Tips on Unionizing Your Tech Workforce

Organizers on getting started, holding conversations about your workplace and building solidarity.

by The Editor on April 30th, 2020

Earlier this week, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) student activist groups CMU Labor Coalition and CMU Against ICE held a panel with labor organizers from HCL Technologies in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Last year, HCL became the first tech workplace to unionize. The panel included Renata Nelson and Ben Gwin from HCL as well as Damon Di Cicco, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1088 and an adjunct faculty member at Point Park University. This post has some teachings and learnings from the panel on how you can organize your tech workplace!   

Right now is an urgent moment for worker’s rights and organization across the world. As panelist Damon Di Cicco said: “What we’re seeing nationally right now is an increase in interest in unions, especially among [younger] people, and part of that is the wealth disparity in society – there’s been such a polarization in terms of the middle class shriveling up while a smaller group hoards more and more of the resources and more and more people have to struggle just to get by on a day to day basis… Unions have always been the strongest bulwark against that kind of concentration of wealth and for the needs of working class people… We’re potentially entering a really important historical moment where the shrinkage of labor unions in this country is going to reverse.”


HCL’s Story 

HCL’s workers are TVCs – Google’s acronym for “temporary workers, vendors and contractors”. These workers make up about 50% of Google’s total workforce, but are generally paid less and left out of important benefits, equity and protections afforded to “full-time” hires.

Ben Gwin had been with HCL for just a week when he experienced a sudden family loss. When he was denied accommodation by his workplace, he reached out to Damon Di Cicco of United Steelworkers (USW) and started HCL’s first committee with two co-workers. Soon it grew from 3 to 12 people, and spread from there: “We work in teams, the idea was to get one person from each team on the organizing committee,” said Renata Nelson.

HCL’s story has a lot in common with the way much workplace organizing begins: with personal conversations between workers. Damon sees this practice as broadly essential to all workforce organization: “There’s no substitute for one-on-one conversations where you can really relate to people and connect to them about what their workplace problems are. You can’t win a campaign with no one-on-one organizing conversations… it’s the skeleton that holds up the whole thing.”

Ben agrees that these discourses are foundational, and advises hopeful workplace organizers to “Really listen to people, so it’s not just a litany of labor history — offering a helpful solution is the best thing that was effective for us.” Building common ground around workplace experiences and then connecting those to established strategies and tactics is what creates buy-in needed to push forward.

 

Picking A Union 

Tech is known for an entrenched “Not Invented Here” stance. This attitude may lead tech workers to try to organize their own structures; however, all panelists agreed on the benefits and importance of connecting with the broader union movement.

As Ben pointed out, unions have the collective bargaining experience and resources that tech workers need to make progress on their goals. Damon said that while ad-hoc organizing in tech has made some significant strides, it’s hard to solidify wins without help: “the only way to make sure you keep the gains you’ve made is to get that into a collective bargaining agreement and the union is how you get those resources.”

Renata provided a clear example of how having the union structure in place provides an invaluable support system: as COVID-19 began to spread across America, Google sent its workers remote while HCL team members remained in the office. The union stepped in to help:  “We were extremely lucky to have the union and have that direct connection to our bosses at HCL. We were stranded in the office for awhile before we were granted permission to work-from-home.”

With a number of strong unions out there, tech workers can select those that most align with their needs and values. In HCL’s selection of United Steelworkers, Ben suggested some of the criteria that made a difference: “a ground-up, worker-led structure that was democrative” was essential. Context makes a difference too… “for HCL, it’s Pittsburgh, so we’re going to be steel workers”. Damon said: “We encourage people to shop around… I love USW and I’ve been with USW for quite awhile now, but there are a lot of great unions.”

Photo of downtown Pittsburgh, the City of Steel. The land reaches a point where two rivers converge; large steel traffic bridges cross into the distance.

Photo CC-BY Patrick Kinney.

 

Anticipating and Stopping Union-Busting 

When organizing their workplaces, tech workers are likely to come up against union-busting tactics from their employers. We’ve seen pervasive anti-union activity from the biggest tech companies for a long time: Tesla has retaliated against workers, Uber has distributed anti-union propaganda to its drivers, and workers across the industry report being discouraged from discussing pay. Major contractors for large tech companies, such as Bauer Transportation, have also engaged in union-busting activities.  

The panel highlighted the importance of anticipating anti-union behavior early. Most likely, you’re going to come up against some form of anti-union strategy, so Ben advises: “Keep quiet, don’t let management know as long as you can.” This can help you avoid interruption and counter-measures in the critical early days when you are just assembling a committee, speaking to union representatives and developing a strategy.

Damon points to “Union Busting Bingo” as a good tool for educating workers on the expected anti-union propaganda: “have organizers give out bingo cards before captive-audience meetings with the workplace; this undermines the power and derails and discredits the union-buster message.”

Like at HCL, tech employers might hire an outside “consultant” to come in and try to mediate with employees; often, this is an anti-union technique to diffuse and combat organizing sentiment. Be prepared for this type of ploy and do education in advance so that you and your teammates are ready.

 

Finding Solidarity 

While unionization among tech roles such as software development is still really new, workers are in fresh terrain, but that doesn’t mean they are alone. Leading up to the union elections at HCL, “full-time” workers at Google’s Pittsburgh office gave statements of support, and the San Francisco office even sent them a cake. As worker organization spreads through the tech industry, it’s going to be essential for us to stay in touch, share our learnings and give support that transcends not only the company barrier, but the artificial divide between tech’s privileged “full time” software engineering class and other types of workers in tech, whether that’s “TCVs” at contracting companies like HCL or tech’s “invisible workforce” including shuttle drivers, janitors, and cleaning and security professionals.  

At the end of the day, “Unions aren’t just about your day to day work, they’re also a wellspring of political power for creating a more just society for everyone,” said Damon.