American labor movements, unionization and the demand for ethical business tactics are a window into workplace inequity. But emerging sectors and so-called white collar workers are joining industries historically connected to unions — utilities, education and transportation, to name a few — in calls for better working conditions.
In technology, recent labor movements at Kickstarter, Alphabet, The New York Times and NPR showcase tech workers' demands for more equitable working conditions. While movements have been in the works for years, formal unions are new to the scene.
Workers unionize for a larger say in workplace decisions. Traditionally, management holds the power to dictate wages and benefits, but unions protect collective bargaining power for employees to negotiate workplace conditions.
Tech workers are no different. But the unique interests and demands of technology workers are seeping into non-technical companies, as more organizations rely on tech for business continuity and innovation. Seeking equal pay, equitable working conditions, job security and transparency into their roles, technology employees are unionizing because they want to maintain a sustainable working environment.
Generally, union membership in the U.S. has remained low since peaking at 35% in 1945, according to 2018 research from MIT. Still, 83% of currently unionized workers said they would vote for a union again, and 48% of non-union workers would join a union today. Of the sample set of 3,915 American workers, 8% self-identified themselves as temporary employees, contract employees, or independent contractors.
Across occupations, 10.8% of wage and salary workers were members of unions in 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But the number of computer and mathematical occupation workers that are members of unions has held steady at around 3.8%.
Labor efforts in the space are demystifying the idea that all tech workers have good working conditions, according to RV Dougherty, an organizer at the Office and Professional Employees International Union's Tech Workers Union Local 1010. A top engineer likely makes multiple times what a customer support agent earns, but even within job titles, disparities exist.
Two-thirds (65%) of women and non-white tech workers say they have experienced a form of bias in the workplace, according to a survey of 550 tech workers by .TECH. Fifty-five percent of tech workers believe their employers could be doing more on diversity issues.
"A lot of what's coming out in those [union] contracts are, how do we encode diversity, equity and inclusion into a contract?" Dougherty said. "How do we encode clear, equitable performance plans into a contract so that it isn't dependent on your relationship with your manager or whether or not your tone was correct, but instead is about what you're actually doing in the workplace?"
Unionizing tech departments
Highlighting the unique demands of IT workers, technology workers in non-tech companies have begun to form unions distinct from the rest of employees.
More than 650 software engineers, data analysts, designers and product managers at The New York Times are currently trying to form a union, an effort announced in April 2021.
The union called out the lack of pay transparency, status as at-will employees, opaque promotion processes, unevenly applied on-call expectations, and the need for better diversity, inclusion and equity efforts at The New York Times.
"Collective bargaining is our way to ensure that we will be able to build The Times' world class digital products and platforms in a workplace that is more equitable, healthy, and just," the Times Tech Guild mission statement reads.
Despite an existing union at The New York Times, the technology workers decided to organize separately. "We realized that we had a significantly different benefits structure from the other unions, and we wanted to be sure that we were negotiating with our current benefits as a baseline in our new contract," Vicki Crosson, software engineer at The New York Times and member of the Times Tech Guild organizing committee, said via email.
The units still coordinate and share similar goals, but the split acknowledges the unique interests of technology workers. Organizing as a tech worker in a non-tech company comes with benefits, such as already knowing the mechanics of unionization.
"The fact that our management already has such a strong relationship with this union, and that it's so widely accepted to have strong unions at media companies, really works in our favor," Crosson said.
The New York Times did not voluntarily recognize the Times Tech Guild, deferring the effort to a vote through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The Times Tech Guild filed an unfair labor practice charge against New York Times management with the NLRB on Tuesday, according to a tweet from the guild. The filing states that management illegally pressured union members not to show public support for the effort and polled staff on unionization in one-on-one conversations.
"Once we announced that we support an election, we began briefing supervisors to ensure they understand the election process and the legal parameters for supervisor-employee conversations about the union," a spokesperson for The New York Times said via email. Because some technology and product development employees "hire, supervise and assess interns," those workers "would need to act in a manner that is consistent with a management role," the statement reads.
"We don't want to fight against our management, but rather have a seat at the table to be able to express the needs of our unit."
Software engineer at The New York Times and member of the Times Tech Guild organizing committee
(Managers and supervisors do not have a protected right to join unions or bargaining units. The National Labor Relations Act defines supervisor as individuals with the authority to perform several special job functions, such as hiring and firing, with "the use of independent judgment.")
Another movement to unionize tech workers is happening at NPR. NPR voluntarily recognized a group of about 60 content operations, design, digital support, product management and software engineering workers shortly after workers announced the union effort in April.
"Like so many tech workers who have organized this spring, we want to do our part to promote professional ethics; technical excellence; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in our industries," the vision statement for NPR Digital Media United reads.
In a statement to CIO Dive, NPR said that it supports employees' rights to decide whether to be represented by a union. "Following a neutral third-party verification of union authorization cards early last month, NPR voluntarily recognized NABET-CWA Local 31 as the exclusive bargaining representative of non-supervisory employees within the DM Content Operations, Design, Development, and Product groups of NPR's Digital Media team, pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act," the statement reads.
Other tech workers are organizing across sectors, too.
The Alphabet Workers Union strives for ethical technology use, among other efforts. The Campaign to Organize Digital Employees affiliates across the tech, game, and digital industries, and Tech Workers Union Local 1010 organized through Office and Professional Employees International Union to give tech employees a voice in the workplace.
More organizing efforts continue to crop up across the tech industry as workers go public. But these efforts don't exist in a vacuum as a trend or fad representing a silo of tech worker demands.
Tech workers seek equity, fairness and a better place to work
The six-figure statistic, for example, can be misleading. While certain positions may average an annual salary over $100,000, some employees will inevitably make less. Consider software developers; while the mean salary is $108,080, the bottom 10% of developers make less than $65,210, according to the BLS.
The difference could be based on discrepancies in qualifications, bias at hiring or other factors — but is difficult to know when companies hesitate to share salary data. It's one of the issues tech workers unionize around to gain clarity.
Pay can vary widely within IT positions
|Bottom 10% salary
|Top 10% salary
|Computer user support specialists
|Web developers and digital designers
|Network and computer systems administrators
|Computer systems analysts
|Database administrators and architects
|Information security analysts
|Software developers and software quality assurance analysts and testers
|Computer network architects
|Computer and information research scientists
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
The Tech Workers' Bill of Rights — endorsed across Tech Workers Union Local 1010, Kickstarter United, the Tech Workers Coalition and CODE-CWA — outlines seven core values of tech labor efforts. The document commits to:
Equity: Workers deserve fair and inclusive work environments free of discrimination.
Empowerment: Workers should have input in decision-making around their working conditions.
Representation: Workers should have a meaningful say in business decisions, including company strategy and ethical standards.
Accountability: Workers deserve equality and transparency when it comes to hirings, firings and HR practices.
Safety: Workers have the right to safe working conditions.
Fairness: Workers deserve equal pay for equal work.
Freedom: Workers should be free to express themselves, dissent, and organize without fear of repercussion or retaliation.
In action, these tenets are meant to solve some of the common complaints raised by technology workers.
"Tech workers have produced innovations that are changing the course of history — and making their bosses rich in the process," Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer at AFL-CIO, said in an email to CIO Dive. "The folks creating that wealth deserve to be treated with respect, take home their fair share, and make themselves heard."
In the tech unionization efforts, there's an emphasis on holding organizations accountable to ethical values that reach beyond the traditional labor rights of starting a union.
Particularly with younger professionals or those entering the workforce, "having an impact on their work on important problems is very, very strong," Tom Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research, said.
In essence, it's a call for a workplace that is good for all — employees, customers and management alike.
"IT professionals bring skills to the job that their bosses simply can't do without," Shuler said. "By organizing together, those workers can translate that power into a better future for themselves, their coworkers, and the company as a whole."
Labor efforts intersect with tech worker interests
Throughout U.S. history, workers have banded together in solidarity to stand up for fair practices in the workplace and legislation set standards to protect workers' rights to unionize.
Technology unions, however, are a relatively new phenomenon. Workers at crowdfunding platform Kickstarter started the first union of full-time, salaried employees in the technology industry when they voted to form a union in February 2020. And those workers set a precedent on what it meant to organize in the tech sector when they began their unionization efforts.
"For us it was really important to find a union that was ready to take the best practices from unionization and get creative about what it meant to apply them to a new sector, and really create a lot of space for workers to lead," Dougherty said about their time organizing the Kickstarter effort.
Kickstarter United chose OPEIU Local 153 to represent their interests in part because of the organization's interest in rallying the tech sector, and the message about successful unionization in the tech sector quickly spread.
"We realized that this wasn't just going to be ad hoc campaigns," Dougherty said, "but really about how we could create infrastructure for organizing in the sector overall."
While Kickstarter United was the first tech union to succeed, they weren't the first to try. IBM employees spent nearly five decades fighting for union representation — ultimately, failing to organize a formal labor union.
In the 1970s, IBM employees formed IBM Workers United to demand the company behave ethically and improve employee experience. The group partnered with CWA in 1999, changing its name to Alliance@IBM to organize for union representation. The campaign disbanded in 2016, citing job cuts and membership losses taking a toll on their efforts.
Employee efforts at IBM weren't a total loss — worker solidarity saved jobs and retirement funds — but what IBM workers fought for then is reminiscent of what tech workers are still fighting for today. Pay disparities, inequality and unethical business practices are all still a part of worker solidarity efforts today.
Yet, management's largely anti-union stance is deeply rooted in the rise of tech. As Intel founder Robert Noyce once reportedly said, "Remaining nonunion is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules of union companies, we'd all go out of business."
Arguments against unionization generally center on the idea that it's bad for business. Collective bargaining ensures every employee makes a certain wage, rather than dolling out pay based solely on productivity. Strikes and other employee actions can also disrupt the business to undermine profits, and some employees may be opposed to the idea of paying union dues.
"We realized that this wasn't just going to be ad hoc campaigns, but really about how we could create infrastructure for organizing in the sector overall."
An organizer at the Office and Professional Employees International Union's Tech Workers Union Local 1010
But workers choose to unionize because the power of the collective is stronger than facing adversity alone. Collective bargaining can center employee voices and protect individuals from retaliation for speaking up about disparities.
Where management fits in tech unionization efforts
While union-busting is illegal, companies and managers have found legal loopholes to dissuade employees from unionizing — or at least make it harder.
Across the U.S., employers were charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of union elections in 2016 and 2017, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.
The PRO Act, labor legislation passed by the House in March, seeks to change that. It aims to stop employer influence in union elections, establish monetary penalties for companies and executives violating workers' rights and grant greater arbitration and mediation to settle impasses in union negotiations. Opponents say the law would hurt for independent contractors and disrupt worker choice around unionization.
Yet, it's the culture of management today that undermines worker solidarity efforts.
Forming a union is an "arduous campaign process" stunted further by management resistance, Kochan said. It can be discouraging and workers may pivot to other solidarity efforts instead, such as signing petitions or using social media to build community.
For management, "it's all about maintaining control," Kochan said. Historically, American managers have been anti-union because of a notion that they should be able to control the workforce.
More individuals entering the technology workforce see the inequities and seek to change control-centered management ideologies. But for now, "it's baked into the management culture," Kochan said.
"When workers organize, they do it because they care enough to take that big leap."
Secretary-treasurer at AFL-CIO
Unionization isn't a combative effort pitting workers and management against one another. Rather, unionizing workers are sending a message to their company that they want to create a more sustainable working environment instead of leaving in a few years, according to Dougherty.
"That has an incredible impact on your product or on your company," Dougherty said. "Instead of having to train technical people on the nuances and the complexity of your codebase, you get to have someone who's been around for five, six, 10 years and has that institutional knowledge."
IT executives and managers can actually use the momentum around unionizing to their advantage. Employee enthusiasm about a better working environment usually indicates a strong drive to continue working hard for the company if conditions improve.
"When workers organize, they do it because they care enough to take that big leap," Shuler said. "Embrace that passion, and you'll find you've been overlooking a lot of untapped energy and ideas."
Plus, when workers organize, members of middle managers and junior executives end up better off, too, according to Shuler. Better pay, benefits and other improvements trickle up the management chain.
"We don't want to fight against our management, but rather have a seat at the table to be able to express the needs of our unit," Crosson said. "The union brings a democratic voice of the workers into any decision-making process, which can actually take a lot of pressure off of management to have to figure out what we prioritize most."