S.F. Tech Workers Protest for the Right to Unionize

After allegedly being fired for wanting to bargain collectively, a group of tech workers are fighting back.

Today’s protest. (Garrett Bergthold)

Enacted in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from firing employees who want to join a labor union.

But that’s exactly what Bjorn Westergard says San Francisco software company Lanetix did in January when he and 13 other software engineers got tossed to the curb. In response, a group of 30 supporters, along with many of the engineers, hit the streets Friday morning to protest at the steps of the company’s office on Sutter Street.

“We explicitly demanded they recognize our right to organize in December. They knew we were organizing a union,” Westergard told SF Weekly.

With flags, banners, and enough red to make Mao Zedong jealous, members of the Democratic Socialists of America showed up to lend a hand. Other supporters brought donuts, plus a boom box equipped with a danceable soundtrack almost too cheery for an activity people died participating in during the “Bloody Thursday” strike of 1934.

The protest comes as the software engineers await the outcome of an unfair labor practices charge submitted to the National Labor Relations Board by the Communications Workers of America in mid-January. The Guild also filed a 10(j) injunction on the software workers’ behalf requesting the NLRB intervene immediately.

CWA organizer Melinda Fiedler hopes the injunction will bring immediate relief to the software engineers, many of whom are still unemployed and looking for work. If granted, the injunction “would ideally get them back pay from the moment they were fired and ideally put them back to work,” Fieldler said at the protest.

It all started last fall when a female software engineer at the company’s San Francisco office was fired for being a “really effective spokesperson for her co-workers,” according to Westergard. At first, management gave in to a few of her demands, like paid time off. But by November she was out of the job, sparking a sense of urgency among 14 of the company’s software engineers based out of San Francisco and Arlington, Va.

“Her firing made us realize that if we didn’t do something, if we didn’t act together, they would just pick off anyone they saw as a trouble-maker the way they picked her off,” Westergard said.

The crew began discussing their grievances on Slack, including regular performance reviews and the need to equalize what Westergard says was an “egregious” pay difference between men and women. Without total wage data, Westergard says the group compared their own salaries to make that determination.

Then they took it up a notch, delivering a petition to management in December demanding union representation.

“On Jan. 5, I and several other of the men were offered stock options and told our performance was great, they were cleaning trying to retain a group of us,” Westergard said, adding, “You don’t offer somebody stock options when you plan to lay them off in less than three weeks.”

After that they were laid off. Lanetix did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

“For these guys, it’s a lot more strenuous because of the hours. I’m pretty sure a lot of these folks are salaried people, a lot of those hours go unpaid,” said Krysada Phounsiri, a local biotechnology worker who’d observed the protest.

But for the unfair labor practice charge to go anywhere, the NLRB must prove Lanetix fired the employees as retribution for their efforts to unionize. At the protest, Fielder said Lanetix told the employees they were laid off as a result of an especially horrible fourth-quarter performance, which is not illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.

“This is kind of the direction production in the U.S. is going too,” Fielder said. “We still have a lot of physical production, but a lot of it is moving into the service industry and tech industry.”

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