More than 225 engineers and other Google employees have formed a union, the organization said on Monday (4). It crowned years of activism in one of the world’s largest companies and opened a rare door for the workers’ organization in Silicon Valley, which strongly opposes union formation.
Union formation is rare in the technology sector, which has long resisted efforts to organize its workforce, which typically employs white-collar workers. The decision follows growing demand from Google employees for reforms of company rules regarding pay, harassment and ethics and is likely to create more intense tension with the company’s management.
The new union, called Alphabet’s Workers’ Union, after the group’s parent company, Alphabet, was organized in secret for almost a year and elected its leadership last month. The organization joined the CWA (Communication Workers of America) union, which represents telecommunications and media workers in the United States and Canada.
Unlike a traditional union in which employers have to negotiate collective agreements, the new organization is a “minority union” which represents only a fraction of the company’s 260,000 full-time employees and service providers. Workers said the union’s formation was primarily an attempt to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than a campaign to negotiate a collective agreement.
Chewy Shaw, a Google engineer in San Francisco and vice chairman of the union leadership council, said the organization was a necessary tool to pressurize managers so that workers can force changes in work practices.
“Our goals go beyond topics like compensation. We have much broader causes, ”he said. “And we live in a moment when a union is the answer to these problems.”
In response, Kara Silverstein, Director of Personal Operations at Google, said, “We have always worked hard to create a positive and rewarding work environment for our workforce. And our workers obviously have labor rights that we support. But as always, we will continue to get direct get in touch with all of our employees. “
The new union is the clearest indication of the great penetration that labor activism has achieved in Silicon Valley in recent years. In the past, software developers and other professionals have generally remained silent on social and political issues, but now employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest, and others are talking more about topics like diversity, wage discrimination, and sexual harassment.
And in no other company have these voices been heard more clearly than at Google. In 2018, more than 20,000 workers went on strike to protest the company’s rules on sexual harassment. Others turned down business decisions they believed were unethical, such as developing artificial intelligence systems for the Department of Defense and technology for the United States Customs and Border Protection Service.
Even so, the unions in Silicon Valley have so far not gained momentum. Many technology workers disapproved, saying that work organizations focus on issues like wages – which are not a huge problem in the technology sector – and are unable to address their concerns about ethics and the role of technology in society. Work organizers have also encountered obstacles in uniting the immense workforce of tech companies around the world.
Few small union efforts have been successful in the technology sector. The crowdfunding website Kickstarter and the app development platform Glitch joined forces last year, and a small group of service providers in a Google Pittsburgh office formed a union in 2019. Thousands of employees in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are expected to vote on union formation within months.
“There are people who want to believe that creating a work organization in the technology sector is utterly impossible,” said Sara Steffens, CWA treasurer. “If we don’t have unions in the technology sector, what does that say about our country? This is one of the reasons why we consider this task a priority from the perspective of the CWA. “
Veena Dubal, professor of law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, said the Google union was “a powerful experience” as it led union formation into a large tech company and overcoming the obstacles that had prevented it Organization.
“If the union grows – and Google will do whatever it can to prevent it – it can have a huge impact not only on workers, but also on broader issues that we all ponder, like the power of technology in society.” She said.
The union is expected to create tension between Google engineers who work on developing self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and internet search systems, and the company’s management.
Sundar Pinchai, the executive director of Google, and other employees at the company have tried to adapt to an increasingly activist workforce – but have made several dubious decisions.
Last month, government officials found that Google had fired two workers for no reason for protesting the cooperation between the company and immigration authorities in 2019. Timnit Gebru, a black woman who is a well-respected artificial intelligence researcher, also said last month that Google fired her for criticizing the company’s stance on minority attitudes and the prejudice in its artificial intelligence systems have. Gebru’s departure sparked a storm of criticism of Google’s treatment of minority employees.
“These companies are not satisfied that there is even a small group of people willing to say they work at Google but have a different point of view,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Labor, Labor and democracy at the university. of California in Santa Barbara. “Google is quite capable of success in decimating businesses that are emerging.”
The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents employees in Silicon Valley and in cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts and Seattle, provides protection and resources to workers who join. Those who choose to join contribute 1% of their compensation to the union to fund their efforts.
For the past 12 months, CWA has promoted union formation among technology workers. (NewsGuild, a union that is part of the CWA, represents employees of the New York Times.) The campaign initially focused on video game company employees, who in many cases have excessive hours and are exposed to frequent layoffs.
In late 2019, CWA organizers met with Google employees to discuss a union campaign and revealed the employees who were attending the meetings. Some Google employees were receptive and signed the terms of union membership in the middle of last year. In December, the Alphabet Labor Union held elections to form a seven-member executive council.
Several Google employees who drafted petitions and organized protests at the company rejected the CWA’s approach. They said they refused to join because they felt the effort ignored several seasoned organizers and minimized the risk of joining when searching for members.
Amr Gaber, a Google software developer who helped organize the 2018 strike in protest, said CWA officials expressed disdain for other work organizations who assisted Google employees in a phone conversation with him and other company employees in 2019.
“They were more interested in gaining a position than in the needs of the workers who took part in this conversation,” Gaber said. “As an experienced work organizer and not a white man, this is not the type of union I want to build.”
The CWA said it was chosen by Google employees to organize the union and that it did not force membership. “It is indeed the workers who vote,” said CWA’s Steffens.
Traditional unions usually try to attract the majority of workers in a company and then ask a state or federal labor organization such as the National Council on Industrial Relations to organize a vote. If union formation is approved, the union will represent workers in collective agreements. A minority union allows workers to organize without going through this formal vote.
The CWA used this model to unite workers in states where labor laws are unfavorable, such as the Texas State Employees Union and United Tennessee University workers.
The structure also offers unions the opportunity to include service providers in Google who are present in greater numbers than direct employees and who could not be approved by a traditional union. Some Google employees have been considering forming a minority or solidarity union for several years, and car service company drivers have created several such organizations.
Alphabet’s Workers’ Union, while not having the power to negotiate collective agreements, can use other tactics to pressure Google to change its standards, according to labor experts. Minority unions often run pressure campaigns and lobby legislators or regulators to influence employers.
“We will use every tool we can to take collective action to protect people who we believe are being discriminated against or rejected,” Shaw said.
Union members cited the federal decision to dismiss the two activists in 2019 and the departure of respected researcher Gebru as reasons to expand the union’s staff and strengthen its public policies.
“Google makes it very clear why we need it now,” said Auni Ahsan, a software engineer at Google and a member of the union’s board of directors. “Sometimes the boss is the union recruiter’s best resource”.