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Microsoft promises ‘open and constructive’ approach to employee labor unions

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Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking at Seattle’s Town Hall in 2019. (GeekWire File Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Conceding that the rise of labor unions in tech may ultimately reach its own business, Microsoft released a new set of principles acknowledging the rights of its employees to organize, pledging to work constructively with any who do, and making it clear that it hopes they won’t feel the need.

“Our employees will never need to organize to have a dialogue with Microsoft’s leaders,” wrote Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, citing existing mechanisms for employee feedback. However, he added, “we recognize that there may be times when some employees in some countries may wish to form or join a union.”

He promised that Microsoft will take an “open and constructive approach.”

“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,” he wrote.

The unusual pledge follows a union vote last week by the quality assurance team inside Activision-Blizzard subsidiary Raven Software, maker of Call of Duty. Microsoft needs regulatory approval for its $68.7 billion deal to acquire Activision Blizzard.

Microsoft has made other pre-emptive moves to address potential objections to the deal. President Joe Biden has promised to run the”most pro-union” administration in history, and he has singled out Amazon on the issue.

In an interview with GeekWire, Smith acknowledged the union vote inside Activision-Blizzard but said Microsoft’s motivation was broader.

“That’s obviously part of the constellation of developments that we’ve been paying attention to, as well as lots of other things,” he said. “The principles that we’re announcing today will certainly apply in the future if Activision-Blizzard becomes part of Microsoft.”

Microsoft’s approach contrasts with Amazon, which has opposed the formation of labor unions in its fulfillment network. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., became the first in the company’s U.S. workforce to vote to organize in April.

Asked if Microsoft’s move was aimed in part at Amazon, Smith said no.

“We’re trying to fashion the right course for Microsoft,” he said. “Every company is unique, every industry is unique. We’re not trying to say anything about what is good or bad for any other company.”

Another Seattle-area corporate giant, Starbucks, has also been grappling with the rise of unions in its workforce.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement that Microsoft’s “collaborative approach to working with its employees who seek to organize is a best practice that we look forward to seeing implemented at Microsoft and other companies.”

Microsoft does have some history with unions, dating back to efforts launched in the late 1990s by the Washington Alliance of Technology workers and the Communications Workers of America to organize temporary workers and contractors at the company. Those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

Here are the four principles as outlined in Smith’s post:

We believe in the importance of listening to our employees’ concerns. Our employees will never need to organize to have a dialogue with Microsoft’s leaders. 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.

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.

•  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.

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.

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