Big tech will be sweating over prospect of worker unionisation

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If I had to pick the most far-reaching and significant threat facing big technology companies in the future, I would not make an obvious choice. 

Here, I mean “threat” from the companies’ perspective, the thing most capable of overturning their highly profitable business-as-usual, what they see as their unique corporate culture and defend as exciting new work paradigms and lucrative move-fast policies that allow them to “innovate”. 

Many of the rest of us may be more likely to identify these as the more noxious aspects of the industry. 

We’ve seen plenty of obvious threat candidates coming out of headline-making international political hearings, regulatory actions by nations and US states, new laws (such as the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU, and new state privacy laws in the US), and the continued establishment of case law from the EU. 

From this menu, the list of “uh-oh” factors for tech is easy to compile. Most boil down to greater outside regulation and oversight via the use of antitrust, data protection, privacy and, to a lesser extent, employee protection laws. 

And yes, this all (rightly) poses significant worries for big tech, including very real prospects of being broken up; of being subjected to greater operational transparency; of having more comprehensive limits placed on the use of personal data; of the crumbling of the data-gathering advertising model that is so lucrative. 

But none of these industry alarms is as likely to cause the profound, long-term change that could emerge over time from the actions of just 200 individuals this week: the North American employees of Google parent company Alphabet, who have formed the first major union within a technology company. 

“We’d had enough,” stated the two elected union executives of the new Alphabet Workers Union, Google software engineer Parul Koul and Google site reliability engineer Chewy Shaw, on Monday in anopinion piece for the New York Times. An initial 226 employees now have union cards affiliated to the Communications Workers of America. 

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