Google executives received some unwelcome news on Monday morning: Over 225 employees have formed a union with the Communications Workers of America. Named for Google’s parent company, the Alphabet Workers Union is both a pivotal development in the recent history of tech-worker organizing, and a creative gambit by the CWA, which has been seeking a toehold in the notoriously anti-labor world of Silicon Valley. The new Alphabet union is what’s often called a minority, noncontract, or solidarity union: It isn’t seeking a contract with management, at least for the moment. It’s open to all Alphabet employees, including temporary contractors, and it exists to organize the tech giant from within.
“Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of, ‘Are people getting paid enough?’ Our issues are going much broader,” Chewy Shaw, a Google engineer and union member, told the New York Times. “It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.” A website for the newly formed union cites the collective desire “to control what we work on and how it is used,” a goal that has long been a catalyst for organizing at Google. The company’s old slogan, “Don’t be evil,” set a high moral standard, one that workers say it frequently fails to meet.
All unions are the product of a mobilized workforce, and the Alphabet Workers Union is no exception, even though it currently represents a fraction of the company’s overall staff. In 2018, 20,000 Google workers walked out over sexual harassment and gender discrimination on the job. The same year, Google announced it would not renew a Pentagon contract that had provoked substantial employee protests. Workers have additionally complained of pervasive sexual harassment and identity-based discrimination at Alphabet and its vendors. The company settled a series of shareholder lawsuits in September over its handling of sexual-harassment complaints, and pledged to pay out $310 million to launch various diversity programs.
But employees have reason to be skeptical of Alphabet’s commitment to diversity. The December firing of Timnit Gebru, who co-led Google’s prestigious ethical artificial-intelligence team and is well known for her research into algorithmic racial bias, shocked industry insiders and Alphabet workers alike. Over 2,600 Google employees signed an open letter asking for further transparency over Gebru’s termination, and members of the AI team that Gebru had helped lead sent a letter to executives demanding her reinstatement. Google’s labor practices separately earned it a slap from the National Labor Relations Board the same month Gebru announced her termination. The NLRB charged that Google, despite its consistent and vehement protestations to the contrary, had illegally fired two employees for organizing.
Though the Alphabet Workers Union isn’t bargaining for a contract and isn’t recognized by the NLRB, it’s still legally a union, and organizers plan to build it into a credible pressure group inside Alphabet. “You can organize for power in any union structure, and you can fail to do so in any structure,” Laurence Berland, a former Google employee who was fired for organizing, told Collective Action in Tech. “The closer you are to being able to exercise that power through strike, the safer you are. The boss needs our labor, and we can choose the terms under which we give it. That’s the only real safety there is.” Nothing prevents the new union from seeking NLRB recognition at a later date, or from organizing a work stoppage or even a strike in its current state. And that ought to worry Alphabet’s governing powers. Money and influence can buy a tech company a powerful anti-union campaign. But when a workplace begins to mobilize, that momentum can be difficult to quash, even in Silicon Valley.