Jan 5, 2021 - Technology

Google workers test a different kind of union

Illustration of a hand holding a protest sign with a google search on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With Monday's announcement that some Google employees have formed the Alphabet Workers Union, the tech industry is getting its own innovative take on labor organizing.

What's happening: On the one hand, this isn't a traditional union — it won't be able to collectively bargain or formally represent the workforce. At the same time, the new "minority union" offers a fresh approach to solidarity: It's open to some managers and can represent temporary and contract workers.

The big picture: Google has faced a rising tide of dissent in recent years, as employees have staged walkouts and spoken out on everything from sexual harassment to the company's work for the military to the recent ouster of prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru.

  • A small group of Google employees organized in secret for much of last year before yesterday's unveiling. The Alphabet Workers Union (named for Google's parent company) is under the auspices of the Communication Workers of America.

What "minority unions" can do:

  • Collect dues (in this case 1 percent of an employee's cash and stock compensation), elect officers and hire paid staff.
  • Publicly lobby for workers' goals.
  • Include workers from across the country and across job types, including workers and managers, full-time employees and contractors.

What they can't do:

  • Bargain collectively for a contract.
  • Officially represent Google's workforce.

Between the lines: The "minority union" approach offers some measure of structure to spontaneous worker activism at Google.

  • It could become a model for union pushes at other big tech companies where the traditional route toward a union — elections under National Labor Relations Board auspices requiring a majority of employees to vote "yes" — is unlikely to succeed.

Catch up quick: None of the big tech companies are fully unionized, though some isolated pockets of support workers and contract employees have voted to join unions, as have employees at some smaller companies, such as Kickstarter and Glitch.

  • Google has seen some union pushes at the margins, largely from its contract workforce, including efforts by security guards and cafeteria workers.
  • The minority unions approach has been used in other contexts where full workforce unionization seems unlikely, including among state workers in Texas and campus workers in several southern U.S. states.

Of note: Tech workers, for the most part, are paid more than those in other industries and don't face the kind of physically hazardous conditions that have often driven labor organizing in the past.

  • The discontents Google union organizers are expressing have more to do with what they see as a gap between the company's ideals and some of its actions.

What they're saying:

  • Auni Ahsan, Google Cloud engineer and at-large member of the union's executive council (to Axios): "I really, truly think we are taking our struggle and bringing it together with the broader working class struggle in America and around the world. I think that’s what's going to be needed to address the issues facing the world."
  • Google (in a statement): "We've always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees."

Editor's note: The spelling of Auni Ahsan’s name was corrected.

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