Analysis: Why unionization in tech could actually gain traction in 2020

During a May Day event in Seattle last year, organizers protested Amazon’s use of non-union contractor Security Industry Specialists. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

The idea of unions in tech has seemed impossible so far. The fast-moving, entrepreneurial, hopefully-get-rich-quick-with-stock-options spirit of the tech industry seems completely at odds with the more staid, protected, steady-as-it-goes spirit popularly associated with unions.

That may be changing, and 2020 may be the year where tech unionizing efforts gain some actual traction for the first time.

This isn’t to say that tech unions are going to happen in 2020. But the efforts to unionize tech workers may well see real, tangible results.

The chances of this happening in 2020 reflect several factors in the industry and political landscape coming together in the right way for the first time ever.

Google’s “Streisand Effect”

(GeekWire File Photo)

The “Streisand Effect” is basically where the actions you take to prevent what you most want not to happen actually makes it happen.

Google has been in the news recently around unionizing activity and its response to that. First, in September a group of Google contractors in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers (USW) Union. The USW was founded in 1942 and is a long-established, powerful union.

After this, in November The New York Times reported that Google retained IRI Consultants, a company whose website advertises “union vulnerability assessments” and boasts about IRI’s success in helping a large national healthcare company persuade employees to avoid a union election despite the unions’ “dedicating millions of dollars to their organizing campaigns.”

Not long after this, around Thanksgiving, Google fired four employees who quickly became named the “Thanksgiving Four” in what those employees claimed was retaliation for workplace organizing activity. Google claimed it was due to violations of their data security policy.

And in mid-December another Google employee was fired for what she claimed was union activity and Google again claimed was due to violations of their policies and procedures.

Whether the claims are true or not, the actions have gained attention and headlines, pushing this issue more to people’s minds. Because of that, the perceived heavy-handed response by Google and the response to it seem more likely to foster more pro-union activity at Google in the near future than to quell it.

As Google is a huge presence in Silicon Valley and other cities such as Seattle, these actions can have ripple effects throughout the industry. Certainly, it seems more rather than less likely that there will be continued actions like this at Google in 2020. Since Google is such a leader in the industry, that could spread to other companies in Seattle, Silicon Valley, and beyond.

Technology companies continue moving into union territory

An Amazon Prime truck heads north on Interstate 5 in Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Here we turn from Google to two other tech powerhouses: Amazon and Uber. Both of these companies now have a huge presence in areas that have historically strong bastions of union activity: trucking and transportation.

It’s no secret that Amazon is building their own trucking fleet: you can see Amazon trucks all up and down Interstate-5 between Seattle and Portland. And if there is a union that is synonymous with the union movement broadly, it’s the Teamsters Union.

The Teamsters represents drivers at UPS and has been working for decades to represent drivers at FedEx. The Teamsters, along with other unions, have been engaging in activity to foster unions at Amazon. And now, with Amazon’s shipping fleet growing, they’re quickly becoming on par with UPS and FedEx, and so it’s reasonable to expect the Teamsters to increase their efforts to foster unions at Amazon.

Meanwhile, drivers for Uber and Lyft have been pushing hard for increased protections and the right to unionize, in particular in conjunction with the recently-passed California Assembly Bill 5 that took effect Jan. 1. It’s also notable that while Uber is challenging the law in the courts, the Teamsters Union has been very vocal in their support of the law.

Meanwhile in New York state, a law that’s being called “A.B. 5-plus” is in the legislature and also has provisions to allow unionization. And it’s a sure bet that the Teamsters have thoughts around Uber’s move in driverless trucking; it’s a very clear threat to their members.

This isn’t the first time legislators have tried to allow unions for ride-hailing companies. Seattle passed a law in 2015 meant to enable unionization; that law ultimately died in the courts in 2018. But this time, the war around unionization and ride-sharing is happening on multiple fronts and at the state level it will be harder for Uber and Lyft to combat this.

Few friends in the chamber of commerce

Two other factors come into play here in the broader business and political landscape and they both mean that right now, tech companies have few friends outside of the tech industry that would be willing to come to their aid in these fights against unionization.

First, other businesses. While companies like Walmart also have worked strenuously against unionizing efforts, tech has had a very strained relationship with the broader business community for years. Amazon and other tech companies were exempted state sales taxes for many years, giving them a perceived advantage over more traditional brick-and-mortar businesses. This has put tech and brick-and-mortar businesses on opposite sides of what has been a true fight for survival for physical stores which many, including giants like Sears, have lost.

Taxi companies regularly complain that ride-hailing companies have been able to rise and thrive because of their ability to circumvent the rules and regulations that they are subject to.

There has been frustration and anger simmering against tech companies for the perceived “pass” many others in the business community feel they’ve had for decades now.

Certainly businesses outside of tech wouldn’t want the unionization trend to spill over into their arena. But it’s also not hard to see many businesses that otherwise would work against union activity choose to sit on the sidelines. In this case, they could look at their tech counterparts’ situation with an attitude that combines “what goes around comes around” with “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In this case, other businesses could simply wait and only get involved if and when they feel there’s a more direct threat to themselves.

Few friends in Washington

The U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Historically, the Democratic party has had deep and strong union ties, while the Republican party has had deep and strong business ties. At the same time, the tech industry has historically had strong ties with the Democratic party and fewer ties to the Republican party. The close relationship between Google, Apple and other tech companies with President Obama and his administration is a good example of this.

In party politics, loyalty counts for a lot. You need only look at the strained relationship between tech companies and the Trump administration and the Republican party to see that they have little love for tech and view it as skewed against them and their followers.

Meanwhile, as tech has become Big Tech, relationships with the Democratic party have become more strained. Look at how Elizabeth Warren has vocally attacked Facebook. Meanwhile, if you dig into California state politics, you’ll see the passage of both the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the California Assembly Bill 5. Both bills are strongly opposed by “Big Tech” companies like Facebook and Uber. And these bills have been passed by a Democratic legislature and signed by a Democratic governor: these are clear signs that the blush is off the rose between tech and the Democratic party.

Combine that with the Democratic party’s historical alignment with unions, add in real worry that they need to appeal to “Trump voters” in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that are historically manufacturing and pro-union, and it’s likely the chill in this relationship will get worse, not better.

Put it all together and you have an industry that likely won’t find help against union activity from its historical ally the Democratic party, and will find it difficult if not impossible to successfully realign and build support with Republicans. It’s notable that many of those brick-and-mortar companies already have long-established relationships with the Republican side of the aisle and can potentially counsel the Republicans to sit on the sidelines.

The perfect storm?

Take all these factors and put them together and you have the makings of a true perfect storm for union activity in tech in 2020.

There is a growing level of activism among tech employees who are increasingly willing to take a stand against their current or former tech employers. Two recent examples include the climate change activism among Amazon employees and Google’s former head of international relations calling out his belief that Google is failing it’s credo of “don’t be evil.”

Does this mean that tech will see unionization? Not necessarily. History tells us that unionization for new industries can take decades.

But the industry is decades old, and unions have been working over the years to establish a foothold.

What these factors do mean is that we very likely will see more union activity affecting tech than ever. And just by the law of averages, that means that there can, and likely will, be some gains.

Certainly, one thing this means is that tech is passing through another milestone in its maturation. Just like regulation that was once thought absurd is now coming (and in some cases already here), unions — which were once thought absurd — could well be coming as well.

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