- Union leaders acknowledge that there is unlikely to be universal support soon
- Labour activism is slipping into the technology industry
- Google has been rigorously criticized by the U.S. labour regulator
Google employees and parent company Alphabet Inc. declared on Monday the formation of a union, escalating years of confrontation between workers and the internet giant’s management.
The Union of Alphabet Workers will collect dues, have an elected board of directors, pay organising staff. It will be open to all employees and contractors in North America, irrespective of their position or classification, and plans to discuss issues such as wages and ethical concerns, such as the kinds of work in which Google engages. So far, more than 200 employees have signed up, the group said.
A Google software engineer and activist with the new group, Kimberly Wilber said, “Many of us employees feel disempowered, like we don’t have a say anymore in the direction the company is taking, a union is our way of building power, so we cannot be ignored by executives.”
In recent years, Google has clashed with some employees over military contracts, a proposal for a censored search engine in China, the different treatment of contract employees, and a rich exit package for an executive who was ousted for alleged sexual harassment.
In a tweet, director of people operations at Google, Kara Silverstein, said, “We have always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace. Of course, the labour rights we support are protected by our employees. So, we will continue to communicate personally with all our employees, as we have always done.”
On Monday, the new union drew support from U.S. lawmakers, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who wrote, “I’m all the way through this fight with you.”
The Communications Workers of America, which has been pursuing tech-focused organizing through an initiative known as CODE-CWA, supports the effort, a rare campaign inside a major U.S. technology company. CWA Local 1400 members will also be members of Googlers that join the Alphabet Workers Union. In union dues, members will contribute 1% of their overall salary, which will help finance organizing staff.
CWA said the new company is not currently concentrating on obtaining Alphabet’s formal recognition or collective bargaining with the company, a mechanism that U.S. corporations have aggressively resisted.
Beth Allen, The Communications Workers of America (CWA) communications director said, “Before that’s a realistic goal, we may need to see some significant changes in labour law. If a majority of Alphabet’s workers will ultimately be signed up by the union, it would be a “powerful statement,” but she added the group could affect change even without it. The membership of CWA includes certain workers, such as Tennessee public university employees, who participate in collective action while lacking the legal collective bargaining.
U.S. law allows unionization rights to employees, but not independent contractors, which also makes it more difficult for sub-contracted employees hired by staffing agencies to obtain the power to bargain directly with a company such as Alphabet. For the first time, Bloomberg reported that such “temps, vendors and contractors,” known as TVCs, outnumbered direct employees of Alphabet in 2018.
Union leaders said on Monday it was essential that these TVC (temps, vendors and contractors) workers be part of the union as well. Chewy Shaw, Google’s software engineer, who has recently been elected vice chair of the new union said, “We will not make our growth and collective action dependent on labour law.”
An Alphabet union could restrict the authority of executives, while encouraging similar industry-wide initiatives, which so far have mostly avoided unionization. In November, at an Amazon.com Inc. facility in Alabama, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filed paperwork to represent frontline workers. The company’s U.S. warehouse employees are not unionized at present. In the coming weeks, a vote is expected among the more than 5,000 workers at the site.
In 2018, Google worker protests pressured the company to let a contract for artificial intelligence from the Pentagon lapse. Employee uprisings the same year have led the company to curb the use of forced arbitration, including a walkout of thousands of workers.
Workers involved in the new union said they saw it as an expansion of those efforts, one that could provide a more permanent basis for maintaining management pressure, keeping the organization responsible for the changes promised and responding to retaliation against activists.
The organization plans to employ a mixture of protests and legislative, regulatory and legal tactics and weigh in on topics such as Google’s antitrust scrutiny. In 2018, CWA entered a coalition urging the Federal Trade Commission to breakup Facebook. Since late 2019, CWA has been associated with Google activists and lodged a complaint with the National Labour Relations Board claiming that employees have been fired for taking collective action.
In December, some of those claims were taken up by the Agency’s general counsel, accusing Google of unlawfully firing, interrogating and tracking activist employees. “Google denied wrongdoing, claiming that it supports the rights of employees and that the employees in question were punished for “serious infringement of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”