Tech Employees Have A Powerful Voice, But Is Silicon Valley Listening?
Until recently, the tech world of Silicon Valley seemed practically immune to labor unions’ attempts to organize its workers. With college-like campuses, great salaries, and benefits to spare, tech employees have been a pretty satisfied group of workers.
In recent years however, labor unions have been making some headway into Silicon Valley, via the subcontractors whose employees service the tech giants with office cleaning, cooking, transportation and other amenities used by employers to attract and retain tech talent. The service workers are amongst the lowest paid workers in all of Silicon Valley, providing cheap labor to the richest companies in Silicon Valley and some, the world. So, at first glance one might see the “sub” in the “subcontractor” as the technology industry’s protection against union interference. But, not so fast. . .
While the well paid, highly sought after, and extremely well perked programmers and engineers may have little to complain about with regard to their own conditions, more conscientious tech employees are starting to see their own collective power as a way to help other, less empowered workers. Some have used their influence to persuade their employers to improve vendor contract terms to include more livable wages and better benefits.
The disparity in conditions of the two work groups is obvious. The crew-neck tech employee is mostly White male, highly educated, and making six plus figures, while the service industry employee is mostly Latino and Black, uneducated, and making minimum wage. However, the personal connections between the two work groups are undeniable. They see each other daily, perhaps as the reliable shuttle driver and tech commuter, or the company cafeteria server and noon time diner, or the iconic office cleaning lady and late night overachiever. Work-based friendships are quite common, but what hasn’t always been common is the tech employees’ use of their collective voice to demand better working conditions for their sub-co-workers and now for workers and other people around the world.
For all the negative stereotypes Millennials may own, they bring with them a political consciousness to the workplace like never before. Last year, tech employees led an effort to oppose Trump’s travel ban (so many tech workers come from Asia and other parts of the world) and demonstrated against the development of surveillance technology for use by federal immigration officers. More recently, Google employees signed a letter objecting to the company’s involvement in the use of artificial intelligence to improve drone strike accuracy. Uber employees voicing their deep dissatisfaction with CEO Travis Kalanick’s political involvement, his blind eye to sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and his creation of an overall “boorish” and “bro-ish” culture, contributed to Kalanick’s eventual removal from his own start-up company.
On June 20, 2018, while writing this article, Bizwomen – The Business Journals reported on tech employees protesting Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” that separates migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and detains the children behind chain link fences and abandoned big box stores while restricting media access: “More than 100 Microsoft employees have signed an open letter asking that executives cancel a $19.4 million contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE], The New York Times reports [Microsoft Employees Protest Work With ICE, as Tech Industry Mobilizes Over Immigration]. Uber has donated $100,000 toward a nonprofit helping immigrants and is exploring how the ride-sharing company can help with free legal assistance, Business Insider reports.” Calling the separation of families “inhumane,” Microsoft employees stated in their letter: “As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit. We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”
The writing is on the wall, or in this case, on the screen: technology employees have the collective power to change the world, as narrowly or widely as they see fit.
Labor unions have not missed tech’s message. No fewer than a dozen different unions and tech organizations (quasi-unions) currently have their sights set on the tech industry’s greatest asset. And, according to a June report from the Pew Research Center, well-educated Millennials may be game. Pew’s research found that adults ages 18–30 held a positive view of unions by a 68% majority. Of these young adults, 47% held an unfavorable view of business corporations. Post-college graduates were likewise, found to hold more favorable views of labor unions (65%) than corporations (53%). With Millennials as the apparent majority of Silicon Valley’s workforce, it may be time for tech companies to think more strategically about nurturing the direct relationship needed between management and employees to sway workers’ affinity from union representation.
Tech companies interested in remaining union-free will be smart to not only give their crew-collar employees a voice, but to listen with both mind and heart to those voices asking for a say in their own lives, the lives of others they interact with, and the impact their work has on the rest of the world.
Rather than idly watching dozens of entities seek to organize their workforce, companies can be strategic in their approach to connecting with their employees. Tech company leaders should be asking themselves whether it’s important to remain union free, and if so, what are they willing to do to remain union free? Creating a union avoidance strategy starts with understanding a company’s vulnerability to unionization, an analysis which requires close partnership with experienced labor relations experts. Like in any functional and quality relationship, communication, trust, and compromise is required by management and employees. Like in most functional and quality relationships, third parties are usually unwelcome.
Once a company has established its unique strategy, employers can proactively and confidently give their employees a voice for their opinions and concerns.
With expert HR and labor relations partners, employers can use analysis from climate and pulse surveys to understand the issues and causes their employees care about. Employee opinion surveys and organizational health assessments can provide insight into disparities and discontent not otherwise apparent on the surface. Employers can sponsor employee focus groups and action teams facilitated by experienced and unbiased professionals to help design programs and solutions to address issues of employee concern. With assistance from knowledgeable management partners, employers can proceed with confidence, knowing that whatever concerns may come to light can be resolved, without one or both sides seeking outside representation. Tech industry’s leaders listening to and acting upon the concerns of this powerful group of employees will not only encourage innovation, productivity, and retention of talent, it might also do all of society some good.
MPI helps companies connect with their employees by helping employees connect with their company. In building this relationship, the role of Human Resources as a strategic partner has never been greater.
For more information call MPI Consulting at 513.721.6611 or Contact Us.
By: Geri Hernandez, Esq.
Sr. Consultant, Management Performance International
HELPING COMPANIES CONNECT WITH THEIR PEOPLE &
HELPING PEOPLE CONNECT WITH THEIR COMPANIES SINCE 1974