Sign In

Communications of the ACM

News

The Unionization of Technology Companies


View as: Print Mobile App ACM Digital Library Full Text (PDF) In the Digital Edition Share: Send by email Share on reddit Share on StumbleUpon Share on Hacker News Share on Tweeter Share on Facebook
Google employees at walkout in November 2018

Credit: Getty Images

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.

uf1.jpg
Figure. Tech workers at the May Day March in San Francisco, CA, USA.

"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."

Back to Top

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.

Back to Top

Uncertain Effectiveness

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."

Back to Top

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."

* Further Reading

Conger, K.
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

Greenhouse, S.
'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

Jamieson, D.
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

Paul, K.
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

Schiffer, Z.
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

Selyukh, A.
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

Back to Top

Author

Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL., USA.


©2021 ACM  0001-0782/21/8

Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and full citation on the first page. Copyright for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or fee. Request permission to publish from permissions@acm.org or fax (212) 869-0481.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.


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


Displaying all 2 comments