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Are labor unions and collective bargaining coming to Big Tech?

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles November 12, 2018
Can Silicon Valley employee activists bring accountability to Big Tech through tactics honed by the industrial age labor unions?

activist do no evil
The surge of employee activism that is sweeping through Big Tech is looking less like an instance of well-meaning Millennials gone hopelessly culturally correct. Rather ot looks more like a serious and well-planned movement to bring collective bargaining power to workers at some of the nation’s most iconic and least government-regulated companies.

Last week, some 20,000 Google workers around the world staged a short walk out to protest what organizers described as “discrimination, racism, sexual harassment and a workplace culture that only works for some.”

A couple of days later, Amazon executives were forced to defend the company’s sale of its controversial facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies at an All-Hands staff meeting when employees raised civil rights concerns about the tech’s potential misuse.

Google responded to the walkout by agreeing to end forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment and committing to more transparency in sexual harassment reporting. This core demand was prompted by a New York Times article last month that revealed the company had given a senior executive, Andy Rubin, a $90 million exit package even after it found he had been credibly accused of sexual harassment. Uber, Microsoft, and more recently Facebook have all agreed to end forced arbitration.

The principal organizers of the walkout praised the arbitration agreement, saying it demonstrated that

Collective action works, and we need to keep working. True equity depends on it

but signaled that they were by no means finished:

The response ignored several of the core demands — like elevating the diversity officer and employee representation on the board — and troublingly erased those focused-on racism, discrimination, and the structural inequity built into the modern day Jim Crow class system that separates ‘full time’ employees from contract workers. Contract workers make up more than half of Google’s workforce, and perform essential roles across the company, but receive few of the benefits associated with tech company employment. They are also largely people of color, immigrants, and people from working class backgrounds.

CEO Sundar Pichai has promised to meet with the organizers in the next week. In a conveniently-leaked internal memo, he wrote:

Some of you have raised very constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward. I am taking in all your feedback so we can turn these ideas into action.

This was a second recent major success for employee activists at Google.

In April, a group of employees argued that Google should not “be in the business of war,” leading the company to end its work on a customized AI surveillance engine called Project Maven and announce it will not compete for a $10 billion-dollar Pentagon cloud computing project called Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, (JEDI), a Department of Defense effort to move massive amounts of data to the cloud.

Different outcome at Amazon

During an All-Hands meeting on Thursday, Andrew Jassey, CEO of Amazon’s company’s cloud-computing arm, Amazon Web Services, deflected employee activists’ criticisms over how Amazon has aggressively marketed its Amazon Rekognition product to law enforcement agencies across the country and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He added that he thought it was the government’s responsibility to help specify regulations around the technology:

I think we're going to have people who have opinions that are very wide-ranging, which is great, but we feel really great and really strongly about the value that Amazon Rekognition is providing our customers of all sizes and all types of industries in law enforcement, and out of law enforcement.

My take

The average median salary for Google’s employees is $197,000—which is five or six times that of normal human beings. Other big tech companies are as generous or more so. The desire for collective bargaining power is clearly not driven by money, daycare, a lack of safety or fresh fruit and veggie bars that look like half of Central America has just been dumped in the cafeteria every morning. These are mostly young, idealistic people who sincerely want to harness the resources and money of Big Tech to build a fairer, more equitable, more peaceful world.

They believe in ethics and morality and all the management hype about “technology for social good” and “do no evil.” As part of their recruiting strategy, management has promoted open dialogue between managers and employees, which makes voicing dissent easy. Google and Microsoft and Amazon have regular all-staff, ask-the-CEO-anything meetings. Marc Benioff calls Salesforce workers Ohana, a Hawaiian word meaning extended family. They can hardly complain when they speak up.

They protest because they can. Tech companies need more talent than there is available and job mobility has never been easier. Government regulators and happy shareholders have let the tech titans do pretty much whatever they wanted on the road to riches, so employees are the only remaining leverage.

Most of the activists’ successes to date have been one-offs but more and more believe there is an appetite for a sustained labor movement that includes both blue-collar and white-collar workers who collectively can seek and win long-term concessions. That could be a formal union or, at least, a broad-based coalition to take on issues like lack of diversity, the second-class status of temps and contract workers, sexual harassment, and glass ceilings.

I believe management has the sole right to decide who to sell the company’s technology to and that employees—especially these employees—have the right to take their talents elsewhere if they disagree.

Otherwise, leave the kids alone. We could use a fairer, more equitable world.

Image credit - via Gemma Evans - Unsplash

Disclosure - Salesforce is a premier partner at the time of writing

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