Don’t Call It a Trend: A Brief History of Organizing in Tech

Andy Wright on 2020-02-13

The current wave of tech-worker protests isn’t without precedent

Photos: Courtesy of Stan Soscher; Mason Trinca/Stringer/Getty Images

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the strike that took place at Boeing in 2000 wasn’t getting more than 15,000 white-collar workers to walk off the job, it was getting a bunch of engineers to agree on one thing, jokes Stan Sorscher, a former Boeing employee and retired labor representative for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).

“If you asked engineers ‘What’s the boiling point of water?’, I’m not sure you’d get 97% of them to agree,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Well, wait, what else did you do? Are there any impurities in the water?’”

But by February 2000, the engineers and technicians employed at the airplane manufacturing company were fed up. After a 1997 merger with rival McDonnell Douglas, Boeing employees experienced a rapid culture shift, Sorscher says. There was a sense that the concerns of engineers were being sidelined in favor of cost-cutting. Sorscher, who worked as a physicist at Boeing and was a negotiator for SPEEA, which represents the company’s engineers and technicians, says the final straw came when management refused to budge on contract negotiations. After a hopeful period during which the union organized team-building exercises with management, executives refused SPEEA’s terms. On top of refusing the union’s demands around pay and bonuses, they wanted workers to greenlight a contract that reduced employee benefits.

“They basically dared us to strike,” says Sorscher. Which they did on Wednesday, February 9, 2000. Sorscher told the Kitsap Sun that “I just went to work, shut down my computer, copied my hard drive to Zip disks, and got the hell out of there.”

The strike was, and still is, hailed as historic: It was one of the largest ever white-collar walkouts, and at a high-tech company, no less. Both a workforce and a sector frequently labeled union-proof and unorganizable had done the unexpected on a huge scale.

Over the last two years, organizing and protest among workers at tech companies have surged. Workers at Google and Amazon walked off the job in mass over sexual harassment and climate, respectively. Following Trump’s call for a Muslim ban, nearly 3,000 tech employees signed the “Never Again in Tech” pledge, refusing to “build a database of people based on their constitutionally protected religious beliefs.” Union efforts sprang up among warehouse workers, permatemps, gig workers, and at companies like Kickstarter.

But the current wave of organizing isn’t without precedent. While the Boeing strike is one of the most high profile, it’s just one example in a long history of tech organizing that stretches back decades, tackling long-simmering issues that are boiling over today.

One of the earliest efforts to organize tech workers happened in 1974 when the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) created the Electronics Organizing Committee to address the concerns of plant workers at firms like Intel and National Semiconductor, which fabricate the circuitry used in electronics. Daniel Bacon, a former employee of National Semiconductor and president of the committee from 1978 to 1983, writes that EOC members “won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals.” But the resources allocated to EOC were scant — Bacon recalls that the sole union staffer devoted to the project printed newsletters in his garage — and layoffs decimated the activist base. By the mid-’80s, EOC had gone dormant.

They basically dared us to strike.

Attempts to formally organize high-tech workers were common throughout the 1980s. Writing for the Labor Research Review, organizers Steve Early and Rand Wilson chronicle a grocery list of such early initiatives. Two of the most notable were the Communications Workers of America’s bid to unionize workers at Wavetek, a company then-based in Indianapolis, that manufactures electronic equipment, and the AFL-CIO’s New England High Tech Organizing Campaign that targeted 13 companies in the Boston area. The Wavetek effort was sunk by aggressive anti-union tactics and layoffs; lack of worker buy-in doomed the New England push.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, factory workers assembling coin-op consoles for Atari — the arcade staple behind classics like Pac-Man and Space Invaders — spearheaded a union drive after the company’s laid off 1,700 workers and shifted manufacturing to Asia.

“We were betrayed,” Anna Rodriguez, an Atari employee and head of the union effort, told the New York Times in May 1983. “They said there would be no layoffs, they said we would always have a job, and then they went to Taiwan.”

Later that year, though, Atari employees voted against a union, 143 to 29. Several were quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying they didn’t think a union could do much for them; an organizer told the same reporter that employees were informed they’d lose their benefits if a union came in.

Organizing also caught on early at two of the biggest companies in the tech world: IBM and Microsoft.

Starting in 1985, the CWA — which remains a steady fixture in the tech world today — sought to unionize workers at International Business Machines. Although a formal union never came to pass, employees of the multinational company agitated for decades under the banner of IBM Workers United, founded in the 1970s. The group, which distributed a newsletter called Resistor, leveled a raft of demands at the company that included better wages, safer working conditions, and company-financed daycare. But they also zeroed in on IBM’s ethical obligations, distributing a letter to shareholders titled “Would IBM Have Sold Computers to Hitler?” (answer: yes) protesting the sale of IBM technology to South Africa’s racist government. “We in the IBMWU feel it is unnecessary to reinform you of what apartheid means to non-white South Africans,” the letter read. “You should well know by now. We will tell you of IBM computerization of apartheid instead.” (The IBMWU outcry echoes the current movement within tech to cut ties with ICE and the Department of Defense.) IBMWU eventually morphed into a CWA local, Alliance@IBM, whose organizing efforts were suspended in 2016. Although the alliance never held bargaining power at IBM, it scored wins over the years. In 1999, organizers testified before the Senate about the company’s plans to rejigger pensions, potentially gutting employee retirement savings. The company reversed itself, and Alliance@IBM declared a victory. Perhaps most importantly, IBMWU and Alliace@IBM became information pipelines that connected employees around the world; after Resistor came a website and Facebook group where IBMers could commiserate and swap insider intel.

In 1998, workers at Microsoft came together over an issue that still looms over tech today: Permatemps, or contract workers who do the same work as full-time employees but often for worse pay and benefits. Called the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, the would-be union affiliated with the CWA. In a 2008 article in The Nation, with the of-its-time headline “Dilberts of the World, Unite!”, the group (whose ranks had swelled to 1,500 dues-paying members) was hailed as figureheads of a “white-collar uprising.” Like Alliance@IBM, WashTech never became a formal union, so the group focused on political advocacy and providing services like job-skills training, according to labor researcher Danielle D. Van Jaarsveld, who interviewed organizers over three years. The organization supported bills that improved conditions for pematemps, endorsed candidates sympathetic to their cause, and leveraged their own website and the press to exert pressure on Microsoft. In 1999, the group revealed that Microsoft had been keeping secret personnel files on temps, and alleged contractors were never given the chance to address negative evaluations. A year later, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries decreed that the company should give temp workers access to their employment files. It was one of several wins for the group, even as efforts to formally unionize faltered. While WashTech has lost momentum over the years, the issue of temporary workers at Microsoft remains, and in 2016, they gained a union, although the win was far from dramatic.

After signing a contract with the 33 union members, all contractors from Lionbridge Technologies, more than a third of them were laid off or left voluntarily when Microsoft reduced the volume of work sent to that company.

Photo courtesy of Stan Soscher

Sorscher is familiar with that cadence of labor organizing — two steps forward, one step back, step to the left. When he and his fellow Boeing colleagues protested in 2000 — waving signs that read “No Nerds, No Birds” — they did so with some trepidation. The union had only struck once before — a symbolic one-day affair that Sorscher says “went really badly.” But this time the strike lasted 38 days, company stock value dropped and production halved. The picketing engineers and technicians, who braved chilly February temperatures around burn barrels kitted out with grills, made headlines nationwide. There were concerts and pancake breakfasts. Sorscher, who was teaching his two teenagers to drive, took the opportunity to demonstrate the proper way to honk at a picket line.

“I don’t wanna hear a ‘beep’,” he says, “The proper way to beep your horn is ‘beep, beep, beep, beep, beeeeeeeeeeeeeep!’”

Boeing capitulated, offering workers a new contract that guaranteed wage increases and bonuses, scrapped the plan to make workers pony up co-pays for health insurance, and offered health benefits to domestic partners. It was proof that white-collar workers would not only organize en masse but get things done. But, Sorsher readily admits, it was not exactly a happily ever after. What the workers really wanted was a culture shift, and that didn’t happen.

“Nobody thought we would change the mind of management,” he says. “And actually, we didn’t. We didn’t change their minds at all.” Boing is still often accused of shareholder-first thinking.

Sorscher is far from soured on organizing, though. He left Boeing in 2000 and went to work at SPEEA, where he remained until retiring in 2019. What he prescribes, though, particularly for today’s high-tech workers outraged by their employer’s ethical pitfalls, is a blend of traditional unionization — for the structure — and community organizing tactics — for the creativity. It’s a mashup that’s already well underway, with tech’s workforce deploying myriad strategies against their employers, and getting results. Facebook cafeteria workers, Silicon Valley security guards, and permatemps have all voted in unions. The CWA announced a new, nationwide initiative, CODE-CWA, to unionize tech and game workers in January. Google halted their work on a censored search engine for China after workers protested the project and ended their policy of forced arbitration after a walkout over sexual harassment. A company chose not to renew its contract with ICE after a developer deleted his code in protest.

“As soon as you get out of the wages, benefits, and work conditions mentality and all of that history and legacy, there’s a sort of freedom,” he says. “Now you’re thinking about the Women’s March, you’re thinking about civil rights, you’re thinking about the environment. And that kind of organizing is so much fun.”