Labor union officials, indicating they were acting on behalf of the Communication Workers of America, blocked publication of a report critical of Microsoft’s growing and under-the-radar support for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.
The UNI Global Union, a global federation of labor unions that counts CWA as an affiliate, had initially commissioned a report by Tech Inquiry, an investigative nonprofit led by Jack Poulson that serves as a watchdog of the tech industry. But UNI suddenly backtracked after a landmark neutrality deal this summer between CWA and Microsoft in which the Seattle-based tech giant pledged not to oppose efforts by workers at Microsoft subsidiary Activision seeking to form a union.
“Because Microsoft came out and did what they did, in terms of respecting workers rights to organize, we do not, we cannot be associated with this paper and its release,” a UNI official told Tech Inquiry, delivering the news.
CWA and UNI both said that CWA did not have any knowledge of the report prior to publication. “The UNI staff person quoted by the publication did not make this decision regarding this research and was not speaking on behalf of the organization,” said Matthew Painter, a spokesperson for UNI, in a statement. UNI said it killed the report because it “determined it was unhelpful to publish the research product as presented because it was not useful to our ongoing global effort to hold Amazon accountable.”
The censored report, as yet unpublished, is available here.
According to Tech Inquiry, the sponsors of the report killed the project over political considerations. The same UNI official who spoke to Tech Inquiry this month explained that Microsoft’s pledge to allow the process of organizing, which could mean “thousands [of workers] are able to organize unions and win collective bargaining agreements,” had placed CWA in a tough position. Poulson did not want to reveal the specific union official’s identity, since it was clear he was serving as a messenger.
“I really don’t want to evoke the contract language, and bury this paper like, I feel like that would be fucked up and a disservice to the world,” said the UNI official. “But by the same token, there’s just, we cannot let you have our name in this document and jeopardize our relationship with CWA, CWA’s relationship with Microsoft, the Activision workers’ right to organize, my job, like, it’s just too much. It’s too much, it will never stand. I will be fired.”
“Our affiliates, they pay a portion of my salary,” the UNI official added. Asked why issues with CWA would undermine a report technically sponsored by UNI, the UNI official clarified that he was acting on behalf of CWA. “We have a financial relationship with CWA. They are one of our members.”
Later, during the call, the UNI official again referenced the original contract, which makes Tech Inquiry’s research findings “confidential” and exclusively owned by UNI Global Union. “Speaking of the contract, I mean, it actually says that the report is ours, right,” said the official, before later adding that the contract clause was designed to “protect” the “myriad political considerations we have as an organization” in “situations like this.”
No workers at Activision have yet obtained a formal labor union contract, but organizing efforts are currently underway at several divisions of the company. In May, quality assurance workers at Raven Software, a division of Activision, voted to join the Game Workers Alliance, a project of CWA, in a ballot that passed with 19 of 22 votes in favor. The Microsoft pledge stands in sharp contrast to other technology giants, which have viciously opposed union drives with outside consultants and creative attempts to undermine employee support for organized labor.
The neutrality agreement could not only improve the living standards of Activision workers with enhanced workplace protections and higher wages, but also serve as a vast financial windfall for CWA, which stands to potentially collect a portion of worker salaries as dues money.
The UNI Global Union, along with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, an affiliate of the German Social Democratic Party, pledged support for the research project beginning in September 2021. Poulson, the founder of Tech Inquiry, is a former research scientist at Google who resigned from the company in protest of its secret efforts to build out a censored search engine in China. Poulson is also a contributor to The Intercept.
The labor union official offered an apology to Tech Inquiry for pressing for the completion of the investigative project, only to censor it just prior to release. “No one could have predicted Microsoft would become, seek to become a pro-union employer, like that would have been like flying pigs, you know. I never would have predicted that,” the official said.
The Tech Inquiry research paper compiled thousands of government contracts worldwide to detail the ways in which technology firms such as Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Oracle, and Google have quietly transformed into major military contractors through lucrative cloud computing projects. Many of the contracts were concealed “through intermediaries rather than directly to the tech companies whose products are being purchased,” Poulson noted in the report.
The report found that many of the public-facing government disclosure websites fail to accurately report the level of militarized contracts with tech giants. More than 98 percent of Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet’s post-2018 awards from the U.S. federal government are from military, intelligence, or law enforcement contracts, the report further noted.
The union official liaison from UNI noted that the report had to be killed given its focus on Microsoft. “If we had just stuck to Amazon, it would have been much simpler,” the official added.
After releasing its neutrality agreement to CWA, Microsoft gained a new ally in its bid for regulatory approval of the merger with Activision, one of the largest gaming companies in the world. In June, Christopher Shelton, the president of CWA, sent a letter to Federal Trade Commission members, requesting that the agency not use antitrust laws to prevent Microsoft’s acquisition.
“We now support approval of the transaction before you because Microsoft has entered an agreement with CWA to ensure the workers of Activision Blizzard have a clear path to collective bargaining,” wrote Shelton.
CWA, known for its support of progressive causes, has pledged regulatory support for allied industries in the past. The union lobbied in favor of AT&T’s attempted merger with T-Mobile in 2011, for example. That acquisition was abandoned in the face of opposition from the Justice Department’s antitrust attorneys.
Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs at the American Principles Project, which has called for greater antitrust scrutiny of tech giants, noted that Microsoft has been less than transparent in the past about funding third-party groups to gain allies in Washington, D.C. The company’s moves to dominate the global video gaming market, he noted, have not provoked much backlash or opposition.
Compared to Amazon and Google, Schweppe continued, Microsoft receives far less scrutiny, a dynamic he attributed to Microsoft’s subtle lobbying efforts among politicians, influential political organizations, and now unions. “Microsoft,” he added, “is incredibly effective at just making itself invisible.”
Correction: September 8, 2022
This article has been updated to include comment from CWA and UNI and to provide further context clarifying the justification given to Tech Inquiry for withholding the report, including CWA’s relationship with UNI and Microsoft. The article previously stated that CWA had communicated with UNI about the report; in fact, the labor official said that UNI was acting on behalf of its affiliate and with knowledge of its priorities, but did not say they were directly instructed by CWA.