Jun 2, 2022 - Technology

Microsoft pledges to work with employee unions

Photo collage of Brad smith and an image of data

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: By Cody Glenn/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images

Microsoft is announcing today that it won't stand in the way of company employee efforts to unionize, putting it in stark contrast to other tech companies.

Why it matters: The announcement comes amid a growing movement to unionize parts of the tech workforce, and as Microsoft seeks to close a deal to purchase Activision Blizzard, some units of which have pursued unionization.

  • "We’re not asking our employees to go form a union, but we will meet people where they are at," Microsoft president Brad Smith told Axios.

Driving the news: In a just-published blog post, Smith said that the company is "committed to creative and collaborative approaches with unions when employees wish to exercise their rights and Microsoft is presented with a specific unionization proposal."

  • Smith stressed that the company is focused on a collaborative relationship with all employees, whether unionized or not. "Our employees will always have direct access to this company’s senior leaders," he said. "They don’t need to form a union to be heard."
  • At the same time, Smith said that it is inevitable that unions will touch more businesses. "We don’t need to make contentious things that can be handled more amicably," he said in the interview.

Between the lines: Microsoft has been evaluating its stance toward unions for several months, Smith said, saying that the Activision Blizzard deal was among many factors that led the company to explore the issue more deeply.

  • Quality Assurance workers at Activision-owned Raven Software recently voted to form a union. The vote followed a strike within Raven that lasted nearly seven weeks.
  • While Microsoft told Axios in March it would not stand in the way of Activision Blizzard recognizing a union, Xbox head Phil Spencer said last week that he would recognize Raven's union once the deal closes.
  • "It’s a good time to step back and recognize there is a lot we can learn from not just business leaders but labor leaders," Smith said.

The big picture: Other large tech companies have been less open to union efforts.

Our thought bubble: What Microsoft is saying shouldn't actually be that radical. Employees have the legal right to form unions, a fact which Smith notes in his blog post.

  • "We respect this right and do not believe that our employees or the company’s other stakeholders benefit by resisting lawful employee efforts to participate in protected activities, including forming or joining a union," Smith said in the blog.
  • In the interview, though, Smith said Microsoft was simply doing what it felt was right for itself, not trying to push the industry as a whole. "I don’t think it is our role to tell other companies what to do."

Yes, but: Labor leaders are hoping to see other's follow in Microsoft's footsteps.

  • "We know labor and management can be true partners in a company’s success, and it’s important for companies to respect workers’ rights," AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler said in a statement. "Microsoft’s collaborative approach to working with its employees who seek to organize is a best practice that we look forward to seeing implemented at Microsoft and other companies."
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