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Big Tech workers at their breaking point are using a new arsenal to fight back

January 26, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC

Jordan Flowers, an Amazon warehouse worker, is a thorn in the side of his employer. He regularly speaks at labor rallies and leads protests against the online retail giant over how it treats workers. 

But being an activist doesn’t pay. And his income—he’s currently out on disability—doesn’t always cover rent for his apartment in New York City, medical bills related to his lupus diagnosis, and the cost of caring for his dog, cat, and bearded dragon.

So in early 2021, Flowers applied for a stipend from a crowdsourced fund created to help the growing number of protesters and whistleblowers speaking out against Big Tech. Eventually, he received good news: He would get a $2,500 check. 

“It gives me opportunities to travel across the city, to go to more rallies, to speak up at more rallies, to understand that Google workers are going through the same thing as Amazon workers,” Flowers says. 

Over the past two years, at least three funds have been created to support tech activists. Their goal is to eliminate some of the financial hardship that tech workers can face while standing up against deep-pocketed companies, so that more can afford to do so. And while none of the funds have raised an enormous amount of money yet, their importance is growing as those labor disputes grow longer and more heated.

The fund that Flowers tapped, called the Solidarity Fund, created by nonprofit Coworker.org and former Google employee Liz Fong-Jones, supports workers from Google, Amazon, and other tech companies. Another created this fall by the same nonprofit is specifically for workers at Apple, where some employees have complained of unfair labor practices, and Netflix, where workers recently protested over a show in which comedian Dave Chappelle mocked transgender people

People participate in a walkout at Netflix in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.
Employees of companies like Netflix can get stipends for strikes and labor organizing.
Mark Abramson—The New York Times/Redux

Meanwhile, in December, employees at video-game maker Activision Blizzard created a fund to help workers who were picketing the company for allegedly failing to respond to sexual harassment claims

The idea behind the tech funds is somewhat similar to union strike funds, which organized labor has long used to help members while they are protesting and not collecting a paycheck. But since the tech industry mostly operates without unions, its workers have had little backup until recently. 

“Given that the power inequality in this country is so egregious right now, the idea that anyone is talking about strikes again, I think, is a good thing,” says Jane McAlevey, a senior policy fellow with the Labor Center at the University of California at Berkeley. 

The fund that Flowers tapped was originally conceived by Fong-Jones following a series of clashes between Google’s workers and leadership. One tussle in 2018 involved complaints that management hadn’t seriously dealt with the harassment of employees by supporters of a former Google engineer who had argued against diversity efforts. Soon after, thousands of Google employees walked out to protest Google’s secretive Defense Department contract, Project Maven, and a multimillion-dollar payout to a former executive after a sexual misconduct accusation.

In creating the fund, Fong-Jones teamed up with Coworker because she didn’t want to manage a potentially large pool of money alone.

After first giving money only to Google employees, the Solidarity Fund and Coworker have expanded their efforts to help employees at other tech companies. They also created the second fund for Apple and Netflix workers. 

“I realized like, wait a second, there are so many more people other than Google workers who need this assistance,” Fong-Jones says. 

She kicked off the Solidarity Fund by donating $100,000 of her own money, earned by cashing out stock options when she left Google in 2019. Since then, the fund has raised a total of $550,000, much of which came from tech workers in increments of $2 to $10,000. 

It gives me opportunities to travel across the city, to go to more rallies.

Jordan Flowers, tech worker and activist

A $350,000 donation from the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic fund established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, helped cover the startup costs. 

In terms of doling out money, the Solidarity Fund has given away $140,000 to 56 people, with each receiving $2,500.

“The labor movement has a centuries-long tradition of mutual aid,” says Jess Kutch, executive director of Coworker’s Solidarity Fund and co-chief at Coworker. “We long wanted to experiment with what mutual aid could look like in this sort of digital age.”

Companies targeted by Coworker’s funds either declined to comment to Fortune or didn’t respond. 

To apply for aid, tech employees must show they are helping colleagues organize or are advocating for worker rights in the wider tech industry. They can also ask the fund to cover some legal fees related to their activism, such as a whistleblower who has sued a company after being fired in retaliation. The entire process, including interviews, typically lasts four to six weeks.

As for Flowers, his activism started in March 2020, when he and fellow colleagues from Amazon’s Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse walked off the job to protest what they said was the company’s failure to provide safe working conditions in the early days of the pandemic. They wanted personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing, and hazard pay. 

Flowers alleges that Amazon retaliated for his activism by firing him and some of his protester colleagues. The company rehired him shortly after, explaining that his termination while on leave was an accident. 

The Solidarity Fund’s assistance, Flowers says, was crucial for him so that he could continue his activism while dealing with his daily health and financial struggles. 

Says Flowers, “To have an organization support me, to help put money in my pocket and help me survive during this pandemic, it’s a great value.” 

Taking on tech

At least three crowdsourced funds have been created to provide financial assistance to tech activists and whistleblowers.

Solidarity Fund

The Solidarity Fund, created by Coworker.org and former Google employee Liz Fong-Jones, has raised nearly $550,000 and distributed $140,000 to 56 people who work at tech companies like Google and Amazon.

Apple & Netflix Emergency Fund

Coworker’s second tech fund, set up specifically for Apple and Netflix workers, has raised about $54,000, of which $45,000 has been given to nine people. 

ABK Strike Fund

Activision Blizzard employees, upset about sexual harassment and alleged union busting, established the internal activist group ABK Workers Alliance and collected over $370,000 for a strike fund.

This article appears in the February/March issue of Fortune with the headline, “Tech activists get help on the picket line.”

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