Unionization responses show the sector’s now The Man

Big tech's responses to unionization campaigns shows it's no longer the young, cool upstart.
25 June 2022

“Picketline” by Simon Oosterman licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Unions are springing up in the tech sector – but not without significant resistance. We take a look at why the sector is so resistant to unionization.

Unions are collections of workers in the same or similar jobs, organized to negotiate with business owners on issues that affect them. That’s it. They’re not, as they seem to be painted so often, business-wreckers. They’re not communists, although the union movement has its roots in the socialist ideologies of the mid 19th century. The attitude of the technology industry to recent attempts by its workers to form unions to negotiate for fair pay and conditions might make you think unions must equal economic calamity. And a punch in the mouth, too.

Unions – recent votes to start collectivism

Apple workers at a Maryland store just voted to start a union. Whether they make it through the complicated process remains to be seen. Apple has hardly welcomed the news. It works to discourage unions in the company, arguing that it pays well and offers incentives. With that message though, it argues that a union could “hurt the company’s business.” Apple reported a net income of US$94.68bn dollars in its 2021 fiscal year, its highest net income to date. It’s difficult to imagine how that sum could be deflated by retail workers’ need to be paid a living wage. However, Apple remains obstinate in its approach to any form of organized collective bargaining.

Amazon workers in Staten Island voted to form the company’s first union this year. Tensions are still high at the facility, and several key organizers have been fired. Amazon has yet to come to any negotiating table. In fact, the company has filed two dozen objections to the union’s formulation, and is trying to get the vote to unionize thrown out. Amazon reported that its full-year 2021 net sales grew by 22% to US$469.8bn, compared with $386.1bn in 2020.

The companies’ reaction follows a pattern of hostility that has existed in the tech industry since the whisper of unionization began, just a handful of years ago. But it seems the tech industry is particularly averse to unionization. This resistance to organized labor is an industry-wide, rather than simply a US national issue.

In the UK, which has a long history of unionized industries, the tech industry has been slow to adopt the cocept of unionization, with the first tech workers’ union emerging only in 2018 (The British chapter of Game Workers Unite).

Unions – a brief history

In the US and the UK, the 1980s broke the power of unions to cause inconvenience by striking. In the US, Ronald Reagan broke a strike by the air traffic controllers’ union, PATCO, in 1981. Union power, previously represented by organizations like the Teamsters, was never the same again. Meanwhile, in the UK, Margaret Thatcher broke the miners’ union, the NUM, after a much longer and more protracted strike. She then set about limiting what unions could do to take similar action in the future.

So, from the early-to-mid-eighties, business culture has existed in an environment where union power is significantly hamstrung. Where unions exist, they struggle to constantly justify their existence. There hasn’t been anything like a general strike in the living memory of most workers. Workers question what they get for their union dues – beyond the possibility of that “troublemaker” reputation.

The tech industry was born and raised in the 1980s, in a business world where unions were either becoming less relevant, or something not worth worrying about. So, workers attempting to unionize in the tech sector in the last five years have pushed tech industry panic buttons. They’re demanding the creation of something entirely outside the tech industry’s experience.

Unions and business complacency

Many of the world’s biggest tech firms, and plenty of smaller players too, developed in defiance of traditional business norms. The tech industry worldwide is still young enough to regard itself as the new, rebellious kid on the block. As such, it struggles, more than longer-established industries, with the idea that unions are necessary in its industry. Companies that have self-defined as new, fresh, innovative, and helpful to humanity often don’t feel it’s fair that its workers think they have reasons to unionize.

That’s especially true as those companies mature, and unions don’t form. The longer there has been no expression of need for a union, the less reasonable it seems when the need is finally expressed. And the easier it is to label those who form them as “troublemakers.” After all, “good” companies don’t need unions, because their working methods are of such a high quality that there is no dissent.

On top of all of which, there’s the notion of uniqueness in the tech industry. More than any other to date, the tech industry thrives on the individualism of its output. The difference between Apples and PCs. The differences between Firefox and Edge. The differences between the hundreds of apps in any area that do fundamentally the same thing, but with specific tweaks in function.

That specificity of product makes for creativity in development, but incredible brittleness in terms of comfort with organizational upheaval. A culture develops in business models like that which fears internal change in case it destabilizes the model and therefore moves the product from its unique position. The rapaciousness of the tech industry makes that fear at least partially understandable.

It’s the fear that can make Amazon and Apple, with their multi-billion dollar revenues, behave like corner lemonade stalls. The fear that letting workers negotiate on issues that affect them could somehow topple the behemoth by subtly altering the offering.

Unions and the Forever Young syndrome

It’s a fear based in what might be called “Forever Young” Syndrome. The young never think they will behave in the same way in which they see the old behave. That’s an analog of what’s happening to the tech industry. It still thinks it’s the brave young industry, giving cool perks, negating the need for anything as heinous as a union to exist within it. And in some respects, it is – the tech industry is the first to jump on new ways of doing things it thinks will enhance its business model.

Unions and the new generation

But the tech industry has also hit its first period of maturity and rigidity. And big tech companies are now old enough to have developed incomes in excess of many small nations’ GDP. Meanwhile, the people who now work within its structures can be at least two, maybe even three generations into a world where the tech industry is as established as coal and gas. Once you’ve existed since someone’s childhood, you’re no longer new – you’re the establishment.

The tech industry still thinks it’s the cool new kid on the block, and is hurt and frightened by the idea anyone would want to unionize within it. But to most of its low-to-medium level workforce (the very people who might need a union), it’s already an established industry. The tech industry is now The Man.