Apr 9, 2020 - Technology

Pandemic sparks tech workers' interest in unions

Illustration of protest sign with angry emoji.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Tech and gig economy workers are talking to unions about organizing as they worry the industry isn't doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus.

Why it matters: The crisis could breathe life into a tech labor movement that has had trouble gaining traction — though skyrocketing unemployment could also erode workers' leverage.

What's happening: Unions that have previously pushed for the tech and gig economy labor force to organize are seeing an uptick in engagement as the coronavirus' spread puts people like e-commerce fulfillment workers, ride-share drivers and gig shoppers on the front lines of a deadly pandemic.

The Teamsters have been fielding calls from both full-time tech company employees and contractors, said Rome Aloise, head of the union's Northern California chapter.

  • Contractors face considerable limits on their ability to formally unionize, but callers in both categories have voiced concerns about personal safety and job security and have asked about labor rights, Aloise said.
  • The union already represents some shuttle drivers for tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google and has an open call for other people employed by the tech industry to join.

The Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) has seen "an increase in inquiries from non-union workers over the last couple of weeks who want advice about their options for delivering safety and economic demands to their employers," said Cindy Schu, director of organizing.

  • The uptick is not specific to the tech industry and has been strongest in the nonprofit sector, she noted.
  • Kickstarter employees voted to join OPEIU in February, marking the first well-known tech company to see its workers unionize.

The Communications Workers of America recently heard from a group of tech company contractors that successfully pushed to work from home as the pandemic escalated, according to a transcript of an organizing call obtained by Axios.

  • The union, which predominantly serves the media and telecom industries, launched an initiative in January dubbed CODE-CWA aimed at unionizing the workforce at video game companies and other tech firms. The employees of app developer Glitch joined CWA last month.

The big picture: Tech workers fall into several categories that form an almost caste-like employment system:

  • Full-time employees at big companies and startups usually have generous salaries and benefits and stock options that make them part owners.
  • Bigger firms also rely on armies of contractors — everything from highly skilled freelancers running their own businesses to low-paid content reviewers and maintenance workers — who don't get the same benefits.
  • Over the past decade, tech companies have also organized a new gig economy of ride-share drivers, food deliverers, and similar providers, and their employment status has become a legal battleground.

The other side: Unions have long sought entree into Silicon Valley. Tech has successfully kept them out by arguing that unions hamper the flexibility needed to thrive in a fast-changing industry — and by lavishing valuable perks on employees.

  • Still, there have already been signs of tech's firebreak against unions weakening. In addition to Kickstarter and Glitch, digital media companies including Vox, BuzzFeed and G/O Media, parent of outlets such as Gizmodo and The Onion, have seen their workforces or segments thereof unionize.

Context: The fresh organizing push comes amid high-profile coronavirus-centric clashes between workers and tech companies.

  • Amazon last week fired Chris Smalls, a Staten Island warehouse worker who led a walkout over what he said were unsafe conditions and a lack of transparency around whether workers may have been exposed to the virus. The company said it fired Smalls for returning to the work site to lead the walkout after he came into contact with an infected employee and was sent home on mandatory quarantine.
  • Some Instacart shoppers recently went on strike to demand protective equipment, hazard pay and expanded paid sick leave policies. Instacart met some of the demands, including giving face masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers to its shoppers.

Yes, but: The last two weeks have seen an unprecedented spike in U.S. unemployment claims as entire segments of the economy grind to a halt as a result of the pandemic. Millions of Americans desperate for work may be willing to take on jobs without making demands of management, diluting the power held by existing workers.

The bottom line: Labor activists say they're not feeling the knock-on effects from coronavirus-driven unemployment yet. "Our labor is valued right now," Vanessa Bain, who leads the Gig Workers Collective group behind the Instacart strike, told Axios.

  • "It's valued because it's so essential, and we've known how essential our labor is for a long time, but there's always been this culture of, if workers are unhappy, just find another job. We're not hearing that now."

Go deeper: The new labor movement inspired by the coronavirus

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