Microsoft breaks with Amazon and Starbucks on unions in vow to voluntarily recognize labor: ‘We have a lot to learn’

June 3, 2022, 5:46 PM UTC

Major Seattle employers Amazon and Starbucks may be fighting tooth and nail against growing unionization drives, but Microsoft is taking a different approach.

Microsoft president Brad Smith announced, in a Thursday blog post, a “new set of principles” for the tech giant’s approach to organized labor that “will make it simpler, rather than more difficult” for employees to form or join a union.

Both Amazon CEO Andy Jassy and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz have said their companies are better off without unions, but Smith struck a different tone, saying, “We know that we have a lot to learn.” He pointed to his own experience directing European and corporate legal affairs as evidence of the company’s past collaborative experiences with work councils and unions outside of the U.S. 

Smith said the company has talked with labor, business, and academic leaders in recent months as it formed a “new set of principles.” He emphasized that Microsoft recognizes “we have far more learning ahead of us than behind us.”

In his blog post, Smith laid out three principles that will guide Microsoft’s approach to organized labor. He said it would recognize that employees have a legal right to form or join a union, that it would commit to collaborating with unions and engaging with unionization proposals, and that it would maintain close relationships with all employees—unionized or not.

A Microsoft spokesperson told Fortune the company had no additional comment.

Smith added in the blog post that the company has an “open door policy,” and that a union won’t be necessary to get face time with Microsoft’s leaders. Yet it recognized that increased organized labor activity is a sign of the times. 

“Recent unionization campaigns across the country—including in the tech sector—have led us to conclude that inevitably these issues will touch on more businesses, potentially including our own,” Smith wrote in the blog post.

Organized labor movements have sprung up at some of the country’s biggest companies, including Microsoft’s tech competitors and its Seattle-based counterparts. But not every firm is taking Microsoft’s approach.

A new complaint against Amazon by the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency tasked with enforcing labor law, accuses the tech giant of illegally threatening to withhold benefits or reduce wages for employees that unionized at its Staten Island warehouse, according to Vice. Amazon has said previously that it believes the NLRB is biased against it

More than 70 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since last year, but the victories haven’t come without pushback from management. Last month, the NLRB issued a complaint accusing Starbucks of unfair labor practices with more than 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act. Starbucks has previously said it believes the NLRB’s claims don’t have merit.

Microsoft is in the process of acquiring Activision for $69 billion, an action that four senators, including Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), have said could worsen working conditions and negatively affect unionizing employees. 

A small group of Activision employees last month voted to unionize with the Game Workers Alliance, part of the Communications Workers of America. The CWA said in a statement to the Washington Post that Microsoft’s new stance on unions was “encouraging and unique among the major tech companies.” Liz Schuler, the president of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 national and international unions of which the CWA is a member, said in a tweet that the organization welcomes Microsoft’s “commitment to respect the freedom of working people to come together to organize and form a union.”

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