Marcus Courtney was a Microsoft software tester who led a multi-year effort to organize his contract colleagues beginning in the late 1990s. This story gives him a unique perspective on the company’s recent promise to recognize the rights of its employees to s organize and work constructively with all who do.
Would he have believed it back then if someone had told him that the company would eventually make such a proclamation?
“No,” Courtney said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t have believed them. This would have been welcome in 1998 and 2000, as worker rights are extremely important in the tech industry, especially as it has grown in wealth, power and number of employees.
However, as Courtney and others point out, Microsoft’s engagement is strategic and nuanced, and a far cry from full union buy-in to its workforce.
Company news “principles of organizing employees and engaging with trade unions” represent a change in attitude for the company and a different approach from fellow Seattle-area giants Amazon and Starbucks, who have opposed forming unions in their respective workforces.
Microsoft’s approach reflects its evolution toward the role of “being the adult in the room,” said Margaret O’Marahistorian, author and professor at the University of Washington, specializing in the history of technology and politics.
“I think that experience of being very big and then having the antitrust battle made it a very different company when it comes to thinking about the regulatory landscape,” O’Mara said. “It’s a funny thing for those of us who know Microsoft in its early days and what its reputation was, but it’s definitely a more mature company.”
But don’t look for the union tag on the next version of Windows.
“We are not asking our employees to go and form a union,” said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, in an interview about the company’s new approach. “In fact, we say the opposite. We want our employees to know that we always want to hear what they have to say.
Instead, what drives the principles is Microsoft’s realization that in some situations, “there may be a real scenario where people want to form a union,” Smith explained. With this new approach, he said, “we can be thoughtful, we can be constructive, and we believe it will best serve everyone.”
Real-Life Scenario #1: The recent QA team union vote at Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision-Blizzard, maker of the hit video game franchise Call of Duty. Microsoft needs US regulatory approval to proceed with its $68.7 billion deal to acquire Activision-Blizzard.
Smith called the video game testers’ union vote “part of the constellation of developments that we’ve been paying attention to, along with many other things.” The principles, he said, “will certainly apply in the future if Activision-Blizzard becomes part of Microsoft.”
Courtney said he sees a direct link between Microsoft’s announcement, the impending acquisition of Activision-Blizzard, and President Joe Biden’s promise to lead the most pro-union administration in US history. United.
With the deal undergoing regulatory review, Microsoft is “sending a virtuous signal to the Biden administration,” Courtney said. “I think Microsoft is saying, ‘OK, this is something we need to pay attention to. And we might want to take a different approach than Starbucks and Amazon.
Employees vs contractors
Another key point, Courtney said, is that Microsoft focuses the principles specifically on its employees, which doesn’t cover the thousands of people who work on Microsoft projects through third-party companies and agencies.
Contractors and temporary workers were the subject of the ultimately unsuccessful labor campaign that Courtney and her Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) colleagues launched at Microsoft more than two decades ago, aligning themselves more later on the National Communications Workers of America (CWA).
Microsoft points out that the principles refer to employees because these are the workers it would negotiate directly with if they chose to organize.
At the same time, Microsoft was able to roll out policy changes through contractual terms with vendors, such as its requirement that they grant at least 15 days of paid vacation to those who work for the company. The company also spent more than $150 million so vendors could continue to pay for support staff that weren’t needed on its campuses due to employees working from home during the pandemic.
Smith noted that many service workers and other on-site personnel employed by vendors at Microsoft facilities are bound by collective bargaining agreements with those companies through unions such as the Service Employees International Union, CWA and Teamsters.
It’s no coincidence that the union effort within Activision-Blizzard involves quality assurance officers, or software testers, who generally don’t receive the same salary or treatment as software engineers. .
How far will unions go in tech?
Courtney, the co-founder of WashTech, pointed to parallels with his own experience as a software tester at Microsoft, which turned him into a labor organizer. He is now a public affairs consultant specializing in labor issues.
He observed that Microsoft’s promise to listen to employees is just that – a promise to listen and not act. Eventually, he envisions the labor movement spreading to other parts of the tech industry.
Courtney cited, as an example, Elon Musk’s mandate for Tesla employees to return to the office.
“All of these things have to be negotiated,” he said. “I think employees are learning that there are opportunities to negotiate about this, and the only way to really negotiate is through some kind of organized power, through representation.”
Smith isn’t convinced unions will expand beyond specific pockets of tech workers.
“Unions fundamentally exist to address compensation, benefits and working conditions,” Smith said, citing Microsoft’s recently announced plan to raise compensation as an example of its efforts in the absence of unions. He said he expects unions to appear in some situations in tech, but not generally across the industry.
O’Mara, the UW historian, said anti-union sentiment has long been entrenched in the tech industry, dating back to early semiconductor companies that outsourced work to early East Asia. of the 1960s to avoid unionization. In the fast-paced world of technology, the often-expressed concern is that unions stand in the way of progress and success.
But the past decade has seen an upsurge in tech activism, with employees at big tech companies increasingly speaking out and pushing back against company policies on workers’ rights and social issues.
“For a long time, workers have been promised that you’re better off without a union, that you’re going to be able to have greater upward mobility, and that the American dream is within reach,” O’Mara said. . “Certainly since the Great Recession there has been a real pushback against this. People don’t buy that anymore.
Microsoft’s principles for engaging with unions are ‘a sign that there is a greater groundswell, just as there is a groundswell for regulation or safeguards on the tech industry’ , O’Mara said. “That’s certainly what Brad and his part of Microsoft have been really trying to be proactive about. And that’s what I see here too.
Asked to assess the underlying trends, Smith cited two factors: 1) A new generation of employees with heightened expectations for their relationships with employers; and 2) that unique moment in time when America’s working-age population, ages 20-64, is no longer growing as it once did.
“You have to think about how to have a great relationship with your employees,” Smith said. “You need to think about how to combine what your employees can bring in terms of work with the power of technology to make people more productive and even happy at work.”
Ultimately, he said, “it’s a new era.”