Trade unions have historically been unrecognized by IBM. Since the company's foundation in 1911, it has not recognized any in the United States, despite efforts by workers to establish them from 1970 onward. In Australia, Germany and Italy, several trade unions have limited recognition from IBM. IBM has been able to minimize membership even in traditional union strongholds in Western Europe.[1]: 60 

Industrial composition

IBM was founded in 1911 in Armonk, New York.[2] Over 260,000 employees work for IBM world wide as of 2023.[3] The New York Times reported in 2017 that about a third of IBM's employees (130,000 people) worked in India, more than any other country. At the time, fewer than 100,000 employees worked from the United States, the company's headquarter country.[4]

IBM's non-union status is due in part to its corporate culture that includes strong employee identification with the company and close individual relations between employees and their direct manager.[5] Rather than waiting for issues to arise, anonymous feedback by employees allows management to address grievances early on. If management becomes aware of unionization drives, investigation teams are formed to discourage unionization and explore alternatives.[2]: 227 


In 1999, employees of IBM in Europe formed a European Works Council.[6][7] In 2011, the global union federations UNI Global Union and International Metalworker's Federation[a] formed the "Global Union Alliance" to coordinate labor activities across the globe among its affiliate unions.[9]

In a 2014 research study conducted by the European Trade Union Institute on transnational companies across 23 European Union (EU) states; IBM was the top 5 largest companies (employee size) in 12 EU states[b] in the ICT sector.[10]: 215–217  The study explores the extent of industrial relations between IBM management and trade unions. On a scale of 0–5 where 0 means no union recognition exists and 5 being the best, IBM subsidiaries ranked an average of 2.77 across 11 different European states,[c] slightly above the ICT industry average of 2.64. This ranked them ahead of competitors HP, Accenture, Microsoft and ranked behind Atos, SAP.[10]: 133 


In 2002, after IBM Global Services Australia (GSA) and Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) failed to negotiate a common enterprise agreement for all 3,500 employees working on a Telstra contract (half of the employees were previously direct employees of Telstra and covered under a stronger agreement).[11] Previously CPSU organized two 48 hour strike actions after announced plans to fire 64 IBM GSA employees.[12]

In April 2010 the Fair Work Australia tribunal ordered IBM Australia to bargain with the Australian Service Union (ASU) representing employees in Baulkham Hills, Sydney in a mass layoff proceeding. IBM appealed unsuccessfully, claiming that ASU was ineligible to represent these employees.[13] 80 employees accepted collectively negotiated contracts concerning severance packages and sick leave in case of future layoffs.[14][15]


Over 1,000 workers at the IBM Systems Technology Co. (ISTC) factory in Shenzhen went on a 10 day wildcat strike (without union support) between 3 and 12 March 2014, after management announced the transfer of the factory to Lenovo.[16][17]

The strike was part of a larger trend of labor militancy in the Guangdong province. Workers demanded higher severance packages if they left and higher salaries if they transferred to Lenovo.[17] Most of the participating strikers accepted the initial offer by management. 20 employees were fired, including worker representatives. While the Shenzhen branch of All-China Federation of Trade Unions did not support the initial strike, it filed legal claims to reinstate the 20 fired workers.[18][19]


IBM Germany has a Group Works Council, which concluded a central works agreement on the internal usage of artificial intelligence in the workplace.[20]

The German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) has the principle of one trade union for each company, but in practice, its trade union affiliates, ver.di (including its predecessors)[d] and IG Metall have been competing since the early 1990s. They compete for union members, seats on the Works Councils with their respective union members and bargaining coverage via collective agreements.[22]: 323  In December 2001, ver.di and IG Metall agreed to form a joint collective bargaining committee with IBM Germany to resolve their internal union competition.[23]

In the absence of regional collective agreements or high union density, Works Councils fill a bargaining gap on certain topics like working time through works agreements. Company collective agreements [de] would serve as a middle ground between trade union regional collective bargaining and the more formally regulated Works Council framework.[24]: 181–182 

In 1996, the union density at IBM Germany was less than 10% of its workforce, including membership of both trade unions IG Metall and German Salaried Employees' Union (DAG),[d] yet IBM was a member of the Metal Employer Association ("Gesamtmetall [de]") which ratified regional collective agreements with IG Metall, including the 35-hour workweek [de]. In 1994, after corporate restructuring, five non-manufacturing subsidiaries of IBM Germany were created, none of which joined Gesamtmetall, effectively voiding their collective agreement coverage. Instead, they ratified company collective agreements with DAG, which deviated to a longer 38-hour work week.[24]: 175 


A still from the Second Life virtual strike with caption "In Solidarity with IBM workers"

In 2007, IBM announced they would cancel a performance bonus worth $1000 per employee. Shortly afterwards, on 27 September, the Italian trade union "RSU [it] IBM Vimercate" which represented 9,000 IBM Italy workers,[25] coordinated a 'virtual strike' inside Second Life. Second Life is a simulation software that was used both internally by IBM for its employees and for marketing to external customers.[26]

Between 500 and 1500 real-life IBM employees across the globe signed up to disrupt IBM virtual facilities in solidarity with the Italian trade union's collective agreement negotiations.[27] Simultaneously, in real-life pickets were organized outside IBM Italy facilities. The virtual strike was supported by Union Network International.[26][27]

One month later, on 24 October, the IBM Italy CEO resigned and the performance bonuses were reinstated, though the company claimed it was unrelated to the strikes.[26]


IBM Japan employees have been represented by Japan Metal Manufacturing, Information and Telecommunication Workers' Union (JMITU; Japanese: 日本アイビーエム支部) since 1959.[28][non-primary source needed]

In 2019, the company rolled out internal HR software that used IBM's Watson artificial intelligence to advise on employee compensation. According to JMITU, for a June summer bonus, the software rated union members an average of 63% while other employees were rated 100%. The union lodged a legal complaint, alleging algorithmic discrimination.[29]

United States

In August 1970, the IBM Black Workers Alliance (BWA) was formed.[30] It was the first high-tech movement for under represented minorities, to protest lack of equal pay and promote opportunities for young, poor communities.[31]

Between 1978 and 1980 its membership grew five-fold to 1,700 people. In 1980, IBM fired four of the top eight BWA officers, including one for distributing salary pay-bands.[32] BWA existed until the early 1990s and had chapters in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Hudson Valley, New York City, and Washington DC. They were not a union, nor trying to form one,[30] but one member, Marceline Donaldson started organizing with the all Black Pullman Porters Union until she left IBM in 1979. In 1980, Donaldson filed a complaint with the NLRB and the EEOC alleging unfair labor practices and retaliation against Black employees joining the BWA chapter in Cincinnati.[33][34]

Lee Conrad founded the IBM Workers United (IBMWU) in 1970s Endicott, NY as an independent grassroots union. It had an underground newsletter called "Resistor"[1]: 60  which highlighted IBM's sale of computers to apartheid South Africa, comparing them to IBM's sale of computers to the Nazis.[35] In the 1970s, members of IBMWU distributed fliers at an IBM shareholder meeting titled "Would IBM have Sold Computers to Hitler?"[36] protesting IBM's business with apartheid South Africa.[37]

In 1999, IBMWU affiliated to the Communications Workers of America (CWA), rebranded itself as Alliance@IBM under CWA Local 1701,[38] with Conrad as its lead coordinator.[37][39] In 2016, Alliance@IBM shut down, citing low membership, outsourcing and union busting.[40]


  1. ^ In 2012, the IMF merged with the ICEM and the ITGLWF to form the IndustriALL Global Union.[8]
  2. ^ Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom.[10]: 215–217 
  3. ^ IBM subsidiaries ranked from highest to low:[10]: 133 
    4: Denmark, Hungary
    3: Czech Republic, Ireland, France, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom
    1–2: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia
  4. ^ a b In 2001, German Salaried Employees' Union (DAG) merged to form ver.di trade union.[21]


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