Will unions come to Silicon Valley’s well-paid workforce?

No American tech giant like Facebook or Google has formally unionized, but a recent Quartz feature has argued that this is a near future that may happen.

Interviewing two grassroots activists groups, Tech Workers Coalition and Tech Solidarity, the author, Michael J. Coren, found that unionizing had been on its members’ mind. Tech Solidarity’s founder Maciej Ceglowski told Quartz explicitly that “collective action,” one of the tenets of unions, was the goal of the group, which has hundreds of members attending its weekly meetings. With their unique skills and internal knowledge, tech workers are in high demand, and these activists groups believe that tech workers’ greatest organizing power is when they threaten to walk out the door.

This got us thinking: what would unionization really change for Silicon Valley?

What Silicon Valley wants: More political power

There are several classes of workers in the tech world. The largest is contractors, like security guards and janitors, who successfully unionized. Higher wages and benefits are what drove the unionization campaign for tech contractors. In January, 3,000 security officers for Facebook, Cisco and Genentech won recognition as members of Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West. This followed successful SEIU-USWW negotiations for other tech contractors like shuttle bus drivers and janitors.

But for tech workers like engineers and managers, who have some of the highest-paid jobs and the best company perks, money and benefits are not the motivating appeal of a union. Instead, political involvement is the driver.

After the Muslim travel ban was proposed by the White House, these activist groups were motivated by the power of collective action to get more political power and change tech companies’ ethical bottom lines. A senior Oracle employee resigned after his CEO joined President Donald Trump’s transition team, and an IBM employee quit after the president’s proposed Muslim ban.

And no wonder: immigration is an issue very close to Silicon Valley. The tech industry is one of the greatest sponsors of H-1B visas for talented workers from other countries. That’s why tech leaders including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Marissa Mayer started Fwd.us, a politically active group dedicated to fixing immigration and criminal justice reform.

As always, though, the interests of workers and managers are not always aligned.

H-1B visas for foreign workers are the flashpoint

One of the reasons why these major tech companies have yet to unionize is that it would end the disruptive culture many Silicon Valley startups say they need to innovate.  Facebook, for example, was founded on a culture of “move fast and break things.” That includes a work culture that would be anathema to unions: long hours, for one thing.

Intel co-founder Robert Noyce warned that “remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we’d all go out of business.” Noyce believed that unions caused “deep, deep divisions be-tween workers and management which can paralyze action,” an unwanted outcome when venture capitalists funding startups want results yesterday.

And so previous attempts at unionizing at Silicon Valley companies have failed. In 1982 and 1983, Atari workers failed to unionize. Unions’ pesky demands for better wages are seen as efforts to drive up operating costs, which is why certain unionization campaigns face hostility. Similarly, IBM workers created a union-like group called Alliance@IBM, but the company disavows the existence of any unions.  About six months after an Apple employee tried to unionize its retail workers, certain Apple managers were made to receive “union awareness” training.

In 2002, Professor Alan Hyde wrote a paper on organizing labor in Silicon Valley, and suggested that uniting under ethnic or gender lines at individual companies could be the path forward to unionization.

“Organized labor groups might well conclude that its future lies with newer immigrants rather than with older IT professionals who never affiliated with labor organizations …. Could the ethnic pride and energy of Silicon Valley’s immigrant communities fuel successful organizing for programmers, as it has for janitors?”

Hyde may be on to something: foreign workers have a lot to complain about in the tech world. Not only do existing employees reject the need for diversity, but critics of Silicon Valley’s use of H-1B visas, cite the National Academy of Science report that says the tech industry loves the visas because they allow the companies to pay lower wages to foreign engineers.

Either way, it look like Hyde was right in his prediction about immigration providing the spark to light the fire towards some kind of unionization movement. After the White House’s executive order on immigration, 127 companies, including Apple, Google and Uber, signed an amicus brief opposing it, citing harm to their businesses as a reason: “The Order makes it more difficult and expensive for U.S. companies to recruit, hire, and retain some of the world’s best employees. It disrupts ongoing business operations. And it threatens companies’ ability to attract talent, business, and investment to the United States.” 

Whatever side of the debate you’re on, there’s no question that having a voice in the immigration debate is crucial for these companies and their workers. The only question is how Silicon Valley gets there — and whether companies are willing to trade off some cultural traditions like long workdays.