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There’s a War Brewing Over Your Salary. Will Tech Unions Take Up the Fight?

White-collar unions need to check tech giants before they set a dangerous precedent: reduced pay for working from home post-pandemic

Spare a thought for the reluctant editor-in-chief of the internet, Mark Zuckerberg. Not only has he been forced by his platform’s 2.7 billion users to do that very difficult job all on his own; not only does he occasionally get hauled before Congress to justify shouldering that burden, as well as his other job as the world’s most successful ad salesperson; but he’s also been extremely busy this year with yet another role he’s taken on for his company: Facebook’s hands-on head of HR, dealing with knotty things like the minutiae of company-wide salary structures.

Back in May, for instance, at the height of the pandemic’s movement restrictions, Zuckerberg fronted a livestream to his employees in which he spent just shy of an hour digging into the pros and cons of remote working, in a ‘Hey guys, so here’s what I’m thinking’ kind of way. His conclusions were largely based on the results of a staff survey in which 40 percent of respondents had expressed an interest in continuing to do their jobs from home full-time after the crisis subsides; around half of these had also indicated they might sensibly move away from Facebook’s big-city hubs to smaller, less-expensive-to-live places in the U.S. were this to be made an option.

“Let me talk about comp,” Zuckerberg proposed gingerly about 46 minutes in, presumably for the benefit of those people in particular. “As has been our policy for a number of years, your salary will be adjusted if you change location. We have a grace period during COVID for people who are working remotely from a different place now.” But the key takeaway, if you were eyeing up rents and latte prices in cheaper locations, was that the company would need to go ahead and know where you were living, for tax reasons, by January 1, 2021, and “we’ll adjust salary to your location at that point.” Responsibility for the integrity of this residential rescaling, he clarified, would rest with each WFH employee: “There’ll be severe ramifications for people who are not honest about this.”

Viewed from outside the company, it seemed an odd personal intervention in workaday payroll policy for history’s most powerful publisher to make. But Zuckerberg hasn’t been alone among Silicon Valley patricians in proposing this kind of sliding scale for a post-COVID future. It’s been reported that Twitter has also quietly had a localized pay policy in place for years, and that other tech firms, including Slack and ServiceNow, have recently made public similar home-working calibrations following Facebook’s lead.

Emphasizing how wincingly expensive it is to live in the Bay Area compared to many other parts of the U.S., in September, the (actual) head of HR for software maker VMware told Bloomberg that with the announcement of its own geographical pay plan, “the company is trying to be unusually transparent with employees.” Anonymous sources inside the company, meanwhile, suggested that a move from within commuting distance of VMware’s Palo Alto HQ to, for example, Denver, would result in an 18 percent drop in pay, while an employee relocating to L.A. or elsewhere in Southern California could expect an 8 percent shave.

At first glance, this might seem like the ultimate definition of a First World problem — and one with particularly limited consequences for a slim elite of already highly paid, privileged citizens. Why should the rest of us care where VMware workers work, and how it might affect their VM-per-diem?

We might want to take notice, though. Because where tech’s lionized leaders go, the rest of the sector tends to follow — and two decades of evangelizing about Big Tech’s work culture and practices have given them a huge, habit-forming influence on how businesses operate throughout the wider economy. If place-graded salaries were to become established as the norm for all home-based workers everywhere, doubtless quite a few of us would feel ripped off. Yet tech firms have strong form, it’s fair to say, for hiding very big abrogations of our rights — to privacy, to our behavior not being tracked — in very small print. In this case, if they’re about to give us a pay cut by example, and we don’t even have a “manage cookie-cutter salaries” button to avoid opting in. Unless, that is, some digital experts with enough motivation and sufficient insider clout can build one for us.

Trading Pixels for Pickets

“Many tech companies have had a policy similar to this for a while,” says Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya, a sociologist who studies organizations, tech and labor at the University of California, Berkeley. “So it’s not entirely unprecedented. But you can see why employees are likely to be unenthusiastic about this — because if you’re doing the same amount of work, you would like to be compensated fairly for the amount of work you’re putting in and the skills that you have.”

Now that the COVID crisis has given both employers and employees a vivid foretaste of a world where remote working is the norm, it’s forced the issue of location-based salaries into the light. With a handful of big companies coming clean about their pay variances — and how they plan to impose them at scale — says Nedzhvetskaya, “I could see it being a rallying point for employees; I can definitely see the companies also pushing back and saying, ‘We’ve had this on our books for a while, even if it’s not per se in policy.’”

Nedzhvetskaya is one of a group of academics and tech workers who maintain the Collective Action in Tech archive — the definitive global chronicle of tech workers’ industrial disputes with their employers. And from her perspective, right now isn’t the wisest moment for tech firms to be picking potential fights with their elite employees.

“We’ve seen collective actions reported in tech triple every year,” she says. “It triples from 2017 to 2018 and then again 2018 to 2019.” Much of the new wave of activism has risen from grassroots campaigns in workplaces, often focused on single highly politicized issues. In June 2018, for example, a group of cloud engineers at Google successfully lobbied their bosses to postpone development of a security tool aimed at winning contracts with the military, while hundreds of Microsoft employees protested their company’s involvement with ICE, saying “we refuse to be complicit” with the separation of families taking place on the U.S.’s southern border.

But over the last year or so, Nedzhvetskaya has detected an upswell in a more traditional form of workplace organizing. In an era of heaving, unchallenged tech-sector power, more and more of its workers are seeking to scale up their own influence within the industry by unionizing.

The trend caught the media’s attention in March 2019, when workers at Kickstarter organized the U.S. tech industry’s first high-profile, dedicated union. Kickstarter United came into being after employees challenged the company’s decision to block crowdfunding for an anti-Nazi comic book through the platform — and then were appalled by how their bosses handled the fallout (the epic tale of dismissals, recrimination and self-examination has been documented by former employee Clarissa Redwine in a compelling podcast postmortem). The dispute culminated in February with a majority of Kickstarter staff voting to unionize formally with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, a member organization of the AFL-CIO.

Meanwhile, since January, another of America’s major unions, the Communication Workers of America (CWA), has been agitating for tech workers to organize under the banner of its Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE), and in March, staff at the software company Glitch voted by 90 percent to join the CWA (a move supported by their employer). In September 2019, tech contractors working for Google in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers Union to bargain for pay and conditions comparable to their Google-payrolled colleagues, while this April, Spotify’s podcasting company Gimlet Media announced, after an initial tussle, that it would recognize its workers’ right to bargain with management as part of the Writers Guild of America.

“I’d also highlight the amount of organizing we’ve seen at Amazon,” says Nedzhvetskaya. “We’ve seen a really tremendous growth. There’s just a lot of activism that’s happening there with their very large employee population. There are centers all over the country; there’s been a lot of controversy with how they’ve handled coronavirus, and specific safety precautions that they have and have not taken with their employees. So all of these things are happening all at once.”

While Amazon has been forced to admit unions into some of its warehouses in Europe, in the U.S. it has thus far resisted recognizing labor organizations. But pressure has been growing among many of its 800,000-plus U.S.-based employees, and in November, workers at a new facility in Alabama served notice that they intend to vote on unionizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. If the bid succeeds, it will see 1,500 staff gaining representation — and it could open up a whole new theater of compromise for America’s second-largest employer.

Then again, it might not. Ahead of Black Friday, the human rights group Amnesty International published a report documenting Amazon’s anti-union activities in the U.S., France, Poland and the U.K, and demanding that the company “comply fully with international labor standards, including respecting the right of workers to join and form trade unions.”

Building Platforms for Change

As an organization with an enormous warehouse workforce, it might make sense that Amazon is caught up in conventional industrial disputes. But why is it that organized labor — something that just a few years ago many in Silicon Valley would have more readily associated with predominantly low-paid, low-skilled industries of the 20th century — is suddenly gaining a foothold elsewhere in tech? On the face of it, burly, confrontational collective bargaining seems at odds with a business culture that prides itself on its entrepreneurial, white-collar and supposedly apolitical outlook.

One idea that’s been put forward, says Nedzhvetskaya, is that “the Trump presidency became kind of a flashpoint for a lot of tech workers.” She points to his immigration ban of January 2017 that targeted Muslim-majority countries. “This was very controversial in tech; it’s a very diverse population. And there was a moment when [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin showed up at the airport for one of the protests. He was there with his employees, and there was this galvanizing moment when tech workers were able to make a stand for what they stood for.”

Protesters against President Trump’s travel ban gather outside the Supreme Court.

Corroborating this notion of Trump-lash is the fact that the Tech Workers Coalition, a group founded in California in 2014 to organize both white-collar and blue-collar employees across the sector, saw its membership accelerate following the 2016 election. Many activists, it seems, have been driven by a sense of growing injustice — in society at large, within their industry and in the disinformation and alt-right discourses the platforms they worked for have helped to disseminate.

“There’s been a lot of growing criticism of what these companies do; what kind of inequalities algorithms perpetuate in society; all those different partnerships that we’ve seen — with the military and with law enforcement agencies. So all of these things have come to the forefront in the last couple of years,” says Nedzhvetskaya. “I think a lot of employees thought they were working for one type of company, and all of a sudden they saw a very quick transformation toward a different type of company.”

If you squint, you can just about see an irony poking through here, in that tech firms, the global economy’s great disrupters, are themselves beginning to feel ripples of disruption. It’s coming from two directions: 1) from a broad political awakening among their young employees — a demographic that’s been electrified by the power of direct action in wider society in recent years; and 2) from the deep workplace tensions that were present before coronavirus, but which the COVID crisis has visibly exposed.

“I’d got to a point this year where I was seeing companies doing all sorts of things — with furloughs and laying off employees under very sketchy circumstances, and generally not treating their employees well with the whole pandemic going on,” says James (and no, Google, that’s not his real name), a software engineer who works in the south of England. “So I thought, ‘It’s probably the best time now to join a union.’”

The one he picked was the United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW), the U.K.’s first dedicated union for tech workers, which launched in September. For a long time before coronavirus made it a pressing concern, James had been on the lookout for support from a workers’ rights body, because of problems he kept running into at different companies in the tech sector. “The one that you encounter most is when people are getting very overworked or have mental-health issues due to work. You hear a lot about tech-crunch and people having to work well over their working hours to get a release out, get something ready for launch,” he says. “And you definitely see it wearing on people — when they work so many extra hours, effectively to just meet expectations.”

Statistics show that, with or without the pandemic, tech employees are a group that is disproportionately affected by stress and mental-health issues brought on by work. In a 2019 report, industry body the British Interactive Media Association found that depression among tech workers was more than five times the U.K. average. And in the U.S., a 2019 survey by tech health organization Open Sourcing Mental Illness reported 77 percent of tech-worker respondents answering “yes” to the question “Do you believe your productivity is ever affected by a mental-health issue?”

From BIMA Tech Inclusion and Diversity Report 2019

“I feel like that [stress] is something entirely manufactured by the industry,” says James, “where these deadlines are set by people who know that there’s not actually enough time to meet them with everybody working in their scheduled work hours. It’s a real problem, which comes with not having any representation, and not having any reasonable defense for your worker’s rights.”

He hasn’t made his membership of UTAW public knowledge just yet — “You hear there are a lot of problems with people vocally declaring their support for unions,” he says — but becoming a member has already helped him feel better about his career. “I’ve seen the work that [the union has] done for some people already,” says James, “and they’ve had good outcomes. So that makes me feel a lot more comfortable in how my job security feels; now I have a bit of backing if I do have any problems.”

Calling for Network Support

“All the reasons that trade unions need to exist outside of the tech sector are just as acute in the tech sector,” says John Chadfield, who is Branch Secretary of United Tech and Allied Workers, and one of the original members of the London chapter of the Tech Workers Coalition. “And that’s everything from unfair gender pay gaps, discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment — it all exists in tech. With aplomb.”

Earlier this year, Chadfield and his co-organizers set up UTAW as a nationwide branch of one of Britain’s biggest labor organizations, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which traditionally represents postal and telecom staff. The old-school union has proved an enthusiastic partner, giving UTAW the resources it needs to recruit members and field campaigns, as well as the autonomy to fight its own corner. In return, the new branch is bringing bright, creative and digital-literate members into the fold. “We’ve got their support, and we want to help them grow,” says Chadfield.

In the couple of months they’ve been active, UTAW have dealt with half a dozen disputes brought to them by individual members — in all cases, says Chadfield, the union has helped them reach more favorable outcomes than initially seemed possible. “Because nothing surprises an arrogant tech manager more than when they’re trying to pull a fast one on an employee, and on that Zoom call they’ve got a union representative accompanying that worker — they’d usually assume they would be on their own, which would make them less able to defend themselves against being railroaded.”

In an industry that’s thus far been largely insulated from having to deal with the rigor of collective bargaining, when they’re confronted by union reps and employees who are well versed on their rights, “suddenly the employers start to backtrack and do the right thing,” says Chadfield. “It changes that balance of power that in tech is so unequal.”

But realistically, how can that rebalancing translate from isolated cases on the shop floor to a movement that wields serious power — enough to act as a check on the wealthiest corporations the world has ever seen? Chadfield believes that it’s absolutely possible and well within reach, because the one set of opinions tech firms are always forced to take seriously are those of their own highly skilled workforce.

When developers turn up at pickets in support of cleaners or cafeteria workers who work for their companies, he notes, they have been able to help wrest concessions from the goliaths.

In July 2019, for example, full-time employees for both Facebook and Google showed up at a demonstration organized by the staff of Facebook’s catering contractor, Flagship, who were asking for paychecks and improved benefits that would help them cope with the exorbitant cost of living in San Francisco. They protested under the slogan “One job should be enough” — illustrating, incidentally, the flip side of Zuckerberg’s argument for pay structures that reflect local living costs: If compensation can legitimately be scaled back for those who move away, surely it can also be scaled up for those who have no choice but to be stuck in the office, servicing the company’s physical needs?

With the presence of full-time staff came media attention and a surprising acknowledgement from a Facebook spokesperson: “We value our culinary team’s work immensely and continue to support the right of Flagship employees to unionize.”

“A little bit of PR, a few tweets — minimal stuff,” says Chadfield, “but as soon as those companies start to see it, and that these underrepresented, easily exploitable demographics are now being supported by people we recognize as our highly paid software engineers, they start to change their tune. Or pay attention, at least.”

Coders as a class are in a privileged position to influence their paymasters, agrees Nedzhvetskaya. “I’m around college campuses a lot — Berkeley and Stanford,” she says, “and you do see student groups showing up to protest a Facebook or Palantir representative being on campus. And that’s a very important population for these companies.” Even though jobs at the top tech firms are still highly sought after, “I do think these companies are concerned about how they come off to these populations they’re trying to recruit, because they’re not infinite pools.”

In a febrile political climate, it’s no longer the case that tech firms can buy staff loyalty with big salaries and premium perks. “We recognize that we’re highly privileged workers, and that we’re in the top quartile of paychecks in the U.K.,” says Chadfield. “But we want to leverage some of that privilege and power that we’ve got in these companies that make it better for other people — for cleaners or security guards and others.” What’s more, the turbulence of the past four years might be starting to sink in with those at the top, he thinks. “The management at Google, Facebook, etc., just like everyone else, are starting to realize just how political tech is. That they aren’t these apolitical scientists working on this pure, beautiful thing called the internet. It has political repercussions.”

Holding Processing Power to Account

From this perspective, it might seem a reckless move for the industry’s leaders to start messing with those privileged paychecks, just for the sake of finessing their payroll to match local labor markets. Given that Silicon Valley salaries tend to start from a generous place, though, Chadfield is reserving judgment on that for now. Facebook’s median salary in 2019 was $228,651, according to a Wired investigation. As Chadfield points out, a 10 or 15 percent downward adjustment from those kinds of heights is still an enviably healthy take-home. And, as an organizer in tech, he points out, “The only thing that has never come up in conversations in my last five or six years is, ‘I don’t get paid enough.’ There are no conversations, working groups, even sidebars I’ve had at the pub after meetings where people say: ‘You know what? I don’t get paid enough. How can I get paid more?’”

That said, he highlights an assumption in the localized-salary argument that high living expenses only impact the overheads of employees — whereas, of course, the costs cut both ways. “We know from even before the pandemic that there were companies in central London [where office-space rents are broadly comparable to San Francisco] that were scratching their heads going, ‘You know what? It costs me £100,000 a year to sit you in that desk, when I figure out the total overheads. Actually, by going to work from home, you’re doing the company a favor,’” he explains. “And it’s not like employees were asking to be paid the difference.”

By including pay adjustments in post-COVID work-from-home policies, it could be that Silicon Valley firms are attempting to head off awkward questions about their own considerable relocation savings that they could stand to make in the home-working future. “I think that’s them getting their first stake in the ground; tech companies are trying to get it in now, under the cover of the pandemic,” says Chadfield. “The thing I’d be interested in learning more about is what’s going to happen to those HQ jobs? What’s going to happen to all those janitors? What’s going to happen to those cooks and chefs and security guards? Software engineers have a lot of labor-market power. Those other employees don’t. So what about them, and what can software engineers, product managers and UX designers do to help protect those jobs?”

For James, the prospect of localized pay being established as standard practice throughout the tech industry is a worrying one — and the case for a straightforward downward cost-of-living adjustment is flawed. On one hand, he says, “we’re told that you choose the location of your job, so you have to take on all of the costs of travel and transport and living in those areas yourself. And on the other, you’re told that if you get the privilege of working from home, you then have to take the pay cut — companies expect you to be paid less for not taking all that on? It’s almost like you’re losing out to the company either way.”

Ultimately, no matter where you choose to set up your home office — whether it’s suburban Missouri or a commune on a canal boat in the English countryside — it has no bearing on your talent, your experience, the fruits of your labor: all the things, in sum, the company says it wants from you and is paying you for. “You’re still doing the same amount of work, but you’re getting paid less for it,” says James. “That’s just the bottom line. You’re getting paid less for your work. And if that becomes an industry norm, that’s just a way of dropping everyone’s salaries — which is pretty terrible. That’s definitely one of the things you unionize to prevent happening.”

No one can hold the likes of Facebook, Microsoft or Google to account better than their own employees. And since governments big and small around the world have shown that they certainly can’t (with the EU’s regulators being the one possible exception so far), those smart, privileged lanyard-wearers might be the only hope for keeping their bosses in check — and thereby ensuring a fairer employment agenda into the digital future for the rest of us.

As enthusiasm for workplace organizing grows across the tech sector, meanwhile, it’s likely to become harder and harder for businesses to paint labor unions as relics of a bygone industrial age. It’s also much tougher to make the customary anti-union argument that collective bargaining stifles innovation and growth in companies, when those doing the organizing are the very same people who are driving all the innovation at the moment — for both their own industry and for the digital economy as a whole.

Ironically, the way for organized labor’s digital renaissance has partly been paved by that sunny image of collective progress that Silicon Valley itself loves to project as its guiding philosophy. At their best, unions are simply tools that, as one particularly visionary quote might have it, “empower people around the world to share ideas, offer support and make a difference.” Those words, you’ll have already guessed, actually come from Facebook’s own mission statement, as set out on its “About” page.

So that’s one more role Mark Zuckerberg might have inadvertently picked up on behalf of his industry — the world’s most reluctant shop steward.