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The Unionization of Technology Companies

By Logan Kugler

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 64 No. 8, Pages 18-20
10.1145/3469285

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In late 2018, thousands of workers walked out of Google offices around the globe to protest the company's handling of sexual harassment accusations against prominent executives.

The same year, hundreds of Salesforce employees signed a letter to CEO Marc Benioff protesting the fact the company sold products to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

2 Comments

Joseph Bedard

I would like to express my appreciation for the effort that was put into the original reporting in this article, and offer some constructive criticism.

This article seems biased in favor of labor unions because it uses many more words to focus on the benefits rather than detriments of labor unions. It contains about 350 words quoted from people who support labor unions (Liz Shuler, Timnit Gebru, and Jerry Davis). However, it quotes no critics of labor unions.

It's true that labor unions focused on wages, hours, and conditions have been declining for decades. This article doesn't explain why. Basically, the reason is that competing companies without unions end up offering the desired wages, hours, and conditions, and employees don't have to pay expensive union dues. This gives an advantage to the competitors. If anyone is interested in further explanation, I'd recommend a book like Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. Note that Thomas Sowell is not an advocate of completely unregulated markets. The benefits of free-market dynamics should always be carefully evaluated from industry to industry.

Regarding the failed unionization in Bessemer, AL, this was related to Amazon's retail business, and so it is not relevant to technology unions. This article unfortunately conflates Amazon's retail and technology lines of business:

"U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle endorsed the Amazon unionization effort, including President Joe Biden and Republican senator Marco Rubio. Though that effort failed, it highlighted growing criticism from across the political spectrum about the size and power of big tech companies."

Furthermore, what is the overall total and ratio of endorsements from different political groups? The article unfortunately does not quantify. And, the concerns about the power of big tech are more about privacy, misinformation, and free speech.

I'd also like to point out that this article's citations skew to the left side of the political spectrum. Ad Fontes Media is doing great work on news media bias. One can lookup the bias of various news publications. (https://www.adfontesmedia.com/interactive-media-bias-chart/)

Another point is that unions have helped protect workers in case of employment contract or company policy disputes. The unions take legal action on behalf of the workers, but is that really the most cost effective approach? Legal insurance can cost between $10 and $30 per month. (https://www.thebalance.com/legal-insurance-guide-3990192) How does that compare to union dues?

Finally, the article discusses unionization as a means for workers to protest business activity that they morally oppose, and fair enough. People should not have to work on a project with DARPA if they don't want to. But, why can't workers ask for a different project or go work for a different company?

I'm not convinced that technology unions are necessary in any case.

CACM Administrator

[[The following user comment/response was submitted by Logan Kugler on July 29, 2021.
--CACM Administrator]]

Joseph,

These are fantastic points, and could easily fill an entire book! Thanks for sharing them.

Theres no question this is a complicated issue, and one with a long history of political and economic debate.

For this story, we specifically decided to focus on the "why" behind the creation of unions at tech companies. We wanted to understand why the organizers created them, what thy were lobbying for, and what their ultimate aims looked like.

This focus necessitated talking more to the unions themselves and their supporters or backers, hence the emphasis on pro-union sources.

In the future, wed love to explore more in depth the relationships between tech companies and their unions, with a focus on the arguments for and against them. Itd be great material for a future story.

Thanks again for your comment! Its extremely educational, and we appreciate it.

Logan Kugler

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