Bloomberg Law
Jan. 17, 2023, 10:45 AM

Tech Layoffs Threaten Unions’ Plan to Draw White-Collar Workers

Ian Kullgren
Ian Kullgren

A wave of layoffs in Silicon Valley is threatening union plans to organize big tech.

Cuts at Inc., Meta Platforms Inc., Coinbase, and dozens of other companies could limit labor’s ambitious campaign to win over white-collar workers that have never unionized—and, some argue, are vital to unions’ survival.

Some 500 technology companies have axed nearly 100,000 workers since last October, according to, a public database of tech layoffs. Amazon this month announced it would cut 18,000 jobs, and on the same day, cloud computing company Salesforce and the online video-sharing service Vimeo said they would slash 10% and 11% of their staffs, respectively. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, said in November it would eliminate 11,000 jobs—about 13% of its staff.

Those reductions in force don’t bode well for unions that have increasingly funneled resources into tech organizing, which was, until recently, seen as an ever-growing pool of potential members. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, last year raised membership fees for the first time in two decades, hoping to raise $10 million a year for new organizing.

Unions still project confidence, however, saying that Covid-19 caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with work and prompted worker uprisings that won’t end anytime soon.

But recessions are historically bad for new organizing efforts, experts say, since workers are more afraid of being punished and are primarily focused on keeping their jobs.

“That tends to work very strongly against union organizing,” said Susan Schurman, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “People are afraid that if they get involved in an organizing campaign they will be terminated. The fact that it’s protected does not matter.”

A Big Year

To support their optimism, union leaders point to a wave of strikes they say have changed the public’s concept of organized labor. Workers went on strike more than 300 times in 2022—the most since 2005, according to a recent data analysis by Bloomberg Law.

Unions are also becoming more popular. A Gallup poll last year found that 71% of Americans approve of unions, the highest share in more than half a century. And the National Labor Relations Board recorded a 53% increase in union petitions filed during the 2022 fiscal year.

While there’s a perception workers would have a hard time finding another job in a recession, “we are still in a moment where people see the unfairness of how corporations are making billions of dollars and record profits, and the people who are making those profits are still not gaining access to better conditions and pay,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in an interview. “That will continue to be a driver for people to say, ‘hey, do we have to sit back and take it, or can we do something about it?’”

At the same time, some unions are mulling technology-related contract clauses to prevent workers from being replaced by automation, a move to protect current members and demonstrate their value to prospective ones.

“We expect a very big year,” D. Taylor, president of Unite Here, said in an interview. “The conditions have not changed.”


Unions recently secured beachheads at Microsoft, Apple Inc., and Amazon, organizing small groups of workers within the larger companies. At Alphabet Inc., the Communications Workers of America is backing the Alphabet Workers Union, an unofficial worker group that advocates for various causes and could serve as an incubator for a more widespread campaign.

At the same time, outdated structures that focus on non-digital work could limit unions’ effectiveness in tech, Schurman said. No single union has clear responsibility for tech workers, both creating a vacuum for organizing and unnecessary turf wars, she added.

The latter challenge was on display last year, when both the International Association of Machinists and the CWA sought to organize Apple store workers in Maryland, Oklahoma, and Georgia. Each union successfully organized a single store, one in suburban Baltimore and the other in Oklahoma City. But it’s unclear which group will take charge of winning roughly 270 other stores in the US.

Union leaders this month flocked to Las Vegas for the CES technology conference, set on understanding how the latest innovations in artificial intelligence could disrupt their industries.

Some find themselves facing threats, but also opportunities. Hollywood’s biggest union, SAG-AFTRA, worries about digital-double technology that could generate crowd scenes with fewer actors. But at the same time, the explosion of streaming services had increased demand for actors, said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the national executive director and chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA.

And the actors’ guild has found another unlikely source for new members. The union in 2021 rolled out an “influencer agreement” as a way to get advertisers to guarantee pay and benefits for internet celebrities hawking products on social media.

“We’re not willing to just let corporations, whether they’re in tech or any other industry, just run roughshod over human rights and people’s dignity,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “This is a long-term change in the way people perceive unions—not solely based on the boom-or-bust economy of the tech sector.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Genevieve Douglas at; Rebekah Mintzer at