Workplace

This was the year tech workers found their power

In 2021, tech worker organizing exploded, and unions at tech companies went from a mostly laughable idea to a practical reality.

A demonstrator wears a protective mask that reads "Power To The Workers"

More than 10 unions at tech companies announced their formation in 2021.

Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Just after New Year’s 2021, the Alphabet Workers Union became the first major group of tech workers to unionize in, at the time, an unprecedented display of organizing. If workers at a company like Facebook or Apple were to announce a formal union tomorrow, the news would no longer be nearly as shocking.

More than 10 technology companies have formed legally recognized unions since the Alphabet Workers Union announced its own. Those unions are just a small wave on top of a massive swell of broader tech worker organizing in the last year: over remote work, pay, nondisclosure agreements, sexual harassment, race and gender-based discrimination, pay equity and more. These movements span the workers at Amazon warehouses and Apple retailers, as well as engineers at big companies like Google and tech startups like Glitch. The collective-action movement even gained steam at video game companies, which are notoriously hostile to activist workers.

The majority of the new formal tech unions are affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, which has spearheaded an aggressive campaign to unionize tech workers through an organizing arm called CODE-CWA, which launched the same week that the Alphabet Workers Union announced itself. In a survey of tech workers Protocol conducted in partnership with Morning Consult in July, just over half of the tech workforce reported interest in joining a union. Baby-boomer generation workers expressed the least interest — less than 10% — while millennials expressed the most, at more than 60%.

CWA has also partnered with some workers at Activision Blizzard, who are trying to form the first U.S.-based union at a major video game company after massive fallout from a California state investigation into workplace harassment and gender discrimination. Since the legal filings revealed pervasive allegations of a toxic workplace culture at the company, a small group of vocal workers have helped organize walkouts and petitions calling for a number of changes — and many of these demands have recently been met.

CWA’s organizing director Tom Smith — a lifelong gamer himself, especially those games made by Activision Blizzard — told Protocol that he sees the rise of worker organizing in tech, and in games especially, as the almost inevitable outcome of workers finally realizing that doing what you love can mask the fact that your company is a business that should have some level of responsibility for what happens to its workers. “It’s really, really easy, intentionally or not, to wind up exploiting people who are doing for pay that which they love. The work is less alienated in that way. You haven’t had your job Taylorized to the point that you’ve just installed these four rivets on that side of the car,” he said. “These folks are artists. They play the games. They love what they do. That line between professional and personal, absent some real intentionality, I think it just has the potential to be blurred really quickly.”

And, for the first time in a coordinated, industrywide manner, workers across different spheres at companies started to work with each other to advance their goals. Retail workers at Apple joined the same #AppleToo movement for the company’s software and hardware engineers. The Alphabet Workers Union pushed equally for protection for software interns and for the contracted employees at Google data centers. But formal worker organizing for the blue-collar jobs at these tech companies has generally been less successful; the widely publicized effort to unionize workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama lost by more than 2:1, though the National Labor Relations Board has since ruled that Amazon violated labor law during the election and must face a second vote.

The pressures of the pandemic, combined with the financial successes of tech companies in the last year, also gave workers more power over their employers in less formal ways. Tech recruiting has become a nearly impossible problem to solve for major companies, because just as companies need more talent than ever before, the talent has grown comfortable turning down job offers and demanding more flexibility and higher pay from their current employers.

This year also ended with more protections for whistleblowers than when it started. The Silenced No More Act, spearheaded by Pinterest whistleblower Ifeoma Ozoma, was signed into law in California, ensuring that employees cannot be forced to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from talking about workplace harassment and discrimination.

Here’s a timeline of some major moments in tech-worker organizing this year.

  • After the Alphabet Workers Union announced their “unofficial” union in January — meaning it’s not legally recognized by the NLRB — some organizing skeptics voiced concerns that the union wouldn’t have much power without NLRB's union protections and collective bargaining. But the union started to secure change on behalf of specific workers almost immediately: data-center contractor Shannon Wait, who was dismissed after talking about working conditions, got her job reinstated after the union filed unfair labor charges on her behalf; interns who wanted a remote-work housing stipend reinstated got concessions from Google after the union helped lead a petition.
  • In March, workers at Glitch signed the first-ever collective bargaining agreement for software engineers. The agreement didn’t include the traditional salary minimums usually present in factory or shop-floor collective bargaining agreements; instead, it secured grievance and arbitration procedures for workers, just-cause for firing and severance pay.
  • When union organizers for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union lost the first vote to unionize in Bessemer, the effort exposed some of the massive barriers to ever formally unionizing Amazon warehouse workers. Employee turnover happens so quickly at these facilities that maintaining a long-term, cohesive bargaining unit is nearly impossible.
  • And so other groups have taken different approaches to try to give Amazon workers more power this year. The Strategic Organizing Center, which is a coalition of some of the largest unions in the United States, had warehouse and delivery workers share stories of their workplace injuries for a report that revealed Amazon warehouses have an injury rate about 50% higher than the national average, and more than twice that of its biggest competitor, Walmart. The Teamsters Union, which represents truck drivers, voted almost unanimously to make organizing Amazon drivers a national priority. The union doesn’t necessarily intend to push for formal unions, instead hoping that strikes, protests and petitions may do more to secure increased protections and rights for drivers.
  • In July, Google contractors in Pittsburgh reached their first collective bargaining agreement after two years of negotiations with HCL America, during which HCL allegedly moved work from Pittsburgh to Kraków, Poland, as part of an anti-union effort, according to an NLRB filing.
  • In August, some workers at Apple launched an #AppleToo organizing movement to collect stories from people who had experiences with workplace issues like discrimination and harassment. The #AppleToo launch followed a series of petitions from workers, including two vocalizing frustration with Apple’s remote-work policies and the company’s hiring of controversial program manager Antonio García Martínez (Martínez was quickly dismissed after the campaign).

Some other developments this year: Tech workers at The New York Times formed a union and are being forced to hold a formal vote; the Alphabet Workers Union is currently advocating on behalf of a second Google contractor recently dismissed after asking about holiday pay; workers at vigilante crime-watch app Citizen voted to unionize in mid-December. Efforts to unionize Mapbox, a software company that provides mapping services to apps like Snapchat, failed in August when organizers lost their union election by 81 votes in favor to 123 against. And for the first time, a small group of video game creators at Voodeo formed a union in mid-December.

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