OAKLAND, California – More than 225 Google engineers and other workers have formed a union, the group said on Monday. She completed years of growing activism in one of the world’s largest corporations and presented a rare bridgehead for work organizers in decidedly anti-union silicon Senke.
The union’s formation is highly unusual for the tech industry, which has long resisted efforts to organize its largely salaried workforce. It follows growing calls from Google employees for policy revisions regarding pay, harassment and ethics, and is likely to escalate tensions with top management.
The new union, named after Google’s parent company Alphabet Alphabet Workers Union, has been secretly organized for almost a year and elected its leadership last month. The group is a member of Communications Workers of America, a union that represents telecommunications and media workers in the United States and Canada.
Unlike a traditional union, which requires an employer to come to the negotiating table to agree a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union is a so-called minority union that represents a fraction of the company’s 260,000+ full-time employees and contractors. Workers said it was primarily an effort to add structure and longevity to activism at Google rather than negotiating a contract.
Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and vice chairman of the union council, said the union was a necessary tool to keep up pressure on management so that workers can force changes on workplace issues.
“Our goals go beyond workplace questions: Are people getting paid enough? Our problems go much further, ”he said. “It is a time when a union is an answer to these problems.”
In response, Kara Silverstein, Director of People Operations at Google, said, “We have always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course, our employees have protected the labor rights we support. But as always, we will continue to work directly with all of our employees. “
The new union is the clearest sign of how thoroughly employee activism has gripped Silicon Valley in recent years. While software developers and other technicians have been largely silent on social and political issues in the past, employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest, and others have grown louder on issues like diversity, salary discrimination, and sexual harassment.
Nowhere were these voices louder than on Google. In 2018, more than 20,000 employees staged a strike to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment. Others have spoken out against business decisions they believed were unethical, such as developing artificial intelligence for the Department of Defense and providing technology for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Nevertheless, the unions in Silicon Valley have not yet gained a foothold. Many technicians shunned them, arguing that workgroups focused on issues like wages – not a major concern in high-income industry – and were unable to address their concerns about ethics and the role of technology in society. Work organizers also found it difficult to corral the huge workforce of tech companies that are scattered around the world.
Few small union companies have achieved technical success in the past. Workers at crowdfunding website Kickstarter and app development platform Glitch won union campaigns last year, and a small group of contractors at a Google Pittsburgh office organized in 2019. Thousands of employees at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama will also vote for a union in the coming months.
“There are people who want you to believe that organizing in the tech industry is utterly impossible,” said Sara Steffens, CWA secretary and treasurer, of the new Google union. “If you don’t have unions in technology, what does that mean for our country? This is one reason we consider this a priority from the perspective of CWA. “
Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California at Hastings College of the Law, said the Google union was a “powerful experiment” because it turned union building into a large tech company and bypassed barriers that prevented such an organization .
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“If it grows – which Google will do whatever it takes to prevent it – it could have a huge impact not only on workers, but also on the broader problems we are all thinking about in terms of technological power in society,” she said.
The union is likely to exacerbate tensions between Google engineers working on autonomous cars, artificial intelligence and internet search and the company’s management. Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, and other executives have tried to confront an increasingly activist workforce – but have made missteps.
Last month, federal officials said Google wrongly fired two employees who protested its work with immigration services in 2019. Timnit Gebru, a black woman who is a respected artificial intelligence researcher, said last month Google fired her after criticizing the company’s approach to minority attitudes and the prejudices built into AI systems. Her departure sparked a storm of criticism of Google’s treatment of minority workers.
“These companies find it very difficult to have a small group of people who say,” We work at Google and we have a different point of view, “said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for Labor Studies. Work and Democracy at the University of California in Santa Barbara. “Google could well manage to decimate any company that has their say.”
The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents workers in Silicon Valley and cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Seattle, provides protection and resources to workers who join. Those who choose to join will contribute 1 percent of their total compensation to the union to fund their efforts.
Over the past year, the CWA has promoted union work among technology workers. (The NewsGuild, a union representing the New York Times, is part of CWA.) The initiative initially focused on video game company employees, who often work long hours and face layoffs.
In late 2019, CWA organizers began meeting with Google employees to discuss a union action. Some employees were receptive and signed cards to officially join the union last summer. In December, the Alphabet Workers Union held elections to select a seven-member executive council.
Several Google employees who had previously organized petitions and protests in the company rejected the CWA overtures. They said they refused to join because they feared the efforts would incapacitate seasoned organizers and downplay an organization’s risk in recruiting members.
Amr Gaber, a Google software developer who helped organize the strike in 2018, said CWA officials rejected other working groups that Google employees supported during a phone conversation with him and others in December 2019.
“They are more concerned about lawn usage than the needs of workers who have been on the phone,” Gaber said. “As a long-time work organizer and a brown man, this is not the kind of union I want to build.”
The CWA said it was chosen by Google employees to organize the union and had not interfered. “It is really the workers who have made the decision,” said Ms. Steffens from CWA.
Traditional unions usually enroll the majority of the workforce and apply to a state or federal employment agency such as the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election. If they win the vote, they can sign a contract with their employer. A minority union allows employees to organize without first winning a formal vote in front of the NLRB
The CWA has used this model to organize groups in states where labor laws have been deemed unfavorable, such as the Texas State Employees Union and the United Campus Workers in Tennessee.
The structure also gives the union the leeway to include Google contractors who are more full-time employees and would be excluded from a traditional union. Some Google employees have considered forming a minority or solidarity union for several years, and keeping up to date drivers have formed similar groups.
Although they won’t be able to negotiate a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union may use other tactics to pressure Google to change its policies, labor experts said. Minority unions often turn to public pressure campaigns and lobby lawmakers or regulators to influence employers.
“We will use every tool we can to use our collective action to protect people who we believe will be discriminated against or rejected,” Shaw said.
Members cited the NLRB’s recent finding of the dismissal of two employees and the departure of Ms. Gebru, the prominent researcher, as reasons to expand their membership and publicly increase their efforts.
“Google makes it all the more clear why we need this now,” said Auni Ahsan, a software engineer at Google and a member of the union’s executive council. “Sometimes the boss is the best organizer.”