2022 Trends: What Can We Learn from Unionization in the Tech Sector?

Unionization in the tech sector is on the upswing, challenging tech sector employers to understand the needs of employees. Union organizing in tech follows traditional and non-traditional organizing paths, uses digital communication technologies extensively, and often involves full-time employees advocating for temporary vendors and contracted workers. The unionization movement in the tech sector is an excellent example of how union organizing strategies are changing as employees embrace a wider range of issues in the workplace.  

What are Tech Workers? 

Changing workforce demographics and the growing tech industry is placing more labor in tech jobs. Tech workers are white color workers but are becoming more like modernized blue-collar workers. They assemble codes and produce software for business, gaming, healthcare, finance, aerospace and air transportation, and any other industry you can think of. Tech workers also build networks, assemble hardware, and repair computer equipment. They work on manufacturing floors monitoring programs that assess equipment performance and use their skills to manufacture components requiring technology.  

Just for clarification, the tech sector is already large and growing. Statista tracks tech sector employment by characteristic and has 16 types of jobs listed. They include CIOs, IT managers, systems analysts and engineers, network architects, computer programmers, and software developers. There were more than 5.2 million tech workers in 2020, and Statista predicts there will be more than six million by 2030. For comparison, hospitals are one of the ten biggest industries in the U.S. by employment and has five million workers in 2022.  

The point is that there is a real potential for many employees in the tech sector to unionize as independent unions or as members of traditional labor unions like the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Most companies today – small and large – have tech workers, increasing the vulnerability to union organizing on a new front. They are not necessarily tech sector employers but need tech workers.   

Do Tech Companies Have Unions?  

Yes, tech sector employers are seeing their employees form independent unions or vote to join a traditional labor union.  

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) is a major player in unionization in the tech sector. It launched the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA) in 2020 as a specific effort to unionize the tech, game, and digital industries. The CWA hired Emma Kinema, cofounder of Game Workers Unite (GWU), and Wes McEnany, a leader in the Fight for 15 organizing campaign.   

Following are some of the successful union organizing in tech efforts that also demonstrate the various ways tech employees are unionizing. Not all are following a traditional path of unionizing. Currently, the two most influential traditional labor unions in the tech industry are CWA and OPEIU though the Teamsters union is beginning to target the tech sector also.  

  • March 2020 – One of the first tech employee groups to unionize was at Glitch. The employees unionized through CWA Local 1101, and the company voluntarily recognized the union. 
  • January 2021 – Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) – CWA Local 1400 was launched and is open to employees and temporary, vendor, and contract workers (TVCs). The AWU chose not to register with the NLRB.  
  • April 2021 – NPR tech employees in the Digital Media Division won union certification, becoming members of NABET-CWA Local 31 through CODE-CWA. NPR voluntarily recognized Digital Media United
  • April 2021 – At the New York Times, 650 employees filed for union certification with the NLRB. They unionized with the News Guild-CWA.  
  • May 2022 – Activision Blizzard's Raven Software QA Department became the first game development employees to win union certification after being denied voluntary recognition. The union is called the Game Workers Alliance/CWA. 
  • July 2022 - Tender Claws employees announced on Twitter that their employer voluntarily recognized the union with the local CWA. The union is called the Tender Claws Union.   
  • The OPEIU Tech Workers Union Local 1010 is a local OPEIU union that is run by and for tech workers. OPEIU is the acronym for the Office of Professional Employees International Union.  
  • February 2020 – Kickstarter joined OPEIU 153, calling their union Kickstarter United. The first collective bargaining agreement was ratified in June 2022. 

There are other independent tech worker unions. The IBM Workers Organization and Game Workers Unite are two examples. 

unionization in tech

Why are Tech Workers Organizing? 

The younger employees expect their employers to have a Corporate Responsibility policy fully supported through ethical actions, strategies, and initiatives. As we have previously discussed in 2022 predicted trends, CSR areas include racial justice, climate change, and harassment prevention. We can now add diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and other social justice issues to the mix.  

On its website, Digital Media United summed up the many reasons tech workers are choosing to unionize. Their vision covers all the areas of dissatisfaction with their employer and is similar to what tech workers in other companies want. Quoting the website, workers want:  

  • Equal pay for equal work 
  • Policies restricting the use of temporary status 
  • Hiring processes that ensure the consideration of a diverse pool of applicants 
  • Compensation comparable to peer organizations 
  • Pathways to advancement in every career track 
  • Staffing levels commensurate with the needs of our growing audience 
  • Processes for effective collaboration across the organization 

The Kickstarter United collective bargaining agreement took over two years to finalize. Once again, quoting the website, the employees secured:  

  • A guaranteed minimum 3% annual cost of living raise. 
  • Salary benchmarking based on a national average — no geographic pay bands. 
  • A profit-sharing bonus pool so that when Kickstarter thrives, we all benefit. 
  • An annual pay equity review to guard against any potential discriminatory pay practices. 
  • Guaranteed development frameworks for every role so that we know how to advance in our careers. 
  • "Just cause" provisions so that no one is disciplined or fired without clear, documented reason. 
  • A transparent process for progressive discipline. 
  • Criteria for performance improvement that prioritizes support instead of punishment for those who are struggling in their role. 
  • A clear process to support anyone who needs workplace accommodations. 
  • Increased leaves of absence to 90 days for creative pursuits or for personal reasons with continued health coverage. Protected existing PTO, volunteer time, sick time, and parental leave. 
  • $3,000 per year stipend for wellness, education, and remote work expenses. 
  • An anti-discrimination clause that goes far above the legal minimum. 
  • No intrusive monitoring on our work computers and devices. 
  • Time in lieu for any hours worked beyond a full work week. Limits on the use of subcontractors so that no bargaining unit role is replaced by a subcontractor. 
unionization in tech

How Is Union Organizing Different In The Tech Sector? 

Activism and union organizing in the tech sector has ramped up in the last few years. There are some aspects of unionizing in the tech sector to note.  

Tech Workers Use Tech to Organize 

Thinking of tech workers as a unique group of employees who mostly quietly work at home or alone in offices and get paid well underestimates the tech workforce as a powerful employee group with needs like other employees. One of the differences, though, is that these workers have advanced technical skills and can connect with other workers easily and stealthily.  

Apple, a tech giant, found that out when employees commandeered Slack to create new Slack channels without management's knowledge. When Apple restricted access to Slack, the employees filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), saying their right to discuss pay equity was impeded.  

Many Small Bargaining Units 

The second characteristic of note is that a number of the efforts involve a bargaining unit that is only a subgroup of the entire workforce. Small bargaining units are a trend across the tech industry. There are two implications with this trend.  

As an employer, when one group of employees joins a union, the risk of other groups doing the same increases. You could end up with multiple bargaining units, which leads to multiple contracts and makes it more difficult for your leaders to manage labor relations from contract compliance to employee engagement.  

Another notable characteristic of tech union organizing is that many of the efforts involve a small number of employees. For example, there were 13 Tender Claws employees and 22 employees at Raven Software-Activision Blizzard.  

Employees from Different Tech Companies Band Together in Protests 

Google employees had been protesting Project Nimbus before there was a contract, an agreement that has Google and Amazon supplying Israel with artificial intelligence tools and other technology services. The companies signed the contract in April 2021 anyway, and the protests are continuing.   

In fact, in September 2022, hundreds of Amazon and Google workers in four cities protested Project Nimbus contracts signed with the Israeli government in the belief the technology would be used to conduct surveillance against the Palestinians. The signs had statements like, "Amazon get off it, put people over profit!" and "No justice, no peace! Tech workers in the streets!"   

Notice the protest signs don't say, "Pay higher wages" or "Increase benefits." They say things like "No tech for blockading and bombing" and "Another Google worker against Apartheid."   

Indistinguishable Workers with Distinguishable Rights: Who Can Unionize? 

The sector is complicated because tech workers are employees and temporary and contracted labor working side-by-side. Gig workers don't get benefits and have no job security. The two groups of workers – employees and contracted workers - are indistinguishable regarding their status regarding work performance, which is the crux of the matter.   

Employees want a voice in the workplace to get more pay, better work schedules, projects that fall within CSR, and so on, and they want gig workers to have many of the same benefits and rights. This has emerged as a major issue among organizers. The gig workers are TVCs – lingo for independent vendors, temporary workers, and contractors.   

Zoom back to 2018 when Google employees brought the tech workers into the limelight. Several things happened. More than 20,000 Google workers across 50 offices walked out in November 2018 to protest how management handled sexual assault and harassment claims. The contractors were uncertain whether they could join the walkout and not get fired. As it was, unlike employees, they didn't get paid for the missed work hours. Many of the contractors did join the protest, and the next day, Google agreed to stop mandating forced arbitration cases when they involved sexual harassment or assault. Also, Google agreed to allow employees to bring a representative to meetings in Human Resources when it involved these situations. Gig workers were excluded.   

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has its sights set on converting many independent workers to employee status by changing the rules. Independent contractors in tech companies don't get the same employment protections as full-time tech employees. The NLRB and the IRS believe tech companies have misclassified millions of workers as independent contractors to avoid paying overtime and some benefits, violated employment laws concerning termination of employees and failed to give workplace discrimination protections. 

What Does The Rise In Unionization In The Tech Sector Mean For Other Industries? What Can We Learn? 

What can we learn from unionization in the tech sector? Big tech employees are inspired by movements in other industries, like Amazon and Starbucks in the retail industry.  

One of the lessons learned from tech workers concerning organizing is that employees once considered unlikely to organize are now forming or joining unions. The days of the "classic" union demographic are gone. Any group of employees is vulnerable to union organizing.  

Another lesson is that tech workers realize they are not so different from other employees. Tech workers have traditionally been considered unique and highly specialized white-collar workers, but once again, employers across industries should recognize that any group of employees can unionize. Many of the tech company employees leading organizing efforts and protests include high-paid programmers and coders. Some believe they must step up and lead the organizing effort to empower other employees and contractors, temporary and part-time workers, who may not have as much influence.  

It's become apparent that many employees believe they can do better by organizing an independent union because they have more say. The issues unions are interested in have greatly expanded to embrace social justice, environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and employee voice or having some participatory role in decision-making. A software engineer at Google told KQED News that he wants to organize his coworkers because "We really want to save Alphabet from itself," he said, to "stop it from becoming just another one of these huge, inhuman, faceless entities that just bulldozes humanity for the sake of profit."   

Tech workers are also willing to conduct walkouts and protests, many for a short period of time, like one day, and to go directly to the media with their issues. Each time they do so, the risk of the media coverage damaging the corporate reputation is high. The Alphabet Workers Union went to Twitter to air an issue over at-home COVID tests. Google gave high-tech test machines to full-time employers but not temporary, vendor, and contracted workers. The full-time workers saw this as blatantly unfair. An AWU Twitter post said, "Unlike FTEs, only TVCs who are required to work on-site can access Google-provided Covid tests. But not the fancy, instantaneous results kind that FTEs got. TVCs who qualify only get a mail-in type test."  

Another Twitter post said, "Google relies on a two-tiered workforce to deny the near majority of their workers the pay, benefits & rights they deserve in order to pad the pockets of a few executives & investors. That is why TVCs, even those who perform the same work as FTEs, don't get equal treatment."  

Also, organizing online is common now for both traditional labor unions and independent labor unions. This makes it more difficult for employers to monitor for signs of union organizing. Employees and other workers use social media, websites, apps, and other technology tools to conduct digital organizing campaigns.  

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Employee Engagement is the Key to a Positive Workplace Culture 

Unionization in the tech sector will continue trending upward. Tech workers who support union organizing see the effort as bigger than asking for more pay and benefits. They see themselves as people fighting the big tech corporations whom they believe have created an industry culture that believes in taking advantage of employees and other types of workers. From this perspective, union organizing in tech is a social justice issue. Several tech sector employers have agreed to recognize the unions and avoid going through a union campaign and vote.  

Tech sector employers can learn from the union activity that has already occurred. One of the clearest lessons is that assessing union vulnerability, conducting employee engagement surveys, and strengthening employee engagement are the first critical steps to forming positive employee relations. It's always better to learn your employees' needs first and not wait for them to go public. Developing a strong employee voice within your organization will help close the communication gap between employees and management. One thing is certain: unionization in the tech sector is not going to end. It will continue to grow stronger.  

IRI Consultants can assist your organization with an assessment of union vulnerability and employee needs. The information will become the foundation for creating a strategic plan for developing a positive employee experience. 

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