The Unionization of Technology Companies

Google employees at walkout in November 2018 - Credit: Getty Images

The Unionization of Technology Companies
Communications of the ACM, August 2021, Vol. 64 No. 8, Pages 18-20
By Logan Kugler

“It is no accident that tech unionization efforts are moving fast, planning as they go, and are unafraid to break things.”


In late 2018, thousands of workers walked out of Google offices around the globe to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment accusations against prominent executives.


The same year, hundreds of Salesforce employees signed a letter to CEO Marc Benioff protesting the fact the company sold products to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.


Also in the headlines was an effort by some Microsoft employees to protest the company’s bid for work on the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project. In a letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the employees wrote, “many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war.”


Tech employee activism is nothing new, but the momentum generated by the 2018 wave of protests was. Three years later, the momentum from that activism has resulted in the first formal technology unions.


Technology unions are new labor organizations that full-time and contract employees at major tech companies are attempting to form or have successfully formed. These unions fight for traditional issues that unions in other industries fight for, like better wages, hours, and working conditions. Yet given the high number of well-paid tech workers, they also engage in a new type of activism around the morality of tech companies’ operating practices and business relationships.


Tech unions represent a new twist on an existing form of worker organization, and they’re looking to disrupt the status quo of major tech companies like Google.


“The time and energy of working people have built tech companies into some of the most valuable entities on the planet,” says Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer at the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S.


“Tech workers have produced innovations that are changing the course of history—and made their bosses rich in the process. They deserve to take home a fair share of the enormous value they create everyday, and they deserve to be treated with dignity on the job.”

A New Phenomenon

One of the most significant early tech unionization successes happened in January of this year. That is when the Alphabet Workers Union was announced, with the mission to protect workers at Google’s parent company.


The union was organized in secret for a year before the announcement, and has more than 800 members as of this-writing, including full-time employees, temps, vendors, and contractors. Typically, unions negotiate with a company over a contract or a single issue for the majority of employees at a company. The Alphabet Workers Union, in contrast, is a minority union, which means it represents only a fraction of employees, and lobbies for them across a range of issues.

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About the Author:

Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL., USA.

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