Microsoft's union truce could reshape tech's long war with labor
With the seemingly modest step of agreeing not to oppose workers' efforts to unionize, Microsoft has upended long-held assumptions about Big Tech's hostility to organized labor.
Why it matters: Microsoft's move suggests some tech leaders are beginning to accept the inevitability that at least some parts of their maturing industry will end up unionized.
- Conventional wisdom has long held that union efforts would remain at the periphery of the tech industry, centered primarily around companies that had large retail, delivery or warehouse operations.
Driving the news: In a series of pledges and commitments in recent days, Microsoft has said it won't stand in the way of workers who want to unionize and signed an agreement not to interfere with any efforts by Activision Blizzard workers.
- The video game industry, known for especially rough working conditions, has been a focal point of unionization efforts in recent months.
- A group of QA workers at Activision's Raven Software studio voted to form a union in May, which would be the first union in the U.S. at a big game publisher. That followed years of increasing calls for unionization within the games industry.
Be smart: Microsoft is largely reiterating its support for rights that workers are already entitled to. However, in a world where companies like Amazon and Apple have actively worked to dissuade workers from organizing, Microsoft's move seems downright radical.
Between the lines: Silicon Valley and the broader tech industry have long argued that unions make it harder for startups and big firms alike to stay nimble and profitable in a market that's always changing fast.
- Tech workers, particularly those who are well paid and rewarded with stock options that sometimes turn into fortunes, haven't often welcomed organizing efforts.
- Some parts of the industry embrace a libertarian philosophy that believes unions infringe individual rights.
Zoom out: While Microsoft has signaled its openness to organized labor efforts, several large tech companies have continued to resist efforts by workers to form unions.
- Amazon has used a variety of tactics to try to convince warehouse workers to vote against unionization, with mixed results. Workers at one Staten Island facility voted in favor of a union, potentially Amazon's first, while those at a nearby facility voted against forming one.
- Apple has also been resisting recent efforts by retail workers to unionize. Apple's retail and HR head Deirdre O'Brien warned workers in a leaked video: “I worry about what it would mean to put another organization in the middle of our relationship."
The big picture: A potential warming in tech's stance towards labor would come at a moment when the economy is sputtering and significant numbers of tech workers are being laid off.
- To be sure, those workers are more likely to be employed at smaller startups than giants like Microsoft.
- But anything that makes workers feel less valued could make union arguments more persuasive.
What's next: Microsoft president Brad Smith has twice in recent weeks told me that Microsoft is simply doing what it sees fit for its own relationship with workers and not trying to push others. However, labor leaders see Microsoft's move as a potential model for others.
- "I won’t say that it was completely easy for Microsoft to do this but they did it," Christopher Shelton, president of Communications Workers of America, the union organizing at Activision, told Axios. "We believe lots of big companies should be doing the same thing."
Yes, but: He said it's still way too soon to know whether Microsoft's move will open more doors for labor.
- "We'll see," he said. "Maybe someone will look at this and come to their senses."