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Amazon workers' union win could drive more activism in Silicon Valley

·Technology Editor
·5 min read
In this article:
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This article was first featured in Yahoo Finance Tech, a weekly newsletter highlighting our original content on the industry. Get it sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday by 4 p.m. ET. Subscribe

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The Amazon union win in Staten Island could spread to the rest of Big Tech

Amazon (AMZN) is officially the first Big Tech company to face the threat of a union telling it what to do. And that could energize workers across other tech companies to seek the same kind of representation for themselves.

While the e-commerce giant, which is the nation’s second largest private employer, may still challenge the outcome of the vote, the early victory by Amazon warehouse workers offers a blueprint for tech industry employees across the country seeking to organize.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more of this,” Rutgers University professor of labor studies and employee relations Susan Schurman told Yahoo Finance. “I think the Amazon victory of the Amazon Labor Union will stimulate a lot more efforts.”

But a groundswell effort among tech workers across Silicon Valley will still be a Herculean task.

Employees at the Staten Island, N.Y.-based Amazon warehouse, called JFK8, voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of establishing the Amazon Labor Union on Friday, making it the first U.S. union in Amazon’s 28-year history.

The Staten Island workers, who are seeking better working conditions and pay, aren’t the only Amazon employees working toward representation. Employees at a Bessemer, Ala., plant have already held two union votes, with workers failing to garner enough support in the first vote, and the second coming down to whether some 400 contested ballots can be counted. A hearing will be held in the coming weeks to determine how to proceed.

‘A confidence booster’

It’s not just Amazon that’s facing worker backlash. Workers at Apple (AAPL) retail stores are also seeking union representation and better wages. Employees at two stores have already filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), according to The Washington Post.

And that momentum could spread to Silicon Valley’s white collar positions, especially as workers at companies like Apple increasingly speak out against everything from controversial hires and pay equity to a return to the office, following pandemic-driven closures.

FILE - Staten Island-based Amazon.com Inc distribution center union organizer Chris Smalls, center, wearing baseball cap, celebrates with union members after getting the voting results to unionize workers at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, in New York, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)
Amazon union organizer Chris Smalls, center, wearing baseball cap, celebrates with union members after getting the voting results to unionize workers at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)

“This is obviously a confidence builder, and I think it will have some spill over into tech,” Stanford Law School Professor William Gould told Yahoo Finance. “There's already been some interest in unions in tech and this will sustain it, maybe promote it.”

Last year, employees at Google parent Alphabet (GOOG, GOOGL) formed a union with more than 900 participants. That union, however, hasn’t received NLRB recognition. To do so, it would need a majority of Alphabet’s more than 100,000 employees to sign up.

However, in March a handful of Google Fiber subtractor employees voted 9-to-1 in favor of unionizing as part of the Alphabet Workers Union, making them the union’s first bargaining unit recognized by the NLRB.

Over at video game giant Activision Blizzard (ATVI), quality assurance testers at subsidiary Raven Software are working towards forming their own union, though Activision Blizzard has refused to voluntarily recognize the group. Microsoft (MSFT), which is in the midst of purchasing the video game giant, has said it won’t stand in the way of the workers if Activision Blizzard eventually recognizes the union.

The fact that workers at some of Silicon Valley’s biggest firms, especially those in white collar positions, are unionizing shows that the effort goes far beyond a single Amazon warehouse.

According to Schurman, the union push among high-paying tech jobs has less to do with working conditions and more to do with a perceived lack of respect from leadership.

A person looks at her phone as she walks by the Apple store in Philadelphia, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Workers at a number of Apple Stores are seeking to unionize. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“You can infer when workers in a relatively highly-paid sector want to have a union, that they don't feel that they are being respected at work, and that they don't believe that they have a real voice in the terms and conditions at work,” Schurman said.

One or two unions won’t change Silicon Valley

While the Amazon union and similar efforts by Apple Store and Alphabet workers could inspire employees at other tech companies to form their own unions, at least one expert says this is still far from a turning point for the industry.

“I don't see this election in and of itself altering the landscape big time,” Gould told Yahoo Finance. “I think unions are going to have to devote a lot of resources and energy to organizing the unorganized beyond what's been done in the recent past.”

That’s especially true as tech companies continue to push back against unionization efforts. Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, and Activision Blizzard have all been accused of union busting.

Irvine, CA - July 28: Several hundred Activision Blizzard employees stage a walkout which they say is in a response from company leadership to a lawsuit highlighting alleged harassment, inequality, and more within the company outside the gate at Activision Blizzard headquarters on Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in Irvine, CA. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Activision Blizzard has been a hotbed of employee activism amidst numerous scandals. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In December, a NLRB judge ordered Alphabet to reveal information about a secret internal project dedicated to changing workers’ opinions about unions. And managers at Apple Stores have been accused of trying to paint unions in a negative light.

And in January, Activision Blizzard separated its quality assurance employees into new positions, which could prevent them from forming their own union.

“This is very hard work,” said Gould, a former chairman of the NLRB and author of the book “For Labor to Build Upon: Wars, Depression and Pandemic." “And in most unions it's, relatively speaking, unrewarding work.”

Still, the results of the Staten Island warehouse vote are unmistakable. If workers in Silicon Valley can rally behind unionization efforts of their own, it could be the start of a larger wave of employee activism and consequences for Big Tech.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him @DanielHowley

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