Friday, March 24, 2023

Inequity, Pay Disparities and Job Insecurity: Inside the Rise of Tech Unions

Inequity, Pay Disparities and Job Insecurity: Inside the Rise of Tech Unions

American labor movements, unionization, and the demand for ethical business tactics are a window into workplace inequity. But emerging sectors and so-called white-collar workers are joining industries historically connected to unions — utilities, education, and transportation, to name a few — in calls for better working conditions.

In technology, recent labor movements at Kickstarter, Alphabet, The New York Times, and NPR showcase tech workers’ demands for more equitable working conditions. While movements have been in the works for years, formal unions are new to the scene.

Workers unionize for a larger say in workplace decisions. Traditionally, management holds the power to dictate wages and benefits, but unions protect collective bargaining power for employees to negotiate workplace conditions.

Tech workers are no different. But the unique interests and demands of technology workers are seeping into non-technical companies, as more organizations rely on tech for business continuity and innovation. Seeking equal pay, equitable working conditions, job security, and transparency into their roles, technology employees are unionizing because they want to maintain a sustainable working environment.

Generally, union membership in the U.S. has remained low since peaking at 35% in 1945, according to 2018 research from MIT. Still, 83% of currently unionized workers said they would vote for a union again, and 48% of non-union workers would join a union today. Of the sample set of 3,915 American workers, 8% self-identified themselves as temporary employees, contract employees, or independent contractors.

Across occupations, 10.8% of wage and salary workers were members of unions in 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But the number of computer and mathematical occupation workers that are members of unions has held steady at around 3.8%.

Labor efforts in the space are demystifying the idea that all tech workers have good working conditions, according to RV Dougherty, an organizer at the Office and Professional Employees International Union’s Tech Workers Union Local 1010. A top engineer likely makes multiple times what a customer support agent earns, but even within job titles, disparities exist.

Two-thirds (65%) of women and non-white tech workers say they have experienced a form of bias in the workplace, according to a survey of 550 tech workers.TECH. Fifty-five percent of tech workers believe their employers could be doing more on diversity issues.

“A lot of what’s coming out in those [union] contracts are, how do we encode diversity, equity, and inclusion into a contract?” Dougherty said. “How do we encode clear, equitable performance plans into a contract so that it isn’t dependent on your relationship with your manager or whether or not your tone was correct, but instead is about what you’re actually doing in the workplace”?

Unionizing tech departments

Highlighting the unique demands of IT workers, technology workers in non-tech companies have begun to form unions distinct from the rest of employees.

More than 650 software engineers, data analysts, designers and product managers at The New York Times are currently trying to form a union, an effort announced in April 2021.

The union called out the lack of pay transparency, status as at-will employees, opaque promotion processes, unevenly applied on-call expectations, and the need for better diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts at The New York Times.

“Collective bargaining is our way to ensure that we will be able to build The Times’ world-class digital products and platforms in a workplace that is more equitable, healthy, and just,” the Times Tech Guild mission statement reads.

Despite an existing union at The New York Times, the technology workers decided to organize separately. “We realized that we had a significantly different benefits structure from the other unions, and we wanted to be sure that we were negotiating with our current benefits as a baseline in our new contract,” Vicki Crosson, software engineer at The New York Times and member of the Times Tech Guild organizing committee, said via email.

The units still coordinate and share similar goals, but the split acknowledges the unique interests of technology workers. Organizing as a tech worker in a non-tech company comes with benefits, such as already knowing the mechanics of unionization.

“The fact that our management already has such a strong relationship with this union, and that it’s so widely accepted to have strong unions at media companies, really works in our favor,” Crosson said.

The New York Times did not voluntarily recognize the Times Tech Guild, deferring the effort to a vote through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The Times Tech Guild filed an unfair labor practice charge against New York Times management with the NLRB on Tuesday, according to a tweet from the guild. The filing states that management illegally pressured union members not to show public support for the effort and polled staff on unionization in one-on-one conversations.

“Once we announced that we support an election, we began briefing supervisors to ensure they understand the election process and the legal parameters for supervisor-employee conversations about the union,” a spokesperson for The New York Times said via email. Because some technology and product development employees “hire, supervise and assess interns,” those workers “would need to act in a manner that is consistent with a management role,” the statement reads.

(Managers and supervisors do not have a protected right to join unions or bargaining units. The National Labor Relations Act defines a supervisor as individuals with the authority to perform several special job functions, such as hiring and firing, with “the use of independent judgment.”)

Another movement to unionize tech workers is happening at NPR. NPR voluntarily recognized a group of about 60 content operations, design, digital support, product management, and software engineering workers shortly after workers announced the union effort in April.

“Like so many tech workers who have organized this spring, we want to do our part to promote professional ethics; technical excellence; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in our industries,” the vision statement for NPR Digital Media United reads.

In a statement to CIO Dive, NPR said that it supports employees’ rights to decide whether to be represented by a union. “Following a neutral third-party verification of union authorization cards early last month, NPR voluntarily recognized NABET-CWA Local 31 as the exclusive bargaining representative of non-supervisory employees within the DM Content Operations, Design, Development, and Product groups of NPR’s Digital Media team, pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act,” the statement reads.

Other tech workers are organizing across sectors, too.

The Alphabet Workers Union strives for ethical technology use, among other efforts. The Campaign to Organize Digital Employees affiliates across the tech, game, and digital industries, and Tech Workers Union Local 1010 organized through Office and Professional Employees International Union to give tech employees a voice in the workplace.

More organizing efforts continue to crop up across the tech industry as workers go public. But these efforts don’t exist in a vacuum as a trend or fad representing a silo of tech worker demands.