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What can a small union for well-paid Google workers accomplish? Quite a bit, experts say

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 1/9/2021 Levi Sumagaysay
a group of people holding a sign posing for the camera © bryan r. smith/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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 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. and Microsoft Corp.

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. 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.


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“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.”

See: Google wrongfully spied on and terminated employees, NLRB complaint says

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.

“We want to give them a voice,” Shaw said, noting that there are 10,000 more TVCs at the company than the 120,000 full-time employees. “Beyond that, we would like to push against this trend of marking a group of our population as being second-class.”

The union, which was announced Monday after organizing in secret for about a year, started off with fewer than 250 members but doubled that number on its first day and has now almost tripled it. It includes full-time and temporary employees as well as vendors and contractors. It may be small so far, but it is counting on safety in numbers.

“From now on, we can do this as a group,” Shaw said. “[Google] retaliating against one person no longer stops our campaigns and activities.”

Besides, the “whole labor movement in the past century has come about primarily because of spontaneous upsurge and reaction to managerial conduct, usually without a majority of workers,” Gould said.

Google responded to to the union’s launch earlier this week with a statement that said in part, “as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.” The company did not respond to a request for additional comment.

The company’s public response so far suggests the company still doesn’t get it, a former Google manager said.

Ross LaJeneusse, who said last year that he was effectively pushed out of his position as head of international relations in 2019 after advocating for a formal human rights program and standing up for employees he saw were being discriminated against, told MarketWatch that the formation of a workers union “should be an alarm bell for investors and for the board.”

He worked at the company for 11 years and said there was always a sense that the culture there was everyone’s responsibility, but says now that “there’s something terribly wrong there.”

“When you have a company where people feel they need a union, there’s a risk of talent going elsewhere and not being able to recruit,” he said. “This speaks volumes. This is about Google and the unique failure of current execs to maintain a culture where people feel valued.”

LaJeneusse added that executives “always have a clear sense of how anything will impact the brand. I’m sure they’re worried.”

Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said she would “encourage Google to use its innovative juices to think about how it could be creative in its response.” She added that “equally important to workforces in the valley is some sort of agency” over their work.

Google introduced an open culture to Silicon Valley after it was founded in 1998. More than others in tech, it had a certain ethos and workers were encouraged to speak up, LaJeneusse said. That has changed in the past few years, current and former employees say.

“The leadership has shifted away from ‘don’t be evil,’ but the workers have not,” said Shaw, the AWU leader.

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