Massive, Impersonal Tech Layoffs Show How “Good Jobs” Need Unions Too
The pandemic bubble has burst — Big Tech companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter (to name a few) have laid off more than 70,000 employees in the last year. Over the last week, more than 20,000 employees were laid off from several of these companies – many of whom were informed of their firing via email or a declined access badge. In the face of uncertain economic conditions and rising recession, these tech giants have begun drastically downsizing—a few thousand at a time. The scale of the layoffs coupled with the impersonal nature of it has prompted conversations about the precarity of tech workers. Here is where unions have begun to emerge.
In early 2021, Google employees announced they were unionizing. This marked a shift in workers’ movements – where higher paid employees also began to organize around their rights. At Google, the firing of Timnit Gebru, a pioneering Black AI ethics researcher, was the watershed moment that started conversations about ethics, racism, sexism and unilateral decision-making at some of the world’s most coveted workplaces.
Tech has always had a strong anti-union position. “For tech founders, the ability to shift their businesses quickly, hiring and firing as needed and paying workers with stock options instead of offering traditional salaries and benefits, is key to success,” the Washington Post noted.
That people in “good jobs” have begun to unionize speaks to a pattern of growing precarity even among tech workers – especially during an ongoing recession.
In the early days of the pandemic, Amazon had increased its workforce by more than 100%—as did Meta, Facebook’s parent company. The overwhelming need for online services necessitated such a large hiring push, as profits soared and tech companies were vying for talent—offering lavish perks as incentive. Many executives saw the sheer growth in business and profits, and anticipated it well into the future, as a “permanent acceleration that would continue even after the pandemic ended,” stated Mark Zuckerberg in a company-wide statement on Nov 9, 2022. “I did too, so I made the decision to significantly increase our investments. Unfortunately, this did not play out the way I expected.”
Zuckerberg’s attitude was reflected by other tech CEOs, who “hired for a different economic reality than the one [we] face today,” according to Sundar Pichai. Their mistakes in misreading and misinterpreting the durability of mid-pandemic expansion has affected tens of thousands of workers, many of whom are foreigners on now expiring visas. For a great deal of those living in Silicon Valley and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area, firing means being stuck in one of the most expensive places in the world with uncertain severance pay. These decisions to undergo mass layoffs have come as a shock to a majority of employees, a reality many never expected to face after joining what has been touted as an industry of unlimited growth.
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The ongoing layoffs also hint at an underlying alienation that workers in tech increasingly face. At odds with the seemingly laidback attitude originally present in the companies—nap pods, in-house masseuses, and endless snack bins—the method in which employees receive the news of their unemployment is often unemotional at best and procedurally-generated at worst. It’s become a meme how ex-Twitter employees received the news of their joblessness—let go overnight with “no formal notice of their employment status” and blunt but confusing emails with differing details. They began losing access to work platforms like Slack and email without any official notice of their firing, and it spread East to West like a wildfire. “Today is your last working day at the company,” was the notice many received in their “Your Role at Twitter” emails.
“It’s literally been the ‘Hunger Games’,” shared one ex-worker about their last week at Twitter. Another called it a “break-up by text,” referring to the sudden and impersonal nature of the layoffs—many employees, who had resorted to sleeping at the office due to new owner Elon Musk’s demands of increased levels of work, were told to leave immediately, followed to the entrances by security personnel. Severance pay, for example, was a source of uncertainty—the notice period obligations differed by state (90 days in New York but 60 in California). In Europe, where labor laws require negotiation between employer and employee, many received boilerplate emails without much detail, only a note mentioning “no negotiation.”
In India alone, over 100,000 ex-employees of Amazon India were offered a voluntary separation programme, leading to a first for the ‘elite industry’—the joining of trade unions. According to Harpreet Singh, president of Nascent Information Technology Employees Senate (NITES), the recent layoffs have “broken many myths prevailing in the IT industry,” including the notion that IT employees weren’t covered by labor laws and that they weren’t allowed to unionize. The “IT mindset”, said Forum for IT Employees (FITE)’s general secretary Vinod AJ, “has been that [they] were not workers, but professionals,” with unions a last resort for “factory workers in failing industries.”
As analysts predict further significant cuts across the tech industry, thousands of IT workers in India are forming and joining unions. Cohorts from Google, Starbucks, and Amazon in the United States demanding significant change legitimized the power of collective bargaining in many workers’ eyes. However, one of the biggest obstacles in their path is their self-perception—they “are very difficult to mobilize because most of them belong to the upper class and upper caste, and don’t consider themselves oppressed,” said Surya Prakash of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions. But this is a misconception: mass layoffs in tech can impact diversity within tech workforces, note experts. For example, women were more likely to be fired while pregnant, a 2021 study found.
Yet, as the shine fades and awareness grows, Indian tech workers are ready to push back. “With or without unions, we must learn to question all these injustices and illegalities that we have accepted as the IT work culture,” C. Das of All India IT and IT-Enabled Services Employees’ Union (AIITEU) told the Straits Times. Regardless of unionization, however, the severe downsizing and a looming recession cements the uncertain future of the entire tech industry, and its perception as a guaranteed job market is called into question.