Google and its parent company Alphabet have made headlines yet again, but this time for something their employees have done. Hundreds of workers, full-time, part-time, and contract have all come together to form the first tech workers union. The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) was launched on 4th January (Monday), marking the biggest challenge to big tech till date.
“This is historic—the first union at a major tech company by and for all tech workers,” said Dylan Baker, Software Engineer in a press release. Google, like most major tech companies, has been suppressing collective bargaining brutally over the last few years.
The AWU isn’t a fully-fledged union though. While they will have elected representatives and hold paid posts, the union doesn’t have all the bargaining power of traditional workers unions. For now, the AWU treads a tightrope hoping to leverage media power to improve working conditions for Alphabet workers.
Going Down a Different Path
226 Members of the AWU have so far signed union cards with the Communications Workers of America. (CWA), one of the largest unions in the nation with around 70,000 members. However, the union is yet to be certified by the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB is a federal agency that formally recognises workers unions and provides them with the right to collective bargaining.
To be recognised, the union has two choices:
- At least 30% of employees must sign a petition to call for an election conducted by the NLRB. At the election, if a majority choose to support the union, it will be recognised by the board.
- Alternatively, if the employer chooses to recognise the union then the board will certify it.
The Alphabet Workers Union has so far been unable to proceed down both paths. For the latter, Google has made it clear that it will not support unionisation. For the former, it would mean excluding contract workers from the union, which was a nonstarter for the employees.
As a result, they have chosen to go down a third path, where for now the union won’t seek recognition by the NLRB. Without that, the Alphabet workers lose access to collective bargaining agreements. Instead, the union plans to pressure the company through the media and push for legislation via Congress.
A Long and Fraught History
While Google is often dubbed as one of the “best places to work” in the media, all is not well on the inside. Over the last few years, employees have increasingly started speaking out against some executive decisions, resulting in terminations. That includes plans for a censored search engine in China, working with the American military on AI-based solutions and frequent cases of sexual misconduct.
Back in 2018, thousands of Google workers around the world staged walkouts to protest against the company’s poor handling of cases of sexual harassment. While the 2018 walkout was one of the most successful, speaking out against the company has come with consequences.
In 2020, AI scientist Timnit Gebru was fired by the company for sending an email criticizing the treatment of minority employees. In 2019, four employees were fired for allegedly breaking safety and security rules. But workers say they were fired for attempting to speak out against Google’s policies.
The Tech World’s Union Issue
Alphabet employees are far from the only ones being fired for speaking out. All over the tech world, unions have been a thorny issue many companies prefer to avoid. San Francisco-based Lanetix fired 14 software engineers in 2018 for trying to join a labour union.
Amazon has also had a long history of workers trying to unionise. However, that has been mostly by fulfilment centre workers rather than programmers. Nonetheless, Amazon has constantly attempted to bring down those protests. From a leaked training video to hiring managers with experience in “responding to union activity” Amazon’s anti-union stance is well documented.
Despite the pushback, it is clear that tech workers are winning the fight, even if not directly. The Alphabet workers union is the first major tech workers union, and could set the stage for more employees across Silicon Valley. From working conditions to moral obligations, there are plenty of issues big tech needs to address, but won’t.
That’s where AWU’s tactics could prove to be successful. It is unlikely Google will bow to internal pressure, but external pressure is a different story. With the spotlight now on the company, CEO Sundar Pichai and other executives will have no choice but to respond publicly.
With the Democrats retaining control of the White House and House of Representatives, it is also clear that there is a willingness from the government to drive meaningful change. From Elizabeth Warren to AOC, the Union has publicly received support on Twitter.
When giant corporations like Google have too much power, it’s bad for innovation, bad for consumers—and bad for their workers. I’m standing in solidarity with Google workers as they fight back by unionizing. https://t.co/hDUocvnU14
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) January 4, 2021
Whether that support will shift to policy is yet to be seen, but it is very likely that there could be some changes coming. Big tech is already under pressure from the US Congress, which is something the workers union is likely to leverage.
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Parul Kaul and Chewy Shaw, the executive chair and vice chair of the Alphabet Workers Union said: “we want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.” With social media at the front of many issues, maybe the union can help hold tech executives accountable again.