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.
Also in the headlines was an effort by some Microsoft employees to protest the company's bid for work on the U.S. Department of Defense's Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project. In a letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the employees wrote, "many Microsoft employees don't believe that what we build should be used for waging war."
Tech employee activism is nothing new, but the momentum generated by the 2018 wave of protests was. Three years later, the momentum from that activism has resulted in the first formal technology unions.
Technology unions are new labor organizations that full-time and contract employees at major tech companies are attempting to form or have successfully formed. These unions fight for traditional issues that unions in other industries fight for, like better wages, hours, and working conditions. Yet given the high number of well-paid tech workers, they also engage in a new type of activism around the morality of tech companies' operating practices and business relationships.
Tech unions represent a new twist on an existing form of worker organization, and they're looking to disrupt the status quo of major tech companies like Google.
"The time and energy of working people have built tech companies into some of the most valuable entities on the planet," says Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer at the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S.
"Tech workers have produced innovations that are changing the course of history—and made their bosses rich in the process. They deserve to take home a fair share of the enormous value they create everyday, and they deserve to be treated with dignity on the job."
A New Phenomenon
One of the most significant early tech unionization successes happened in January of this year. That is when the Alphabet Workers Union was announced, with the mission to protect workers at Google's parent company.
The union was organized in secret for a year before the announcement, and has more than 800 members as of this-writing, including full-time employees, temps, vendors, and contractors. Typically, unions negotiate with a company over a contract or a single issue for the majority of employees at a company. The Alphabet Workers Union, in contrast, is a minority union, which means it represents only a fraction of employees, and lobbies for them across a range of issues.
"Our long-term goals are to build and consolidate power for workers," says Parul Kohl, executive chair of the union. "We want to ensure workers can push for real, sustainable, structural changes at the company and actually win them, whether it is about the kinds of contracts Google accepts, issues around employee classification, wages and compensation, or sexism and racism in the workplace."
For instance, Kohl says the union recently filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint on the behalf of a Google datacenter contractor who was suspended for discussing pay with her co-workers. The contractor was brought back to work within a week.
While Alphabet is the highest profile tech firm to have its own union, it may soon have company.
The Alphabet Workers Union sprung out of a larger campaign by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), an affiliated union of the AFL-CIO, to organize workers in technology, gaming, and digital sectors.
That effort, the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE), also spurred employees at Medium, a publishing platform created by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, to unionize. More than 70% of employees at the company have expressed their support. Like the Alphabet Workers Union, the Medium Workers Union is organizing around broad support and protections for workers, rather than a single issue or list of demands.
"Our affiliated unions have been making enormous inroads across the tech sector," says Shuler.
However, that is not the case at every tech firm. A unionization effort earlier this year by workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, AL, drew attention from labor groups, tech companies, and even the president of the United States. Workers at the warehouse voted overwhelmingly against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The final vote result was 1,798 workers against unionizing, and just 738 in favor.
Tech union effectiveness over time could depend on a number of factors, says Jerry Davis, a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan who studies corporate power.
One factor is an individual union's focus. The Amazon union was focused on more traditional union issues such as wages, hours, and working conditions. Membership in traditional unions focused on these conditions has been in decline for decades. However, says Davis, efforts like the Alphabet Workers Union have "evolved out of concerns with the company not living up to its vaunted social values."
The values-based approach has the advantage of riding highly publicized issues around tech company practices, policies, and customers, which affect wide swaths of employees based on their beliefs, not their economic situation.
"This builds on the momentum of the prior three years of activism at Google and elsewhere, where workers have risen up to demand changes both in who their firms do business with, and how," he says.
"With the broad shift to work-from-home, we might see employment dispersed more globally, which makes labor organizing much harder."
The controversial 2020 firing of Google employee Timnit Gebru offers one example of how company decisions around values fuel worker activism.
Gebru, an artificial intelligence (AI) ethics researcher and co-founder of industry diversity organization Black in AI, worked as a co-lead on Google's Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team. She claims she was fired because she refused to withdraw a research paper on how Google speech technology could create disadvantages for marginalized groups. Two other engineers quit over the firing.
Gebru's firing is one of the unfair company practices that Parul says the Alphabet Workers Union was created to fight.
"Some of our co-workers are working in-person during the pandemic, making $15 an hour with no hazard pay, AI ethics researchers continue to be retaliated against, and Google has still not met most of the demands of the 2018 walkout," she says.
"Alphabet Workers Union represents a counterbalance to those changes—workers at the company recognize these harms, and together, we have the ability to fight them."
Being able to lobby both for traditional employment issues and values-based issues could create wide appeal for tech unions. But the pandemic could make it hard to be effective on either front, says Davis.
"Before COVID, I would have been optimistic that the unions would have a strong effect because local tech talent is at such a premium," he says. "But with the broad shift to work-from-home, we might see employment dispersed more globally, which makes labor organizing much harder."
A Murky Future
Given the new forms that tech unions are taking, it is difficult to know what the future holds for unionization at tech firms, given the diversity of conditions and efforts.
On the one hand, companies like Amazon clearly have massive leverage when it comes to traditional union demands like wages and working conditions at warehouses. As in some traditional union battles, conflicts over physical conditions can result in companies moving the physical location of warehouses and infrastructure to more business-friendly areas.
On the other, minority unions focused on advocating for workers across a range of issues, like the Alphabet Workers Union, could attract broad, diverse support from digital workers and physical labor alike.
Political pressure could also have an impact.
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.
The AFL-CIO, for one, sees the broader unionization effort as just getting started.
"That trend is continuing to accelerate across the industry, and organizers from across the labor movement are responding to the organic energy tech workers have for a collective voice on the job," says Shuler.
It is no accident that tech unionization efforts are moving fast, planning as they go, and are unafraid to break things.
In January 2021, the AFL-CIO launched its Technology Institute, a think tank to help the labor movement address the future of work and tackle issues created by new technology. The Institute is designed to give workers a voice in how technological innovation is used to augment labor. From a unionization perspective, part of the Institute's purpose is to "connect labor organizers and workers everywhere innovation is happening."
It is no accident that tech unionization efforts are moving fast, planning as they go, and are unafraid to break things. This is the same playbook tech giants used to grow into some of the world's brightest, most successful firms.
"The beauty of unions is that they can take on whatever form, priorities, and tactics the members choose," says Shuler. "The constant is that they give those members a seat at the table."
Hundreds of Google Employees Unionize, Culminating Years of Activism, The New York Times, Jan. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/04/technology/google-employees-union.html
'We deserve more': An Amazon warehouse's high-stakes union drive, The Guardian, Feb. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/feb/23/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union
Labor Groups and Progressives Urge Biden to Support Amazon Union Drive, Huffpost, Feb. 2021, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/labor-groups-and-progressives-urge-biden-to-support-amazon-union-drive_n_6037c18cc5b67259f89438e5
Two Google engineers quit over company's treatment of AI researcher, The Guardian, Feb. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/feb/04/google-timnit-gebru-ai-engineers-quit
Workers at Medium are unionizing, The Verge, Feb. 2021, https://medium.com/s/story/an-open-letter-to-microsoft-dont-bid-on-the-us-military-s-project-jedi-7279338b7132
It's a No: Amazon Warehouse Workers Vote Against Unionizing in Historic Election, NPR, Apr., 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/09/982139494/its-a-no-amazon-warehouse-workers-vote-against-unionizing-in-historic-election
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