The year organized labor finally took root in big tech

Blessedly 2022, a year that by most people’s estimation will be remembered as lousy, will soon be in the rear view mirror of history. Hallelujah, life goes on.

There are any number of reasons to give a failing grade to The Year That Was: Inflation and the still-looming threat of another global recession, critical legislative losses on abortion and trans rights, yet another new covid variant, having to pay attention to Elon Musk — take your pick. But, in the realm of labor, there’s at least one reason to feel hopeful. 2022 was the year unions won elections to represent workers at two of the world’s biggest tech companies, with a third likely on the way.

Workers at an Apple Store in Towson, Maryland made history in June, becoming the first 110 unionized members of the tech giant’s approximately 160,000 person workforce. They chose to be represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, but the Baltimore-area staffers are far from alone. Retail workers at a store in Oklahoma City became the second unionized faction within Apple in October — backed by the Communications Workers of America — while another in Glasgow, Scotland — joining GMB — became the third in November.

Many other Apple Store locations have been agitating for better conditions as well, a non-exhaustive list of which includes two stores in New York City, one in St. Louis, and one in Atlanta. Some of these have stalled or been frustrated by the usual union-busting tactics, like an alleged policy created by management in New York’s World Trade Center location to curtail organizing. The company’s anti-union tactics in Atlanta have since been deemed illegal by the National Labor Relations Board. And of course, Apple reportedly hasn’t given up on undermining already unionized locations. Workers at that same Towson store claim the company is withholding new benefits seemingly in retaliation.

Amazon workers in Staten Island have likewise become the first to organize one of the company’s warehouses — and not with an established union, either. Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a grassroots effort which officially established itself last April, secured a win against tremendous odds, less than a year after forming. Those odds, incidentally, included retaliatory firings of leaders, using police to intimidate and arrest organizers and an (unsuccessful) attempt to overturn the unionization vote. Amazon has previously illegally interfered with a union election and reportedly retains the services of operatives from the infamous Pinkerton agency to spy on workers and labor groups. The company’s new CEO, Andy Jassy, recently violated labor laws in several interviews by openly stating his employees would be “better off without a union.” This is all to say ALU had a tremendous uphill climb and, incredibly, managed to pull it off.

As with Apple though, what we’re talking about is a first step. The company has not bargained a contract yet with workers from ALU, and will likely forestall and undermine that process as much as possible, whether by legal or illegal means.

ALU’s organizing efforts have branched out but have so far not found the same success. A warehouse in upstate New York voted overwhelmingly against unionization. However, management had put up digital banners at the same location ahead of its organizing drive instructing workers specifically not to sign union cards, again in apparent contravention of labor law. ALU withdrew a union petition to organize a warehouse in California in October, but has remained open to refiling. Apart from ALU, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters claimed last December that organizing Amazon facilities would be a top priority — seemingly it has focused those efforts on an Amazon Air hub in San Bernardino, where workers have walked out in August and October. The surrounding area — California’s inland empire — is believed to be home to the highest density of Amazon facilities in the company’s logistics network.

Microsoft, too, received an early Christmas present in the form of quality assurance testers at its subsidiary ZeniMax Media announcing their intention to unionize with the Communications Workers of America. While that election has not yet taken place, Microsoft’s president Brad Smith penned a lengthy screed earlier this year supposedly espousing the company’s openness to union representation within its ranks. To many (this author especially) Brad’s words were hot air intended to assuage regulators who are weighing whether to allow the company to merge with games giant Activision-Blizzard. Incidentally if that deal goes through, Microsoft will be home to three bargaining units: this past year QA testers at Raven Software and Blizzard Albany successfully joined the CWA in May and December, respectively, becoming the first workers not only at Activision but at any major games publisher to do so.

Necessarily a huge number of other labor actions in the tech space have been left out of this recollection, but for the most part they fit the pattern above: lower-paid workers at wildly profitable companies whose wages have not even remotely kept up with inflation. Adding insult to injury, tech companies, broadly, did extremely well during the pandemic while these same frontline workers risked their health and safety. Then this year, once economic forecasts became gloomier, many were swept up in downsizing decisions. It’s perfectly logical Amazon warehouse workers, games testers at Microsoft and Activision, support staff at Meta, cafeteria workers with Alphabet and Waymo, janitors at Twitter and retail associates at Apple, Google Fiber and Verizon would be unhappy with their work arrangements. It’s the same reason rail workers, nurses and Starbucks baristas have been agitating, and the same reason approval for unions is the highest it’s been since 1965. Things aren’t working. The hand they’ve been dealt is unwinnable. And though an imperfect tool, unions are one of the few ways workers can attempt to renegotiate the terms.

Unfortunately, labor law in the US leaves much to be desired. Companies have incredible power to delay bargaining, wearing down their own workforces by attrition while cooking up excuses to fire, lay off or manage out organizing leaders. Even after the hurdle of winning a union election, according to Bloomberg Law, the mean negotiation time to secure a contract is over 13 months — and many take significantly longer. The penalties for breaking labor law are so minimal, especially for companies of Big Tech’s size, as to be non-existent. Whether this groundswell of organizing continues to grow in the coming year remains in every way an open question, depending at least in part on economic realities. With layoffs continuing to ravage not just frontline workers but higher-wage tech jobs, there’s reasons enough to suspect it might.

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