Employment Law Attorneys

Employees Do Not Need Unions in This New Era of Employee Activism4 min read

Recently, employees at GoogleMicrosoftNest and employees at other companies have been revolting against their employers, unhappy about company practices. These employees are not unionizing for traditional labor issues such as higher wages or better benefits, but collectively protesting company practices they do not agree with morally or are not in keeping with the company’s original mission statement. On January 18, 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report regarding the total number of U.S. employees represented by unions. BLS stated, “[T]he union membership rate — the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions — was 10.5 percent in 2018, down by 0.2 percentage point from 2017. This number has been declining since 1983 (20.1% of employees reported belonging to a union) when the BLS began reporting union membership. In my opinion as an experienced employment lawyer, union membership will continue to decline, while employee activism will gather further momentum and have a much larger impact on corporate behavior and practices.

The Google Example of Collective Activism

For Google, employees collectively joined together to protest Project Maven, stating in an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, “we believe that Google should not be in the business of war” and that the new military initiative is inapposite to the company’s former motto of “Don’t Be Evil.” According to article posted by Inc.com, “[b]eyond compensation, culture and benefits, employees want to know they’re contributing to a sincere, well-defined mission or vision. They need to know why they are getting out of bed every morning, why they sometimes work late and what their hard work is accomplishing.” Eventually, the employee pressure caused Google to discontinue Project Maven altogether. Wow! Google is a company not known for permitting employees to question authority. In fact, every employee hired by the company is dictated a set of nonnegotiable employment agreements that prevent them from working with competitors or raising complaints in court. The employees at Google were just getting started. In November 2018, Google employees posted a letter protesting Google’s efforts to build a censorship Google platform for the Chinese Government. Google halted the program in December after the employee backlash.

The Microsoft Example of Collective Activism

In the case of Microsoft, 500 employees signed on to a petition, in addition to 295,000 other employees across several companies, calling for the end of a company contract with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP (Customs and Border Protection) worth $19.4 million. According to the petition, “Microsoft boasted about how Azure, it’s cloud computing services, which can range from hosting a customer’s data to facial recognition, was making the agency more efficient. According to Microsoft’s own communications, their product is ‘mission- critical’ to ICE’s operations. We demand Microsoft stop enabling ICE’s mission to publish families seeking safety and an acknowledgment that technology serves a critical function in Trump’s agenda to criminalize migration.”

Employee Activism Will Evolve Without Fear of Retaliation

What is so unusual about this new form of employee activism is that employees are organizing around a single particular issue without the fear of being fired or sidelined in the organization. In our experience, a single employee who complains internally is driven out of the company by their employer. But when three thousand employees collectively register one complaint, the Company is forced to listen and reconcile this opposition, not fire them. That’s the point! This is a fascinating change in the traditional notion of employee relations management. No longer can employers dictate behavior or outcomes with fear and retribution, as they currently get away with. This movement is huge and we need to bolster employee activism across all companies. Yes, employees do have a voice, a collective one, but one that does not require them to unionize and pay union dues with very little accountability for the money being sent to the coffers of spendthrift unions.

Employee activism has been rekindled in the absence of any need for unionized collective action. The recent employee revolts at Google and Microsoft mark the arrival of a new model of transformation and change. Some may argue this is merely political activism among tech company employees in the gig economy. I disagree, this is the start of an employee activist movement that will touch not only political issues, but moral and environmental ones as well. As we have seen in the cases of Google and Microsoft, employees now realize they have a powerful voice, but only when they operate as a collective. I understand a chosen few in management must make crucial decisions, but the C-Suite also now realizes employees charged with implementing those decisions want and need to be heard. Companies are now listening and change is here.

For more information, contact Mark Carey at mcarey@capclaw.com