Recently, Facebook unveiled its new Facebook Workplace, a Slack Connect-like intranet-style chat and office collaboration tool that allows administrators to censor certain words, company spokespeople explained, such as “unionize.” The Workplace program with built-in labor suppression is simply the most recent example that suggests, contrary to stereotypes of open and egalitarian corporate cultures, big tech is not that different from Walmart when it comes to its attitudes towards unions.
The negative reaction to Facebook’s Workplace program announcement was swift and unsurprising, given the phenomenal reach and power of Facebook. The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest union federation, attacked Facebook for presenting itself “as a champion of free speech, yet here it is marketing itself as a way for corporations to suppress the speech of their employees.” It demanded that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “personally apologize to working people, pull this tool immediately and conduct a board-level investigation into how this product came into existence in the first place.” Zuckerberg has not yet responded, but Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown has also written to him, stating he was “deeply troubled” by the platform’s potential use as an anti-union tool.
In Europe, which is generally much less tolerant of union busting, labor also expressed disgust. The European Trade Union Confederation wrote that it “firmly opposes these practices and would like to remind Facebook that union-busting and other discriminatory activities towards trade unions, their representatives and workers is absolutely prohibited by international and European human rights standards.” In the face of its public relations blunder, Facebook officials tried to strike a conciliatory tone, apologizing for their “poorly chosen” brazen union avoidance example. But it’s implausible that Facebook had simply stumbled upon the union-busting example (and far more likely that its program was designed with this in mind), and the effectiveness of Workplace in combating legal labor activity remains unchanged. According to Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the global union federation UNI Global Union, “the context is absolutely clear. Facebook wants to monetize the anti-union behaviour of its customers … and it further believes that union busting is perfectly normal and acceptable, so much so that it would nonchalantly be included in an internal presentation.”
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Google’s Anti-Union Spyware and Amazon’s Anti-Union “Heat Maps”
Facebook is not alone. In a departure from its previously touted open culture, Google came under fire in October 2019 for creating a spy tool in the form of a Chrome extension that would monitor its employees’ discussion of labor rights and protests. Employees attacked the tool, which could not be uninstalled, as “creepy dark arts” and condemned management’s attempt to “immediately learn about any workers organization attempts.”
In addition to using tech to suppress union activity, Google has punished employees who have used it to inform coworkers of their labor rights. Last November, Google attracted widespread media attention for engaging the services of a notorious “union avoidance” firm, IRI Consultants. To make matters worse, in December, Google management fired an employee after she developed a pop-up notification that informed tech workers they had the right to engage in union organizing when they visited the IRI Consultants website. She was, in essence, fired for using the website of Google’s union-busting firm to inform coworkers about their federally protected right to form a union. Big tech should be rewarding such ingenuity, not punishing it.
Notoriously anti-union Amazon has also used its tech to undermine employee efforts to organize. Amazon was one of the nation’s first corporations to use an anti-union website to defeat a union campaign at its Seattle call center in 2000. In 2017, Amazon purchased Whole Foods grocery stores for $14 billion, and in April, the company adopted interactive “heat maps” to assess the vulnerability of every Whole Foods store to unionization. These heat maps rank the stores’ union vulnerability based on several external factors – such as the percentage of families in the store’s ZIP code living below the poverty line and the unemployment rate – and internal store factors, including the number of labor complaints filed by workers and a “diversity index” measuring the ethnic and racial profile of each store’s workforce. Along with “dark web” sites and surveillance software, Amazon’s heat map is another example of the new frontier of high-tech union busting.
Tech Workers Rising
So far, tech companies have suppressed labor activism with ruthless efficiency. But voices of protest among tech workers are becoming louder, more frequent and increasingly collective – and are coming from some unlikely places. Recently, Tim Bray, a former senior engineer and VP at Amazon, criticized the company’s termination of whistleblowing employees and called for the breakup of the company. Bray, a legendary tech industry engineer for four decades, resigned in protest at Amazon’s decision to fire several tech employees who had spoken out against the lack of adequate safety precautions against COVID-19 infection in Amazon’s warehouses. At a virtual meeting organized by UNI Global Union, Bray said that many tech employees would like an independent voice over Amazon’s employment policies.
Nor is Bray a lone voice. In its largest ever employee protest on June 1, Facebook workers, including some senior employees and one entire engineering team, held a “virtual walkout” in opposition to the platform promoting, without comment, President Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” remark about Black Lives Matter protests. Emboldened employees have subsequently discussed additional work stoppages to force a change in company policy on Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, with several quoting South African human rights advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in their tweets: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” One senior Facebook engineer tweeted on the protest: “I’ve been at the company nearly seven years and I have never seen a protest or walkout anywhere near this large.” No wonder Facebook wants to use tech innovation to stop its employees from discussing unions.
Tech Titans vs. Robber Barons
Worker surveillance and union suppression has a long and ignominious history in the United States. In the late 19th century, Andrew Carnegie was so obsessed with anti-union espionage that he would personally read the reports of “labor spies” his company had planted among its steel workers. Tech titans, such as Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, have much in common when it comes to suppressing labor activity. The tech industry’s labor spies may be virtual rather than corporeal — and thus ideally suited for an era of social distancing and teleworking — but its obsession with unilateral control of the workplace is identical to that of the 19th-century robber barons.
If unchecked, the anti-union tech devices of Facebook, Google and Amazon will tilt union organizing even more in favor of powerful corporations and against ordinary workers. Other giant corporations share their antipathy toward unions, but don’t have the same ability to develop surveillance tools that would so effectively destroy fundamental labor rights. What remains to be seen is how many potential Tim Brays are among the ranks of today’s tech employees. Other tech workers have tried to organize, even in the face of employer intransigence. Video game designers, for example, increasingly see unionization as a way of fighting against a punishing work culture. If workers continue to organize, it’s possible that Big Tech’s big brother surveillance tools may not be sufficient to quell these collective voices of protest.