'Technology unions' could be unions of conscience for Big Tech

'Technology unions' could be unions of conscience for Big Tech
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With employee uprisings at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft in recent months over the ethical nature of corporate practices, some technology workers have begun to consider collective action. Yet only a few unions in the technology sector exist, and they are primarily concerned with obtaining better wages, not advancing public policy positions. This is a shame, because the informal technology alliances that currently exist lack the power that flows from an officially recognized union. 

In order to prevent the foment from petering out, skilled technology workers need a new form of union that does not rely on the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and that enables them to advocate, not for their own members, but for more responsible, enlightened policies by their employers on technology issues. I call this a “technology union,” a novel structural twist on the traditional union form. Such inverted unions that focused on the upper echelon of talent at technology companies could, for example, campaign for eliminating foreign interference in campaigns, stopping trolls and strengthening privacy in the social media context.

Unlike the European Union’s more active regulation of technology firms, exemplified by the recent General Data Protection Regulation, big technology companies largely have rebuffed pressure from government regulators and civil society in the United States to reform questionable practices, leaving many to wonder whether the profitability, ubiquity and influence of such giants render them effectively immune from outside pressure. Investigations, proposed legislation, class-action lawsuits and public shaming efforts have created little lasting change.

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The situation is not hopeless, however, because technology giants have an unanticipated internal vulnerability that also happens to be their greatest strength: their employees. The acute demand for programming, engineering and scientific talent has put highly skilled workers at technology behemoths in an unparalleled position to promote social change from within their companies.  

Roughly 4,000 employees signed a petition — “We can no longer ignore our industry’s and our technologies’ harmful biases, large-scale breaches of trust, and lack of ethical safeguards” — and got Google to not seek to renew a contract with the military. Since then, Google employees have advocated to prevent their employer from re-entering the Chinese market if it meant providing a censored search engine that hands over all search results to the government. If such ad hoc attempts of revolt have shown promise, imagine what workers could accomplish with the added security, stability and bargaining power that unions provide.

Skilled technology workers are the best positioned to grasp how their efforts are negatively affecting society and how to re-engineer them to stop the harm. They know what the public does not — their bosses’ orders to put profit above societal safeguards and the companies’ game plans for doing so. Further, only they are aware of confidential developmental projects. They can push to have concerns addressed at the design stage, so protections are built into products and are not afterthoughts. 

Given that technology firms touch on many of the most important aspects of our lives, there is a vast policy space within which technology unions could operate, including the internet, communications regulation, privacy, intellectual property, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Not only are skilled technology workers optimally situated to instigate reform, they have a unique ethical imperative to do so. They are the ones creating the future within these companies. Few employees at tech giants started their first day on the job with dreams of facilitating the subjugation of democracy here and abroad. Yet now that they know the dangers of their innovations, they no longer can abdicate responsibility. In fact, many of those who have invested their careers in crafting these technologies probably want ethical reform as much as the rest of us do — and could put a place at the negotiating table to very good use.

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As for the legal structure of the technology unions, given federal labor law is not applicable to many skilled technology workers, such workers should seek voluntary, private labor agreements with companies, which have proven successful in numerous contexts. Specifically, this entails employees and their employers setting up their own mutually agreed-upon rules for how a union campaign should proceed through contract law — i.e., a versatile, private re-creation of the one-size-fits-all legal framework of the NLRA. 

Those who establish technology companies have the least incentive to address the downside of technology because their wealth, power and celebrity is tied to its upside. If they have escaped any meaningful legislation after data misuse and consumer manipulation, it is time to rally the skilled employees to check the unbridled Übermenschen aspirations of these company leaders. If technology unions break through the engineered stasis of D.C. by modifying the traditional union form, they could be the conscience of their companies — and of our internet, while it is still the new societal commons. 

Martin Skladany is an associate professor of intellectual property, law and technology, and law and international development at Penn State Dickinson Law. He is the author of “Big Copyright Versus the People: How Major Content Providers are Destroying Creativity and How to Stop Them” and the upcoming “Copyright's Arc” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).