Yesterday, a group of Google contract employees in Pittsburgh voted to unionize. Their move is one more small step forwards in a relentless wave of labor activism in the tech world. You know what’s missing here? A TECH WORKERS UNION.
The Google contractors are joining the United Steelworkers. In another union drive in the tech world, at Kickstarter, workers are trying to join the Office and Professional Employees Internation Union (OPEIU). These are both fine unions. But as their names indicated, neither of them are unions that exist to organize and represent tech workers. That is a problem. Look at the big picture and it’s easy to see why.
Unfortunately, the structure of organized labor in America is still, to a large degree, the leftovers of a half-century ago, when unions were a much more prominent and powerful feature of American life. Browse the 55 member unions of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest union coalition, and you will see a snapshot of the American economy not as it is now, but as it used to be: steelworkers and auto workers, ironworkers and blacksmiths, longshoremen and mine workers, train dispatchers and railroad signalmen. It is a good thing that all of these unions exist, and they should continue to exist and to serve their members. But it is rather telling that in the year 2019, die stampers and engravers have unions dedicated explicitly and specifically to representing them, but tech workers do not. That is, to say the very least, an embarrassing oversight in planning by organized labor.
What does organized labor represent? It represents labor. In an organized way. It represents workers. In order for organized labor to be a strong part of the American economy in a way that will allow it to exercise enough power to serve workers effectively, it must be a standard feature of the companies that move the economy. Unions must be seamlessly integrated into the most meaningful sectors of the economy so that they can set standards that will ripple outwards and help workers everywhere. How are they doing? Well, the five most valuable companies in America are all tech companies. Not only are none of those companies unionized—there is not even an existing union dedicated to trying to unionize those companies in a systematic way. The approach to organizing the richest, most powerful, and most influential industry in the world today has been entirely, pathetically piecemeal. The retail workers union has tried to organize Amazon a bit, and entertainment unions have tiny pieces of work at tech companies in the entertainment space, and various professional and white collar unions have sniffed around parts of the work forces here and there, and a number of “alt-labor” groups have made strides in tech, but there is no organized—there’s that word!—effort to unionize the millions of working people at the most powerful companies in America, which are tech companies. This is, to be perfectly clear, a profound failure at the very top of the labor world.
I have infinite respect for the unions and labor organizers who have done what has already been done in the tech industry. But it is pure fantasy to think that a piecemeal approach will have any hope of successfully cracking companies with global reach, millions of employees, trillions of dollars of value, and a strong incentive to keep unions out. Just as unions in the last century waged all-out wars to organize the factories of the industries that dominated their time, so too must the unions of today approach the tech industry as something vital for the survival of organized labor itself. We can’t fuck around here. Organizing Amazon or Google will require vast resources and commitment. No single existing union—all of which already have their own members to worry about—is capable of doing the job. This effort needs to involve collective resources. It needs to come from the top. And, not to be picky, but it would be helpful if there were actually a union for tech workers. Nothing says “We’re just making this shit up as we go” like asking a bunch of workers who are used to being in high demand to join a union that is branded with an entirely unrelated industry.
Start a tech workers union! Please! You have to have the bucket before you can fill it. All it really takes to start a new union is money. You hire organizers and staff and open an office and voila, the brand new Tech Workers Union is ready to go out and find itself a bunch of tech workers to unionize. Big existing unions should all kick in money to start the new union. (Get some money from foundations, too—the money spent annually producing dozens of little-read reports about “The Future of Work” could fund the hiring of actual human organizers instead.) This is in everyone’s interest. We must all be enlightened enough to see that a unionized tech industry is good for organized labor as a whole. As grateful as I am that the Steelworkers and OPEIU took the initiative to organize tech workers, it is silly to imagine that either of them—or any other union that was started in another industry—has the ability to really make a large dent in tech. This is an operational issue. It’s a branding issue. It’s a practical issue. It’s a common sense issue. It needs to be done. It should have been done a long time ago. But hey, it’s never too late. There’s a ton of work to be done.
Start the Tech Workers Union. Please. This is the easy part.