Labor organizers have a message for the Twitter employees upset and concerned about Elon Musk’s takeover of the company: Join us.
Since the Twitter board agreed to recommend Elon Musk’s purchase of the social media company Monday, multiple reports have detailed Twitter employees’ worries about what it could mean for their platform and workplace. Many Twitter employees have been working for years to decrease bullying, hate speech, misinformation, and other tweets that contribute to making Twitter — and, subsequently, the real world — a toxic place.
Musk’s public statements indicate that that work is in jeopardy. He wants to make Twitter a “free speech” platform, which could mean undoing content moderation policies and tools. The takeover inspired tears in a company meeting from Twitter’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde, who has led much of this work.
The angst is familiar to other workers who are fighting for a say in their companies. Namely, union organizers.
“Psssttttt @Twitter workers. Join us. You deserve a voice on the job,” tweeted the Alphabet Workers Union, a minority union of workers at Google parent company Alphabet. Others, including prominent Association of Flight Attendants union organizer Sara Nelson, and San Francisco Supervisor Connie Chan, put out the call to Twitter workers to get a “seat at the table.”
It’s possible that Twitter workers could answer the call.
“The fact that there is this incredibly powerful person coming in at the top like a bull in a china shop destroying a lot of processes and gains that many workers spent years creating, that is going to be a huge disruption internally, and create a lot of agitation,” Clarissa Redwine, an organizer at the Tech Workers Coalition, and former Kickstarter employee who helped lead the successful union drive there, said. “We know for many, many union drives, workers feeling like their work and their labor is being disrespected or gone to waste is a hugely motivating factor in organizing campaigns.”
Leadership changes are a common time for workers to organize, according to experts. With a leadership change to Elon Musk, that impulse could be supercharged.
“Normally people have anxieties around leadership changes, but with Elon Musk in the mix, that level of uneasiness jumps up to an 11 for folks, because his brand is being arbitrary and unpredictable,” Beth Allen, the communications director at Communications Workers of America (CWA), said. “And, you know, also part of his brand is acting like a bully. So I think that’s why the chatter around definitely forming a union is out there with Twitter employees.”
The CWA recently launched a branch, CODE-CWA, specifically meant to help organize workers in tech. It’s part of a trend of tech workers — from the Alphabet Union to Raven Software employees at Activision Blizzard to Apple Store workers — unionizing in their workplace.
“It’s rare that upper level white collar workers unionize, right?” Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times labor reporter and current senior fellow at the think tank Century Foundation, said. “But I think they might be more tempted because, you know, they see this 800 billion pound gorilla coming, and think, well, we want to make sure we have some voice to counter him because we strongly disagree with some of what he’s doing. So they might look to a union.”
Both Greenhouse and Allen suspect that this is already on the minds of Twitter workers. Traditionally, unions help workers have power over issues like wages and benefits. But much of the trend of tech worker activism has been inspired by employees wanting a say in the company policies, like contracts with government agencies.
“I suspect that some Twitter workers right now are asking might a union be a possible route to gain some greater voice in the workplace, so that Elon Musk doesn’t just bulldoze over us but has to sit down and talk with us about things,” Greenhouse said.
Allen thinks that even if a clause on having a say in company policy decisions isn’t specifically written into a union contract, the idea of a bargaining union increases power, because there is strength in numbers.
“If you have a union of folks speaking with a collective voice and talking about how the content moderation policies affect them as workers, then you have real power there and real protection,” Allen said.
Musk, himself, has a history of anti-union sentiment. Tesla retaliated against an employee for organizing, and Musk tweeted a message at the time implying that unionization would jeopardize company stock options. Some, like Redwine, worry about what having a vocally anti-union head could mean for workers. But Allen thinks Musk will be held accountable thanks to the Biden administration National Labor Relations Board, which she said has been deferring to companies less than in previous administrations.
“The National Labor Relations Board is acting as it should in support of workers to enforce the National Labor Relations Act in a way we haven’t seen in generations,” Allen said.
Essentially, for Twitter workers who don’t want to cede control of their company to Elon Musk, the time is ripe for unionization.
“I think this is a moment that shines a light on the power structures in tech,” Redwine said. “And I think tech workers are looking at this moment and saying, you know what can counteract one person coming in and disrupting this vital platform? Worker power? Yeah.”