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  • Tech Workers Rising:Why are so many young US tech workers embracing labour activism?
  • John Logan (bio)

The last few years have seen a remarkable rise in labour activism among tech workers in the United States. Most people are familiar with the unionisation attempts by Amazon warehouse workers, including the historic win at JFK8 in Staten Island, New York, on 1 April 2022, when the independent Amazon Labor Union won the first ever union victory at Amazon. But since 2018, labour activism has been spreading beyond "blue collar" tech company workers, resulting in labour organising at multiple tech companies, big and small, including among video game designers. The main obstacle to tech worker organising in the US, as explained below, is the implacable and often unlawful opposition of most tech companies to unionisation.

Multiple unions involved in the tech sector

Unlike many other sectors of the economy, no single union has clear jurisdiction over the tech sector in the United States. Thus, over the past few years, several unions have been organising in the sector. For example, when Apple retail workers first started "self-organising", three unions were involved: Communications Workers of America, International Association of Machinists and Workers United. Workers United subsequently gave the CWA responsibility for the Apple workers in NYC with whom they had been involved (much to the chagrin of some of the younger organisers in the union). The first store to petition for a union election, the Atlanta store, did so with CWA, but the union subsequently withdrew the petition because of Apple's alleged unlawful union busting. In the first store to hold and win a union election – Towson, Maryland (just outside of Baltimore) organised with the IAM. Apple workers in Oklahoma City subsequently organised with CWA. CWA has been the most active union in the tech sector, launching its Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CWA-CODE) in early 2020. CWA gained voluntary recognition for workers in Glitch 2020. The union subsequently helped Google workers create the minority Alphabet Workers Union in early 2021 (which operates in a similar way to, say, the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers (Wash Tech) – which was mostly contract workers at Microsoft – or Alliance@IBM, both from 20+ years ago.

Other notable unions organising in the tech sector in recent years include the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), which formed Tech Workers Local 1010 in 2021, after Kickstarter workers had organised with OPEIU in 2020. Tech workers at "Big Cartel" subsequently organised with OPEIU in 2021. The News Guild (affiliated with CWA) has also organised tech workers, including 650 New York Times tech workers with the NYT Tech Guild, which became the nation's largest certified tech union with collective bargaining rights. Finally, amongst Amazon warehouse workers, in addition to organising drives by the Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU) and the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the Teamsters union now has a national campaign to organise at Amazon.

Outdated jurisdictional claims are an obstacle to organising

Having multiple unions help tech workers organise has almost certainly been beneficial: it has created more energy and dynamism around tech worker organising. The last few years of labour activism has shown that, during a period in when some workers appear to be "chomping at the bit" for a union to help them organise, outdated notions of exclusive jurisdiction are often an obstacle to that goal. Consider, for example, the food retail or auto sectors. In food retail, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) rules supreme. At present, the national union appears largely uninterested in taking on big, ambitious organising campaigns – it's still suffering from "Walmart PTSD" due to the multi-million dollar Our Walmart campaign that didn't manage to organise a single Walmart store – and so when workers at non-union Trader Joe's wanted to organise in early 2022, they did so through the independent Trader Joe's United, which has won four union elections so far, the first unions at the militantly anti-union corporation. Likewise, many observers consider Amazon-owned Whole Foods as a promising target for a union campaign – Whole Foods workers at multiple locations have shown a desire to unionise – but the...