The tech world gives back with a fund that gives cash to workers for organizing

Former tech worker and software engineer Felipe Ventura of Richmond was given $2,500 by the Solidarity Fund by Coworker. Ventura used the money to organize mental health sessions with two therapists this year for a small group of Black and Latinx tech workers.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle
Former tech worker and software engineer Felipe Ventura of Richmond was given $2,500 by the Solidarity Fund by Coworker. Ventura used the money to organize mental health sessions with two therapists this year for a small group of Black and Latinx tech workers. Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

— Former tech worker and software engineer Felipe Ventura of Richmond was given $2,500 by the Solidarity Fund by Coworker. Ventura used the money to organize mental health sessions with two therapists this year for a small group of Black and Latinx tech workers.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Otavio Camargo’s luck had run out, a few times. Working as a mover for the startup Lugg, the cargo van he relied on for work was stolen. He bought a truck to replace it, but crashed that while on the job earlier this year. He tried renting a van, but some days a full shift of heavy lifting would see him net less than $100, and sometimes nothing at all, he said.

He wasn’t injured in the crash, but his earnings took a hit since he was only able to work as a “helper,” making less money assisting other movers with cars until he could get his insurance payout and buy a new vehicle. The drop in earnings also meant he was struggling to keep up with rent and bills, including supporting two children and making rent on a room in Richmond where he lives.

But then his luck turned around, when a check arrived in the amount of $2,500 from a nonprofit called The Solidarity Fund by Coworker.

“If I hadn’t had this money, I don’t know what I would have done,” Camargo said.

The fund started in 2017 as the brainchild of Liz Fong-Jones, a former Google employee and early labor organizer at the company. She originally conceived of the fund as a way to support employees at the company who faced retaliation for organizing activities and for raising concerns about sensitive contracts like the company’s now-defunct Project Dragonfly to create a censored search engine in China.

The fund’s goal is to help tech workers with workplace organizing, part of a worker-to-worker approach to grassroots fundraising that its founders hope will be a new front in the burgeoning tech labor movement. In that vein, Camargo applied for the money after hearing about it during meetings with his coworkers about trying to change the operating model at Lugg, including drawing up a petition to send to the company about working conditions.

Fong-Jones said she pledged $100,000 of her own money to create the fund and approached others at Google to donate as well. When she decided to leave Google, she accepted an offer of close to that amount in stock to walk away more quickly.

That sum became the seed for the $112,000 first round of the fund, distributed to 44 tech workers in $2,500 increments with no strings attached, although the goal is to support labor organizing efforts across the industry. Applicants have to meet the basic criteria of being tech workers and having been involved in some kind of organizing activity

Fong-Jones, who is on the Solidarity Fund board, partnered with Coworker.org, a workplace organizing site founded by Jess Kutch, to understand how to form a legal entity to distribute the money and to draw on that group’s history of online labor organizing in tech and other industries.

The fund and Coworker.org share some staff, but are legally and financially separate.

Kutch’s group helped the fund incorporate as a non-traditional 501(c)(4), a nonprofit that under the tax code is run exclusively to promote social welfare. That also means donations are not tax deductible, but the fund can give out money without running afoul of federal prohibitions on political activities by more common 501(c)(3) nonprofits.

“At the end of the day unionism and solidarity unionism is political,” Fong-Jones said.

Other fund recipients in the Bay Area have used the money for more overt political and organizing purposes.

Eddy Hernandez, a former Uber engineer, donated his sum to two groups — Rideshare Drivers United and Gig Workers Collective. Hernandez said he left Uber because he felt the company didn’t offer the same support to its contract drivers as it did to employees like himself.

“(Drivers) were out risking their health and their lives to keep things going” during the pandemic while employees like himself worked safely from home, he said. In light of Uber’s campaign along with Lyft and Postmates to cement drivers’ contractor status in California through Proposition 22 last year, he wanted to support efforts to fight the initiative with the funds.

felipe-2

— Former tech worker and software engineer Felipe Ventura of Richmond was given $2,500 by the Solidarity Fund by Coworker. Ventura used the money to organize mental health sessions with two therapists this year for a small group of Black and Latinx tech workers.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Former software engineer Felipe Ventura used the money to organize group therapy sessions for a small group of Black and Latinx tech workers to help them connect over shared identity and cope with the stresses of the pandemic.

Ventura said the sessions, which ended in May, focused on a range of topics from the protests last year over policing and racial justice, to explorations of race and beyond.

“It was the type of community that I was looking for and couldn’t find in my own workplace,” Ventura said. “My immediate community was not there because we were all sheltering in place.”

The fund is currently raising money for a next round of grants and is taking applications and donations. The idea has evolved over time, and whether it becomes an ongoing project depends on how much money it can raise. Each round starts with $12,500 to fund a minimum of five $2,500 stipends. So far it’s raised almost $120,000 and given away almost all of it.

The future is still both uncertain and filled with possibilities, said Laurence Berland, a former Google employee who said he was fired for his organizing activities while at the company and who is on the Solidarity Fund committee that looks at applications.

Berland said he wants to raise enough money to start supporting tech workers in legal cases, potentially like the one he is involved in at the National Labor Relations Board alleging he and others were unfairly terminated.

“I have this pie-in-the-sky idea to do legal support for all kinds of workplace issues,” Berland said, including mistreatment and harassment. He said as the idea of what the fund is for has evolved, he can see it moving beyond just the tech industry, but that requires more money.

Some applicants were rejected not because their cause wasn’t worthy, Berland said, but because they weren’t tech workers or their work was more community rather than labor organizing. “I would love to not have that kind of criteria,” he said. “What we need to have fewer criteria is more money.”

Shauna Gordon-McKeon is a freelance web developer who donated a couple of hundred dollars to the fund last year. She said she donated to reach across the divide that separates workers like herself from what she called “Invisible co-workers,” like contract and gig workers.

Berland said he’d prefer to see the fund grow organically based on smaller donations like Gordon-McKeon’s, although that could also hamper how much the group can raise and help people.

Still, grassroots fundraising makes it easier to distribute the money more equitably he said, compared to taking a grant from a large foundation. “When you take money it’s not explicit strings are attached, but there’s always a certain amount of expectation.”

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: chase.difeliciantonio@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice

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