Tech firms face unionization push, as Amazon and Apple workers organize

The recent push for unionization at tech firms and retailers like Amazon that heavily rely on technology could put the companies in a bind if they push back too hard.

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The recent efforts by workers at Apple and Amazon to undertake high-profile attempts to organize represent something of a departure from the norm for a sector that’s long been averse to worker unions.

“The tech industry has, by and large, resisted unionization since its beginning,” said Thomas A. Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and faculty member of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. “Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM; pick a large-scale computer company, they're all non-union,” he said.

He described the recent pressure from workers to unionize as “unprecedented.”

Warehouse and retail staffers at the two companies have been leading the way with unionization efforts. Last month, for instance, staff at a New York warehouse voted to establish the first US trade union to be recognized by Amazon in its 27-year history, with former employee Chris Smalls leading a successful campaign that surprised both the company and labor leaders.

The vote saw employees at the JFK8 Staten Island facility opt to join the Amazon Labor Union in a bid to improve pay and working conditions, generating enthusiasm among labor activists for a resurgent labor movement in the U.S. 

Amazon has moved to overturn the result, and continues to push back against pro-unio  efforts within its workforce. On Monday, employees at second facility in New York, the LDJ5 warehouse, voted against unionizing, a setback for organizers that had hoped to build momentum following early success.

Amazon is clear in its stance: “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

Apple, the world’s most valuable company, is also facing a union push. Retail staff at a store in Atlanta signed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last month to hold a union election, the first group of Apple workers to do so. A similar move is planned at the company’s Grand Central Store in New York, where staffers are seeking minimum pay of $30 per hour and improvements to work conditions.

According to a Vice report, staffers at several other stores are also intent on unionizing; just yesterday, workers at a Maryland Apple Store launched a union drive.

Apple is apparently resisting these moves, reportedly hiring lawyers from Littler Mendelson, which has helped companies such as Starbucks deter unionization in the past.

Apple declined to comment on the efforts but highlighted existing benefits for employees, including a $20 minimum wage: "We are fortunate to have incredible retail team members and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple,” the spokesperson said. “We are pleased to offer very strong compensation and benefits for full time and part time employees, including health care, tuition reimbursement, new parental leave, paid family leave, annual stock grants and many other benefits.”

Labor organization has been on the rise across the US in recent months, notably at Starbucks, where workers at more than 200 stores are unionizing around the country. Although overall union membership has declined steadily for decades – down from 20% of employees in 1983 to 10.3% currently, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics — attitudes towards organized labor have been on an upswing, with approval ratings at their highest level since 1965, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Although there are longer-standing concerns around pay and conditions, Kochan said the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for what’s going on now. “There's a strong, pent-up frustration among a lot of workers with the lack of wage growth over the years,” said Kochan. “The pandemic just accelerated and crystallized a lot of these frustrations.”

One on-going factor is a tight labor market that hands greater bargaining power to workers, he said. At the same time, many businesses have seen profits soar during the pandemic, particularly among tech companies, leading to calls for the benefits to be shared with all workers.

Alongside workers in stores and warehouses, employee activism has been rising among corporate office staffers at several large tech firms in recent years, including unrest among Apple’s office workers on a variety of topics such as a claimed gender pay gap and hybrid workplace plans, and at Alphabet — Google’s parent company — where a minority union was formed last year to represent full-time and contract staff.

A small group of quality assurance employees at video game producer Activision Blizzard, recently acquired by Microsoft, have also formed a union to protest the ending of temporary worker contracts.

Companies that resist a union push run the risk of a backlash from workers who might feel the companies are being unfair, said Brian Kropp, distinguished vice president analyst at Gartner.

“The bigger issue for companies like Amazon and Apple is the public perception,” said Kropp. “One of the big shifts that we've seen across the last couple of years, is the sense that [businesses] should be treating their employees fairly,” he said.

Any heavy-handed reaction to unionization could result in customers boycotting services or switching to rivals in protest. “That is actually a bigger risk than the cost of increasing wages for employees in places that might unionize,” said Kropp.

It's unclear what impact the recent efforts at Apple and Amazon will have on the wider labor movement in the tech industry. Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse represents just a small fraction of the companies million-strong workforce in the US, while Apple’s Atlanta and Grand Central stores are only two of more than 270 across the country.

“While there is certainly a lot of talk, it's still a relatively small number of employees [attempting to unionize] at this point,” said Kropp. However, he notes that even a small number is notable.

“A couple of years ago it was zero,” he said.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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