46 years after the UN proclaimed the right to join a union, Microsoft sort of agrees

Redmond is open to its staff organizing, but feels they don't need to


On March 23, 1976, a vote of the United Nations General Assembly brought into force the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – an international agreement that at Article 22 states "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

And on June 2, 2022, Microsoft president and vice-chair Brad Smith blogged that the company has adopted four "principles for employee organizing and engagement with labor organizations", one of which is "We recognize that employees have a legal right to choose whether to form or join a union."

Microsoft was founded on April 4, 1975 so has had 16,872 days to consider the Covenant.

Better late than never, we suppose.

Smith's post states that Microsoft has noticed "Recent unionization campaigns across the country – including in the tech sector" and concluded "that inevitably these issues will touch on more businesses, potentially including our own.

"This has encouraged us to think proactively about the best approach for our employees, shareholders, customers, and other stakeholders."

We reiterate that the right to organize has been internationally recognized since 1976. We'll leave it to readers to judge the extent of Microsoft's proactivity.

Smith's post outlines three more principles, namely:

  • We believe in the importance of listening to our employees' concerns;
  • 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;
  • 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.

Smith makes many references to Microsoft having a lot to learn about working with unions, plus a sincere intention to do it well.

"We acknowledge that this is a journey, and we will need to continue to learn and change as employee expectations and views change with the world around us," Smith writes. "And we recognize that employers and employees will not always agree on all topics – and that is okay."

Smith also admits "we have far more learning ahead of us than behind us."

His post also declares: "Our employees will never need to organize to have a dialogue with Microsoft's leaders."

But employees have previously expressed the opinion that Microsoft's leaders don't listen.

In February 2021 we reported the contempt some Microsoft staff have for the company's annual employee survey, which many staff feel is ignored. And who could forget Microsoft's hated "stack ranking" system that saw management pit staff against each other.

Why has Microsoft decided now is the time to open itself to unions? Perhaps the looming acquisition of Activision, where staff are already organizing, is one reason. Microsoft has doubtless seen staff at Apple and Amazon work towards establishing unions.

Whatever the reason, many of Microsoft's staff know that their technical skills mean they can easily find new jobs at other tech firms, often scoring substantial pay rises along the way. But not all of Microsoft's 181,000 staff (as of June 30, 2021) are so lucky. Smith's post will be very resonant for thousands of staff around the world.

And it might have been more so, if Smith or his predecessors had written it decades ago. ®


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