Microsoft commits to remaining neutral in union campaigns

Marking a year of major gains for unions, Microsoft announced that it would remain neutral if a group of U.S.-based workers sought to unionize.

About 100,000 workers could unionize under the framework, which was revealed Monday by Microsoft President Brad Smith and AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler at a forum at the company’s headquarters. union federation in Washington.

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

As part of Monday’s announcement, Microsoft and the AFL-CIO said they would collaborate to address issues related to the adoption of artificial intelligence in the workplace.

Mr. Smith and Ms. Shuler said the partnership would include meetings in which Microsoft artificial intelligence experts brief union leaders and workers on developments in the field. Microsoft experts will also seek feedback from workers so they can develop technology that addresses their concerns, such as the risk of job losses.

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

“Never before in the history of these American tech giants, which goes back about 50 years, has one of these companies made such a broad commitment to labor rights,” Ms. Shuler said. 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 artificial intelligence appears to have increased in recent years. Hollywood writers and actors cited concerns about AI as one of the main reasons for their month-long strikes this year, while Ms Shuler highlighted recent survey showing widespread concern among workers that artificial intelligence could cost them their jobs.

“I can’t stand here and say this will never eliminate a job,” Mr. Smith said at the forum, referring 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 technology could eliminate tasks that people consider tedious.

The unveiling of the AI ​​initiative comes weeks after the board of directors of startup OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT, fired the company’s CEO Sam Altman, only to accept his reinstatement days later. The episode adds 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 Mr. Altman’s reinstatement.

Asked if the controversy over OpenAI was an impetus for the new partnership with unions, Mr. Smith demurred and said the union initiative had been in the works for months.

“I wouldn’t say that what happened in the OpenAI board room was a game-changer,” 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 type of partnership we are announcing today.”

When Microsoft announced a neutrality deal with the communications workers union 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 has pledged to remain neutral in union elections at Activision if the acquisition is successful. (The acquisition has since been completed.)

A few months later, when about 300 workers sought to unionize at ZeniMax Media, a video game company owned by Microsoft, Microsoft agreed to honor the neutrality agreement in that case as well. The agreement allowed them to indicate their union preference either 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 negotiate an employment contract that includes provisions restricting the use of AI in their workplace.

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