Google Staff Launch Union, Escalating Tension With Leaders
Employees of Google and parent company Alphabet Inc. announced the creation of a union on Monday, escalating years of confrontation between workers and management of the internet giant. Google Staff Launch Union, Escalating Tension With Leaders
The Alphabet Workers Union will collect dues, pay organizing staff and have an elected board of directors. It will be open to all employees and contractors in North America, regardless of their role or classification, and plans to take on issues including compensation and ethical concerns such as the kinds of work Google engages in. More than 200 workers have signed up to join so far, the group said.
“A lot of us employees are feeling disempowered, like we don’t have a say in the direction the company is taking anymore,” said Google software engineer Kimberly Wilber, an activist with the new group. “A union is of our way of building power so executives can’t ignore us.”
Google has clashed with some employees in recent years over contracts with the military, a plan for a censored search engine in China, the different treatment of contract workers and a rich exit package for an executive ousted for alleged sexual harassment.
“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace,” Kara Silverstein, director of people operations at Google, said in a statement. “Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”
The new union drew support Monday from U.S. lawmakers including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who wrote, “I’m in this fight with you all the way.”
The effort, a rare campaign within a major U.S. technology company, is supported by the Communications Workers of America, which has been pursuing tech-focused organizing through an initiative known as CODE-CWA.
Googlers who join the Alphabet Workers Union will also be members of CWA Local 1400. Members will pay 1% of their total compensation in union dues, which will help fund organizing staff.
CWA said the new organization isn’t currently focused on securing formal recognition by Alphabet or collective bargaining with the company, a process that has been aggressively resisted by U.S. corporations.
“We might need to see some substantial changes in labor law before that’s a realistic goal,” CWA communications director Beth Allen said. If the union can eventually sign up a majority of Alphabet’s workforce, that would be a “powerful statement,” but the group could effect change even without it, she added.
CWA’s membership includes some workers, such as public university employees in Tennessee, who engage in collective action while lacking legal collective bargaining rights.
U.S. law grants unionization rights to employees but not to independent contractors, and also makes it more difficult for sub-contracted workers employed by staffing agencies to gain the ability to negotiate directly with a company like Alphabet.
Such “temps, vendors and contractors,” known as TVCs, outnumbered Alphabet’s direct employees in 2018 for the first time, Bloomberg reported.
Union leaders said on Monday it was crucial that these TVC workers be part of the union as well. “We’re not going to make our growth and collective action dependent on labor law,” said Google software engineer Chewy Shaw, who was recently elected vice chair of the new union.
An Alphabet union could limit executives’ authority, while inspiring similar efforts across the industry, which has mostly avoided unionization so far. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filed paperwork in November to represent frontline workers at an Amazon.com Inc. facility in Alabama.
The company’s U.S. warehouse workers currently aren’t unionized. A vote among the more than 5,000 workers at the site is expected in coming weeks.
Google worker protests in 2018 forced the company to let a Pentagon artificial intelligence contract lapse. Employee uprisings including a walkout by thousands of workers also led the company to limit the use of forced arbitration that same year.
Workers involved in the new union said they saw it as an extension of such efforts, one that could provide a more permanent structure to keep pressure on management, hold the company accountable for promised changes and respond to retaliation against activists.
The organization plans to deploy a mix of protests and legislative, regulatory and legal tactics, and to weigh in on issues like antitrust scrutiny of Google. CWA in 2018 joined a coalition urging the Federal Trade Commission to break up Facebook.
CWA has been working with Google activists since late 2019, and filed a complaint then with the National Labor Relations Board alleging workers were fired for taking collective action.
In December, the agency’s general counsel took up some of those allegations, accusing Google of illegally firing, interrogating and surveilling activist employees. Google has denied wrongdoing, saying it supports workers’ rights and that the employees in question were punished for “serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”
Googlers of the World, Unite! Oh, Wait …
Some of the planet’s best-paid workers are forming a union to promote social causes. The solidarity part will be tricky.
As big tech companies have become more entrenched in our lives, the rise of remote work has made their employees more disposable. So it’s no surprise that the pandemic has catalyzed new efforts to unionize tech workers. Last week, a group of Google employees announced the formation of an Alphabet Workers Union in partnership with the Communications Workers of America. 1
But instead of mobilizing as most unions do for better pay, more benefits and better job security, this labor union hopes to seize the means of managerial decision-making. Unlike previous petitions and protests, the union at Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, will require a tangible commitment in the form of hefty membership dues. That’s a sacrifice it’s far from clear that many of the organizers’ colleagues are willing to pay.
“Why do we demand democracy from our government, then cede our individual power in our workplaces?” asks Raksha Muthukumar, a Google software engineer and union member.
OK, fair enough, but every time I read about Google employees staging a walkout over workplace grievances, I can’t help but wonder how such a privileged group of people became so convinced of their victimhood. Google frequently ranks near the top of Glassdoor’s annual list of best places to work (although it fell from #8 to #11 last year), with a hiring process even more exclusive than that of Ivy League admissions (over 99% of job applicants are rejected).
Sure, there are plenty of reasons one might disagree with the company’s business practices, but there’s an easy solution to that problem — go work somewhere else. Google employees have a lot more career mobility than the steelworkers and coal miners who organized unions during the industrial era.
That said, unions do have a long record of improving wages and conditions for the working class. And there is a tech worker contingent that suffers legitimate injustice with limited recourse: Contract workers. Google employs more than 130,000 temps, vendors, and contractors, a workforce that outnumbers the company’s 123,000 full-time employees.
Many temp workers put in the same hours as full-time employees, but with none of the insurance, benefits or worker protections. Efforts to unionize temp workers in the tech industry were underway even before the pandemic. The Teamsters union already represents shuttle drivers for tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google. In 2019, a group of Google contractors voted to join the United Steelworkers. 2
Full-time employees may also have a financial interest in organizing to secure their own positions. As tech companies extend remote-work policies into late 2021, the coordination and knowledge-sharing benefits of on-site employment become irrelevant. Alphabet union members may be motivated by concerns about managerial ethics, but they also have reason to worry about losing their jobs to cheap contractor labor.
While temp workers are invited to join the newly formed union, its website admits that membership is overwhelmingly comprised of full-time employees.
Social justice activism tends to be a divisive basis for organizing a union. In its mission statement, the Alphabet Workers Union promises, “We will ensure Alphabet acts ethically.” The group lists past triumphs, including a campaign that pressured the company to withdraw from Department of Defense contracts, protests to stop providing infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and, most recently, a petition to stop selling technology to police departments.
It’s not clear that these goals are a top priority for Google’s entire workforce. It’s one thing for employees to join a one-day walkout while the servers are running automated processes; it’s a whole different matter when workers are expected to pay 1% of their total compensation towards union dues. The fact that the Alphabet Workers Union only has a few hundred members to date may be a hint that activism isn’t as popular as it sometimes appears.
Furthermore, corporations aren’t democracies. Alphabet’s executive team has a fiduciary duty to the company’s shareholders and might have a difficult time explaining why the company chose to forgo all these contracts. Tech employees who want to participate in workplace democracy may be better off working at a co-op.
They may also find opportunities at the fledgling tech companies trying to provide ethical alternatives to Google’s products. Google’s brilliant workforce is its greatest asset, and the company pays gaudy salaries to keep tech talent from joining the competition. If these disgruntled employees had been willing to take their talents elsewhere, maybe Google wouldn’t have ended up in its current monopoly position.
* The Communications Workers of America may prove to be an asset. In 2019, CWA launched a campaign supporting two major bills to prevent corporate off-shoring of U.S. jobs.
* Unionizing is a risky move. One of Google’s contracting companies was recently accused of shipping jobs offshore in retaliation for unionization efforts.