Will tech layoffs silence or galvanise tech worker organising?

Will tech layoffs silence or galvanise tech worker organising?

Members of the Alphabet Workers Union hold a rally outside Google’s New York office, on 2 February 2023, in response to recent layoffs. Google’s parent company Alphabet announced in January that it will cut about 12,000 jobs globally, citing a changing economic reality.

(Ed Jones/AFP)

An email in the middle of the night. That’s all it takes. A few minutes later, you are locked out of your inbox. Your office key card doesn’t work anymore. You’re fired. No communication from your boss as to why, no chance to say goodbye to your co-workers and no opportunity to even pick up your personal belongings left inside of the office.

This is the clean brutality of the mass layoffs that have been hitting US and European tech companies since the end of 2022. Players like Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Meta (the parent company of Facebook) and Amazon have so far laid off more than 120,000 workers, enough to fill a small city.

These layoffs, and their ruthlessness in the US (where labour laws are generally much weaker than Europe), have left tech workers reeling. Over the past years they had enjoyed a boom. High wages, extensive work-from-home arrangements and a range of on-the-job extras allowed them to live an enviable lifestyle, even though problems such as stress and burnout related to their highly pressurised work environment frequently surfaced.

The layoffs also threaten an incipient union organising drive at big tech companies. Organisations such as the Tech Workers Coalition and the Communication Workers of America’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees had made small but noticeable gains over the last few years. Those gains happened in parallel to larger mobilisations among tech workers against issues like sexual harassment, the lack of diversity in tech and the development of military technology.

Yet the layoffs might also have the opposite effect. They might galvanise tech worker organising in an industry that is notoriously hostile to it.

“Now it’s clearer than ever that no matter what your pay is, if you don’t have a union, you have no way of resisting layoffs,” says Christy Hoffman, the general secretary of UNI Global Union, whose affiliates have been involved in organising tech workers.

“So much uncertainty for workers”

In Europe, the layoffs have so far been less dramatic than those in the US. Stronger labour laws have prevented tech companies from doing their worst, like simply locking workers out of their offices without recourse. Yet the wave of dismissals is also reaching tech offices across the continent in places like Dublin, Berlin and London.

In Switzerland the layoffs triggered an organising reaction. In mid-February, 250 workers at Google’s Zurich office walked off the job in protest against job cuts, which are currently being negotiated at the European office of the US tech giant.

The walkout was driven by the workers themselves, but because of fear of retribution, the Swiss union syndicom is acting as their spokesperson.

“The big issue is that there’s so much uncertainty for workers,” says Dominik Fitze of syndicom. “Yet at the same time, Alphabet is still making record profits. Last quarter they recorded a US$17 billion profit. It’s absurd to lay off 6 per cent of your workforce [under these circumstances].”

This uncertainty isn’t just related to income, says Fitze. The Zurich office employs both Ukrainian and Russian workers on work visas, the former who are facing being sent back to an active war zone and the latter who could face conscription, both because of the layoffs.

There is no official union presence at Google’s Zurich office, but the current action is based on previous rounds of organising. A similar walkout happened in 2018, when Google workers across the world protested against sexual harassment at the company.

For now, the workers in Zurich will have to wait. According to Swiss law, Google management now has to consult an employee council. After that, the layoffs will be announced. That, however, might not be the end of organising at Google Zurich.

“We’re building a network,” says Fitze. “The workers know they have a union they can count on. I don’t think this will be forgotten soon.”

Profitable layoffs

What’s driving a sense of injustice is that most big tech companies still make large profits. That these companies are now embarking on mass firings has driven speculation about what might be causing them.

“It’s astonishing that companies that make as much money as Alphabet do these layoffs,” says Hoffman. “This isn’t driven by money. Alternatives to layoffs weren’t even considered. Tech companies are just imitating each other.”

According to reporting by The Verge, the layoffs at big tech companies might be driven by investor pressures to streamline worker numbers after Covid-19 hirings. Their profits might still be high, but the revenue per worker at tech companies has lowered. This, in combination with predictions of a recession, might have prompteda narrative that layoffs are necessary, causing everyone to start copying each other.

But there might be another reason that goes beyond financials and economics: putting down a restless workforce. In recent years the pay of certain tech workers (particularly programmers) has ballooned. At the same time, organising has become more commonplace. Management might now be using these layoffs to instil fear and restore discipline in their workplaces.

“It seems to me that these layoffs are in part trying to hit back at the gains in both wage growth and organising,” says Brian Merchant, a tech writer and author of the forthcoming book Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech, who is following the layoffs up close.

“Worker power has made some small but real gains at big tech, which has been hostile to unions. These layoffs have the impact of being disruptive to that organising.”

Merchant notes that based on conversations with tech workers, layoffs often seem random and deliberately destabilising. Workers can’t find logic in them. Firings happen haphazardly and cut through departments with little regard for ongoing operations. High-performing workers who had just been promoted are suddenly fired.

“This is a way for management to say: ‘We’re in charge,’” says Merchant.

The Musk effect

A company that might have served as an example for these firings is Twitter. When Elon Musk acquired the company in October 2022, he initiated mass layoffs, preceding those at other tech companies. By the latest count, Musk – who made headlines this week for publicly mocking a disabled Twitter employee who didn’t know whether he had been fired or not – has laid off at least 70 per cent of Twitter’s workforce. The tactics used – such as firings by email and simply locking out workers from their offices – are similar to the ones used at other tech companies.

“For most of the mainstream the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk seems to be a disaster,” says Merchant. “But within Silicon Valley Musk still enjoys his reputation as a visionary. There were cases where some founders and investors used Musk’s actions as an inspiration.”

The big question for unions right now is whether the layoffs will serve to repress worker organising, or galvanise it. For many the hope is that the second scenario will prevail.

“Layoffs will motivate many more workers to come into unions,” says Hoffman. “This is a time when workers want a voice. They want to know why they are alone, and they want to use their power to demand better conditions.”

Whether or not this materialises remains to be seen. What is sure, however, is that the question of tech worker organising has not been buried by the layoffs.

“I foresee a more contentious landscape between workers and management in the future,” says Merchant, “which will be interesting, because they will need to pay these workers a lot. Even with the layoffs, they are still highly desired. They will have leverage.”