May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is not well observed in the United States. But it is, in fact, an American invention – adopted as a result of the Haymarket affair, a workers’ rally in 1886 Chicago that turned deadly. Using the date of a pre-Christian fertility festival, it has become the world’s leading celebration of socialist politics, and trade unionism.
Trade union membership, in the US, is at an all-time low. Just 10.7% of Americans belong to a union, down from almost double that in 1983.
Silicon Valley has avoided trade unions almost by definition. Even as the first offices were springing up outside San Francisco in the 1960s, leaders of the nascent tech industry railed again workers’ rights. “If we had the work rules that unionized companies have,” said Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, “we’d all go out of business.”
Since then non-unionization has been the grease that smoothes a majority of tech business models, from Amazon to Uber. As a global tide of opinion turns on Big Tech, is it time for the industry’s workers to unite?
Last year, as tech employees grew despondent with their bosses’ inaction against US President Donald Trump’s protectionist, anti-immigrant platform, protests sprung up across California. “Tech CEOs will be cozy with Trump until it affects their bottom line, or ability to keep employees,” an organizer with the group the Tech Workers’ Coalition (TWC) told Quartz.
As May Day brings millions of leftists, unionists and anarchists onto the streets of the world’s major cities, it appears tech unionization has never been closer. A number of groups, including TWC, Tech Solidarity and Silicon Valley Rising are active in bringing people towards industrial action. Coworker.org, meanwhile, has lobbied for a number of employee successes, such as the ability to tip Uber drivers and sexual harassment suits against Comcast.
As governments begin to fight tech in courtrooms, some states have promised to strengthen workers’ rights. Britain, in particular, has taken aim at the gig economy, proposing a raft of reforms including holiday and sick pay, and the right for employees to request better contracts.
An MIT study recently showed that 74% of Uber and Lyft drivers earn less than their state’s minimum wage, while median drivers’ profit was just $3.37 per hour. Uber, whose new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has argued in favor of tech regulation, is an easy target for accusations of corporate greed.
But most are party to Silicon Valley’s lackadaisical approach to their employees’ rights. In 2013 Adobe, Apple, Google and Intel were fined $415m for their part in hampering staff ability to switch companies in the Valley. Women and people of color have suffered a litany of well-documented discrimination, while warehouse workers for Amazon and other e-commerce sites have been the subject of several high-profile media investigations alleging overwork, stress and depression.
“Jeff Bezos is nothing more than a robber baron of the 21st century,” wrote a recent TWC blog. As tech continues to erode rights, and its vaunted liberal status among America’s industrial powerhouses fades, it is becoming more difficult to see why Silicon Valley’s thousands of workers should not unite.
Doing so, against public opinion weighted against leftist worker movements, will not be easy. And despite the actions of TWC and others, desire among well-paid engineers, and other skilled trades, is relatively low. Do not expect a full-blown tech trade union this year. But with trends to continue as they are, expect the clamor for unity to grow.