Prospects for unionizing in Silicon Valley

A topic I've heard increasing buzz about at parties[1] is the idea that Silicon Valley tech workers should be unionizing. The New York Times was discussing unionization in digital media a month ago:

Daniel Marans, a reporter at HuffPost, said the treatment of employees at digital media companies should not remain stuck in a time when websites were small and scrappy, staffed by younger workers who were happy to see their names in pixels.
"That comes to things like transparency on pay, having a decent pay scale that allows a ladder of sustainability where you can support yourself on such an income, and having due process and a guarantee of severance in the case of layoffs," Mr. Marans said.
Ooh, that looks like a great slate of demands, straight out of the union playbook. Let's unpack it.

The union demands

Transparency on pay
Know what everyone else is paid based on level - no practical scope for varying pay based on the positive or negative impact to the company. Any perceptible skew by race, gender or other minority status gets jumped on. This ties in to the next point very well.
Ladder of sustainability
a.k.a. "pay by seniority". The longer you work here, the more pay you get. No concept of "you haven't materially contributed more - or even as much - this year than you did last year, no rise for you." Per the above point, if you're a mother who's been working short hours to match with your daycare needs then you should be paid as much as a single man who's been employed for the same duration as you but has put in twice the hours. (Also as much as a single woman in the same situation as the man, which is even more invidious, but for some reason the law doesn't care about this situation.) And if you've spent 75% of your working day on Twitter supporting the Resistance Against Trump, or endorsing Chelsea Manning for Senate, that is a perfectly appropriate component of your day job.
Due process
Several states in the USA - including California, home of Silicon Valley - follow employment at will where a company can fire a worker just because they don't like them. They don't have to conduct a specific act of misconduct, it's just "it's not working out between us, goodbye!" There are carefully crafted exceptions in each state's laws, but the basic principle holds true for most employees. This violates one of the fundamental tenets of union laws worldwide - employees should not be fireable except in the most egregious circumstances.
Where you can support yourself on such an income
This refers to the lower-level employees - in practice, contractors - and the minimum wage. The more money union employees earn, the higher the dues that the union can ask for. "You're getting $15/hour? We Fought For Fifteen!" Of course, the employees who lost their jobs because their labor wasn't worth $15/hour don't really benefit from this. But screw them, right?
Guarantee of severance in the case of layoffs
As noted above, unions don't really believe in layoffs unless you're irretrievably conservative or Republican - in which case, fuck you. But if severance is unavoidable, you may be out of luck. I was surprised to learn that even in California, severance pay is not required although in practice it's present in most contracts.

Where is this coming from?

My personal opinion - which you should take with a whole bag of salt - is that this drive is a reaction to the past year's tepid (by Social Justice Warrior standards) reaction by Silicon Valley engineer peons to the cases of "hate speech" by such luminaries as Googler James Damore. The 2014 ousting of Mozilla's Brendon Eich seems to have been a misleading catalyst for social justice organizing: the perception was that the relatively small number of social justice crusaders had disproportionate power to influence media opinions and drive online lynch mobs.

The carefully union-unaffiliated Tech Workers Coalition has been pushing this line for a while:

The Tech Workers Coalition is a home for progressives in tech in the Bay Area. We’re an all-volunteer community organization. Our active participants include workers in the tech industry, members from labor union locals, community organizers, and friends.
"Labor union locals", huh? Why am I not surprised?
And now unions are concerned about the possibility of a nationwide “right-to-work” law which would effectively gut their funding. Tech workers need to stand with service workers in these fights.
Translation: we need tech money to fight the union-gutting right-to-work law. California in particular is not a right to work state - if you want to be a public school teacher, for instance, you're going to pay union dues.
Certain things are safer than others, and safer for different people. An undocumented contract worker is in a very different situation than a salaried citizen worker.
Well, there's the teeny tiny issue that the contract company is clearly breaking the law of the nation, so yes...
For tech, it’d be cool to see the strike weapon on the table. History shows us the tactics that will change the world for the better — the tactics that will not only get rid of Trump, but change the conditions that we’re all forced to live and work under.
Oh, that'll be an interesting one. Tech workers striking - "Facebook will go dark for 24 hours unless FB guarantees contractors the right to employ undocumented workers". How exactly do you expect the tech company leadership to react to this existential threat?

You should also give careful scrutiny to Coworker.org who has been publicly allying with union-oriented Silicon Valley employees. It looks to be funded principally by New Venture Fund (a $315M turnover organization whose turnover doubled from 2014 to 2015, and whose 2016 and 2017 turnover I'd be extremely interested to see. In turn they get "advised" by Arabella Advisors who have a very interesting management team with cited connections to e.g. Barack Obama's secretary of commerce, a company focus on regional food and divestment from fossil fuels.

Will it work?

What do I think? Twitter, Facebook and Google offices in the USA are going to be hit with unionization efforts in the next 12 months, initially as a trial in the most favorable locations but if they succeed then this will be ramped up quickly nationwide. This will be framed as a push to align the companies to approved socially just policies - which their boards mostly favor already - but will be used to leapfrog the activist employees into union-endorsed and -funded positions of influence. That approach neatly nullifies the increasing concern about their lack of material contribution to the company as they spend more time on Twitter and producing social justice memes than actually writing code and making the applications work better.

I wonder, though. The bulk of Silicon Valley engineering employees - who are still the majority of the company - are white, Indian and Chinese males. They are used to ruthless meritocracy from the age of, oh, eight or so. The prospect that some slacker [foreign epithet] could supplant them in promotion or pay just by unfireably hanging around the company while they sweat blood, or block them from a union-favored sinecure by dint of being black / female / transgender / identifying as a dragon is unlikely to be something they'd lie down and accept. I fear that the social justice crusaders are mistaking silence for acceptance, and the settling of accounts after the unionization effort will be (metaphorically) bloody indeed.

I doubt this will get off the ground with Apple. They are notoriously controlling and will both detect and ruthlessly act on any twitches of unionization.

For Amazon, of course, it's much more simple. Any Amazon employee pushing unionization will be deniably but publically killed by an Amazon warehouse robot. I can't imagine Jeff Bezos taking such a challenge to his authority lying down.

TL;DR - there will be a big unionization push for Silicon Valley companies in 2018, and it will go horribly wrong.

[1] You almost certainly don't want to go to the kind of parties I go to. There are no kegs, vol-au-vents, or mini sausage rolls. There's organic Chardonnay, sushi of dubious provenance, and acceptably ethnic cuisine like Vietnamese bánh cuốn and Mexican chilaquiles. I happen to like bánh cuốn, but am under no illusion that the food and beverages are based on what the guests find appealing.

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