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Microsoft tries collaborative approach to unions to avoid ‘public disputes’

Microsoft tries collaborative approach to unions to avoid ‘public disputes’


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Microsoft on Thursday announced a new strategy for dealing with organized labor, attempting to set itself apart from other Big Tech firms like Google and Amazon that have clashed publicly with employees seeking union representation.

In a blog post shared with The Washington Post, Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote that the company will respect workers’ rights to unionize and plans to work collaboratively with organized labor organizations to “make it simpler rather than more difficult” for employees to unionize if they so choose.

Microsoft is in the process of completing a $69 billion acquisition of Activision, a video game company where employees of a small subsidiary voted to unionize in March. That union, the Game Workers Alliance, is a division of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which in a statement called Microsoft’s announcement “encouraging and unique among the major tech companies.”

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CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens added that “to truly give workers a legally protected voice in decisions that affect them and their families, these principles must be put into action and incorporated into Microsoft’s day-to-day operations and its expectations for its contractors.”

Other Big Tech firms have made headlines and even gotten into trouble with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for their aggressive and, in some cases, allegedly illegal attempts to dissuade employees from unionizing. The labor board has repeatedly found that Amazon wrongfully terminated or retaliated against workers who were involved with union organizing. Amazon has argued that the board is biased against the company. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

Google, too, has had to settle charges with workers who said the company fired them in response to union organizing. Meanwhile, workers at Apple told The Post in April that they were targeted by management for supporting the union and threatened with the loss of certain benefits and opportunities for promotion. Apple said at the time that it valued its retail team and offered strong benefits.

Union elections with the NLRB, undertaken recently by employees at both Amazon and Apple, are a formal process that can be both tense and lengthy. To avoid that effort, employers can also choose to voluntarily recognize a union.

Under the principles announced Thursday, if Microsoft employees voted to unionize the company would pursue “a constructive and amicable process that would enable employees to make that kind of decision without requiring a dispute that would go to the NLRB,” Smith said in an interview with The Post.

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“There are times when employees want to reach out and connect with an existing labor organization,” Smith said. “Rather than manage that in a contentious way, we’d rather address those kinds of situations in a constructive and amicable way that lets employees make informed choices and that avoid public disputes that we think can be unconstructive, at least for our company and our culture.”

Smith’s announcement seems to build upon statements previously made by Microsoft general counsel Lisa Tanzi, who told The Post in March that the company “respects Activision Blizzard employees’ right to choose whether to be represented by a labor organization and we will honor those decisions.”

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Rebecca Givan, a Rutgers University professor of labor relations, said Microsoft’s announcement could mean the company is trying to smooth things over with employees interested in unionizing.

“There’s a lot of actual organizing or talk or desire in the video game sector, and that’s a piece of what Microsoft does. That might be what they’re trying to get out in front of,” Givan said. “Even the nastiest union buster, part of the rhetoric is: ‘We have an open-door policy.’ That’s pretty typical. But if they have the support of unions … hopefully it means they’re committing to something more significant and substantive.”

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CWA, which has led efforts to organize tech and game workers in recent years, is a member organization of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which also lauded Microsoft’s commitment.

“We know labor and management can be true partners in a company’s success, and it’s important for companies to respect workers’ rights.” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “Microsoft’s collaborative approach to working with its employees who seek to organize is a best practice that we look forward to seeing implemented at Microsoft and other companies.”

Smith, who has been with Microsoft since 1993, has earned a reputation as a tactful diplomat in Washington who has succeeded in using the company’s positioning as a friend and partner to regulators to avoid the kind of antitrust oversight other Big Tech firms have dealt with.

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This new collaborative approach to labor relations could be a continuation of that strategy, softening the company’s public image while potentially helping to attract and retain talent.

“I think we have to recognize that it’s a different time, and we have a generation with different expectations. Demographically, we’re no longer living in a time when the workforce age population is expanding and growing the way it used to,” Smith said. “There may be days when it feels uncomfortable to learn new things, but I think it’s the right path for the success of a business like ours.”


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