SAN FRANCISCO — In February, about a dozen employees at a small technology company called NPM embarked on an effort that is often frowned upon at start-ups: trying to unionize.
For more than three months, the workers had battled the company’s new management over their hours, a changing workplace culture and diversity issues, said seven current and former NPM employees. So to give themselves more say, they moved to organize. The employees contacted labor groups, including the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the Tech Workers Coalition, to hold unionization discussions.
“We wanted the leverage to negotiate for things that were important to us as workers, rather than having them told to us,” said Graham Carlson, who was a content marketing manager at NPM, which provides tools to web developers. “We felt the best way to address it was to address it collectively.”
Three weeks after the workers began organizing, NPM laid off Mr. Carlson and four other employees, all but one of whom had been involved in the unionizing. After some of those employees filed a formal charge with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees such complaints, NPM settled with the workers last month. No union has been formed.
“We did not interfere with any of our employees’ efforts to unionize,” NPM’s chief executive, Bryan Bogensberger, said in a statement.
Tech workers at Silicon Valley’s largest companies have engaged in an unusual degree of activism over the past few years — and it has gotten results. At Google, employees have written letters and signed petitions to force their leaders to address issues such as how artificial intelligence is used in products. Last November, 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout to protest the firm’s handling of sexual harassment, leading to new company policies. Workers at Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Salesforce have also pushed for various changes.
But the failed unionization effort at NPM shows the obstacles to employee activism in the tech industry, and how moving from speaking out for change to collective bargaining so far remains a distant prospect.
The difficulties are echoed at other tech companies where recent moves to set up unions have also stalled. At Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, a unionization effort this year has floundered as organizers struggle to build support. And last year at Lanetix, a logistics software company, more than a dozen engineers were fired after trying to create a union, according to a complaint issued by the N.L.R.B.
A representative from Kickstarter’s organizing campaign said it was “continuing to do the hard work of building a union.” David Gallagher, a Kickstarter spokesman, said its executives had told staff that “Kickstarter is better positioned to overcome its challenges, serve its mission, and do right by its employees and community without the framework of a union.” He added that the company was “in no way seeking to impair the rights of staff members to organize.”
Lanetix’s former chief executive and the company, which has since rebranded as Winmore, did not respond to requests for comment.
Labor advocates said there were limits to how much tech workers could achieve without actually unionizing. “You can have this magical moment — the Google walkout was inspiring for all of us — but there’s a question of sustainability,” said Liz Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
But tech workers who aim to unionize face challenges. Many employees see their bosses as friendly peers rather than authority figures and are reluctant to mobilize against them. In other cases, highly compensated engineers may see themselves as independent operators who have plenty of leverage on their own and thus do not need to join a union effort.
“They think of themselves as white-collar labor; they think of themselves as people with money,” said CJ Silverio, the former chief technology officer of NPM who left the company last year and was not involved in the recent organizing effort. “They don’t see that collective bargaining will get them something.”
If workers get as far as trying to organize a union, management sometimes takes aggressive action — including dismissals — to prevent them from doing so. And when workers appeal those dismissals to entities such as the N.L.R.B., tech companies often have the resources to resolve the cases without allowing a union to form.
NPM settled the case brought by three of its former employees, who filed charges with the N.L.R.B. alleging they had been dismissed in retaliation for trying to set up a union, paying the workers more than $105,000, according to the employees and the company. Lanetix also settled with 15 workers for $775,000 last year over unfair labor practices claims after negotiations with the N.L.R.B.
Sahil Talwar, who worked at Lanetix as a software developer and was part of the unionization effort, said tech companies worked to make unions seem alien. “Associating unions with blue-collar work and making it a stigma to talk about unions in white-collar circles, that’s very deliberate,” he said.
NPM began as an open-source software project in 2009 before being incorporated in 2014. Based in Oakland, Calif., it has raised more than $10 million from investors and employs around 50 people, a company spokesman said.
For years, NPM had a forgiving corporate culture, said the current and former employees, three of whom spoke on the record while the others requested anonymity because they feared retaliation. Employees joked that NPM stood for “nice people matter.” (It initially stood for Node Package Manager.) Engineers said they were encouraged to take regular breaks and avoid burnout.
That changed last July when new executives were appointed. To prepare for the debut of a new product, employees were required to work extended shifts and be on call at all hours, the current and former employees said.
In February, they sent a letter to management about their work hours but said they did not receive a satisfactory response. An NPM spokesman said the company had met one of the letter’s demands — for the tech support department to report directly to engineering.
At a corporate retreat that month in Napa, Calif., employees raised their concerns with management. They said they had been told that they would need to adopt Silicon Valley’s hard-charging, never-sleep culture or leave the company.
Mr. Bogensberger, the chief executive, presented slides warning employees not to be dramatic, which workers interpreted as a veiled reference to their complaints about overwork. Employees also said that women and minorities did not have equitable opportunities for promotion. The company spokesman said NPM had a nearly equal split of male and female employees, though it employs proportionally few minorities.
At the corporate retreat, employees met to discuss unionization, two of the current and former employees said. In March, NPM laid off the five employees, leading to the filing of a charge of unfair labor practices with the N.L.R.B. before the company settled.
“As a fairly outspoken proponent of socialism, it’s really weird and surprising to be accused of union-busting,” Laurie Voss, an NPM co-founder and chief data officer, wrote on Twitter in May. “The allegations in the complaint are not true.”
Just because many tech workers appear skeptical of unions, and so many tech companies have avoided unions, doesn’t mean they will indefinitely. Mar Hicks, a historian who has written extensively about labor in the tech sector, said the kinds of actions many workers had already taken, like the walkouts, were often precursors to unionizing. Workers eventually realize that their confrontations with management won’t deliver lasting improvements without a formal organization to back them up.
Some tech employees grasp that logic already. “I never felt I needed a union before,” said Frédéric Harper, a former NPM employee who participated in the organizing effort and N.L.R.B. case. “I reached a point where I think it’s maybe a good idea, maybe it’s needed.”
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.