Class, Meritocracy, and the San Francisco Bart Strike

This Marketplace piece on a “tricky cultural divide” between unionized workers and the new tech workers in San Francisco came across Twitter a few days ago, with the sender saying that he had to get up and walk away from his computer after reading this quote from  tech journalist Sarah Lacy:

“People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy. You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of directly opposite to unions.”

I understand the Tweeter’s reaction.

Clicking through to Lacy’s blog post about the strike “crippling” a new high tech office development in a previously run-down section of the city, we learn, apparently without irony, that thousands of tech workers have moved to this newly developed part of the city because of tax incentives from the city.

Their success, of course,  is not attributable only to their hard work.

And the point of the article, of course, is that these tech workers are (as evidenced by the effects to the strike) highly dependent on  subsidized public transportation.

Yes, the tech workers built companies, but they didn’t string the electrical cables, pave the streets, install the hardwood floors in those new offices, clean up the coffee shop after the tech workers left,  provide the policing for the neighborhood, collect the trash, fix the plumbing, wash the windows, package the microchips, manufacture the keyboards, or clean the offices at night.

They needed workers to do all of those things to “build something”.  We talked about this in the last presidential election, didn’t we?

I Googled 5 pages deep to try to find something about Lacy’s class background.  There seems not to be a syllable anywhere.  And that’s common, for writers to position themselves as a neutral, intellectual voice on social class issues, rather than to acknowledge that their perspectives are grounded at least in part on their own biases, limited experiences, and privilege.

And thus, Lacy is also quoted as saying:

“If I had more friends who were BART drivers, I would probably be very sympathetic to their cause, and if they had more friends who were building companies they would probably realize we’re not all millionaires, and we’re actually working pretty hard to build something.”

I know nothing about Sarah Lacy as a person, and nothing about her background or her ascent to her current influential position as a tech journalist.

But I do know this:  The BART workers, office cleaners, and microchip packers are conscious, every moment of their working day, of the power and privilege held by others and their own relative powerlessness.  And most are aware also of their invisibility.   The idea that the guy writing code would ask the guy cleaning toilets out  for a friendly coffee is  impossible to imagine.  And then, of course, there’s that pesky power difference: the  janitor would be fired for taking a spontaneous coffee break.

The high tech workers have  likely learned nothing about their lives of  working class people in any part of their formal education.  Sarah Lacy has built a career traveling the world to write/educate others about successful entrepreneurs. It’s baffling that she would invoke friendship, rather than investigative journalism, as a way past these “tricky cultural divides”.

And the main point that she’s missing is how much power she has to decide whether or not to do just that.

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