The Failure to Unionize the Tech Industry Will Eat the Labor Movement Alive

The pandemic has made tech stronger, but unions haven’t caught up.

Big tech is get­ting big­ger. The five biggest pub­lic com­pa­nies in Amer­i­ca are all tech com­pa­nies. Their stock prices have col­lec­tive­ly risen by more than a third this year. The coro­n­avirus has been a bless­ing for them. It has super­charged their growth, even as it’s dev­as­tat­ed many oth­er busi­ness­es. When this pan­dem­ic is over, the tech industry’s share of our econ­o­my?—?and all of the pow­er that comes with that?—?will be greater than ever.

The Gild­ed Age is here again. Not with rail­roads and steel com­pa­nies, but with tech com­pa­nies, which are tak­ing over old indus­tries and form­ing new ones, divert­ing enor­mous piles of wealth towards them­selves along the way. Gates and Bezos and Zucker­berg and Musk are the new Rock­e­feller and Carnegie and Mel­lon and Ford. The unique nature of this cri­sis, which has kept peo­ple inside and on screens, has only accel­er­at­ed the over­haul of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my. The indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion is long gone, and the tech rev­o­lu­tion can declare vic­to­ry. Ana­lysts say we are in a ?“bear mar­ket for humans,” as tech com­pa­nies are reward­ed for their abil­i­ty to squeeze human work­ers out of exis­tence. The cap­i­tal has shift­ed, and the labor is just being dragged along.

Ide­al­ly, orga­nized labor is an equal coun­ter­bal­ance to cor­po­rate pow­er. In Amer­i­ca in 2020, where only one in ten work­ers is a union mem­ber, that is obvi­ous­ly not the case. Cap­i­tal runs the show. The abil­i­ty of the work­ing class to exer­cise fun­da­men­tal pow­er over the terms and con­di­tions of our econ­o­my is extreme­ly lim­it­ed, exist­ing only in cer­tain pock­ets of cer­tain indus­tries. If we ever hope to reverse our 40-year climb in inequal­i­ty and re-cre­ate the mid­dle class and wrench our soci­ety back toward fair­ness, work­ing peo­ple need to be able to exer­cise pow­er in the con­text of the entire econ­o­my, not just in iso­lat­ed places. That is the scale of change that the labor move­ment needs to aim for. Unions need to be every­where cap­i­tal is, or cap­i­tal will win and labor will lose. Our exist­ing world proves that basic point. Right now, there is no more gap­ing hole for orga­nized labor than the tech indus­try. Unions have almost no pow­er there. And that’s where all the eco­nom­ic pow­er lies. This is not a small prob­lem for unions?—?it is an exis­ten­tial one.

Apple is not union. Microsoft is not union. Not Ama­zon, nor Alpha­bet, nor Face­book. Those five com­pa­nies alone are worth $7.3 tril­lion. Not only is all of that pow­er com­plete­ly untouched by the influ­ence of unions, but almost all small­er tech com­pa­nies are non-union as well. It is not hard to see that if our goal is to allow orga­nized labor to exert mean­ing­ful influ­ence over the entire econ­o­my, then it is a fair­ly major prob­lem that orga­nized labor is absent from the indus­try that exerts the most influ­ence over the entire econ­o­my. The tech indus­try is the biggest fail­ure of the union move­ment in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Smart peo­ple in the labor move­ment have under­stood this fact for some time. Indeed, there has been a decent amount of non-union labor orga­niz­ing in the tech indus­try over the past five years or so, result­ing in some vis­i­ble actions like the 2018 Google walk­outs. Though that orga­niz­ing has val­ue, it does not pro­duce a last­ing inter­nal struc­ture that can col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain and per­ma­nent­ly change the bal­ance of pow­er between work­ers and man­age­ment and investors. That would require a union. When we gaze out across the land­scape of the mighty tech indus­try in search of suc­cess­ful union orga­niz­ing, there are decid­ed­ly slim pick­ings.

One bright spot is Kick­starter, where employ­ees won a bit­ter fight to union­ize ear­li­er this year. Pan­dem­ic-induced lay­offs have cut that unit from around 90 to 50 employ­ees in recent months, but the work­ers say the union has been a suc­cess­ful safe­ty net, allow­ing them to bar­gain for bet­ter sev­er­ance. In a col­lec­tive state­ment, the Kick­starter union says that ?“The pan­dem­ic has done away with the illu­sion that tech labor is excep­tion­al­ly secure,” and that they are a demon­stra­tion to oth­ers in their indus­try that a union can not only pro­tect work­ers, but also ?“ensure the soft­ware we pro­duce not be deployed in ways that con­tribute to the mad­ness around us.”

?“Our expe­ri­ence has giv­en us hope that the pro­gres­sive cul­ture of Amer­i­can tech will rapid­ly lead to the wide­spread under­stand­ing that 2020 is the time to orga­nize,” the Kick­starter union says. ?“It’s time for Amer­i­can tech to move past its ?‘move fast, break things’ phase into an era of solv­ing real prob­lems for real peo­ple. We believe it falls to us, the work­ers, to imple­ment this ethos.”

Grace Reck­ers, an orga­niz­er at the Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (OPEIU) who helped to orga­nize Kick­starter, says that there has been a sub­se­quent influx of inter­est from work­ers at oth­er tech com­pa­nies, and that there are sev­er­al new orga­niz­ing dri­ves in progress. She says that the stereo­type of tech employ­ees?—?indi­vid­u­al­is­tic engi­neers with lib­er­tar­i­an ideals and lit­tle inter­est in col­lec­tive action?—?is just not accu­rate. ?“In NYC, the oppo­site is true,” Reck­ers says. ?“A lot of peo­ple are dri­ven to work [at tech com­pa­nies] because of mis­sion-based val­ues of the com­pa­ny. They have pol­i­tics that align with some mis­sion of the com­pa­ny.”

Google famous­ly pro­claimed ?“Don’t Be Evil.” When such com­pa­nies are worth a tril­lion dol­lars, con­trol the media and exer­cise vast polit­i­cal pow­er, hold­ing them to their word can be a pow­er­ful moti­va­tion for employ­ees to orga­nize, even if those employ­ees are get­ting good salaries.

One of the only major unions that has launched a ded­i­cat­ed effort to orga­nize in tech is the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA), which hired two orga­niz­ers this year for a cam­paign called CODE. Its lead orga­niz­er is Emma Kine­ma, who co-found­ed the video game indus­try group Game Work­ers Unite. Kine­ma sees the tech indus­try as a sprawl­ing mon­ster with ten­ta­cles that reach from the media to enter­tain­ment to logis­tics to retail, touch­ing almost every­thing. She wor­ries not only about the direct employ­ees of tech com­pa­nies, but also about the cease­less ten­den­cy of tech to shunt more and more work­ers into a ?“gig econ­o­my” pur­ga­to­ry. And while she says that inter­est in orga­niz­ing is grow­ing con­stant­ly among work­ers, she is blunt about the lack of resources being devot­ed to the issue on a nation­al scale.

?“On the whole, the U.S. labor move­ment has com­plete­ly failed to rise to the chal­lenge of orga­niz­ing the tech indus­try,” she says. ?“If the move­ment under­stood just how essen­tial orga­niz­ing in tech was, we’d be set­ting up orga­niz­ing com­mit­tees like the CIO did,” seiz­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty pre­sent­ed by the pandemic’s unrest to under­take a mas­sive and well-coor­di­nat­ed indus­tri­al orga­niz­ing effort.

Alas, that is not what’s hap­pen­ing. The fail­ure thus far to orga­nize tech is a direct result of the lack of any strong cen­tral lead­er­ship from the union move­ment. Even if the few union orga­niz­ers cur­rent­ly work­ing on tech are the best orga­niz­ers in the world, it’s laugh­able to think that a hand­ful of under­paid union staffers can rea­son­ably take on a mul­ti-tril­lion dol­lar indus­try. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers will need to be orga­nized, and, in all like­li­hood, a new union will have to be formed for that pur­pose, because no exist­ing union has the spare tens of mil­lions of dol­lars per year it will take to run such an orga­niz­ing cam­paign in any­thing close to an ade­quate way. Log­i­cal­ly, the AFL-CIO should coor­di­nate this kind of effort, pool­ing resources from many unions for the good of the move­ment. In real­i­ty, there is no evi­dence that any of the union world’s biggest pow­ers have even grasped how urgent this issue is.

Yes, it will be a long and very expen­sive process to union­ize tech. That is beside the point. In the long run, suc­cess­ful union­iza­tion of an indus­try cre­ates self-sus­tain­ing labor pow­er that can grow, as dues mon­ey from well-paid new union mem­bers is pooled and direct­ed to where it’s most need­ed. Besides, we have no choice. Ask some­one try­ing to cob­ble togeth­er a liv­ing as an Uber dri­ver or Instacart work­er how well the pow­er of a tech indus­try com­plete­ly unchecked by labor pow­er is serv­ing them. Either we orga­nize tech, or it will orga­nize the rest of us to serve it.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 26, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected]

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