10 Defining Moments in Tech-Labor History

Contract labor abuse, offshoring, H-1B misuse -- the events, innovations, lawsuits, and layoffs that shaped today's tech-labor tensions.


10 defining moments in tech-labor history

Technology and the labor have always had an uneasy relationship. The high-tech industry has created millions of jobs and has made just as many obsolete. Attempts to organize tech workers have largely failed in the U.S. Many employers choose to rely heavily on temps, import engineering talent, or ship jobs overseas -- all politically touchy subjects.

Here's a visual tour through the bittersweet history of high tech and labor, the highlights and the low times.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

1. Technology supplanting skilled labor: The Luddite rebellion (1811)

Their name is synonymous with the rejection of technological change. But the 19th century workers who destroyed textile-making equipment in England were not opposed to machines as much as they were to the hiring of untrained and poorly paid workers to operate them, writes historian Richard Conniff.

Other fascinating facts: General Ned Ludd, for whom the movement was named, did not actually exist; the Luddites penned clever protest letters postmarked “Sherwood Forest,” and the men paraded in drag dressed as “General Ludd's wives.”


2. Technology supplanting jobs: World's first assembly-line robot (1961)

When the Unimate #001 came online at the GM plant in Trenton, N.J., it had just one job: To pluck red-hot door handles made from molten steel and deposit them in a cooling pool.

The single-armed 2,700-pound machine was the world's first industrial robot, but it wasn't alone for long. There are now an estimated 1.2 million industrial robots in the wild, or about one for every 5,000 humans. Eighteen years later, a line worker at a Ford Motor plant was killed by a robot -- the first recorded instance of machine-on-man violence. It was just an accident ... we think.

3. Non-immigrant visas: H-1B is born (1990)

Laws allowing skilled non-citizens to legally work in the U.S. have existed since the 1930s, but it wasn't until 1990 that they acquired the H-1B moniker. The law capped non-immigrant visas at 65,000 per year, and number that was raised to 195,000 in the early 2000s and is now back to 65,000, though various loopholes allow for more than triple that. It has been a political football ever since, with tech companies clamoring for more H-1B visas and labor activists claiming they steal jobs from American IT workers. Recent analysis has shown that the top employers of H-1B visa holders are offshore outsourcers – further advancing the controversy surrounding their use.

Reuters / Jason Lee

4. Contract labor abuse: Permatemps sue Microsoft (1992)

In the 1990s, Microsoft hired thousands of freelance Microserfs indistinguishable from regular employees save for two things: no benefits and no stock options. In 1992 the serfs filed a class-action suit, which Microsoft eventually settled (more than 8 years later, in Steve Ballmer's first year as CEO) for $97 million. After that, though, any independent contractor working at Microsoft for more than 364 consecutive days would get the heave-ho. Temps they remained; perma, not so much.

Reuters / Lisi Niesner

5. Unionization: Amazon attempt to unionize squelched (2000)

As the Y2K clock ticked over into the new millennium, activist Vanessa Veselka joined Amazon intending to organize its warehouse workers. With the help of the WashTech technology union, she began holding meetings. A few months later, she was let go. As with nearly all attempts to organize tech workers in the U.S., it was easily quashed by management. But in Europe, where unions retain some clout, the Wal-Mart of the Internet is currently facing a strike by German workers. The people united will never be defeated -- provided English is not their first language.


6. Reshoring: Dell customer service comes home (2003)

After years of outsourcing its call centers to India to cut costs -- and complaints from corporate customers struggling to be understood by “Bob” from Bangalore -- Dell opted to bring support for its Optiplex and Latitude lines back to U.S. help desks. It was the beginning of a slow but steady backlash against offshoring, which continues to this day. Companies like Apple, Motorola Mobility, and Lenovo all recently brought some of their manufacturing back to the U.S. -- a practice known as “reshoring.”

TEDx Monterey via Flickr

7. Offshoring: Geeks on the high seas (2005)

In 2005, entrepreneurs Roger Green and David Cook decided to take “offshoring” literally. Their idea: SeaCode, a cruise ship stocked with foreign technology workers anchored far enough offshore to avoid the need for U.S. work visas. But SeaCode sank after failing to get enough investors to climb aboard. Last March, two new entrepreneurs decided to salvage the idea. Blueseed, an oceanliner with room for 1,000 tech startup employees, is scheduled to launch off the coast of Northern California next fall. Ahoy matey, and pass the Red Bull.

Reuters photographer

8. Layoffs in the global economy: Project Match fails to ignite (2009)

Looking for exciting high-tech position where food is exotic, the temperature is 110 in the shade, and salaries approach $5 a day? In February 2009, IBM's Project Match offered 4,000 recently laid off tech workers the opportunity to be rehired in India, Nigeria, Brazil, and other offshoring centers. Big Blue even offered to foot the bill for their moving expenses. Match's catch? Employees would be paid at the prevailing wages in each market, usually pennies on the dollar. Not surprisingly, the project never caught fire.

Reuters / Phil McCarten

9. Income disparity: Geeks break the six-figure salary barrier (2011)

In 2011, the average salary for a Silicon Valley technology worker surpassed $100,000 for the first time, according to an annual survey by jobs site Dice Holdings. (Nationally, the average still hovers just north of $85K.) The median salary for a U.S. CEO? A smidge over $750,000, per Salary.com. And that's chicken feed compared to the highest paid high-tech chief executive, Priceline's Jeff Boyd (pictured), who took home an easy $50 mill last year. Guess we know who the real Negotiator is.


10. Adverse working conditions: FoxConn in revolt (2012)

Apparently the opportunity to assemble life-changing iDevices isn't enough to offset 100-hour workweeks, paltry wages, cramped dormitories, and an alarming spike in suicides. In October 2012, more than 3,000 workers at FoxConn's Zhengzhou plant walked off an Apple iPhone 5 assembly line in protest over their working conditions. (FoxConn later denied reports of the strike.) Last May Apple announced it would shift iPhone manufacturing to Pegatron, a Chinese facility labeled “worse than FoxConn” by China Labor Watch. Think about that the next time you Facetime your peeps to complain about your crappy job.