A few weeks ago, unless you follow tech news closely, you probably missed a rather big story surrounding the small Chicago company Basecamp. In short, the company’s CEO and CTO made a unilateral decision to ban political talk at work and disbanded a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative that a great number of employees volunteered for. In response, a third of the company quit en masse.
Basecamp’s CEO and CTO made massive changes to their workplace—perhaps in ways they didn’t fully understand, and I’m not convinced they do now—and announced the new policy on a blog before news was even shared internally. The announcement not only banned political discussions at work and disbanded the DEI initiative, but also ceased 360-degree performance reviews and discontinued certain employee benefits. These decisions were made without consulting with their employees.
What matters here aren’t the details of what happened at Basecamp. I’m an outside observer, I can’t and won’t know the details. What matters is the story of power. And a story of why tech workers need to unionize.
Unions exist for collectively and democratically negotiating on behalf of its workers. Typically, as part of their work, union representatives are selected by workers to form a contract between union members and a company, which governs workplace matters—pay, benefits, safety, and so forth. This is nothing new among tech workers. Teams at Glitch, Kickstarter, NPR, and Google have formed unions, as have UK-based employees of Microsoft and Amazon.
It’s hard not to look at the successes emerging among Glitch, NPR, and Kickstarter and compare it to Basecamp’s decision to impose sweeping changes to compensation and working environment simply because they had the power to do so. Unions forming in the technology industry provide a necessary counterbalance to collectively bargain for better pay, safer work environments, better hours—in short, the contracts that exist to protect and codify what workers need from their workplaces. No matter how non-hierarchical you might currently feel your place of work is, it doesn’t change the fact that workplaces don’t exist to foster democratic processes. Nor can you count on leadership either maintaining its status quo, or even those in leadership being at the head of an organization over the long term. At some point, as it seemed to have happened at Basecamp, decisions will be made without workers having a seat at the table.
And this stretches across not just tech workers, but rideshare operators, social media moderators, delivery drivers, contractors working with training data, and warehouse workers—people ostensibly at the margins of “tech work” but who, in fact, make many of these enterprises work at all. If you need evidence that these groups are tied together, look no further than Amazon: when Amazon warehouse employees failed to form a union in Bessemer, Alabama, the company launched an anti-union campaign against its tech workers. The path of unionization means solidarity with all in protecting benefits, workplaces, and ourselves, even those not historically considered part of “tech work.”
The greater challenge here is how effectively tech workers might go about creating unions. As labor historian Erik Loomis reminds us, since the New Deal the system of labor laws and regulations as been so thoroughly dismantled and tilted in favor of corporations that creating a private sector union is exceedingly difficult.
In the 1930s the Roosevelt Administration effectively reversed the government’s role in unions (until the 1930s, the government willingly lent its power in stopping unions, often by the use of force) and decided the government would operate as a neutral arbiter. The government, instead, required companies to accept a union if workers voted to have one. The labor friendly principles of FDR led to the creation of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 creating the National Labor Relations Board designed to adjudicate cases. In 1938 the government’s regulatory policies included passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which legislated the federal minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, overtime pay, and a ban on child labor. But over the last eighty-three years employers have taken control of the union election process and the regulatory teeth of the NLRB rarely makes consistent decisions on labor policy.
The companies above that have successfully formed unions show that it is possible, but that’s not to say it isn’t a massive hurdle. What would improve chances would be the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) that would bar mandatory anti-union meetings, allow for newly formed union locals to go to mediation to get their first contract, and weaken right-to-work laws that allow employees to opt out of unions. And most importantly, companies would face financial penalties for violating the law. Many of the tactics Amazon uses to quell warehouse worker’s attempts at unionizing would be illegal.1
The key takeaway here is: without the government leveling the playing field, the union movement broadly faces a herculean task. The PRO Act is a step in the right direction, and tech workers I would ask you: Contact your congressional representatives about this. Talk to your colleagues about this. If you can, organize your workplace.
Unless the Senate decides to eliminate the filibuster, it’s doubtful the PRO Act will head to President Biden’s desk for a signature. ↩︎