The recent acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk has proved to be the best example in recent memory of the inherent power of labor: that workers produce the goods that companies sell, and that our bosses and the owners of these companies could not build them if they tried. To quote the labor movement classic “Solidarity Forever”:
It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made
Musk sauntered into the Twitter headquarters in late October, after a protracted legal battle sparked by his 12-year-old-gamer-level shitposts on Twitter (including an offer to take Twitter private at $54.20 per share, which even your grandmother recognizes as a banal weed reference). He promptly fired most executives, and ultimately laid off 3,700 workers in areas from software engineering, to content moderation, to ad sales and more. Musk also began a petulant campaign of firing anyone who disagreed with him publicly and privately, utilizing workplace surveillance tools (like the Slack workplace administrator’s ability to read private Slack channels) to fire anyone who hinted at displeasure with his leadership or a desire to organize.
The circus of Musks’ clear mismanagement of Twitter brings into stark relief the fact that he is in charge of Twitter, like his other companies, purely because he had the resources to buy it. Not because he’s a genius, but because he had access to money. Workers built Twitter, and they could be running it without him right now.
Workers Built Twitter
Let’s be clear: Elon Musk has no idea how the software that runs Twitter actually works. He has made it abundantly clear that he has not even a basic understanding of how a website like Twitter functions under the hood, or how it was built, or what Twitter workers do all day. On his first day in the office, he demanded that workers print out their code so that he could review it himself, apparently under the impression that a 16-year-old social media site with a system architecture made up of dozens if not hundreds of component pieces of software, each made up of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lines of code, could be remotely consumable by a single person kicked back in a La-Z-Boy for light bedtime reading.
If it is not already clear why it is patently absurd that Musk could “read the code” for Twitter — which itself likely could make up a longer document than several Encyclopedia Brittanicas put together, if printed — then it should be obvious that he has no idea what technology Twitter is built on top of, how it works, or what that means for the business.
It cannot be emphasized enough: Twitter workers built Twitter. It cannot be run without them. The new owner of Twitter, ego and all, could not even begin to try. Musk is not in charge of Twitter because he is smart or even capable, he is in charge because he had access to the money to buy the company (through astronomical loans he has now saddled the company with), and Twitter’s previous executives called his bluff.
This is not unique to Twitter, or even to the tech industry, although we are seeing this phenomenon speed-run in front of our eyes in a spectacular display. As journalist and critic Malcolm Harris tweeted:
All bosses are similar to Musk in that they are the owners of the companies we work for based on their access to capital to start or purchase them, not because they have worked harder than the people who built the company and keep it running today.
We are seeing incredible solidarity from Twitter workers, through the Twitter worker (Tweep)-created layoff guide for Tweeps, and through backchannel group chats where workers are venting, helping each other, and sharing helpful information. We are also seeing them quit en masse, flexing their power to stop working (by quitting) and leaving their man-child CEO high and dry. This is a reminder of the opportunity all tech workers have: all workers can organize and take collective action together, because without us, nothing runs. Together we hold an enormous amount of power.
As one anonymous software engineer from outside of Twitter told Left Voice, “it’s both satisfying and depressing to me to see the rare group of workers who actually do have power just say fuck you to this guy and quit.” Quitting is not the only thing we can do together (although Twitter workers are in a particularly horrible situation, and no one could blame them for leaving). More widely though, industry-wide, without organizing to exert control over our shitty jobs, to make them better, how can we be sure the other workplaces in the tech industry aren’t just bad in the same ways? By organizing in our workplaces, we can exercise control over our working conditions, what we build, and how it gets used. Together, in large numbers, we can walk out or strike for better pay, for better conditions for the most precarious among us, we can form unions and bargain for contracts with job protections and the right to have a say over our work. We could even organize to take full control over the places where we work. Sustained solidarity and class struggle are the only ways to begin to take back our workplaces from people like Musk.
The Only Way Tech Workers Can Protect Their Jobs Is to Organize
The layoffs happening at Twitter are also happening at other big tech companies across the world. Meta, for instance, is laying off 11,000 workers, Amazon has signaled it will lay off 10,000 too. Stripe, Lyft, Microsoft, and many others are following suit. The layoffs at these companies happen at every company during cyclical downturns, when growth rates start to decline. Investors start making noises about wages and employment numbers being too high, in order to drive down labor costs to raise their profit share. We’ve seen that in the past year, with venture capitalists complaining that tech companies are overstaffed. But the workers who just got laid off will likely tell you that this is not the case. Many of them were working 50-60 hour weeks, including a long list of things they wanted to build and ways they wanted to improve their work, but didn’t have time for, even before many of their coworkers were laid off.
To make venture capitalists and shareholders happy and to make those stock prices go back up, CEOs will lay workers off. As soon as the stock prices increase, they’ll start re-hiring. Sometimes they rehire the exact people they laid off, like Kickstarter tried to do in 2020 and like Twitter is trying to do now. And don’t forget, the number of people that get laid off, like the 11,000 that Meta is laying off and the 10,000 that Amazon is laying off, are not numbers, they are people — People who deserve better than to be tossed out of their jobs at the whim of a stock price graph.
This is how the capitalist economy works, how it’s always worked, and how it will continue to work. The only way workers can protect themselves from the whims of shareholders and minute changes in the stock market, and shitty bosses, is the same way every other industry has done it for centuries: organizing unions, and organizing together for better conditions for us all.
Organizing in the Tech Industry: Organizing for the Social Good
Organizing tech workers is important because all workers deserve to have control over their working conditions. That’s important especially for some companies — though not all — because they have produced or could produce things that actually are useful and can be used for social good.
The impact of Twitter on social movements in the past 10 years cannot be understated, as the social media platform has played an important role in not only the spread of information but also the sparking of movements as well. It was critical during the 2011 Arab Spring, as well as in the uprisings for black lives over the past seven years. The platform became a popular vehicle for sharing videos and pictures of the police and other state entities in full body armor, riot shields, assault rifles and tear gas brutalizing those protesting because of the murders of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Geroge Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people by the police. Without social media platforms like Twitter, much of the public would still believe the narratives put forward by the media and police about riots, looting, and victims of police violence who were “no angels.”
Any platform used to spread information, however, can also easily be used to spread misinformation. Twitter has been used by the far right on a multitude of issues, including election misinformation, which led to the right-wing riot on January 6th. Twitter workers had in fact demanded in an open letter that Trump be removed from the platform before executives finally did on January 8, 2021 (Trump was banned and has now been reinstated by Musk). Furthermore, the platform is a hivemind of anti-LGBTQIA+ propaganda, with notable pundits like Matt Walsh constantly posting transphobic content, adding further physical and emotional abuse that has real world consequences for an already oppressed community.
These right-wingers are only deplatformed when they hurt Twitter’s bottom line. If the workers had control of the platform, then decisions on moderation actually allowing freedom of speech, information, and general safety on the site would not be decided by greedy capitalists.
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter should be a warning sign to workers in the tech industry. Under a capitalist system, our jobs are always on the line. This is especially true in an industry that can allow a billionaire to collapse a multi-billion dollar company in less than a month. All tech workers could be in the same volatile position that Twitter workers (and ex-Twitter workers) are now in. The only way to secure a stable future for workers in the tech industry is to organize and unionize, and win more control of our workplaces.