Amazon is call the cops arrest union organizers. Starbucks fires them. But the other world-famous Washington state-based company, Microsoft, is breaking ranks not just with Amazon and Starbucks, but with virtually every American company large and small.
If its employees want to unionize, says Microsoft, that’s fine.
In a June 2 blog post, Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote that the company would not discourage or delay its workers from forming or joining unions. Then, on Monday of this week, the company made a joint announcement with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) that if a majority of employees at Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft is buying for $70 billion, signed union membership cards, he would recognize that union. He would not oppose this effort; it would not subject workers to anti-union arguments; he wouldn’t insist on a follow-up election (a redundancy that every other American company in a similar position would certainly insist on).
The CWA has long been one of the most militant and effective unions in the country. Unlike virtually every other union, it has never given up on strike and in recent decades has won a number of them, while other unions have shunned them for fear they will lose. In this sense, the deal between Microsoft and CWA could be seen as the deal of two unicorns.
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But there was more to Monday’s statement than just harmonic convergence. In March, the CWA sent a letter to federal regulators saying the proposed acquisition raised a host of antitrust considerations. With this week’s announcement, however, the union withdrew its complaint.
This is exactly how unions should play the game.
As for Microsoft’s motives, surely the company must have concluded that Biden administration regulators reviewing the Activision purchase were much less likely to rule against the purchase if it meant Activision workers had to increase, and not decrease, their income and their power.
But there seems to be more to Microsoft’s calculations than derailing the obstacles to its current acquisition, significant as that may have been. Smith’s June 2 statement made clear his position on unionization applied to all of Microsoft’s 181,000 employees who were eligible for union membership (as company executives, for example, are not). ). What else could Microsoft have thought?
My theory (and it’s just a theory) is that Microsoft thinks that giving its staff the right to unionize actually gives the company a competitive advantage over its peers – more immediately, its peers in the technology sector, who universally greeted the prospect of a labor union with horror and rage. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to have realized that the young technicians it wants to hire (and, once hired, keep) belong to the most pro-union generation in American history. In the latest Gallup poll on the issue, 77% of Americans under 30 said they viewed unions favorably. One of the reasons Starbucks’ extremely young army of baristas is unionizing is that pro-union sentiment among young people is both a rational calculation and a statement of values; it’s almost a cultural norm.
In his June 2 blog post, Smith said as much. “Recent organizing drives across the country,” he wrote, “including in the tech sector, have led us to conclude that inevitably these issues will affect more companies, potentially including the our.” What Smith didn’t say – what he didn’t need to say – was that these issues would also affect Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google, and when young techies compared the hostility of these companies in worker power to the more welcoming prospect of Microsoft, they may well opt for the House of Gates rather than the Fortresses of Zuckerberg and Bezos.
Among its peers, Microsoft is clearly a heretic. But if the company’s bet is right — if unionization is indeed a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talented young workers — this heresy could still spread.