Over 200 Google employees in the US have formed a workers’ rights union, the first movement of its size at a major tech company.
After several years of escalated tensions between workers and management at Google, workers have publicly launched a unionisation effort amid an industry that has faced years of unchecked power.
The union, known as the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), will be open to the 120,000 + employees who work for Google and its parent company, Alphabet.
“We’re building on years of organizing efforts at Google to create a formal structure for workers,” the union leaders wrote, noting that 226 employees so far had signed union cards with the Communications Workers of America.
“This is historic—the first union at a major tech company by and for all tech workers,” Dylan Baker, a Google software engineer, said in a statement to press.
“We will elect representatives, we will make decisions democratically, we will pay dues, and we will hire skilled organizers to ensure all workers at Google know they can work with us if they actually want to see their company reflect their values.”
Organisation for the AWU began in May 2019, when workers started holding “1:1” meetings with their colleagues to build and gauge support.
The AWU is backed by one of the country’s largest labour unions the Communications Workers of America (CWA): who have previously organised workers in the video game, telecom, and banking industries.
The elected leaders of the AWU announced the organisation in a New York Times opinion piece on Monday, saying they aimed to ensure employees work at a fair wage without fear of abuse, retaliation, or discrimination.
We’re Alphabet workers. We’ve been organizing for over a year, & we’re finally ready to share why.
This morning, we’re announcing #AWU, the first union open to *all* workers at any Alphabet company.
Every worker deserves a union—including tech workers.https://t.co/m2Qmjwz32V
— Alphabet Workers Union (@AlphabetWorkers) January 4, 2021
The union is open to all US and Canadian workers at Alphabet, including full-time employees, vendors, temporary workers, and other contractors. These ‘unofficial employees’ make up an enormous “shadow” workforce at Google, outnumbering direct Google employees by around 135,000 to 115,000.
However, the AWU is forging a unique path as it will not be seeking ratification through the US labour regulator, the National Labor Relations Board, as is typical.
Instead, it will form a “minority union”, meaning it will trade legally protected rights to action, like collective bargaining, in exchange for the inclusion of a wider range of workers, e.g. contractors.
As employees and workers have not yet asked Google for formal recognition of their union or indicated that they would hold a union election, Google is not obliged to recognise them.
I stand in solidarity with @AlphabetWorkers who are organizing to form a union at Google. What these workers are fighting for is not radical. They want fair wages and a workplace free from abuse, retaliation, intimidation and discrimination. And that is exactly what they deserve.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 4, 2021
“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce,” the Google’s director of people, Kara Silverstein, told Vice.
“Of course our employees have protected [labour] rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”
For their workers to formally unionise, Google will need to voluntarily recognise a union or more than 50 per cent of eligible union members will need to vote to unionise.
Why this matters: Google’s technical employees are expensive to train and difficult to replace. That gives them leverage over the company with which to win better conditions for contractors and suppliers, and to shape its role in the world. Lot of lazy takes today ignoring that. https://t.co/ZkyK8RMF7A
— Henry Williams (@humford) January 5, 2021
Unlike other strategies where unionisation is made public once the union is certain it has enough support from workers, Google employees have opted to go public early. Now, employees can use the newly formed AWU to build support and continue organising around ethical and internal issues.
In 2018, workers staged a mass walkout in Google campuses globally over the alleged mishandling of sexual harassment allegations. In that same year, Google employees wrote public letters denouncing the company’s role in building a censored search engine in China – which was later abandoned.
Later in 2019, Google employees wrote a public letter to the company, calling for a complete cut of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and signed a petition condemning a cloud computing contract Google had with US Customs and Border Protection after the agency separated immigrant families at the US border.
The latest backlash came in December 2020, when workers demanded an apology from Google after a prominent Black researcher in artificial intelligence, Timnit Gebru, claimed she was fired after criticising the company’s diversity efforts.
Here’s a CTO imploring Google to take an illegal action.
No big. pic.twitter.com/KvzRldUNus
— Nash Across the 8th Dimension (@Nash076) January 5, 2021
Despite the growing tensions between Google and its body of employees, the AWU believes that collective action can spark genuine change – even if Google’s management disagrees.
“The only tactic that has ensured workers are respected and heard is collective action,” the workers wrote in a press release.
“Project Maven was cancelled when thousands of Googlers pledged they would not work on unethical tech. Forced arbitration was ended when Googlers walked out across the globe.”