Stirrings of union organizing in the “paradise” of Big Tech

Big Tech companies earned record profits during the pandemic – and now their workers are organizing for change. Can labor find a foothold in Silicon Valley?

With revenue and stock prices soaring for digital tech companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, the workforces in many of these companies have begun agitating and organizing for change. The past two years have seen small but impressive strides in worker activism. 

Since the tech industry is known for paying high wages and lavish perks, this workplace agitation has not always been driven by employees’ bread-and-butter needs. In some cases, the focus has been to amplify their own collective voices and sense of dignity, or to protest specific issues connected to their company’s toxic business models. But in other tech companies, low wages and poor conditions have been central to worker demands. Through it all runs a strong desire by a diverse range of workers to be heard by company executives, as well as some solid organizing efforts that holds potential to create a waking giant.

Workers at a number of Big Tech companies and startups have been engaged in increasing levels of activism since 2019. That took the form of protests and petitions against issues like companies’ military contracts at Microsoft and Google; against companies’ contracts with government agencies engaged in police surveillance and border control at Google, Palantir, Salesforce and Microsoft-owned Github; and against Facebook’s refusal to fact check or implement spending caps for political ads during the 2020 presidential election. 

At Google, more than 20,000 employees in two dozen offices around the world staged a one-day walkout to protest Google’s inept handling of sexual harassment within the company. Google retaliated against and eventually fired some of the organizers, which later resulted in a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that Google had violated US labor laws when it surveilled workers and terminated two of those organizers. Google is fighting the decision.

Those protests were focused on workers’ sense of worth over working for an employer who they viewed as acting contrary to their own personal values, and/or the company’s stated values. But in some tech companies, where workers’ wages are low and personal mistreatment more severe, traditional bread-and-butter issues have been at the forefront. 

Uber and Lyft drivers have protested against their indentured mistreatment and sub-minimum wage compensation (see my previous Mitbestimmungsportal column “The "Uber Way" of Precarious Work”). Grocery delivery company Instacart was hit with a three-day strike in 2019 by their contractor workforce when Instacart changed its 10-percent default tip, which went to its shoppers, into a 10-percent service fee, which went to the company. Yet customers still thought they were tipping the shoppers. The work stoppage disrupted grocery deliveries by canceling or ignoring orders for several days. 

The 'Musk culture' will certainly clash with the German culture of co-determination and social partnership.

At electric car manufacturer Tesla, US workers trying to organize a labor union have been in constant battles with CEO Elon Musk. Of particular importance to Germany, where Musk is building a battery factory and assembly plant in Grünheide with billions in subsidies from the German government, Musk’s “move fast and break things” style leaves little room for negotiations over low wages or unsafe working conditions. Assembly workers in its California auto plant have accused the company of overwork, speed-up and injuries, sub-standard industry pay, and anti-union harassment. A judge’s ruling in September 2019 stated the electric-car maker illegally and systematically threatened and retaliated against pro-union workers. “I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past,” wrote one factory employee. The United Auto Workers have been supporting the workers, and the case is now pending before the NLRB.

As further evidence of Musk’s “cowboy capitalism,” at the dangerous height of the COVID pandemic, he downplayed the pandemic’s risks and flouted public health orders, calling state and local safety requirements “fascist.” He reopened his Tesla assembly plant in violation of the law and ordered his 10,000 employees back to work. The “Musk culture” will certainly clash with the German culture of co-determination and social partnership. 

A few successful union drives

There has long been an anti-union streak among Silicon Valley companies. Besides Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, mega-venture capital investor Marc Andreessen and Intel co-founder Robert Noyce have all ranted anti-union viewpoints. So any successful unionization drive at a tech company is noteworthy. 

In the past year, there have been several successes. Instacart shoppers in Chicago voted in February 2020 to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers. Forty workers for scooter startup Spin unionized in San Francisco with the Teamsters. Employees at Medium, which makes a popular digital publishing platform, announced that they were forming a union to be known as the Medium Workers Union (with the Communications Workers of America). Employees at the startup Glitch, crowdfunding web site Kickstarter and the digital media outlets BuzzFeed and Vox also voted to form unions in 2020.

White collar workers and tech perma-temps

Among white collar workers, many have been subjected to second-class treatment as temporary contractors and sub-contractors. In 2000, Microsoft had to pay a $97 million fine to settle a landmark class-action lawsuit in which thousands of workers accused the company of misclassifying them as temps and improperly denying them benefits. Those workers later formed a small union that today calls itself the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers

Back at Google, where over 120,000 temps, vendors, and contractors — or TVCs, as they are called — make up more than half of Google’s global workforce, a two-tier caste system means contractors are treated worse than the direct employees, doing similar work. They receive less pay, benefits and have no paid vacation time, even though assignments often take a year or two to complete.

The vote marked the first time that white collar workers or contractors at any Google location unionized.

Some Google employees signed a petition denouncing unfair treatment of temp workers, amidst accusations of wage theft by some Google third party contractors. A number of US Senators wrote a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, urging Google to extend regular employee status to its hundred thousand plus temp workforce. 

But it had little impact. So finally in September 2019 a group of about 90 contractors in Pittsburgh, who worked for Google sub-contractor HCL America, voted to join the United Steelworkers. They call themselves the Pittsburgh Association of Tech Professionals, and the vote marked the first time that white collar workers or contractors at any Google location unionized. 

But that victory was small and short-lived – in retaliation, HCL America outsourced the work from Pittsburgh to Poland, resulting in the NLRB charging HCL America with breaking US labor law and refusing to bargain in good faith. That case is still pending. 

Case studies: two types of organizing in Big Tech companies

In 2021, two important organizing efforts at giant tech companies are illustrative of the types of worker activism going on inside digital platform companies. Both have made significant headway, though they are different in their strategies and potential outcomes. 

The most important of these efforts is the first ever unionization drive at an Amazon warehouse over basic bread-and-butter issues; the second one, which has garnered many headlines, is among regularly-employed white-collar workers at Google who have launched what is known as a “minority union.”

It tries to act as a unified megaphone for workers, and mobilize mass support.

After several years of issue activism and protest by Google workers, in January 2021 that culminated in a union organizing attempt among a small core of regular, white-collar employees at Google’s parent company, Alphabet. But Alphabet workers took a nontraditional path by deciding to form what is known as a “minority union.” Also known as a solidarity union, it starts by providing a visible presence for ongoing activism within the company, focusing on building worker solidarity. It tries to act as a unified megaphone for workers, and mobilize mass support. It allows all Alphabet employees to participate, including contractors as well as regular employees, and whether they’re a programmer, secretary or janitor. This structure is less formal than a federally-recognized union, and does not require a certification vote of all workers or have dues-paying members. 

But it also means the union can’t be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, and can’t force Alphabet management to negotiate. However, it doesn’t prevent the members from seeking NLRB recognition or collective bargaining in the future.This organizing model has been used in states where labor laws are unfavorable, resulting in minority unions like the Texas State Employees Union and the United Campus Workers in Tennessee.

The new Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) launched in early January with 225 workers; within three weeks it had more than tripled in size to over 700, and formally aligned with the Communications Workers of America. While that’s just a fraction of Alphabet’s workforce, it has potential because it includes employees from all areas of the company, and can organically grow even as it influences other tech companies. 

Internationalizing unionization at Google

The launch of AWU already has quickly scaled into an international union alliance of Google workers across the globe, from nearly a dozen countries, including the US, Germany, Switzerland, UK, Italy, Sweden, Canada and others. Alpha Global is affiliated with the UNI Global Union, a federation of labor unions representing 20 million workers worldwide. Alpha Global’s objective is to unite Google workers everywhere. The coalition isn’t initially aiming for legally binding agreements with the company, but will focus on impacting core technology issues, like the treatment of content moderators, or workers forced to sign nondisclosure agreements. Later, it may try to pressure Google to sign a neutrality agreement regarding its workers’ attempts to unionize. 

Amazon workers in anti-union Alabama fight back

For some observers, both pro- and anti-union, the Alphabet Workers Union might seem like a “half a loaf” attempt at unionization. But that cannot be said about the unionizing drive among nearly 6000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers in a large warehouse (“fulfillment center,” as Amazon euphemistically calls it) are already voting in their union certification election. 

One way Amazon has amassed such massive profits is by stealing its workers’ wages. In February, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Amazon owed $61.7 million to its delivery drivers for withholding their tips. Warehouse workers at numerous sites have protested low wages and poor working conditions by this trillion dollar company (see my previous Mitbestimmungsportal column “Amazon workers fight back”).

They must answer to robotic productivity systems that discipline them if they fall behind their production quota.

In the Bessemer warehouse, worker complaints include basic bread-and-butter issues. Besides low wages – about $15 per hour for many workers – the physical strain of warehouse jobs takes a toll. Workers say they are penalized for taking too long to use the bathroom or to get a drink of water. They must answer to robotic productivity systems that discipline them if they fall behind their production quota. Worker complaints to human resources are ignored, including requests for adequate protections against Covid-19 in their facility (in a region where the infection rate has been a skyhigh 17%). One employee, Darryl Richardson, says he and his coworkers should be “getting treated fair, getting treated with respect, getting paid like they supposed to. Don’t work us like robots.” 

This is the biggest unionization push at Amazon since the company’s founding in 1995. The workers are being assisted in their organizing drive by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. President Joe Biden has spoken out strongly in favor of their unionization drive. But Republican-controlled Alabama isn’t friendly to organized labor, and is one of 27 “right-to-work states” where workers aren’t required to pay dues to unions that represent them (which undermines membership and financial support of the union). In fact, the state is home to the only Mercedes-Benz plant in the world that isn’t unionized.

Some labor experts predict a coming wave of organizing among Amazon workers.

In addition Amazon, the second-largest employer in the US, has a history of crushing unionization drives. In Bessemer, the company has engaged in its usual intimidation tactics. Those include one-on-one meetings, daily anti-union classes, retaliation, frequent propaganda emails, flyers posted inside bathroom stalls, and even trying to delay the certification vote. But the National Labor Relations Board overturned Amazon’s voter suppression tactics.

What might carry the day in this election, which is scheduled to end on 29 March, is the sense of solidarity that comes from the fact that approximately 85% of the workers are black (much higher than the 22% for warehouse workers nationwide). In addition, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDS Union, says the drive’s success is partly due to the pandemic, with workers feeling betrayed because Amazon didn’t do enough to protect them.

Workers at fulfillment centers in Seattle, New York and Iowa have also started organizing union drives this year. If the Bessemer workers succeed, some labor experts predict a coming wave of organizing among Amazon workers. In one survey of Amazon employees, more than 40% said they wish they were in a union

Signs of green grass growing…

Worker activism and union organizing inside Silicon Valley companies is not the desert that it once was. There are signs of green grass growing up through the cracks of this hard time of pandemic, corporate ascendancy and labor retrenchment. And the breadth and diversity of labor activity among a range of companies is inspiring, and a strength of this still-growing movement. 

But these Big Tech companies are among the largest and most dominant in the world. And different occupations of workers from different companies, affected by different conditions including wage and benefits, may limit solidarity. It remains to be seen if these stirrings of worker sovereignty are able to scale and grow into a powerful movement.