Microsoft Agrees to Remain Neutral in Union Campaigns

Punctuating a year of major gains for organized labor, Microsoft has announced that it will stay neutral if any group of U.S.-based workers seeks to unionize.

Roughly 100,000 workers would be eligible to unionize under the framework, which was disclosed Monday by Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. president, Liz Shuler, during a forum at the labor federation’s headquarters in Washington.

The deal effectively broadens 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 early this year without a formal National Labor Relations Board election. Officially, it provides a framework in which any group of Microsoft workers can negotiate their own neutrality agreements with similar terms.

As part of Monday’s announcement, Microsoft and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. said they would collaborate to resolve issues that arise from the adoption of artificial intelligence in the workplace.

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

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

“Never before in the history of these American tech giants, dating back 50 years or so ago, has one of these companies made a broad commitment to labor rights,” Ms. Shuler said at the forum. “It is historic. Not only have they made a commitment, they formalized it and put it in writing.”

Workers’ anxiety over artificial intelligence appears to have grown over the past few years. Hollywood writers and actors cited concerns about A.I. as a key reason for their monthslong strikes this year, while Ms. Shuler pointed to recent polling showing widespread concern among workers that artificial intelligence could cost them their jobs.

“I can’t sit here and say it will never displace a job,” Mr. Smith said at 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 make jobs better,” saying the technology could eliminate tasks that people consider tedious.

The unveiling of the A.I. initiative comes a few weeks after the board of the start-up OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT, fired the company’s chief executive, Sam Altman, only to accept his reinstatement days later. The episode added to widespread concerns over how to ensure that companies develop and deploy artificial intelligence safely.

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

Asked if the OpenAI controversy was an 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 what happened in the board room at OpenAI changed it,” he said in an interview after Monday’s forum. “But it raised questions about how A.I. is governed and perhaps it gave even more credence to the kind of partnership we’re announcing today.”

When Microsoft announced a neutrality agreement with the communications workers union in June 2022, the offer was conditional: The company was in the process of acquiring the video game maker Activision Blizzard for nearly $70 billion. Microsoft pledged to stay neutral in union elections at Activision if the acquisition succeeded. (The acquisition has since been completed.)

A few months later, when roughly 300 workers sought to unionize at ZeniMax Media, a video game company owned by Microsoft, Microsoft agreed to abide by the neutrality agreement in that case as well. The agreement allowed them to indicate their preference for a union either by signing authorization cards or anonymously through an electronic platform, a more efficient process than an N.L.R.B. election.

The 300 employees unionized — a rarity in Big Tech — and are negotiating a labor contract that includes language restricting the use of A.I. in their workplace.

The Communications Workers of America is one of several dozen unions affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the country’s largest labor federation. After the ZeniMax campaign, communications union officials believed that Microsoft would probably agree to stay neutral if the union sought to organize workers elsewhere at the company. But Microsoft had never explicitly agreed to do so beyond Activision or ZeniMax.

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