This is one of the thorniest challenges of the labor movement: how to influence in an era increasingly dominated by tech giants who often resist unions.
Are workers better served when unions take a contradictory position with regard to such companies? Or should groups of workers seek co-operation with employers, even if the resulting agreements do little to advance the broader objectives of the workers?
The debate has centered around the efforts of workers to break into Uber and Airbnb, companies that allow drivers and owners to earn income as entrepreneurs. The political battle surrounding Amazon's plan to create a new headquarters in New York with 25,000 jobs was highlighted.
The plan collapsed in response to a violent reaction to government subsidies, resentment of the clandestine process in which the city and state negotiated the agreement, and concerns about the impact on neighborhoods. . But labor problems have also been a factor, generating tension even between unions.
In the most confrontational camp were groups of workers led by the union of retailers, wholesalers and department stores, who were asking the city and the state to suspend nearly $ 3 billion in subsidies, unless & ### Amazon does not put in place a "fair process" for its warehouse workers in the city. unionize. Retail workers said they were open to negotiating what that meant.
"I think we acted on principle," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of retail workers. "If you are aggressively anti-unionist, we should not give you subsidies."
Last month, a company executive told city council that Amazon would not remain neutral during an organizing drive at its local facilities. A spokesperson for Amazon said this week: "We respect the right of our employees to choose to join or not to join a union. "
The local council of building unions was in the engagement camp, whose members were likely to find work through the construction of Amazon's headquarters in Queens. They were joined by a local of Service Employees International Union, who had been granted the right to represent janitors and other service workers in the Queens complex.
In some respects, these arguments go back several decades. Thomas Kochan, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the United auto workers and General Motors had negotiated a new deal when the company created its division Saturn in the mid-1980s. In exchange for a role in management duties, the union agreed to relinquish many of the work rules specific to other plants, such as those governing the type of worker who could perform a job. given work. This arrangement has caused tension within the union and the company for years.
But in recent years, the growing reach of tech conglomerates has created an urgency among workers to woo their workers, Kochan said.
Despite their minimal presence in these companies, the unions have many levers to pull. They can exert influence through politicians when it comes to public subsidies, as in the Amazonian case. And they can put pressure on regulators to control businesses that go against traditional industries, such as transportation and the hotel industry.
Whether it is to use these levers to impose concessions or to adopt a less contradictory approach that would give the labor world a hand, the labor movement has been divided.
In 2016, Uber signed a five-year agreement with a regional branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to create a Driver Guild, which would defend the rights of drivers without jeopardizing their status. independent contractors. Machinists should also refrain from turning the guild into a formal union during this period. In return, Uber agreed to provide the organization with funding and a means to communicate directly with the drivers. The guild says that a majority of its revenue comes from other sources.
A rival group representing professional drivers criticized the Machinists for creating a so-called business union. Federal law prohibits unions from financing or controlling companies, although the law only applies to salaried workers. Some union officials complained that the guild was anti-democratic because the drivers did not elect machinists to represent them.
But Sharon Block, a senior Labor Department official under President Barack Obama, said the deal was defensible. Ms. Block pointed out that the guild had adopted a hybrid approach of cooperation and antagonism, pushing for policies such as a minimum pay standard for drivers and allowing passengers to leave a tip, both of which were adopted in New York.
"There are situations in which taking half-bread can be worthwhile," said Ms. Block.
At approximately the same time, Service Employees International Union was finalizing an agreement with Airbnb that the company would connect hosts who needed to clean their homes with unionized workers, an approach both parties were already testing in New York and New York. in Los Angeles.
The deal collapsed after Unite Here, the only hotel workers union, said the deal would only provide political cover for Airbnb, accused by the union of destroying high-paying hotel jobs. and create a housing shortage.
The union president, D. Taylor, said that Unite Here was always willing to work with employers, but that unions usually did not have enough weight to make good deals when they were walking in an industry where their presence was weak.
"You are settling a contract that has lower standards than the dominant union in this sector could obtain because you do not have leverage," Taylor said.
The service workers' union declined to comment.
Given the number of people employed by Amazon – more than 250,000 in the US, not counting seasonal workers – and its influence on many industries, the proposed New York headquarters was arguably the most important issue. important to date to test these competing approaches.
Some experts have stated that an agreement allowing a union to represent construction workers in the proposed Amazon complex could have been valuable.
"They have the opportunity to show people working at all levels that unionization is a good thing," said Catherine Fisk, an expert in labor law at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's a way of distributing wages fairly, there's an orderly process for handling allegations of sexual harassment, as well as absenteeism, regardless of the company's concern."
But others were skeptical that allowing janitorial workers to unionize would have any benefit for the larger workforce in New York, let alone elsewhere in the country.
The problem, according to Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of City University in New York, is that the maintenance of buildings is just too far away from what most Amazon workers do. Many companies employ unionized workers but are not unionized, she said.
Like these companies, Amazon seemed to want to attract the attention of service workers: it abandoned discussions with workers on a framework that could have facilitated the organization of employees who perform essential functions, such as packaging products in the company's order processing centers.
The question is whether Amazon can maintain this hard line indefinitely. If possible, progressives and labor activists could have contributed to the loss of 25,000 jobs and billions of future tax revenues without tangible benefits to workers.
But there is reason to believe that Amazon may need to negotiate with the unions in New York at some point, and that unions and other progressive groups will have established an important principle when this happens.
After all, many of Amazon's facilities do not look like car factories or call centers, in that the company can easily install them anywhere. Amazon tends to locate warehouses reasonably close to customers, of which there are potentially millions in the New York area. He sought to locate his white-collar centers in areas where many highly skilled workers work, a practice that also favors cities like New York.
In its statement on the abandonment of the Queens Plan, the company said that "there are currently more than 5,000 Amazon employees in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island, and we plan to continue to develop these teams ".
And this logic is likely to apply to various high-tech companies looking for customers and workers in liberal hubs.
"You do not need a very large number of highly qualified people who want to settle in small towns in Arkansas," said Professor Fisk. "I think California and New York and many other places may have more weight to insist on the approach of the highway."