Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook are among the biggest and most powerful corporations in history, staffed by hundreds of thousands of employees and contractors. Most of Amazon’s workforce labors in warehouses, and the janitors who clean up after Google workers don’t get the same benefits and protections as employees. Many jobs considered white collar, such as writing code, selling software and moderating content, are done by contractors, too.
Union drives have popped up among groups of those blue-collar tech workers for years, but labor activism is cropping up among more privileged employees as well. Demands for stronger policies against sexual harassment and more support for women and people of color have already led to changes at the tech giants. Google’s decision in December to fire its star artificial intelligence researcher — one of the most prominent Black women in the field — led to calls against censoring research critical of Google and demands to investigate the firings of outspoken employees.
There’s another key element at play, though. Some workers don’t like the role their companies have in society, such as selling AI software to militaries or facial recognition tools to police. Employees at Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube have all tried to apply pressure on their bosses to clamp down on abusive, racist and sexist content on their platforms.
The highest-profile example came this month when Twitter banned President Donald Trump from its site after 350 employees wrote a letter demanding an investigation into the company’s decisions to keep Trump on its platform. At the end of the day, the growing tension between workers and management represents a power struggle as tech giants, some of which started with idealistic visions, have emerged as corporate behemoths with little accountability.
What’s the history of unions in Silicon Valley?
Well before the digital era, the area now known as Silicon Valley was the largest fruit-producing region in the world and a hotbed of labor activity. That changed when tech took over in the 1960s.
Robert Noyce, the founder of Intel, laid out the industry’s union-skeptical position early on. “Remaining nonunion is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules of union companies, we’d all go out of business,” Noyce once said, according to “Silicon Valley Fever,” a 1984 book chronicling the tech industry’s early years.
Noyce’s position has remained an article of faith ever since. For tech founders, the ability to shift their businesses quickly, hiring and firing as needed and paying workers with stock options instead of offering traditional salaries and benefits, is key to success. In his book “Temp,” Cornell University history professor Louis Hyman argues that the use of contractors in Silicon Valley is an extension of that mind-set, allowing companies to downsize quickly without looking like they were laying off hundreds of employees.
Most Silicon Valley leaders still see their industry as a true meritocracy, where employees are generously compensated, can easily switch jobs and don’t need a union to advocate for them. But a growing number of activists both inside and outside the companies don’t agree. Union advocates say discrimination faced by women and people of color at the tech companies proves the need for stronger worker protections. Unions can also be a way for workers to have their voices heard about the issues they have with decisions executives are making, such as which politicians to give money to or whether to sell software to the military and police.
Why does it matter?
What happens in Silicon Valley matters around the world. Other companies look to the tech industry for ideas on how to structure their workforces and set human resources policies. Successfully unionizing even a handful of workers at the biggest and most important American corporations would also be a big win for the labor movement, whose power has been shrinking over the past several decades.
If unions really are the drag on productivity that their critics say they are, their presence could have long-term negative effects on the economic power of U.S. tech giants. Some tech workers are concerned that companies such as Google, which prided itself on having an open culture, will become even less transparent if employees are represented by a union.
“Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees,” Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations, said in a statement when employees announced their union.
But even if unionization efforts don’t take hold among the majority of tech workers, the fact that the conversation is happening marks a real change of attitude in Silicon Valley. The debate over how much power the workers should have to influence decisions at their companies, who gets fired or hired, and whether the widespread use of contractors should continue is far from over.
Is the Google initiative different from a traditional union?
Yes and no. Americans may be more familiar with unions representing autoworkers or steelworkers, which bargain over a contract to win better wages and working conditions. That type of union typically seeks federal certification to prove that it represents the majority of employees — a long and often contentious process conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.
The Google effort, on the other hand, is a “minority” union, more common in the 1930s. A group of about 230 employees and contractors who work for Google and other parts of its parent company Alphabet launched the Alphabet Workers Union in January to advance worker rights and push progressive causes.
Members will pay dues and the union will have an elected board and paid staff, but it won’t have the right to bargain with Alphabet because it’s not certified by the NLRB.
The Alphabet group also differs from a traditional union in accepting independent contract workers, which make up about half of Google’s workforce but are officially employed by other firms. Contractors are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act, which enshrines the right to form a union and take collective action, which is part of the reason the Alphabet union opted for this structure, says Auni Ahsan, a Google employee and member of the union’s council. Ahsan also pointed out that NLRB certification comes with few protections. Google contractors in Pittsburgh who formed a union in 2019 have struggled to get the contracting agency that employs them, HCL America, to come to the bargaining table, even after the NLRB filed a complaint.
Since launching, the Alphabet group has joined a global confederation of unions and tripled its U.S. membership to more than 700. But that’s still a tiny proportion of the 260,000 people who work for the company worldwide.
Inside Google, the move was met with mixed reactions. According to a current employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal communications, on an internal mailing list some Googlers accused the union of representing only a thin slice of political views at the company, while others made jokes like, “Does this mean we are going to get full-sized kombucha back?”
What about unionization efforts at Amazon?
Amazon employs hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers whose jobs are worlds away from the white-collar offices. Unionization efforts have popped up from time to time, mostly focused on improving wages and safety. During the coronavirus pandemic, concerns over safety have increased. In October, the company said nearly 20,000 of its U.S. employees had tested positive or had been presumed positive for the virus since the pandemic took hold. Amazon has more than 1 million workers worldwide.
(The Washington Post is owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos.)
For years, the e-commerce giant has fought unionization attempts. The latest skirmish heated up in November, when workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., filed a notice with the NLRB to hold a union vote. The agency called for a seven-week mail-in voting period to begin Feb. 8 for nearly 6,000 workers.
It’s brewing into a major labor battle at one of the country’s largest employers. Amazon has already set up an anti-union website — DoItWithoutDues.com — discouraging workers from paying dues and joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. And the company is challenging the election procedures, pressing for in-person voting even during the pandemic.
Unlike the Google union, the Amazon workers are seeking full certification from the NLRB. That would give them the ability to collectively bargain for a contract, as well as provide job-security protections that nonunion workers don’t have. Amazon has said the union doesn’t represent the majority of its workers’ views, its warehouses are safe, and workers are paid a minimum wage of $15 an hour with generous benefits.
How are tech companies responding?
Perhaps the surest sign that Big Tech thinks unions can have a substantial impact is found in the companies’ responses.
Amazon’s anti-union website isn’t the only example of companies pushing back against organizing efforts in their workforces. In 2019, Google hired IRI Consultants, a firm known for working on anti-union efforts. The company also fired several workers that year who said they’d been let go for organizing other employees. Google said at the time the employees had broken rules on information sharing. Late last year, the NLRB accused Google of spying on and firing those workers. Google has said it’s confident in the legality of the firings.
The search giant was one of a group of companies that had asked the NLRB to overturn an Obama-era rule that forced employers to let employees use company email for labor organizing. In 2019, the NLRB reversed the rule.
Are gig workers allowed to unionize?
Most gig workers, like those who drive for Uber or delivery groceries for Instacart, are classified as independent contractors and not protected by the NLRA. Efforts to reclassify gig workers as employees have been stymied by division among Democrats and tremendous pressure from multibillion-dollar tech companies.
After California legislators in 2019 passed AB5, granting employee status to gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers, a coalition of gig companies, including Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash spent more than $200 million on a state ballot initiative that reversed the gains of AB5 in exchange for limited benefits. Instead of guaranteeing the minimum wage or health insurance, Proposition 22 promised minimum earnings restricted to the time a passenger is in the vehicle, not the amount of time spent working, and a stipend for health care.
Gig workers and their advocates are pushing ahead with efforts to organize, even as tech companies have moved quickly to push for Proposition 22 in other states and squash nascent union efforts. In January, Instacart fired its only unionized workers, a group of 10 employees in Skokie, Ill., as part of a larger layoff of nearly 2,000 in-store shoppers, who pick and pack groceries and are the only segment of Instacart’s workforce classified as employees. Earlier in January, the grocery chain Albertsons laid off employees who handled delivery and replaced them with contractors from DoorDash, a move interpreted by critics as a response to Proposition 22’s success. Meanwhile, a group of gig workers and unions has filed a lawsuit in California Supreme Court to have Proposition 22 overturned.
In response to tech company crackdowns and lobbying, gig workers have shifted their strategy to emphasize building worker-led movements and increasing their ranks, rather than focusing on employment status as the primary goal, says Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. The hope is that with President Biden in the White House and an even split in the Senate, legislators will mobilize at the federal level, through the NLRA or bills like the PRO Act, to recognize gig worker collectives as real unions.
“I think we’re going to see more militancy” such as work stoppages, direct action and consumer boycotts, Dubal said.