Thursday afternoon, Microsoft's president and vice chair Brad Smith penned a blog post outlining four "principles" the company would be adopting in response to the recent wave of union efforts in the US. Admittedly it's surprising for a company this size in the tech industry to — in word or deed — strive for anything less than the complete destruction of any organizing effort. But Smith's post contains precious little substance.
Let's begin with the bolded line right past the preamble: "Our employees will never need to organize to have a dialogue with Microsoft’s leaders." Anyone who has ever been involved in an organizing campaign will recognize this as a gentler version of the typical management talking point that a company "prefers a direct relationship" with its employees. The reason being, of course, that without an observer or weingarten rep present, a boss or human resources staffer is free to intimidate an employee or bury a complaint. Even in less sinister scenarios, while a one-on-one meeting might feel equitable on its face, it isn't: a boss has the force of the company behind them; a worker lacks that, and is dependent on that same company for their livelihood. The entire purpose for voicing complaints as a group, legally recognized as a union or not, is to limit that vast disparity in power.
This same line of thinking is restated in Smith's first principle:
We believe in the importance of listening to our employees’ concerns. Our leaders have an open door policy, and we invest in listening systems and employee resource groups that constantly help us understand better both what is working and where we need to improve. But we recognize that there may be times when some employees in some countries may wish to form or join a union.
Once again, the implication veers strongly towards a preference for dealing with workers individually. And the linguistic turn that those interested in joining or forming a union are only "some employees" in "some countries" reads as an attempt to undermine such efforts as the work of a vocal minority.
We recognize that employees have a legal right to choose whether to form or join a union. We respect this right and do not believe that our employees or the company’s other stakeholders benefit by resisting lawful employee efforts to participate in protected activities, including forming or joining a union.
The first half of principle two, reproduced above, could be just as easily restated as "we are committed to obeying the law." It doesn't matter whether Microsoft "recognizes" that the NLRA exists any more than it "recognizes" it can't write whatever it wants on its SEC disclosures. This is simply how things are. Of course, understanding workers have the right to organize hasn't stopped other tech companies (most notably Amazon) from engaging in anti-union actions that have often been found to be in contravention of the NLRA.
Where things get interesting is the second half of this principle, which sounds an awful lot like a promise of non-interference. Certainly, members of the tech press haveinterpreted it that way. But saying Microsoft might not "benefit" from resisting a union campaign and stating plainly that it will not work against such a campaign are not the same. This particular phrasing also does not claim an anti-union campaign would be actively harmful either, meaning shareholders likely wouldn't have recourse to sue the company if it chooses to take that approach down the line.
We reached out to Microsoft to ask if it will agree not to hold captive audience meetings or engage union-avoidance law firms to carry out similar actions on its behalf; we also asked if it will agree to voluntarily recognize union drives within its ranks. A spokesperson for the company told Engadget that "Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn't have anything further to add at this time beyond what's included in Brad's blog."
We are committed to creative and collaborative approaches with unions when employees wish to exercise their rights and Microsoft is presented with a specific unionization proposal. In many instances, employee unionization proposals may open an opportunity for Microsoft to work with an existing union on agreed upon processes for employees to exercise their rights through a private agreement. We are committed to collaborative approaches that will make it simpler, rather than more difficult, for our employees to make informed decisions and to exercise their legal right to choose whether to form or join a union.
If this isn't de facto an undermining of the union process I don't know what is. Rather than accept a "specific union proposal," Microsoft is saying, quite clearly, it prefers to do something other than agree to that proposal — and in the form of a "private agreement" to boot. (Collective bargaining agreements, which govern the relationship between an employer and it unionized employees, are typically public.) Likewise, anyone should feel a deep suspicion in Microsoft's claim that it can help its workers make "informed decisions" on the kind of workplace they'd prefer to have while also representing its own interests as a business.
Building on our global labor experiences, we are dedicated to maintaining a close relationship and shared partnership with all our employees, including those represented by a union. For several decades, Microsoft has collaborated closely with works councils across Europe, as well as several unions globally. We recognize that Microsoft’s continued leadership and success will require that we continue to learn and adapt to a changing environment for labor relations in the years ahead.
Principle four is almost entirely fluff. It contains no explicit promise on how Microsoft will comport itself differently. Presumably, a company cannot help but maintain a "close relationship" with the people who comprise that company. But it also recalls one of the few instances in which a Microsoft-associated company did successfully organize. In 2014, bug testers who were contracted through an outside firm, Lionsbridge, managed to form a union; within a few years, all 38 of them were laid off. Workers filed a complaint with the NLRB regarding the mass layoffs and Microsoft reportedly spent four years attempting to stall the process and convince the agency it should not be considered a joint employer. While Microsoft's Phil Spencer has more recently voiced support for the group of recently-organized quality assurance testers at Activision Blizzard (which Microsoft is in the process of acquiring), that could just as easily be read as an attempt to twist the arm of the FTC: allow this $69 billion anti-trust nightmare to go through and we won't try to crush the first union within a North American AAA games studio.
While some research has indicated unionizations can lead to a temporarily more frigid response from Wall Street and a small reduction in overall profits, other studies indicate a unionized workforce is just as productive, happier and incurs less turnover — presumably the sorts of qualities a mature business like Microsoft would want to foster. Microsoft could very easily help set an industry-wide precedent by committing to meaningful, well-defined policies: not principles, or goals or a corporate ethos, but actual policies which executives could be held accountable for failing to follow. If and when that time comes it will be a cause for celebration, but it isn't today.