Microsoft Says It Won’t Fight Unions, Will Employees Call Their Bluff?

Microsoft Says It Won’t Fight Unions, Will Employees Call Their Bluff?
Photo: Demetrius Freeman-Pool, Getty Images

The big players at Microsoft say they’ll hold back their foot from crushing the little guy if they decide to go the way of organised labour, though it seems the company would rather first exhaust any other avenue than sitting down for collective bargaining.

In a Thursday blog post, company President Brad Smith said that with the multitude of unionization campaigns happening across the U.S., Microsoft might be next. Smith shared that the tech monolith recognises “that employees have a legal right to choose whether to form or join a union” and that they don’t believe they’d benefit from resisting “lawful employee efforts” to unionize.

He further wrote that they plan to maintain a close relationship with all employees, including those represented by unions, citing their past experience with work councils in Europe and other unions globally.

“We acknowledge that this is a journey, and we will need to continue to learn and change as employee expectations and views change with the world around us,” Smith wrote. “And we recognise that employers and employees will not always agree on all topics — and that is ok.”

At the same time, a good amount of the language used in the blog post hints at wanting to deal with workers individually. Smith said that employees “will never need to organise to have a dialogue.” Smith also added that a unionization proposal “may open an opportunity for Microsoft to work with an existing union on agreed upon processes for employees to exercise their rights through a private agreement,” hinting that they’d rather pursue any other option before actually sitting down with a union of Microsoft employees.

Engadget asked the company if it would not hire outside agencies to conduct anti-union activities, but a spokesperson simply referred back to Smith’s blog.

Even with the couched language, it’s still a significant public attitude shift compared to the gritted teeth and outward hostility of other major tech companies to the very thought of unions. Amazon in particular has been incredibly hostile to unions, and pro-labour groups have accused the online shopping giant of illegal union busting tactics from mandatory anti-union meetings to managers “interrogating” employees who talked to journalists after attending rallies. Amazon has regularly denied any illegal anti-union activity.

After Amazon workers in Staten Island voted to unionize at the beginning of April, reports showed just how extensive the shopping giant’s anti-union efforts had become. The company reportedly spent up to $US100,000 ($138,820) per month on union busting consultants in the time leading up to the vote. They had also spent millions on anti-union activity in prior years and have tried to head off any sign of unionizing through managerial training videos and anti-union posters and literature strewn around office spaces with known union sentiments. The National Labour Relations Board has cited the company for illegally threatening workers trying to unionize multiple times, including earlier this week.

Apple workers from Atlanta and New York City have made major efforts to unionize, but just a few months into the official effort The Communications Workers of America has filed complaints against the tech giant for allegedly interrogating workers, preventing the posting of pro-union fliers and forcing employees to attend anti-union presentations. The company has tried to placate employees with a minimum wage increase of $US22 ($31) an hour, but the New York employees have demanded a minimum of $US30 ($42).

Though Microsoft has always had interesting relations with labour in the U.S. In 2015, the company had introduced policies requiring contracting firms to offer 15 days of paid time off a year. That move inspired temp workers at Microsoft contractor Lionbridge, who tried to drag Microsoft into unionization talk, calling them a “joint employer.” Around the time unionization talks finally ended, around a dozen of the union members were laid off, according to the Seattle Times. The contracting company cited less work coming from Microsoft as the reason for the cuts.

“We bring a sense of optimism grounded in an appreciation that success in a competitive global economy requires that businesses and labour strive to work together well,” Smith said in his blog post.

Our friends over at Kotaku have pointed out that this pronouncement is running close to Microsoft’s planned buyout of Activision Blizzard, which has been historically hostile to its employees unionizing. Microsoft might need unions on its side to sway public opinion about the merger, especially as organised labour from all parts of the globe seem to be anticipating layoffs or depressed wages should the deal go through.

The Federal Trade Commission is currently reviewing the merger, and Microsoft seems to be striking a conciliatory tone. What that means for workers when push comes to shove, remains to be seen.