Quick, by show of virtual hands—how many engineers reading this belong to a union?
If that question got many “yes” answers, I’d be surprised (if you put your hand up, please comment below). And if many of those positive responses were software engineers, I’d be stunned. Unionizing efforts among engineers are the real unicorns—far rarer than the kinds of unicorns the tech industry likes to promote.
But back in January, an effort to unionize software engineers made the news when Lanetix, a company that creates cloud-based tools for the shipping and transportation industry, fired 14 engineers shortly after they petitioned to be represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The CWA then filed charges with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), indicating that the firing of the 14—and one earlier termination—was clearly in retaliation for union-organizing activity (Lanetix had stated that it was a layoff due to the company’s poor fourth quarter and said the jobs were going to be outsourced). The firings reportedly were the culmination of months of effort by the company to disrupt the union organizing effort.
In late August, the agency took up the case, filing a complaint [PDF] against Lanetix and asking for a court to require that the fired engineers be reinstated with back pay. According to the NLRB complaint, threats against the engineers started last November, when company officials told employees that they were aware that employees were participating in an external Slack organization, “discussing wages, hours, and working conditions” and threatened reprisals if the discussions continued. The complaint also indicated that, after the January firings, remaining employees were told that the terminations were due to union activity.
Last week, with hearings on the case about to begin in Washington, D.C., Lanetix settled, agreeing to pay the 15 former workers a total of US $775,000. That’s not an insignificant amount of money for the startup; according to Crunchbase, Lanetix’s funding to date totals $9.2 million.
In a statement, former Lanetix developer Sahil Talwar called the settlement “a landmark win for tech workers.”
“We have shown what can be accomplished by standing together and standing strong,” Talwar said.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.