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How does a tech union contract get made?

A conversation with two Glitch employees about their milestone negotiation.

There’s a first time for everything, and yesterday I got to talk to two union software engineers about their new contract.

Sheridan Kates and Katie Lundsgaard both work at Glitch, and earlier this week they and their coworkers were the first known white collar tech workers in the US to negotiate a contract with their employer. Both are industry veterans, Kates having worked for years at Google and Lundsgaard at a big tech company with Customs and Border Protection contracts, which she declined to name. The two were referred to me by the press office of their union, another new phenomenon in Silicon Valley journalism. 

How do these things happen? 

“We’d created a signal group to back channel, and a subgroup got created for people who were thinking organizing thoughts. One of the original organizers reached out to me to see if I was interested. And I was,” Kates said. “Most of us didn’t need much persuading.”

Soon a small initial group of Glitch employees reached out to the Communications Workers of America, and sought the union’s expertise in organizing a workplace. 

“The way that it often goes down in traditional organizing settings is that you have all these background conversations, and you rate everyone on a 1, 2 or 3 based on their support, with 3 a strong no. You try to get two-thirds as ones and not too many threes before talking publicly about the union. As people joined, we changed our slack avatar to a red-tinged version so that people could see what was going on, to get the 2’s to 1,” Kates explained. 

The question of where to draw the line between tech workers and “management” in a tech company required some special attention.

“We decided that if you have hiring and firing rights, or if you have budget control, you’re not eligible to be in the union. Sometimes scheduling power is considered a line, but that’s hard to define in a tech company. So we tried to be more broad. If you have the power to take someone off a team, you’re not allowed in,” Kates said.  

When the unionizing workers reached the two-thirds threshold of support, they penned a letter to CEO Anil Dash informing him of their intentions. On March 13, 2020, Dash voluntarily recognized the union, saving the workers the time and worry of obtaining recognition through the National Labor Review Board. 

“With the organizing itself, the roadblocks are the same anywhere, so [CWA] knew what to expect and look out for, what kinds of questions we might be asked, things that are not entirely unique to tech. In the contract negotiation CWA is not trying to get a contract that works for them, it’s our contract based on our collective input,” said Lundsgaard. 

Kates and Lundsgaard agree Glitch’s small size and the longstanding good will between its workers and management made bargaining a contract much easier than it would have been, say, in their former jobs at tech giants. 

“I think a lot of it was we knew we had a good relationship but you never know if that will last. And we wanted to continue to be a company we wanted to work at,” Kates said. 

“At the last company I worked for, it would have been since a massive undertaking to organize. At a smaller co you know everyone you work with,” said Lundsgaard.

So union cards in hand, what did the Glitch workers negotiate? 

“We weren’t asking for expensive things, and we were cognizant of what the company can realistically do,” Kates said.

The contract that was finalized this week commits Glitch to a process for providing just cause when firing an employee, a significant enhancement to the customary “at-will” status of most tech employees in this country. It also gives the workers a formal say in other decisions the company may make down the road, like adjusting benefits or being acquired, and sets formal rules for pay-raises – an effort to diminish the ad hoc and wildly unequal pay levels that dominate tech companies where workers negotiate their salaries individually. 

“A lot of people in tech rely on the benevolence of their employer, people talk about how startups need to be flexible and agile, and that is code for being able to cut benefits or lay off employees as necessary. Until you have a union contract where these things are codified you don’t know whether you will always have them,” said Lundsgaard.

“Look, it’s understandable in a startup that you may have to change benefits or cut staff, it happens all the time even at the most benevolent places. But it shouldn’t be a one-way street,” added Kates.

The Glitch union also secured a specific a pay adjustment that’s vitally important to the work of software engineers.

“As software engineers we do on-call shifts for a week or so every month, where you’re available around the clock as needed, which leads to stress and burn-out. In the contract we secured compensatory time-off to offset those shifts,” Lundsgaard explained.

The contract instates modest but significant changes to the terms of Glitch workers’ employment. But the very existence of a collectively negotiated contract is a paradigmatic shift in the relationship between these tech workers and their employer.

“I think that unions just provide that additional level of security for the workers. Now there is more a level playing field thinking of ourselves as partners in whatever management might decide to do,” Kates said. “We used to feel we had influence on the day-to-day operations, but were left out of big decisions like layoffs or a change in health care benefits.”

“Tech companies do a lot of things to make their workers feel empowered, but there really are limits. We can’t be lured into thinking we are special and don’t have the same constraints tother workers have. Management and workers are very different in this industry and organizing can have a benefit across the tech industry to level the playing field,” she said.

This flies in the face of the stories Silicon Valley tells about itself. “So much of our culture is the cult of the startup,” Kates said. “The founder has a ton at stake, whereas as employees you don’t have near that level of equity. Tech companies try to sell their workers on them having this amazing upside too, but realistically there are many scenarios where the workers don’t see much of that upside, and [the union] balances that out somewhat.”

 While negotiating the contract, the unionized Glitch workers got an early taste of the benefits of membership. In May, the company announced a round of layoffs in response to the pandemic, and some forty percent of its employees were let go, including many of the original union organizers.

“We had a union at that point but no contract, and the CWA were helping us even though we weren’t paying dues yet. The union played a role during the layoff negotiations. We got a heads up and it was clear that this was happening for financial reasons with no malicious intent,” said Lundsgaard.