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Unionized Tech Workers Refuse to Go Back to the Old Grind[r]

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

Over three years after the onset of the global COVID outbreak, the question of remote work remains divisive. While some jobs (the service industry, retail, and healthcare) more obviously necessitate at least some employees to show up to work in the flesh, others are more of a grey area. You might expect the tech industry to be the last holdout – and for a while, many of them were. Some (AirBnb, perhaps committing to the spirit of wanderlust behind its product) embraced the fully-remote workstyle more than others (Google, probably not wanting to waste its luxurious campuses). And some have walked back their touted flexibility: Zoom, of all companies, decided to undo its remote policy.

Enter Grindr, aka " LGBTQ Tinder." Up until this year, the dating app has had no official policy requiring employees to come to work in person. But a couple of months ago, the C-suite decided to follow their Big Tech peers and impose a hybrid work plan for all employees. But in this case, the timing didn't do them any favors: it coincided with Grindr employee's plans to unionize — and in labor law, that can get dicey. Let's break down why this return to work plan is getting so much more resistance than we've seen before.

Tech Execs Give Ultimatum

Early last month, Grindr sent its employees a memo that they would soon be required to return to work in person for two days a week. It allowed workers to choose one of their "hub cities" where they have offices: New York City, Chicago (for the engineering team), LA and San Francisco (for the marketing, product management, and design teams), and D.C. And the memo came with a short timeframe: The employees needed to decide within a week or two or get booted from their jobs (albeit with six months' severance pay).

We might see working remotely as a luxury and think it reasonable to make employees return to the office at some point after the pandemic simmered down. While this may be doable for some workers who already live in hub cities, for others, it's not so practical. Many of Grindr's workers were hired remotely and never lived near an office in the first place. With the new policy, they would be forced to uproot their lives by moving their residence and families to a hub city. Grindr did offer $15,000 to each employee to cover relocation expenses, but as you know if you've ever had to change cities for a job, it's about much more than the cost of moving. You might have a lease you can't break or a spouse who also has to work in the non-hub city you're in.

How did employees take it? Not well. Of the company's 178 workers across the country, about 80 of them chose to resign — a huge blow to the company that its leadership probably wasn't expecting. And even the workers that stayed on certainly weren't thrilled about the situation. They filed two charges against the company for unfair labor practices to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Either side of the line they fell on, the workers seemed to be giving a unanimous middle finder to Grindr.

Company's Plans Grind to a Halt

Turns out, the employees might have a legal case to bring in the face of the return-to-work policy. Why is Grindr's case any different from the many other companies that are implementing similar return-to-work policies? According to employees, it's because Grindr was seeking retaliation.

Just two weeks before Grindr announced its policy, a majority of its employees had organized to form a union. On July 20, 100 employees, including everyone from engineers to customer support to the C-suite, filed a petition to form a union with the NLRB. The same day, they announced their intent to unionize to the company during an all-hands Zoom meeting that had already been scheduled.

Collective bargaining law is governed by the NLRB through the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and this is the key law that would apply here. The NLRA guarantees employees the right to form and join unions and to bargain collectively (as well as the right not to). The act also says employers are not allowed to engage in "unfair labor practices," including retaliating against employees who choose to unionize.

The NRLA prohibits employers from taking certain actions that could hinder their employees' ability to exercise their rights to organize. Some such actions are more clearly retaliatory, such as threatening employees with adverse consequences (loss of benefits, their job, closing the workplace) if they join a union, or rewarding employees with benefits if they reject union membership. But sometimes, like here, the employer's action can fall into a gray area.

Changing the terms and conditions of work (here, requiring them to come into the office in person), can also be prohibited during a union organizing period. It should be noted that this isn't always prohibited; employers need to make changes to their business practices, and they couldn't get anything done if they were constantly hampered by having to navigate around union organizing periods, which can take time. But is not legal if the employer takes the action with the intent to undermine or otherwise interfere with the employees' efforts to unionize.

Grindr denies that the decision to have its employees return to the office had anything to do with their unionizing. A spokesperson for the company said, "We respect and support our team members' rights to make their own decision about union representation." Its CEO claimed that the heads of the company had been planning their return-to-office initiative for months before the official announcement, and well before their employees filed to unionize.

But whether or not the company is on the hook with the NLRB will depend on the facts that come out in the ensuing investigation. For now, Grindr better LWYRUP and LinkedIn in some replacement workers.

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