By Levi Sumagaysay
Alphabet Inc. workers launched a union this week with a few hundred members, about 2% of the Google parent company’s workforce, raising questions about what such a small union can do for a largely well-paid group that enjoys world-famous perks.
Actually, quite a bit, labor experts say.
The Alphabet Workers Union says it cares about working conditions, especially for the company’s temps, vendors and contractors, or TVCs, who don’t enjoy the same level of pay, benefits and protection as employees. Outspoken Google workers’ concerns go beyond that, especially because the company’s technology and offerings are broad and influential. For example, this week the union said it wants to push the company on what it called YouTube’s lackluster response to President Trump’s role in the insurrection at the Capitol.
“We’ve seen a big trend recently in the labor movement around bargaining for the common good,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “It’s a focus that reflects that workers have lives that go beyond the workplace.”
Minority unions can help workers with those goals, he and others say. And any success AWU has could make it a model for the tech industry, which is increasingly dealing with pushback from employees about ethical and other concerns.
Labor laws require 30% of a company’s workers to say they want a union before a unionization vote can be held. Then, if more than 50% vote yes, the National Labor Relations Board will certify a union as eligible for collective bargaining. Experts say that has led to greater popularity —and some wins — for minority unions like the AWU, which has attracted 619 workers as of Friday out of Google’s workforce of a couple hundred thousand.
While the union’s size means Alphabet /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL -3.26% /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG -3.05% is not required to negotiate, experts noted that nothing is stopping Google from talking with the AWU if the company wants to. Any discussions could lead to movement on some pet issues for tech workers, who have spoken up about their companies’ work with the government at Google as well as other large tech companies, including Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -3.24% and Microsoft Corp. /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT -2.37%
John Logan, a professor and director of the Labor and Employment Studies Department at San Francisco State University, said minority unions have helped workers in the public and private sectors.
In places like Texas and Tennessee, “where public sector workers have little or no collective bargaining rights… they have been able to create or sustain viable organizations that have secured rights over the years,” Logan said.
The Communications Workers of America, with which the Google union is affiliated, also worked with T-Mobile USA Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204659678/composite TMUS +1.26% workers as they partnered with a union representing German telecommunications workers at Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s parent company. In the past several years, T-Mobile Workers United has secured paid parental leave, the right for workers to communicate with one another about their working conditions and more.
“In the sense in that [AWU] seems to be a bottom-up movement making use of the CWA, it holds some promise,” said William Gould, professor emeritus at Stanford Law School and a former chairman of the NLRB. He noted that the usual unionization process hasn’t been particularly suited to Silicon Valley because of the great pay and perks.
Google is in the spotlight for the way it has dealt with workers who have spoken up about various issues. In December, the NLRB filed a complaint against the Silicon Valley tech giant over what the agency says was the illegal termination in 2019 of a couple of workers who were organizing. That development, plus the company pushing out a respected Black artificial-intelligence researcher , Timnit Gebru, around the same time, prompted the AWU to vote to launch this week.
“Those moments at beginning of December were energizing moments,” Chewy Shaw, AWU’s executive vice chair, told MarketWatch. “That got a lot of people who were on the fence to decide to join.”
Google worker activism has picked up steam in the past few years. In 2018, thousands of the company’s workers around the world walked out of their offices to protest the company’s handling of sexual-misconduct allegations against its executives, which included giving the accused multimillion-dollar payouts. Many leaders of that protest have since left the company, with some alleging retaliation.
Among the other issues Googlers have spoken up about were the company’s AI contract with the Pentagon, with employees concerned about the company’s technology possibly being used for war; the company’s plans to return Google search to China, which raised censorship worries; and the company requiring employees sign arbitration agreements. In all these cases, Google changed course in some way.
Now, the AWU says on its website that its concerns include the high-stakes and long-lasting impact of the decisions made at the company, and protecting workers when they are retaliated against for speaking up. Also, the union says it cares about diversity, discrimination and harassment, plus working conditions for TVCs.