This past Friday, Medium workers took a vote to determine whether the company would recognize a newly-formed coalition of office workers calling themselves the Medium Workers Union (MWU).
75 people voted yes, 68 no, and seven abstained. Though a majority (52%) of workers voted to recognize the union, the union was just one vote shy of being recognized by Medium according to terms both the company and organizers had initially agreed to. MWU announced the vote on Monday, March 1st.
The union, made up of employees within Medium’s engineering, editorial, design and product departments, was first announced on February 11th. At the time, they said that 70% of eligible workers had signed cards in support. The group did not organize around a single issue, choosing instead to unionize under the belief that collective bargaining strengthens and amplifies employee’s voices “much like the way writers use Medium to amplify their words and ideas,” according to their website. Rather than seeking recognition by the National Labors Relations Board (NLRB), they initially sought voluntary recognition by the company. Ironically, Friday’s numbers would have won MWU recognition from the NLRB, which only requires a majority from those who choose to vote.
Though the vote is certainly a setback, former trade union official and employee relations expert Simon Sapper says the numbers give cause for hope. “It means that a majority of the people who voted said to their employer ‘we want you to talk to the union on our behalf, and we trust the union,’” he says. “They’re saying, though there isn’t a particular grievance, ‘we believe, as a personal philosophical creed, that working collectively is better than working individually.’”
Union membership is strikingly low in the United States, the recent union cheerleading from the commander-in-chief nothwithstanding. In the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.8% of workers were represented by a union (a 0.5% increase from 2019 that likely has more to do with job losses overall than increasing support for unions.) In famously libertarian Silicon Valley union membership is even rarer. The very fact that more Medium employees voted to join a union than not is an uncommon success.
“Technically, because they didn’t lose the ballot, they don’t have to do anything,” says Sapper. By choosing to vote for recognition with Medium rather than the NLRB (which imposes a 1-year wait period before petitioning again) MWU isn’t limited in any way they weren’t before. However, Sapper says, Medium workers now know “there is a significant body of opinion in the company that says ‘you need to engage with [the union].”
More than 400 Google employees formed a union in January, calling themselves the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). Both AWU and MWU formed under the Communications Workers of America, and through the CODE-CWA campaign. The group aims to unionize employees in the tech, gaming, and other digital industries. Whether they will successfully organize any more Northern California-based tech companies is yet to be seen.