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.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.