Big Tech companies are likely to see more organized labor initiatives from blue- and white-collar employees, despite a recent failed effort to form a union at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, labor experts say.
Historically, unionization has not been associated with Silicon Valley, where technology firms dangle fancy perks and high salaries to highly skilled employees who can easily hop to the next job. But an increasing focus on inequities among essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a push by the Biden administration to reform labor law, could place more power in the hands of employees to organize, the experts say.
The widely watched, failed initiative to unionize an Amazon warehouse has become a motivator for other activist employees at the e-commerce company as well as those at tech companies such as Alphabet Inc.'s Google LLC unit, experts say. Amazon did not respond to inquiries for this article, but CEO Jeff Bezos said in his 2020 shareholder letter released April 15 that the company needs to "do a better job for our employees."
Efforts to form a union among Amazon workers at an Alabama warehouse were unsuccessful but could spur more labor activism at tech firms.
"These issues aren't going to go away just because Amazon was able to defeat the retail workers union in this particular election," said William Brucher, assistant teaching professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. "I don't think this is going to be the end of labor activism at Amazon at all."
Legal reform could also catalyze labor initiatives. President Joe Biden has proposed passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would enhance workers' ability to push for better wages and working conditions, as part of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The PRO Act, which has passed the House but faces pushback in the Senate, would bar companies from requiring employees to attend meetings that discourage union membership. It would also give the National Labor Relations Board power to impose civil penalties of up to $50,000 per violation against employers who commit unfair labor practices.
Biden is reassessing labor laws at a time when blue- and white-collar workers alike are advocating for environmental, social and racial justice as the pandemic has made the biggest tech players even bigger and richer, said Margaret O’Mara, the Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor at the Department of History at the University of Washington.
In January, Google employees announced the formation of a group called the Alphabet Workers Union, which is composed of more than 800 members, including company software engineers, program managers and contractors. The group is not certified by the NLRB, the federal body that conducts union elections, but is supported by the Communications Workers of America and advocates for issues such as pay equity and social justice. Google did not return inquiries for this article.
The appetite for social change is also apparent at Facebook Inc., where hundreds of staffers last year staged a virtual walkout in response to the company's refusal to act against former President Donald Trump's posts related to nationwide protests.
Apple Inc., which largely relies on contract manufacturers in Asia for its iPhone and Mac production, also saw backlash in 2020 from contract workers in India over wages and excessive hours.
Many high-paid white-collar tech workers, who historically have not been involved in labor activism, are starting to express solidarity with blue-collar workers in other parts of the company or its supply chain by objecting to some company business practices, O'Mara said.
"People are trying to change the companies within because they don't really see an appealing exit across the street, where they can get the same money, same perks and the same opportunities to work on big projects without being faced with what they see are compromised values of the company they work for," she said.
Still, unionization rates remain low in the U.S., where labor laws tilt in favor of companies. "Baked into the business model is having a lot of flexibility to upsize and downsize the work force — hire and fire people — and unions stand in the way of that," O'Mara said.
U.S. laws currently allow companies to discourage union efforts by hiring anti-union consultants who hold mandatory meetings with workers, as Amazon did with its staff at the Bessemer, Ala., facility, said Erin Hatton, labor expert and associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. And some companies quash union efforts by firing employees who are also union organizers. "That's illegal, but they [companies] do it all the time," Hatton said.
Forming a union in the U.S. is a multi-step process that involves convincing a large majority of workers to show interest in a union and filing for a union election with the NLRB. But when those efforts fail, as they did at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama, some employees may replicate the Alphabet Workers Union model, which is easier to organize as an informal minority organization and can still push for change, said Joshua Freeman, distinguished professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
"It's a different approach, and I think it may be well-suited for this particular moment," Freeman said.