Workplace

The real reasons Big Tech hates unions

Tech companies don’t like unions. Here’s why — and here’s what happens when they call in the union busters.

A big hand punching down on several raised fists.

The playbook mastered by consultants and attorneys at major law firms and strategy groups is effective at forcing a union vote to fail or collapse. What companies rarely consider are the long-term consequences.

Illustration: invincible_bulldog/Getty Images Plus; Protocol

Around this time last year, Mapbox’s Slack workplace descended into 24/7 chaos, the virtual equivalent of an office-wide shouting match. It was a few weeks before workers were to vote on whether to join a union, and Mapbox leaders and workers on the “anti-committee” were posting about their opposition to the union at all hours of the day and night.

At anti-union all-staff meetings and on Slack, leaders accused union organizers of xenophobia because they opposed offshoring jobs to other countries. Staff members on the "anti-committee" blamed union organizers for creating division, chaos and conflict, and then piled on to endless Slack threads that bubbled with bickering posts and sometimes snarky laughing emojis when someone posted a pro-union message. “They would say, ‘How can you be doing something like this? You’re putting our livelihoods in danger,’” said Josh Erb, a Mapbox software engineer who helped organize for the union and who left the company in January 2022.

“Because of Slack being this virtual workspace that you can’t ever actually get out of, like 24 hours a day the anti-committee … at 3 in the morning would post,” Wes McEnany, one of the former union organizers with the Communication Workers of America, told Protocol.

Mapbox did not respond to Protocol’s requests for comment.

Mapbox’s union opposition was industry standard. A wave of unionization has swept white- and blue-collar tech workplaces over the last two years: In addition to the attempt at Mapbox, workers have unionized at Amazon and Activision Blizzard and are in the midst of union organizing at Apple retail stores, to name just a few. The leaders of those companies are among the litany who have made it clear they want unions out.

So they have done what every anti-union company in the United States has done since the first organized labor movement more than 100 years ago — hired what companies call “union avoidance experts” and what unions call “union busters.”

And it works. The playbook mastered by consultants and attorneys at major law firms and strategy groups is effective at forcing a union vote to fail or collapse. What companies rarely consider are the long-term consequences.

“It was like watching this beautiful thing wither up and die,” Erb said of the fallout at Mapbox, where workers voted down the union. “Before, it was probably one of the best company cultures I'd worked at.”

The often chaotic and threatening atmosphere created in the lead-up to a unionization vote alters company culture. Especially in closely contested elections, trust erodes between workers and leadership. Companies that pride themselves on openness and communication find themselves unable to re-create the same atmosphere. Top talent, disturbed by the change in environment, often flees or is poached. Recruiting becomes more difficult because of the reputational damage caused by the fight.

To look at what company culture at this company had been a year ago versus what it is now, the vibrancy has just been sucked out of it.

Mapbox epitomizes those consequences. The company lost nearly 300 employees in 2021, an increase of more than 100 people compared to the previous year, according to data from Mapbox organizers and from LinkedIn statuses reviewed by Protocol.

“To look at what company culture at this company had been a year ago versus what it is now, the vibrancy has just been sucked out of it,” one current Mapbox employee told Protocol.

The alternatives could be less of a nightmare than the unionization one keeping tech leaders up at night. Microsoft President Brad Smith staked his claim last week as the one major tech leader who seems less afraid of this alternative future when he announced that Microsoft wouldn’t oppose union organizing among its ranks. The company had an unusual opportunity to prepare its position on unions because Microsoft is in the process of acquiring Activision Blizzard, where 22 quality assurance testers at the company’s Call of Duty studio just formally unionized. Microsoft will have no choice but to deal with CWA, the union that represents those workers — and has even committed to a legally binding agreement to avoid the vicious, drawn-out fights that have embroiled places like Mapbox.

“If the employer treats employees in a good way, in my opinion a union’s not necessary,” Alfred Gray, an employment attorney who represents companies challenging unionization, said. “But once a union is in place, my attitude has been all along, I’ve gotta work with you, we might as well have an amicable relationship because we are going to get more done working together.”

At its heart, tech sector unionization has exposed messy political rifts at work. Whether someone favors unions or opposes them, their feelings tend to be rooted in political and ideological beliefs. Union organizers see union-busters as inherently malicious and opposed to worker rights; company leaders see unions as interfering pests with an anti-capitalist agenda. Enforcement of the laws that govern unionization changes depends on the political party in power in the White House, meaning that most legal fights create more mess, not recourse.

While tech companies proudly advertise progressive values on climate change, racial justice and diversity at work, unions are where most draw the line. (Aside from Microsoft’s recent commitment, the few exceptions come from small tech startups that build tech tools for progressive causes, like Mobilize.)

Mapbox, for example, touts that its first maps supported international development in partnership with the United Nations, USAID and Doctors without Borders. It cites “people first” values and advertises “an amazing community of friendly, diverse, and talented people who work together to achieve big goals.” One current Mapbox employee told Protocol that they joined the company in part because of its reputation for a caring and progressive culture. Mapbox’s own leadership tried to play on this progressive ideal, using the “xenophobic” label to try to make the pro-union crowd appear less progressive than the company.

“These tech companies which sort of might be liberal on some issues, when it comes to unions or regulation, they are very anti,” said Wilma Liebman, who was chair of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees union laws, under the Obama administration.

“It poisons the well oftentimes,” said Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University. “It makes workers not trust each other as much anymore. It tightens all sorts of conversations and cultures of companies. And I think that may be especially important in some of these tech companies, where, for the programming folks anyway, the culture was always relaxed.”

Why fight?

Companies articulate three primary reasons for fighting unionization: They don’t want another group mediating their conversations and relationships with their employees, especially a group without industry knowledge; they usually lose money because they are forced to increase pay and benefits; and they lose control over their ability to hire, fire and lay off whenever they choose.

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy made some of these arguments in a June 8 talk, saying it’s easier and faster for teams to make change and for managers to incorporate feedback without a union. “We happen to think they’re better off without a union,” he said.

Liebman suspects that’s a view shared widely by tech company leaders, who might view unions as fusty relics. “My sense is that they view traditional collective bargaining relationships as probably being 20th century and out of sync with their business model, and they probably think that they can’t deal with a third party. ‘We have to make decisions fast, we can’t go through long negotiation processes,’” Liebman said.

Private sector unionization in the U.S. hit an all-time high in the 1950s, when more than one-third of workers at private companies were in unions. The majority of these unions were industry-specific; autoworkers were represented by the auto union, truckers by the trucker union. Every American citizen was either in a union or knew people in a union.

Today, private sector union membership hovers somewhere between 5% and 6% according to Department of Labor data, and most private sector employees don’t work in the same assembly-line style jobs that unions traditionally represented in the 20th century. “The average American on the street doesn’t know diddly-squat about how a union functions or what it can do and what it can’t do for workers,” DeVault said.

Union avoidance consultants and attorneys cite this shift as a key reason for opposing unionization. Gray believes that unlike historical private sector unions, unions today often organize workplaces in disparate industries and have little knowledge of how those industries actually function. When the teamsters won an election at a group home for people with disabilities, Gray said, citing an example, “it was problematic right from the get-go even from collective bargaining, because they didn’t understand the industry.” Among other problems, Gray said the teamsters called for worker schedules to change to traditional daytime hours, even though the home only had residents in need of care during evening hours.

“Now it’s just a numbers thing. They want as many people as possible,” he said of unions.

There’s a fourth and less tangible ideological reason for union opposition: Depending on their politics, some people are inherently opposed to the idea of a union and question the legitimacy of the laws that enshrine their rights in the U.S.

“It’s almost like it’s an accepted part of corporate management culture, that this is what you do, this is how you are a good person in your role: You hear the word ‘union’ and you bring in the union-busters,” said Sara Steffens, the secretary-treasurer for the CWA. The CWA has spearheaded the effort to organize white-collar tech sector workers into unions over the last two years through a campaign called CODE-CWA, which has successfully unionized software engineers at Mobilize, Vodeo Games, Glitch, Raven Software and the New York Times tech department, among others.

Liebman agrees. “For some, I think it’s truly ideological; they don’t accept the legitimacy of labor unions or the legitimacy of this law,” she said.

Still, about 68% of Americans approved of labor unions in a 2021 Gallup poll, a high not seen since the 1960s and a 20% increase from 2009’s all-time low.

The basic union avoidance playbook

When two-thirds of Mapbox workers announced their intention to unionize in spring 2021, the company quickly launched its opposition campaign, hiring labor consulting firm Lev Labor, LLC. (Lev Labor also consulted for Amazon in its anti-union efforts in the lead-up to the union votes in Staten Island warehouses). The campaign went as most do: Mapbox management hosted all-hands meetings (known colloquially as “captive audience meetings”) where it suggested union talk was responsible for a lost $150 million investment in the company and could also discourage future investment. Workers were pulled into one-on-one meetings with managers to discuss the union movement.

Our main channel just turned into a slag-fest between pro-and anti-union folks.

“One of the things I’d always admired about Mapbox from the outside was just the seemingly hard-to-quantify complete lack of assholes. It was a really good crew of people, everybody super supportive, very open with their own struggles,” one Mapbox employee told Protocol. “Then there was a palpable shift in the tone of any sort of public communications. Just like the general atmosphere, a huge palpable shift. Our main channel just turned into a slag-fest between pro-and anti-union folks.”

“A big part of the leadership strategy in [the] campaign was to pit the U.S.-based workers against the workers abroad who wouldn’t be covered by the collective bargaining group we were pushing for,” Erb said. Company leadership accused the union of making it harder to support the global workforce. “It definitely colored every interaction I had with one of my counterparts who worked in a different country,” he added.

Lev Labor wrote in its mandated disclosure forms that “the engagement was merely to educate, rather than to persuade” and that the roughly $43,000 Mapbox paid it was “just payment for providing education and information to employees.”

By August, the two-thirds union support had vanished, and the union lost its election 123-81. In the months after the defeat, at least three union leaders were fired, let go or agreed to leave, according to the Mapbox Workers Union and posts shared by former union organizers on Twitter.

That mirrors the basic union avoidance playbook, which is governed by one overarching law. “There’s a whole rule of thumb — TIPS,” Gray said. (TIPS means you can't threaten, interrogate, promise or surveil). “You can’t threaten employees, you can’t influence them, you can’t persuade them, you can’t offer them salary information, you can’t make promises to employees.”

And so union-avoidance consultants have adopted a few central strategies based on what past labor rulings show they can do. Sometimes they make the union leaders managers, because managers can’t join a union and that can effectively suffocate the movement. Amazon, Apple, Mapbox and other tech companies have all used captive-audience meetings, where workers are required to listen to company leaders — without union organizers present — explain why they don’t want a union. When workers don’t appear easily dissuaded, companies deliberately create so much chaos that workers vote against the union just to end the misery.

While it's a common strategy, Gray advises employers to pursue another popular route: find ways to give employees what they want, but in a way that isn’t technically persuading or influencing, in hopes they drop the union effort.

Steffens sees this when the CWA tries to unionize a workplace. Workers will get raises, or the mileage reimbursement will suddenly increase.

The consequences

But in Steffens’ experience, those changes vanish when the union fight ends and the consultants disappear.

“The way they see it is if they cause that election to be not held, or scare enough people into voting no, they’ve done their job,” Steffens said.

At Mapbox, current employees described a scorched-earth reality after the union lost the election in August. While those that remain are still happy with their individual teams and work, those that spoke with Protocol described trying to avoid thinking about the broader company culture and their relationships with senior management.

Waves of workers have also left the company over the last year, including some of the company’s longest-tenured talent. “It’s the absolute carnage of U.S.-based employees, folks who would have been in the bargaining unit leaving or being forced out,” one employee said.

“The shock wave of losing so many creative and contributing employees, there’s certainly a possibility that they don’t immediately emerge from that,” the same employee said.

Erb stayed at Mapbox until January, five months after the failed union vote. “It became kind of like a ghost town in a sense where people were leaving faster than they could hire for roles,” he said. When he’d started working at Mapbox nearly four years earlier, one of Erb’s favorite parts of the job was the ease with which engineers could disagree with their managers when problem-solving. He left the company in part because he felt like that freedom disappeared after the vote. “I had no ability, even in my professional capacity, to be critical of management’s plans for something. The general vibe I got by the end of it is, that was basically just everyone’s experience.”

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