A decade ago, many tech workers seemed more concerned with their stock options than forming a union. But in the last two years, a growing list of tech workers have formed unions or tried to, including a very powerful and rapidly-expanding one at Google — and about half of all tech workers are now interested in joining a union, according to a survey conducted by Protocol in partnership with Morning Consult.
Fifty percent of survey respondents who identify as technology industry workers said that they are very or somewhat interested in joining a union at their workplace in the survey, conducted from June 17-July 2. Just under 50% of tech industry workers also said that to their knowledge, there is definitely or probably interest in forming a union at their workplace. (To review margins of error and other questions about methodology, see this explanation of how Protocol designed the survey.)
"That's kind of crazy, in some ways, because unions in tech aren't a thing. And still one out of two workers are like, this is a good idea," said Wes McEnany, the director of CODE-CWA. CODE-CWA is the Communications Workers of America's dedicated effort to unionize the tech industry. So far, the CWA tech-focused effort represents the Alphabet Workers Union, Mobilize, Mapbox, the New York Times tech guild, Glitch and others, and all but Glitch formally announced their unions in 2021. The Office and Professional Employees International Union has also embarked on a similar effort for smaller tech companies, called Tech Workers Local 1010, which represents the Kickstarter union.
"Obviously we've seen a ton of interest since we've launched the CODE campaign. The Alphabet Workers Union continues to grow, that's gotten a lot of play with a lot of folks. There is something really encouraging here," McEnany said.
In the survey, Protocol found very little difference in union interest by racial or ethnic identity; people who identify as Black or white, for example, had nearly identical levels of interest, just above and below 50%. For McEnany, this data helped confirm his theory that questions of race had little relationship to whether workers are interested in unionization. "I don't think race matters much in these things," McEnany said. "Workers have issues. Tech companies have problems that are problems for everybody. And there's issues around race that piss off all of the workers, because white workers are offended and angry that they can't retain workers of color."
But while ethnic and racial identity doesn't play a very big role, age certainly does. Millennials are far more interested in joining unions than any other generation in the workforce; more than 60% of survey respondents in that age range said they are definitely or probably interested, compared to less than 40% for Generation X and Generation Z (although the Gen Z sample size was very small), and below 10% for baby boomers. That data aligns with McEnany's experience, who said that most of the people who approach him about forming a union are millennial or Gen Z. "That just generally tracks with building unions, younger people generally lead the way on social change," he said.
Unions tend to form during short moments of high-pressure social change, according to McEnany, and he said that interest is so unusually high because young people are, at the moment, feeling that pressure. "Historically, we form unions in industries in upsurges. They sort of happen in these compression points that happen over not very many years," he said.
Some corporate leaders see tech worker unionization as an indication that workers are collectively organizing to change a culture or environment they dislike. "I think that the union is a really important solution to a problem. But it's also recognition that there was a problem to be solved in the first place inside, it's like any company where there are employees unionizing. It's like, man, you gotta listen," said Expensify CEO David Barrett at a Protocol event Tuesday.
Yet many of the people leading worker organizing efforts instead understand unions to be a force that helps protect workers and also ensures good cultures remain that way. Many of the new unions have formed at small, very progressive tech workplaces, like Mobilize. The union didn't form to address any one glaring issue, but instead as part of an effort to codify and preserve the cultural benefits of working at the company. "Obviously we have a privileged position where we work for a progressive employer, but if we don't do it, how are the people who are going to work for less progressive employers going to do it?" one Mobilize employee told Protocol in March. "Like Glitch, I think that we can serve as an example for other employers to see that it doesn't have to be this really confrontational process, so that we can work together to figure out what workers want," he said.
"The fact that this many people that are going to be in the workforce for the next 30-40 years are interested in unions, it gives us a lot of hope," McEnany said. "They have a perspective that things are messed up and they should have more agency at their jobs, a lot of problems that are innate to their creation, and things need to change, and for me this data is confirming that."