Government Backs Engineers Who Want to Unionize

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Employment LaborThe National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued a complaint against a company that allegedly violated federal labor laws when it fired 14 engineers who tried to form a union.

In November of 2017, the defendant company, Lanetix, fired a respected female engineer who had been an advocate for better pay and leave policies at the company.

Lanetix builds cloud-based software for the transportation and logistics industries.

The same day, according to the NLRB’s complaint, the company’s managers met to try to discourage employees from discussing work conditions on the company’s Slack messaging network.

One employee was allegedly fired for participating in such discussions.

The company told workers that any attempt to unionize would be futile.

Stock Options

In January, the company offered additional stock to a few high-level male engineers. According to Wired, employees suspected that the company planned to fire lower-level female engineers, many of whom (including the previously fired female engineer) had graduated from Hackbright, a women’s coding program.

According to Bjorn Westergard, one of the senior male engineers who was offered the stock,

It became increasingly clear that their strategy was divide and conquer—flatter a handful of us in the hopes that we would go along with their plans, and not put up a fight when they fired half of our co-workers.

Also in January, most of the engineers in the relevant business unit signed authorization cards allowing themselves to be represented by a union — the Communication Workers of America.

Ten days after the union filed papers with the NLRB, the engineers were fired.

The NLRB is seeking to get the engineers’ jobs back, with back pay.

Who Is Covered?

Most employees working in the private sector are covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

However, the NLRA excludes workers who are:

  • government employees
  • agricultural laborers
  • employed in domestic service
  • employed by a parent or spouse
  • working as independent contractors
  • employed as a supervisor
  • employed by an employer subject to the Railway Labor Act, such as railroads and airlines

The Right to Unionize

As the NLRB website notes,

Employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act are afforded certain rights to join together to improve their wages and working conditions, with or without a union.

Employee rights include the rights to:

  • form — or try to form — a union
  • join a union
  • help a union organize fellow employees
  • refuse to do any of the above
  • be fairly represented by a union

Organized Engineers

As Wired reported about the Lanetix case,

It’s both a rare case of software engineers seeking to organize, and an even rarer instance of the government rising to their defense. White-collar tech workers have gained attention in recent months for coordinated campaigns against their employers’ business practices, but engineers almost never unionize in Silicon Valley.

Tech companies often offer high salaries and generous benefits, including free food, day care, transportation, on-site massages, and other perks to make unionizing less attractive.

The median pay for software engineers, according to the Labor Department, was $102,280 in 2016.

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