In the wake of the 2016 election, IBM CEO Ginni Rommety penned an open letter to then-president-elect Donald Trump, offering ideas "to "help achieve the aspiration you articulated and that can advance a national agenda in a time of profound change." On March 28, a group of IBM employees will be presenting a petition—signed by approximately 1,300 self-identified employees—expressing disapproval of the CEO's letter.
Rommety's letter to Trump focused on positive possibilities for the Trump administration, including suggestions on improving vocational training for more workers, building up technological infrastructure, and using data analytics to improve the federal bureaucracy. The employees' petition states that the letter "does not affirm IBMers' core values of diversity, inclusiveness, and ethical business conduct."
The petition makes several demands, including an expansion of diversity recruitment, and prevention of "perceived influence peddling through Trump affiliated businesses." The signatories also "assert our right to refuse participation in any U.S. government contracts that violate constitutionally protected civil liberties."
According to Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust, the company's punch card machines became the technological basis to coordinate genocide under the Nazi regime, particularly by tabulating censuses. Earlier this year, nearly 3,000 workers across the technology industry signed the "Never Again" pledge, refusing to be complicit in the "creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin." The pledge specifically refers to IBM's contribution to the Holocaust.
The IBM petition, oddly enough, makes no mention of this sordid history. The petition calls back to a memo written by IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr., stating that the company would hire fairly regardless of race.
"Watson's letter reaffirmed IBM's moral leadership by refusing to discriminate on the basis of race, resisting the prevailing attitudes of governors in the southern United States," the petition states. "In this instance, Watson sacrificed short-term business interests in order to be on the right side of history, something IBM takes pride in today."
Watson's father—Thomas J. Watson, Sr.—was CEO of the IBM during the Holocaust. For his close ties to the Nazi regime, the senior Watson received the Order of the German Eagle medal in 1937. In the same year, he wrote that the world "must extend a sympathetic understanding to the German people and their aims under the leadership of Adolf Hitler." (Watson, Sr. returned the medal in 1940).
Movements like the Never Again pledge and Tech Solidarity often point to Trump's campaign promises, like his proposal to create databases to track Muslims, as compelling reasons for the technology industry to distance itself from Washington, D.C.
Although the IBM petition doesn't acknowledge the company's past, it seems to gesture towards such concerns. "We have a moral and business imperative to uphold the pillars of a free society by declining any projects which undermine liberty, such as surveillance tools threatening freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure."
On Tuesday, a group of employees will be delivering their petition to IBM's corporate offices in Manhattan.
Correction: The article originally stated that the Thomas J. Watson referenced by the petition was the CEO of IBM during the Holocaust. In fact, it was his father, Thomas J. Watson, Sr. The petition makes no reference to the older Watson.