Thursday, February 22

Microsoft agrees to remain neutral in union campaigns

Highlighting a year of big gains for organized labor, Microsoft announced that it will remain neutral if any U.S.-based worker groups seek to unionize.

About 100,000 workers would be eligible to unionize under this framework, Microsoft President Brad Smith and AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said Monday during a forum at the labor federation’s headquarters in Washington.

The deal effectively expands a neutrality agreement between Microsoft and a large union, the Communications Workers of America, under which hundreds of the company’s video game workers unionized earlier this year without a formal election of the National Labor Relations Board. Officially, it provides a framework in which any group of Microsoft workers can negotiate their own neutrality agreements with similar terms.

In Monday’s announcement, Microsoft and the AFL-CIO said they will work together to solve problems arising from the adoption of artificial intelligence in the workplace.

Smith and Shuler said the partnership will include meetings where Microsoft’s artificial intelligence experts will brief union leaders and workers on developments in the industry. Microsoft experts will also seek input from workers so they can develop the technology to address their concerns, such as the risk of job elimination.

The two sides said they will work together to help implement policies that prepare workers for jobs that incorporate artificial intelligence.

“Never before in the history of these American tech giants, dating back some 50 years, has one of these companies made a broad commitment to workers’ rights,” Ms. Shuler said at the forum. “It’s historic. Not only did they make a commitment, but they formalized it and put it in writing.”

Worker anxiety about AI appears to have increased in recent years. Hollywood writers and actors have cited concerns about artificial intelligence as the main reason for their months-long strikes this year, while Ms. Shuler pointed to recent polls showing widespread concern among workers that artificial intelligence could cost them the work.

“I can’t sit here and say it will never replace a job,” Smith told the forum, alluding to artificial intelligence. “I don’t think that would be honest.” But he added that “the key is to try to use it to improve jobs,” saying the technology could eliminate tasks that people find boring.

The unveiling of the AI ​​initiative comes just weeks after the board of directors of start-up OpenAI, which is part of ChatGPT, fired the company’s CEO, Sam Altman, only to accept his reinstatement days later. The episode added to widespread concerns about how to ensure companies develop and deploy artificial intelligence safely.

Microsoft is OpenAI’s largest investor and played a role in reinstating Mr. Altman.

Asked whether the OpenAI controversy was a impetus for the new partnership with organized labor, Mr. Smith demurred and said the labor initiative had been in the works for months.

“I wouldn’t say that what happened in the OpenAI board room changed everything,” he said in an interview after Monday’s forum. “But it raised questions about how AI is governed and perhaps gave even more credence to the kind of partnership we are announcing today.”

When Microsoft announced a neutrality agreement with the Communications Workers of America in June 2022, the offer was conditional: The company was in the process of acquiring video game maker Activision Blizzard for nearly $70 billion. Microsoft pledged to remain neutral in Activision’s union elections if the acquisition was successful. (The acquisition has since been completed.)

A few months later, when about 300 workers tried to unionize at ZeniMax Media, a video game company owned by Microsoft, Microsoft agreed to abide by the neutrality agreement there as well. The agreement allowed them to indicate their preference for a union by signing authorization cards or anonymously through an electronic platform, a more efficient process than an NLRB election.

The 300 employees are unionized — a rarity in Big Tech — and are negotiating an employment contract that includes language limiting the use of artificial intelligence in the workplace.

The Communications Workers of America is one of dozens of unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor federation. After the ZeniMax campaign, communications union officials believed that Microsoft would likely agree to remain neutral if the union tried to organize workers elsewhere in the company. But Microsoft had never explicitly agreed to do this beyond Activision or ZeniMax.