Tech Employee Unionization Efforts
Unionization efforts have been successful at Kickstarter, Instacart, and Google, albeit from an activist perspective at Google. Amazon's experience with unionization in the US hinges on the outcome of a vote by employees at its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse. Additional tech companies with unionization experiences are Glitch and Spin (successful efforts), and with Lanetix, where attempts to unionize among workers which resulted in firings gained the company a fine from the National Labor Relations Board. This information is expanded upon in the brief below, along with the provision of brief insights relating to the rise of activism related unionization, and the impact of the passage of Proposition 22 in California.
- Kickstarter is a platform that applies crowdfunding techniques in the creative sector. The company operates as a Public Benefit Corporation, which is a company that seeks positive outcomes for its employees, the community, and the environment, as well as its shareholders.
- The Issues
- Prior to the current status quo regarding unionization at Kickstarter, staff were concerned about decisions from new leadership that led to project and staff changes, and a lack of internal consultation in decision-making at a company where the organizational structure was described as "open and generally flat."
- The trigger point for the unionization process among employees centered around the company's response to an external accusation that a comic book project titled "Always Punch Nazis," violated its internal rule against projects encouraging violence. Management at Kickstarter disagreed with an internal employee review that did not think the project violated company guidelines and took the project off the platform. Concerned that management were ceding to the demands of the far-right community, the workers began discussing the formation of the union.
- The Union
- In February 2020, Kickstarter employees voted 36 to 47 to form the Kickstarter United union. It is the first union in the technology sector comprised of full-time, white-collar workers. Details on the processes leading up to the formation of the union can be found in this article from KQED, and this article from Wired. Kickstarter United will focus its attention on issues such as non-retaliatory employee participation in product decision-making, gender, race, and other discriminatory issues, and future challenges to the company, according to union organizer, Clarissa Redwine.
- The union is affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153. Bargaining unit membership eligibility was negotiated between the workers and the company, given the difficulty in meeting the requirements of the National Labor Relations Board requirements for similarity in skills and duties in groups.
- The Process
- Prior to the formation of the union, the company responded by engaging in a communication drive with employees detailing the potential negative impacts from the creation of a union at the company, on company expenditure and innovation ability.
- When the firing of high profile union organizers, and the ensuing tense relations between management and staff became publicly known, the user community launched a campaign to support the drive to unionization.
- Kickstarter responded to the campaign with a commitment to a neutrality agreement. The neutrality agreement asked the company and senior management to refrain from trying to stop union organizing provided the union did not speak to the press. According to spokesman, David Gallagher, the agreement allowed staff to consider the issue individually and collectively without external distractions.
- Post Formation
- Responding to the union's formation, company CEO, Aziz Hasan, has stated that the decision of the employees are both respected and supported, and indicated his pride over the "fair and democratic" process that led to its formation.
- Since its formation, the union has negotiated an agreement with management to provide cover for laid off workers, inclusive of four months' severance pay, after an internal company memo indicated that it would be introducing cost-cutting measures after there was a 35% drop in new crowdfunding projects on the site.
- Instacart is an online grocery service that partners with personal shoppers and grocery retailers to deliver groceries to users in a short time frame. The company sources its income from delivery and service fees, a percentage of the order volume, subscription services, and ad revenue.
- The Issue
- Instacart's unionization issues revolves around personal shoppers. The majority of the company's shoppers are classed as full-service independent contractors who fulfill orders, deliver to the Instacart client, and are paid per order completed.
- However, beginning in 2015, citing the need for training and supervision, the company hired a subset of workers who were in-store shoppers working as part-time hourly paid employees handling orders in store. These employees were accorded minimum wage protection under US law and are classed as part-time employees because Instacart exerted control over the duration of their work week.
- Citing a shift to a Partner Pick model by grocers, Instacart has decided to reduce its in store operations at certain retailer locations. This is expected to impact over 1,800 in-store shoppers, including 10 workers at a Kroger's owned store in Skokie, Illinois, who voted to unionize in 2020.
- The Union
- In February 2020, 15 Instacart employees at Mariano's grocery store in Skokie, Illinois, voted to unionize under the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546 chapter.
- The vote was seen a landmark for gig worker activism because it was the first time that contracted employees formed a union to negotiate for better working conditions.
- At the time of formation, the union was focused on a collective bargaining agreement with corporate management aimed at improving access to health care, time off, and hourly wages
- The Process
- Instacart was not receptive to the formation of the union as leaked internal memo's detailed the company's response as the process to unionization at the Skokie store took place.
- The company sent high level managers to the store to distribute anti-union literature and to try to dissuade workers from voting for the union.
- Internal memos to shoppers asking them to vote against the union were leaked to the press. Copies of these memos can be viewed at this link.
- Post Formation
- The union at the Mariano's store in Skokie, Illinois, was in the process of negotiating its first contract covering health insurance and vacation time when Instacart made the announcement about the lay-offs.
- While Instacart has signaled its intent to transfer some personal shopper impacted by the reduction in operations, it remains unclear if union employees are among those under consideration for a transfer.
- Amazon is a multinational technology company operating in cloud computing, digital streaming, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce.
- Amazon & Labor — A Historical Perspective
- In the past, Amazon has been criticized for its labor practices, including for its termination of an employee who had called for unionization at a Staten Island warehouse in 2019. It has sought to hire an intelligence analyst, of which the job description referred to informing management and attorneys on topics such as ""labor organizing threats."" Amazon has also been accused of spying on workers to monitor actions related to organizing for labor purposes.
- In 2014, there was a drive to form a union by equipment maintenance and repair technicians, assisted by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, in a Delaware warehouse in 2014. However, to date the company's US operations has avoided unionization unlike the company's operations in Europe, which are for the most part unionized.
- It is currently the subject of a lawsuit filed by a previous employee regarding the company's failure to provide proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to its workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- However, the most serious challenge to Amazon's US operations from unionization is from the initiative of a group of warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, where voting to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO began on 8 February 2021.
- The Current Issue
- From 8 February to 29 March 2021, over 5,800 workers at a warehouse operated by Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama will vote to decide if they will become the first unionized facility for Amazon in the US.
- Among the issues prompting the workers to consider unionization are onerous productivity quotas, and having a voice in disciplinary and worker other worker related actions, improved communications between managers and workers at the warehouse (disciplinary actions are carried out via app), disorganization, and overall mistreatment of workers.
- Race is a subtext in the current drive, as the facility employs a predominantly African American workforce, and the fight for unionization has been framed around issues of ""respect and dignity,"" along with pay, by the union.
- The Process
- Prior to the vote Amazon has engaged in a direct communications drive with the employees, as well as engaged in legal action regarding the process around the vote.
- Regarding the legal actions, the company has attempted to delay the vote, stating that it should be done in person under COVID-19 protocols as this will ensure that turnout will be maximized. This came after the company sought to delay the hearings on the election at the National Labor Relations Board until after the Christmas holiday.
- In terms of direct actions with the workers at the warehouse, the company has launched a website to encourage workers not to join the union, placed anti-union messaging in bathroom stalls, leaflets, mandated anti-union meetings, and sent up to five text messages every day asking workers not to abandon a winning team.
- The vote has drawn the attention of Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Andy Levin and 49 other House representatives, who have chastised the company for its efforts in delaying the vote.
- Impact of a Vote to Unionize
- A vote to unionize at the Bessemer facility is expected to have a ripple effect and other non-unionized companies and Amazon facilities, even if short-term improvements may not be apparent.
- It is also important to note that Alabama is a "right to work" state, and workers have the option not to join then union, even if a majority vote is present.
- In 2019, a small group of contractors voted to form a union with the United Steel Workers. The vote passed 24 to 49 and is known as the Pittsburgh Association of Tech Professionals. These workers did not represent the bulk of workers at Google.
- The Union
- In January 2021, over 200 workers at Google formed a workers' union. The union is known as the Alphabet Workers Union and is open to US and Canadian workers at Alphabet. Eligible employees include full time employees, temporary workers, contractors, and vendors.
- The union is being organized not through ratification with the NLRB at this point, but rather as a minority union. Legally protected rights to action may not be protected under this setup, but it allows the union to incorporate a wider range of workers. The union is intended to provide a structure for activism at Google, instead of being created for contract negotiations.
- The Process
- Among the issues prompting this move by the workers are company mishandling of sexual harassment allegations, the role of Google in the building out of a "censored search engine in China," contractual relations with government agencies impacting on immigrants, appeals to environmental responsibility, and the treatment of temporary and contract workers at the company.
- The company drew the ire of the NLRB after allegations of unlawful questioning of workers subsequently terminated for "protesting company policies and trying to organize a union."
- Google has responded by voicing its support of protected labor rights for employees, but it has also hired IRI consultants, a firm viewed as possessing anti-union sentiment.
- Post Formation
- Since formation the union's membership has grown to over 700 employees and contractors, and has called on the company to remove video material with election falsehoods from YouTube.
- Glitch, formerly known as Fog Creek Software, launched in 2018 and is a tool for creating web apps, with an app store populated with apps created by professional and hobbyist developers. Pitching itself as easy to use, until April 2020, the app was free to use.
- In March 2020, the company announced that its employees would be able to join the Communications workers of America (CWA) at CWA Local 1101.
- Over 90% of workers supported the initiative to join the CWA, which is part of the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA) initiative launched in January 2020.
- In an official company statement, Glitch voiced its voluntary support for the decision on the employees and the unionization process.
- In May 2020, CEO Anil Dash informed via a tweet, that due to market conditions, at least 18 of the approximately 50 employees were terminated, as the company sought to cut costs and work towards long-term viability.
Winmore (formerly Lanetix)
- Lanetix, now operating as Winmore, was a cloud-based transportation and logistics platform formed in 2013 and operating out of San Francisco, California.
- In February 2018, the company fired a number of software engineers who tried to organize a union with the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America (CWA).
- In response, NewsGuild-CWA filed a compliant with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing Lanetix of illegal retaliation.
- However, before the complaint could be heard before the NLRB, Lanetix settled with the former workers and agreed to pay them $775,000.
- Spin was founded in San Francisco in 2016, is an operator of dock less mobility systems used in US cities and university campuses owed by Ford.
- In December 2019, workers at the San Francisco operations voted to join the Teamsters Local 665 union. The company signed a labor peace agreement with Teamsters Local 665 prior to the worker vote for union representation.
- The employees were able to join the union as they were classed as employees under the then Assembly Bill 5 in California.
- Among the reasons given for the unionization at the company were the desire for better pay, health care, and retirement security on the contract.
- In September 2020, the union successfully negotiated an agreement for the employees which incorporated annual wages increases of more than 3% per year, five sick days per year, a ratification bonus, vacation days based on employment terms, benefit accrual for part-time workers, among other benefits.
- Social and Ethical Unionization
- Tech industry workers are organizing around social and ethical issues, as well as employee benefit issues. Examples of this include employee action at Google to prevent the renewal of a Pentagon contract to use artificial intelligence (AI) for drones and the halting of a search engine with censoring capability for use in China, along with employee actions to prevent or stop company contracts at Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce, and GitHub with government agencies at the local and federal levels impacting on law enforcement, and immigration policies.
- California — Proposition 22
- In 2020, California passed Proposition 22. This is a law which allows app based gig companies to legally treat their workers as self-employed, instead of as employees.
- Propositions is viewed as an important piece of legislation, as it can potentially impact how the employer/employee work based model is shaped in the future.
- The legislation is seen as a huge deterrent to the ability to unionize in the gig economy both for the nature of its provisions, and for its potential to spread to other jurisdictions and industries.
- Uber, Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash, and Instacart, are five companies that supported the campaign for Proposition 22 in California to the tune of $200 million.
- In January 2021, Albertsons announced that DoorDash drivers would replace its own delivery drivers in its grocery service.
- A doctoral student at the University of California, created Collective Actions in Tech, an online database documenting worker actions in tech.