where we both participated (along with Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Olav Rokne and Eileen Gunn) in an excellent panel about the working class in sf.

Eric was an extraordinary writer and an even more extraordinary character. A Marxist meat-packers’ union organizer whose whole labor career was spent in the brutal trenches of Chicago Machine politics, Eric was also a towering figure in the subgenre of historical military science fiction, a field that is otherwise dominated by right-wingers, including numerous out-and-out kooks who endlessly fantasize about Bronze Age battles being re-fought with jets and mustard gas (for the record: Eric isn’t the only progressive voice in this field; others, like Harry Turtledove, bring a humanizing, leftist view to their work).

Eric’s long-running 1632 series is a multi-volume thought experiment that asks what would have become of the 30 Years’ War if a town of unionized coal miners were transported back in time, along with their town library, power plant, and the contents of the town’s homes and businesses. It’s a cracking read.

Eric was many sorts of Good Egg. He worked with Jim Baen — the field’s foremost publisher of military sf — to establish the Baen Free Library, pioneering open-access ebooks at the turn of the millennium. He also edited Jim Baen’s Universe, a seminal online sf magazine (Eric published my story “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” in Universe).

As is customary for Worldcon panels, the discussion ranged far and wide, and Eric got in a lot of good licks. One thing he said that has stayed with me for the past half-decade; I don’t suppose I remember it word for word, but here’s a paraphrase:

I think that sf ignored trade unions because it was written by and for engineers at a time when their skills were in high demand. Those kinds of workers can get a good deal without unions — for a while.

I’ve been thinking about Eric a lot lately, and not just because he was the first person to warn me (in 2007!) that Obama’s dazzling, liberatory rhetoric was a mere aesthetic skin wrapped around the cynical, elitist politics of the Chicago Democratic Party Machine.

I’ve been thinking about him because of what’s happened to tech workers, another group of in-demand, “high-skill” workers who historically didn’t even see themselves as “workers.”

Instead, tech workers viewed themselves as tech barons in waiting. As I said in my Defcon speech this summer:

Remember when tech workers dreamed of working for a big company for a few years, before striking out on their own to start their own company that would knock that tech giant over?

Then that dream shrank to: work for a giant for a few years, quit, do a fake startup, get acqui-hired by your old employer, as a complicated way of getting a bonus and a promotion.

Then the dream shrank further: work for a tech giant for your whole life, get free kombucha and massages on Wednesdays.

And now, the dream is over. All that’s left is: work for a tech giant until they fire your ass, like those 12,000 Googlers who got fired six months after a stock buyback that would have paid their salaries for the next 27 years.

We deserve better than this. We can get it.

Tech workers spent a whole generation conceiving of themselves as entrepreneurs who bargained, nerd-to-nerd, with other entrepreneurs who needed workers as much as workers needed paychecks.

These workers allowed themselves to be convinced that being “extremely hardcore” — that is, working body- and mind-ruining hours (without overtime pay) was a badge of honor.

They let themselves believe that their bosses gave them gourmet cafeteria food, “on-campus” fitness centers and daycare because they were valued workers — and not because this created the conditions where workers could be induced to put in longer hours without additional pay.

They conceived of themselves as ascetic monks, a priesthood that labored every hour God sent to bring digitization to the world. Meanwhile, their bosses’ wealth soared, even as their own working conditions deteriorated.

Tech workers may be prone to the same rationalization and self-deception as the rest of us, but (like the rest of us), they aren’t fools. Anything that can’t go on forever will eventually stop.

As conditions and prospects worsened, tech workers’ identities as workers emerged from a generation-long coma. They penned manifestos, walked off the job, and formed unions.

Today, tech workplaces are white-hot centers of labor organizing. Tech workers are reconceiving of themselves as workers first, techies second — and that’s leading them to connect their struggles to the “blue collar” workers who drive rideshares, pack boxes, label AI data and handle irate customers.

The shrinking dream of the tech worker — from “maker of a dent in the universe” to “disposable source of free cash-flow for a stock-buyback” —has goosed the already-surging rise of labor agitation in tech workplaces, turning a surge into a flood.

Eric would be proud.

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is The Internet Con: How To Seize the Means of Computation, a detailed policy plan for dismantling Big Tech (Verso, 2023);. His latest novel for adults is Red Team Blues. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).