Behind the Rise of White-Collar Unions
"Union.” What comes to mind when you hear the word?
I think of precarious blue-collar workers, those in the manufacturing and industrial sectors with dangerous and time-sensitive jobs. I think miners, steel workers, underwater welders, truck drivers.
But in recent years, a trend has emerged in the American workforce: white-collar workers, including those in knowledge-based industries, banding together to form unions.
What is driving this change? Why are white-collar workers turning to collective action, and what does the future hold for white-collar unions?
White-Collar Workers Spark New Labor Movement
White-collar unions are not new. Teachers have unions. Hollywood scriptwriters have unions. But organized labor is still not a common sight in white-collar workplaces.
Still, in the past few years, we've seen an upward trend in white-collar unionization efforts.
“Across industries, support for unions is higher than it’s been in 50 years, reflecting growing recognition of the power imbalance between workers and employers,” said Shelly Steward, director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute.
A Success for Organized Labor
At Alphabet, Google's parent company, employees have attempted unionization for years. Four workers, coined the 'Thanksgiving Four,' were fired in 2019 for “speaking out” during a demonstration at the company’s San Francisco location.
In 2021, around 230 Google employees officially announced they were forming a union with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), called the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU).
Organizers claim the union is a response to workplace harassment and unethical business choices, including Alphabet's bid on a Department of Defense project that would have workers develop artificial intelligence (AI) intended for war.
In 2023, two years after the AWU’s official launch, it has more than 1,300 members.
Organizing Efforts Face Backlash
In mid-February, white-collar workers in the autopilot division at a Tesla factory in Buffalo, New York, announced a campaign to form the company’s first union — clashing with anti-union CEO and co-founder Elon Musk.
In 2019 (and upheld again in 2021), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that Tesla illegally fired a worker involved in labor organization. Musk was also ordered to delete an anti-union tweet (shown below) considered threatening to labor organizers at the company.
One day after the launch of unionization efforts in Buffalo, Tesla fired several employees. Remaining staff received an email on a new policy prohibiting the recording of workplace meetings without all participants’ consent.
Tesla organizers call themselves “Tesla Workers United,” and they’re working alongside Workers United, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. Unionization efforts, however, have so far been unsuccessful.
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Tech Workers Take Action
In the past, tech companies, including Amazon and Apple, have seen unionization efforts from their blue-collar workers, like warehouse employees. Today, white-collar workers in the industry believe unionization should extend beyond blue-collar jobs, and it's easy to see why.
The tech sector is notorious for long hours and competitive atmospheres. Tech workers might have a good paycheck, but they tend to lack work-life balance. And when they are at work, they don’t necessarily feel a sense of belonging — that someone there cares about their wellbeing and has their back.
In today’s digital age, where many organizations have made the switch to remote or hybrid work, tech companies have held tight to the physical workplace, giving employees no flexibility in when and where they work — something people desperately crave.
In fact, a 2022 survey of around 11,000 global knowledge workers found that 95% of them want flexible work hours, and 78% want flexibility in their working location.
“Tech companies are some of the most powerful in today’s economy," said Steward, "and unions provide workers a way to share that power and shape their conditions.”
The Non-Tech White-Collar Worker
Tessa West, professor of psychology at New York University and author of "Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them," said one place where she has seen the formation and effectiveness of unions among a historically white-collar group is where she works — with graduate students at NYU
“The desire for fair wages is now an argument made in all sectors — not just blue-collar ones,” she said. “Massive pay disparities in white-collar jobs, an awareness of how historical discrimination has given rise to these disparities, coupled with increasing transparency in that discrepancy, probably plays a role.”
Grad student unionization hasn't been localized at NYU, either. Similar efforts have happened at campuses across the country, including the University of California (all 10 campuses), Duke University, the University of Texas, Yale University, Boston University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania and many more.
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Behind the Rise of the White-Collar Union
We've all had a bad job or two. Think back to that job. What made you unhappy there?
Pay might come to mind. But maybe the work wasn't challenging, or you didn't feel valued by your boss, or there was never an opportunity for career development. There are many issues beyond wages that workers are concerned about, said Steward.
"While white-collar workers may be relatively well-paid, they may have a wide range of other concerns about the workplace environment or about how the business operates," she said.
Employee Experience in Labor Organizing Efforts
Employee experience is an expression you hear often today — that idea of organizations looking at ways to maximize employee happiness, satisfaction, value, purpose, etc.
In a survey of 500 HR leaders, 92% cited employee experience as a top priority.
That same survey also found that organizations with high employee experience see twice the customer satisfaction, double the innovation and 25% higher profits than companies with an "inadequate" employee experience.
Yet, the rise of labor unions among white-collar workers seems to point to a disconnect between workplace efforts and employee perceptions.
“‘Employee experience’ is a concept that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said West.
It might mean a four-day workweek or a boss who doesn’t micromanage. But these things are fleeting and subject to change, she explained. And what people want to see is substantial change that is codified. “And ‘employee experience’ initiatives are often not that.”
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Frustrations Run High for Union Members
West said she has seen firsthand the thoughts and emotions that go on behind the scenes for employees deciding to unionize.
“There's a lot of frustration, and the feeling of promises not being delivered. And forming a union and aligning with union rules can create some awkward dynamics at work,” she said.
When NYU’s graduate students formed a union, she said, they went on strike and could not teach. And they had to tell someone who held power over them that they couldn’t perform certain duties due to the strike.
“I'm saying this to highlight that when things get heated, there's more than just an ‘us vs. them’ mentality in the air,” explained West. “There are power dynamics, interpersonal dynamics at play. And these things can be tricky to navigate. Union rules can create fissures in the interpersonal dynamics at play in the workplace, and people often feel ill-prepared to navigate them.”
Collective Bargaining Without Repercussion
Business leaders need to listen to their workforce, said Steward.
But if employees don’t feel they can speak without repercussion, these attempts to listen won’t succeed. “And then business leaders don’t know what they need to know about employee experience.”
Unions provide balance to that experience. They give workers a voice in decision-making.
“And this rebalancing of power also creates an environment for workers to express their concerns and ideas with some trust that they will be addressed by reducing the likelihood of negative repercussions and building a process for addressing issues raised,” Steward explained.
Related Article: How to Build a Modern, Holistic Employee Listening Strategy
Lack of Identification in White-Collar Jobs
One thing that’s shifted dramatically, said West, is how identified people are with their chosen careers and with the place where they work.
“People used to be highly identified with their organizations, and they were ‘embedded’ at work — their home lives and work lives were a seamless web, and it was hard to pull the two apart.”
People worked in a town where their kids went to school, she explained. They loved their communities, they were friends with co-workers.
“Eroding these things means it's psychologically easier to hop from job to job, which we see a ton of these days. I think the work-from-home/hybrid shift contributed a lot to that.”
Overall, Steward summed it up nicely: “The pandemic catalyzed widespread reflection on what we want from our jobs, and unions provide an avenue to reach those goals.”
The Company Benefit of the White-Collar Labor Movement
Companies typically react negatively to the idea of workers trying to unionize and build their power to make change in a company, said Steward.
“Many things companies believe about unions come from anecdotes of particularly bad experiences in the past rather than an understanding of how unions actually work."
But business leaders should rethink that stance for three reasons.
“First,” Steward explained, “workers organizing to make change rather than simply quitting and walking away is a sign that they care enough about the organization to take personal risks to improve it — that is something business leaders should see as a good thing.”
Second, she added, the process can get problems out in the open, meaning leaders can solve them rather than letting them sit unacknowledged and unaddressed.
“And third, it’s an opportunity for business leaders to demonstrate respect for the people who power their company and build employee engagement. Businesses recognize the value of an engaged workforce and really they should see an organizing campaign as an expression of employee engagement and respond more constructively.”
When unionization is done right, she said, it can improve productivity, employee engagement, employee experience and business performance. It can also boost worker retention and support a healthy labor market.
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White-Collar Workers Unite for a Brighter Future
In five years, when you think of organized labor, blue-collar workers might not be the first thing to come to mind. Instead, you might think of data analysts in tech factories, coders for digital magazines and graduate students at your local university.
Ultimately, the onus is on organizations to accept that change is necessary and listen to what their employees truly want. And they shouldn't oppose that process, said Steward. "Because it is the only way that they can demonstrate respect for their workers and that they authentically want to build a better employee experience."
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