Tech Workers Organizing Is Nothing New ... But Them Actually Forming Unions Is

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In 1992, women and people of color led a strike at the Silicon Valley chip manufacturing plant, Versatronex. (Courtesy David Bacon)

Some 5 million Americans today work in information technology, based on the latest U.S. Census Bureau count.

That marks a growth of more than 35% over the last two decades, and doesn’t even factor in the many millions of workers in other industries whose jobs have become increasingly tech-focused.

Despite the rapid growth of its workforce, the tech sector is still among the least unionized major industries in the country. But that's not for lack of trying.

For decades, tech workers have faced consistent hurdles to organizing: lack of power on the job, workforces spread across the world, false narratives about working conditions, and staunch resistance from management.

Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, once reportedly argued that “remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we’d all go out of business.”

Despite staunch opposition, tech workers decades ago tried to build solidarity, first in high-tech manufacturing and then IT work. In the 1970s, organizing in Silicon Valley was led by largely underpaid women and people of color at semiconductor plants in Silicon Valley, like Fairchild Semiconductor and National Semiconductor. In the 1990s,  there was another surge of organizing among IT workers at software companies like Microsoft and then-nascent online retailers like Amazon.

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More recently, labor organizers have succeeded at unionizing tech workers at a handful of companies, like Kickstarter and Imperfect Foods.

But organizing efforts are also running into many of the same historical roadblocks — along with some new ones.

Organizing in the CD-ROM Era

Marcus Courtney got an intimate look at the wave of tech worker organizing efforts in the 1990s. At the time, he was a test engineer at Microsoft, working on “mail products,” and a bunch of applications that now sound ancient.

Courtney said that, like today, many people then thought they’d be set for life if they got a job working on cutting edge technology at a place like Microsoft. But similar to many modern tech workers, Courtney was a Microsoft contractor, not an employee, so he didn’t enjoy the benefits, relatively high salaries or stock options of some of the people he worked alongside.

“Your actual personal experience as a tech worker is very different than the perception that’s been shaped in the popular culture and media,” Courtney said. “And I think that’s why we decided it was time to take action.”

Courtney and other contractors formed a group called Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, with help from the Communications Workers of America union. Around the same time, several hundred IBM workers created a group called Alliance@IBM.

But these union organizing efforts fell far short of recruiting the large percentage of workers required for recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. And most of these group are now long since defunct. 

Myth of the Pampered Tech Worker

Following the dot-com bust in 2000, a wave of new tech companies promised more power and autonomy for their workers. The general pitch: These startups wouldn’t have standard top-down corporate hierarchies. Instead they would be “flat organizations,” where anyone with a good idea could be heard and rewarded with perks and pay. Meritocracy would rule.

Media outlets ate up and amplified this narrative for years, running stories that marveled at the gilded conditions of a relatively small group of elite workers at Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook.

“The media portrays tech workers as being in a position of power and control — the world is their oyster. They can switch jobs if they want and they have huge bargaining power," said Ronil Hira, a political science professor at Howard University who has followed the tech labor market for two decades. "In reality, most tech workers are on the receiving end. They don’t have much control over their employment situation.”

This stereotype of privilege and power has long obscured the realities of the tech workforce, he said.

Hira notes that a majority of tech workers are not even located in Silicon Valley; they can more often be found in the back offices of insurance agencies, banks, and media organizations around the country.

And unlike the common depiction of pampered engineers in Silicon Valley, he adds, many tech workers face the same labor issues as those in other industries: stagnant pay, temporary contracts, the threat of outsourcing, and little say over working conditions.

Changing Attitudes on Unions

After some initial scrutiny in the 1990s, federal labor regulators largely let up on the tech industry after the dot-com bust, taking a generally light-handed approach to ongoing concerns like its heavy reliance on long-term temporary workers and outsourcing.

But even as labor issues persisted, there still wasn’t much appetite among workers to unionize. While tech workers in the U.S. shied away from unions, those in other countries more commonly adopted them, a contrast that prompted a string of studies detailing various tech worker organizing efforts.

“There was a general belief in the early 2000s that folks felt they could do better on their own and that they didn’t need a union,” said Jennifer Dorning, president of the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO

But in the late 2000s and early 2010s, as a new class of tech startups took off, Dorning said attitudes among rank-and-file workers began shifting. In the early 2000s the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees started conducting survey of tech workers across the country found. In 2004, the survey showed that just 33% supported unionizing their workplace. By 2016, that had grown to 59%.

Top-Down Organizing

Tech workers at places like NPR and the software collaboration company Glitch have since unionized. And at The New York Times, a group of over 650 IT workers are currently trying to join the union that represents their journalist peers.

Alexander Peterson is a software engineer trying to organize his co-workers at Alphabet-owned Google. “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.”

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That’s language former Microsoft contractor Marcus Courtney said he can’t imagine programmers using back when he was on the frontlines.

“Now, you have programmers and these coders that are at the top of the pyramid — they are actually leading the organizing,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s been more successful. They are empowering workers who don’t feel they have as much leverage to step up and join them.”

Despite this shift, tech workers still face enormous organizing challenges, often having to face off against some of the largest, most powerful companies in the country. All of which suggests that further unionizing the industry will remain an uphill battle for the foreseeable future.

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