“Are tech unions even a thing?” A coworker asked me this after myself and thousands of others had been laid off. Rocked by the storm, dozens of us had landed in an online organizing space.
Social justice activism at big tech companies is evolving into union organizing. This brutal round of layoffs may be remembered as a catalyzing event, or it may be a setback. But many tech organizing groups are popping up, maybe you’ve found yourself in one as well. Most tech workers aren’t knowledgeable about unions because the existing unions failed to organize tech decades ago. To best understand why unions in tech are necessary, it’s important to consider why this is all happening.
The Federal Reserve has been trying to fight inflation by reducing employment for over a year. Inflation occurs when there’s more money in circulation than there are goods and services produced in the economy. Rather than invest massive profits into productivity, the Fed’s plan is to activate a Rube-Goldberg machine that slows investment, cuts employment, and forces workers to compete over fewer, lower-paying jobs. As the recent bank failures portend, these policies may trigger a recession, destroying the productivity of the economy instead of growing it.
Layoffs, accordingly, were a choice to protect billionaire profits and wealth rather than to invest in our productivity, work, and livelihoods. Low interest rates hit tech stocks hard, hurting billionaire wealth. The first line of defense was stock buybacks, a way to put money straight in stockholders’ pockets and raise stock values by reducing supply. Elon Musk initiated unprecedented layoffs and executives rushed to pump their stock prices and keep up with Twitter’s new trend.
The money wasted on buybacks casts doubt on claims of “overhiring”. For example, Meta reported $6 billion in stock buybacks in Q4 2022 alone. Meta laid off a total of 21,000 workers between November of 2022 and March of this year – $285,714 wasted for each worker laid off. That’s years’ worth of salary that could have paid for productive workers, handed instead to billionaire stockholders.
Far from being “our” leadership, executives are captains of pirate ships on the remote seas of high finance. Workers in every industry – including tech workers – need unions to defend their wages and jobs from these pirates.
Unions Make Us Strong
So, are tech unions even a thing? In short: yes. But it’s still early days.
Tech workers have organized unions at a number of companies, including NPR, The New York Times, Kickstarter, Alphabet, and recently Bandcamp. There are also new union campaigns and union-curious organizing groups developing throughout the industry. Kickstarter union organizers produced a podcast which gives a great history of their union drive.
Tech unions are evolving out of the workplace social justice protests prominent during the Trump years. In 2018, Google workers walked out against sexual harassment. The slogan “tech won’t build it” grew out of Google workers organizing against a deadly Pentagon project and Microsoft workers petition against the company’s relationship to ICE. Layoffs were in part retaliation for these movements and others. Tech billionaires, feeling like they had been losing a class war to “woke” workers for decades, wanted revenge and were jealous of Elon Musk’s brutality.
Unions allow us to fight these fights more effectively. They also offer us a unique opportunity to build our own power in a world where the bosses’ power is essentially unilateral. From economic issues like pay, to political issues like ICE contracts, unions give workers the power to assert themselves.
Strong unions that are well prepared for workplace action can win real changes. Kickstarter won a guaranteed raises, cost of living adjustments, an end to location-based pay, and more. Union victories are won in a contract that is applied to all workers instead of the individual contracts we’re used to signing at new jobs. A union contract is essentially a temporary truce. A strong union should always be fighting for a better one, and the bosses will always be trying to take back what they lost.
Ultimately, workers’ power is derived from our economic position: if we organize ourselves, we can determine whether or not the bosses make profit. If we bring together significant sectors of the workforce, we can organize powerful walkouts, slowdowns, or even strikes. Of course, work stoppages shouldn’t be rushed into. They require serious and democratic discussions among organized workers.
Unions are new to the tech industry, and their potential is exciting and untested. Imagine how organized tech workers at Amazon could support a unionizing warehouse with targeted web and server outages.
Our unions also needs to keep fighting around the political issues that kickstarted this movement. Laid-off H1B workers are threatened with deportation if they don’t secure jobs within an extremely tight timeline. Unions can fight to defend alongside our H1B colleagues and win protections. The labor movement has a long history of winning important legal reforms through class struggle.
Tech unions have organized around a number of demands, and you are probably familiar with the issues at your workplace. We in Socialist Alternative would like to suggest some demands as well. Some, as mentioned above, have already been won in union contracts, and others would require a much stronger movement than we have today. Some would require challenging restrictive labor laws. Nevertheless, ambitious, class-struggle demands can help us build a mission statement for the union movement as it grows in our industry. We encourage workers entering into organizing spaces to discuss these demands and more with the others involved!
- Guaranteed annual raises and regular career advancements. We shouldn’t have to shop around just to get our own company to pay us what we deserve.
- End geographic-based pay and forced relocations. Equal pay for equal work.
- Anti-discrimination protections and discipline provisions to protect against sexual harrassment and other abuse.
- No forced return to work. “Hybrid” is not the same. Workers should decide for themselves how their teams should organize.
- A federal moratorium on H1B deportations and green cards for H1B workers.
- Open the accounting books. Bosses say they “overhired”. Workers should see for themselves how the numbers add up.
- Democratic, worker control over staffing and an end to mass layoffs.