Tech workers in the United Kingdom formally launched the first major effort in Europe to unionize the tech industry on Tuesday, the latest in a historic wave of white-collar tech worker organizing that has galvanized engineers across the United States.
Roughly 30 tech workers in the U.K., including employees of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung, and Deliveroo, joined the United Tech and Allied Workers, a newly minted branch of the Communications Workers Union, which represents 110,000 postal workers in the U.K.
"A group of folks identified a need to organize tech workers along union lines in the United Kingdom," a software engineer who has joined the union and wished to remain anonymous, told Motherboard. "The tech industry in the UK is low union density, about 3 percent, and those workers are scattered across a bunch of unions. We want to approach unionizing in a holistic sense. We're keen to work with other unions and gig workers whose lives are impacted by the decisions we make as engineers."
Members of United Tech and Allied Workers say they want a voice in determining how the technologies they develop impact low-wage workers and other vulnerable people, as well as more rights in defending their own ranks against discrimination, harassment, and layoffs.
The idea for the campaign originated out of the London chapter of the Tech Workers Coalition, a growing grassroots coalition of tech workers and labor organizers that has working groups in New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Berlin, Bangalore, among other cities. Workers self-organized and then approached Communication Workers Union (CWU) about forming a tech workers’ branch.
Upon the branch's formation last week, tech workers across the UK have been invited to join the Communication Workers Union and to receive all of the benefits that come with union membership, including access to legal counsel and representation at employment tribunals for around £15, or $20 USD a month, at a time when layoffs and corporate restructurings prompted by the Coronavirus threaten tech workers across the U.K.
“There is currently no trade union in the U.K. solely dedicated to workers in the technology and digital sector,” Lauren Townsend, membership growth coordinator at CWU told Motherboard. “It’s shocking really, when you think about how big companies like Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft are, and when we know that they’re not exactly the best when it comes to how they treat their workers!”
Organizers say they hope the branch’s membership grows exponentially in the coming months via outreach and a media campaign.
“The CWU has for some time been a viable option for workers in the tech industry, and already has members in the sector in companies such as Amazon,” she continued. “Primarily though we organize in, and are known for, our work in the postal, telecoms and financial service sectors. In one way this is very new to us, but it’s new to tech workers too, and we look forward to facing the challenges ahead together.”
Unlike the United States, where workers must receive formal recognition from their employer or win a union election to unionize, all workers in the United Kingdom have the right to join unions and can gain access to their benefits immediately, regardless of whether an employer has recognized the union. Unions provide lawyers, case handlers, negotiators for workers dealing with harassment, bullying, discrimination, and a range of other workplace issues.
"At this particular moment without a trade union behind them, many tech workers are particularly vulnerable to the whims of their employers," another newly unionized tech worker who also wished to remain anonymous, told Motherboard. "But by joining our union, workers who are at risk of [being laid off] can bring union reps to meetings with their employers. The union reps will be trained to ask all of the right questions, to have the companies prove that they're not replacing you with someone who will take on your responsibilities."
While Amazon warehouse workers and app-based gig workers in the United Kingdom have organized campaigns, protests, and strikes to improve their working conditions, the same cannot be said for white collar tech workers, many of whom work at smaller outposts of U.S. tech companies, such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. But there are a few exceptions. In 2018, Google employees in London participated in a global walkout at the company. That same year, office workers at the electronics company Fujitsu went on strike in 10 U.K. cities.
Members of the United Tech and Allied Workers say these actions politicized tech workers in their group, and helped form the seeds for their effort to unionize tech in the United Kingdom.
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"We’ve got a very broad definition of a tech worker, if you’re labor is a necessary part of a tech workers operations, if you’re driving a cab for Uber or working in an Amazon warehouse, you’re part of a tech company," a new member of the United Tech and Allied Workers told Motherboard. "Our members are mostly white collar, privileged workers, software developers and designers, but the goal is to work in concert with the whole tech ecosystem."