Technology

Google Workers Have Made Organizing Attempts in the Past. Here's Why This One Is More Significant 

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  • Alphabet workers' union announcement Monday represents a tipping point for employees at the Google parent company.
  • While past efforts have influenced leadership decisions, they haven't gone as far as workers had hoped.
  • The Alphabet Workers Union is significant because it includes employees from all areas of the company, is legitimized through a "minority union" model and has the potential to influence other companies.

Employees at Google parent company Alphabet formalized a union organization effort Monday after several years of attempts and increased turbulence between leadership and employees.

So far, 400 of the company's more than 260,000 employees and contractors have signed up for the Alphabet Workers Union, which formally aligned with the Communications Workers of America. While that's just a sliver of the workforce, it is significant because it includes employees from all areas of the company, is legitimized through a "minority union" model supported by the CWA, and has the potential to grow, while influencing other tech companies.

The move comes on the heels of the departure of renowned ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, which catalyzed several longstanding issues among employees, creating a perfect storm for unrest.

Open to more workers

Workers began smaller-scale organizing efforts that have slowly grown over recent years, and while some petitions have influenced leadership decisions to change, it hasn't gone as far as workers had hoped.

A big difference this time is that the union is open to all Alphabet employees, regardless of whether they're an engineer or a janitor. It is also open to employees of Alphabet's "Other Bets," which include non-Google entities such as its self-driving car company Waymo or life sciences unit Verily.

Google security guards organized a recognized union in 2017, and thousands of Google cafeteria staffers formed a union for better pay in 2019. In 2019, 80 Google contractors in Pittsburgh joined the United Steelworkers union, but employees said the efforts quietly crumbled as the company later outsourced their roles to Poland.

(A union official disputed this characterization, saying "the effort to bargain a first contract has not crumbled, but quite the opposite. The NLRB issuing complaints against HCL for outsourcing to Poland has galvanized workers' efforts!")

The efforts have been often insulated, temporary or specific to contracting firms or locales. Historically, full-time and contract workers haven't been able to unify on larger-scaled workforce matters — though they've tried.

Contractors, which make up the majority of Google's workforce, are employed by third parties such as Adecco and HCL Technologies, where workers have different protocols and needs than that of full-time employees. They also often get paid less money and receive less benefits and perks than regular employees despite, sometimes, similar work.

After more than 20,000 Google employees in more than 20 offices around the world staged a one-day walkout in 2018 to protest Google's handling of sexual harassment, the company agreed to a few policy changes. But executives didn't extend many of those changes to the contractor workforce.

A 'minority' model

Alphabet workers decided to form a "minority union," which is a type of union that allows them to sidestep the formal process of petitioning the National Labor Relations Board. However, it doesn't prevent them from seeking NLRB recognition down the line.

With the legitimacy and growth of a formal union, workers still position themselves with dues-paying members and an elected board of directors. Though it's not federally recognized through the NLRB, which would qualify it for getting actual bargaining power with the company in the future, the Alphabet Workers Union will act as a unified megaphone for workers.

Workers have historically organized through dispersed channels, including through text chains and an account on the online blogging platform Medium called "Google Walkout for Reach Change," where employees have posted petitions for individual workforce causes. They've also sought alternate models through workplace improvement organizations such as nonprofit Coworker.org.

"Every year there are more and worse scandals," senior engineer Alec Story said on Alphabet Union's website. "Alphabet workers deserve a company with their and our users' best interests at heart, and our union is the way for us to make that happen."

Replication potential

Silicon Valley companies over the last two decades have adopted numerous trends that started at Google, including lush perks and large contractor staffs.

Because Google's culture is often replicated throughout the tech industry, the formation of a union there could influence workers at other tech companies. The union has already received widespread notoriety from public figures including former Democratic presidential candidates and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who praised Google workers' efforts publicly Monday.

Union organization isn't common among white-collar workers. However, it's been discussed more among tech employees — particularly at Google — in recent years as their employers increasingly seek out lucrative government contracts with uses that are sometimes at odds with the ideals of Silicon Valley workers.

For instance, Google workers in 2018 circulated internal petitions protesting the company's plans to sell artificial intelligence technology to the U.S. Defense Department, citing concerns about that technology being used "in the business of war," and questioning the company's plans to reenter China with a new search project, citing concerns about government censorship there.

Alphabet workers argue that with the union they can have a larger voice in Google's global products.

Several Google employees say they've had interactions with Amazon and Microsoft workers where they've exchanged best practices and tips for organizing efforts in their respective workplaces, but those have largely been limited to text chains and social network groups.

Clarissa Redwine, a former union organizer for Kickstarter, where employees in 2019 created the first full-time worker union in the tech industry in the U.S., helped organize Alphabet's union model and called on other companies to adopt it.

"Workers at Alphabet are using this structure to build and maintain power," Redwine wrote. "You should too." 

Watch Now: Here's what Google employees hope to gain from forming a union

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