Mar 17, 2021 - Technology

The split at the heart of tech's new labor movement

Illustration of three raised fists holding 8-bit cursors

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tech's burgeoning new labor movement has its own class divide — between a conventional organizing push among blue collar employees and an effort among white collar employees that's based on a different set of concerns and goals.

Why it matters: The tech industry rose to power and wealth largely union-free. But a recent wave of labor organizing catches tech's biggest companies at a vulnerable moment, when they're being challenged by antitrust suits, hostile regulators and doubts among their workforce.

Driving the news:

  • A high-profile unionization campaign underway among Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama follows the classic model and will culminate in a vote count on March 30 — "the digital age's most important labor vote," per Axios Re:Cap's Dan Primack.
  • In Britain, Uber Tuesday agreed to reclassify 70,000 drivers as "workers," giving them access to government-mandated benefits, highlighting the challenge gig economy employers continue to present to labor-law worker classifications.
  • Meanwhile, a union effort among Google employees that began in January is taking an unconventional path — remaining a "minority union" for now, foregoing the possibility of collective bargaining but allowing the inclusion of contractors and even managers.

The divide in tech's labor movement is mapped in a new report from U.K.-based Access Partnership.

  • "Blue-collar workers often focus on higher wages, working conditions, hazard pay, and good welfare benefits," the report says.
  • Meanwhile, "White-collar workers seek to address a more expansive set of economic, social, and political issues such as social justice, climate change, workforce diversity, and how/by whom their technology is used."
  • Contractors and gig workers "challenge existing legal frameworks for structuring labor relations, motivating demands for new solutions and policy frameworks."

This divide shapes where and how tech's labor fights play out.

  • Amazon's battle is unfolding in and around its warehouses, as organizers try to win over workers while the company pushes back — including, organizers say, using illegal pressure tactics that the company denies.
  • The New York Times reported Tuesday on a previous failed unionization fight at an Amazon warehouse in Virginia. There, the National Labor Relations Board required Amazon to post notices with a long list of practices it vowed not to employ, like threatening to fire union supporters or surveilling union organizing efforts.
  • Organizing efforts at Google, by contrast, take place mostly digitally among office employees, including highly rewarded software developers, business and sales workers. They're less focused on salaries and benefits than on pressuring the company to live up to its ideals of improving the world.
  • A survey by Protocol released Monday shows 79% of tech employees feel the industry is too powerful.
  • Meanwhile, the conflict over the labor status of gig economy workers, like Uber and Lyft drivers, is being joined at the government level, as legislators, regulators and even voters (in California last year) try to reconcile old laws with new business models.

Our thought bubble: Unions are all about worker solidarity, and the two wings of tech labor will achieve a lot more if they work together. But doing so would require breaking down a lot of barriers — not only social divides but also the industry's ingrained ideology of individualism.

Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Re:Cap podcast interview with author Alec MacGillis about the Amazon union drive in Alabama.

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