Apr 19, 2022 - Technology

Labor starts to find a path into Big Tech

An illustration of three fists in the air

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Labor organizers see Apple and Amazon offering them an opening in the tech industry's longstanding barriers against unions, thanks to the nature of their workforces.

How it works: Unlike their competitors, these firms each have massive payrolls in retail or warehouse jobs, and those roles are seen as friendlier to unionizing efforts than the engineers and salespeople at corporate HQ.

Why it matters: Amid a broad decline in the number of unionized American workers over the last 40 years, the tech industry has long painted unions as a danger to Silicon Valley's reputation for innovation and flexibility.

  • Union supporters see signs of change emerging just as wider disenchantment grows with the industry's power, wealth and practices.

Driving the news:

  • Workers at Apple's Grand Central Terminal store in New York have taken the first steps toward unionization, gauging worker support. On Monday, organizers said their initial goals for the effort include salaries to at least $30 per hour, as well as improved retirement plans and other benefits.
  • Efforts at Amazon are moving forward as well. Workers at one Staten Island facility voted to unionize earlier this month, while another is set to vote this month. A re-vote in a Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse faces continuing disputes over contested ballots and charges over Amazon's tactics.

Between the lines: Amazon and Apple don't officially reveal the breakdown of their workforce composition.

Amazon: In 2021, Amazon said it employed nearly a million workers in the U.S. The number ballooned during the pandemic as demand for deliveries soared.

  • The employment tally does not include contractors, such as many of the firm's delivery drivers.

Apple: The spread of Apple Stores over the past decade has brought tens of thousands of retail workers onto the company's payroll.

  • A 2018 analyst's estimate of 65,000 Apple Store workers is now widely cited, but the number has likely grown significantly since then.
  • Apple's total global workforce is 165,000 today.

The big picture: While the tech industry overall remains solidly nonunionized, recent efforts to organize some online media and video game workplaces have begun seeing some success.

Zoom out: From Big Tech to retail big and small, various industries are seeing their workers organize in unprecedented ways.

  • Before the pandemic, successful teachers' union strikes and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign laid some of the groundwork for the recent wave in organizing, Ken Jacobs, UC Berkeley Labor Center chair, tells Axios.
  • During the pandemic, "workers saw themselves deemed as essential but treated as disposable ... [which] created a lot of anger [and] willingness to take action."
  • The National Labor Relations Board is seeing the highest level of union organizing in 10 years, CNN reports.
  • More than 1,100 petitions seeking union representation were filed between October 2021 through March.

State of play: Combined with a tight labor market, workers have less fear of losing jobs now, and even if they do, they know they can get a job elsewhere. 

  • "Success begets success," Jacobs adds about the unionization effort: One victory can change people's views of what's possible. 

Meanwhile: Employees at Alphabet have taken a novel approach to unionization, forming a "minority union" that can't collectively bargain with the Google parent company. Organizers aim to become a voice for workers and contractors on a range of issues beyond those traditionally covered by labor laws.

  • Workers at a Google Fiber subcontractor in Missouri have voted to unionize, giving the nascent union its first chance to negotiate a contract.

What they're saying:

  • Apple hasn't directly commented on the unionization push, but reiterated an earlier statement that it offers "very strong compensation and benefits for full time and part time employees, including health care, tuition reimbursement, new parental leave, paid family leave, annual stock grants and many other benefits."
  • Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but has actively lobbied workers against unionizing at Bessemer and elsewhere.
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