Power

How Google workers secretly built a union

And why one labor leader says Google organizers have 'sparked a fire that is going to spread throughout the entire tech industry.'

How Google workers secretly built a union

Google employee holds a sign as thousands of employees walk off the job to protest the company's handling of sexual misconduct claims on November 1, 2018, in Mountain View, California.

Photo: Mason Trinca/Getty Images

More than a year ago, activists inside Google began to seriously investigate how they could go about creating a union. Frustrated with conflicts over fair treatment of workers, sexual harassment and equal pay, and facing punishment for organizing a massive walkout, some workers started to talk quietly about more official organizing. In January 2020, a group reached out to the Communications Workers of America to learn the first steps, and began quietly discussing structure and bringing more workers on board without tipping off Google leadership. Recruiting was limited to a group of closely-connected friends, peers and colleagues and secret word-of-mouth discussions, meaning that most Google workers had no idea the union was being formed.

Dylan Baker, a software engineer who joined the recruiting process in October, described a careful process fearful of Alphabet retaliation. "We needed to keep things under the radar. We added one person at a time, very incrementally," they said. Almost every worker they approached about the union agreed to join. "From here, I think every single person has a lot of reasons and a lot of things that they want to change," they said.

After a year of secret organizing, more than 200 Google workers launched their unusual minority union on Monday, citing their collective disillusionment with the company's claims that it does good for the world and its workers. More than 225 Googlers signed union cards with the CWA, formally creating the Alphabet Workers Union and marking the official birth of one of just a few unions in the tech industry. AWU is a non-contract union, meaning that it does not have the legal certification of the National Labor Relations Board and instead has collective bargaining protections under U.S. labor laws that apply to all groups of workers.

Over the last two years, Google has been roiled by employee protests against the company's handling of sexual harassment allegations, controversial projects like the drone computer vision Project Maven and the recent firing of AI-ethics leader Timnit Gebru. After conversations between disillusioned Googlers and CWA representatives, the nascent group agreed to affiliate with CWA Local 1400, which will provide legal advice and connections to the Google workers as they develop their own structure and priorities.

"People have this idea of Google as being a force for positive change in the world, and their products as products that are for the public good, and that has been shattered somewhat," said Beth Allen, CWA's communications director. Lots of Google workers joined the company because of its "don't be evil" mantra, Allen and several union members said, and their disillusionment with that mantra's gradual disappearance was part of the motivation behind the union formation. "It feels like the people who I came to Google to work with are slowly leaving the company," said Raksha Muthukumar, a union member and software engineer. She believes that the collective solidarity of the union could push the company to return to its foundational ideals.

"Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support," said Kara Silverstein, Google's director of people relations. "But as we've always done, we'll continue engaging directly with all our employees."

The AWU's interim executive team, elected last month, will lead the group over the next few months as it recruits and accepts any of Alphabet's 120,000 North American employees who choose to join, including temporary and contract workers. Another round of elections could be held in a few months, when the number of new union workers has stabilized. Software engineers Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw are AWU's first executive and vice executive chairs, respectively, and make up two of the seven-person interim elected executive council. The council members campaigned for the roles and were elected through a democratic instant runoff process in which almost all members participated, according to Baker.

Specific actions, like protests or petitions, have not yet been planned, and will be determined by employee working groups once the union is more established. "They'll really be building their membership a lot in the next few months," Allen said. "They'll be building out what structures are the best in terms of their internal process as they figure out how many workers they have in different locations." Union members told Protocol that interest and enthusiasm from Google workers was overwhelming the morning of the launch, though they don't yet know how many workers joined on the first day. The few that declined to join at Baker's invitation before the launch all did so for the same reason: fear of retaliation from Google.

But now that the union is public, both Baker and Muthukumar believe that immediate retaliation is unlikely, in part because it's explicitly illegal for companies to try to suppress worker organizing, but also because any reports of retaliation would create a PR disaster for Google. "It's not PR-savvy of Google to openly retaliate, so we're not expecting a big crackdown. But at the same time, we're watching them," Muthukumar said, citing her shock at Gebru's recent firing as evidence that Google could respond more harshly than anticipated.

Google is not the only tech company with rifts aplenty, nor is it the first where workers decided to unionize (workers at Kickstarter and Glitch unionized last year, and a formal unionization process is underway in an Amazon warehouse). Other unions are on the way for similar reasons, Allen said, though Google is the company with the most obvious divide between ideals and reality. For a long time, "tech paternalism" convinced workers that they didn't need to advocate for themselves, she explained, because companies promised everything from food to massages. Only massive growth exposed issues like nonstop working hours, unequal pay and benefits for people from minority groups, and the harsh reality that beneficent founding ideals don't last forever. "We've certainly been talking to a lot of different folks in the tech and game world, some of whom are facing specific issues and not quite ready to unionize, some of whom are in various stages of moving forward," she said.

"This has really sparked a fire that is going to spread throughout the entire tech industry," said Steve Smith, the spokesperson for the California Labor Federation, which represents more than 1,200 California unions.

Traditional bargaining groups are uncommon in the tech industry for a number of reasons, including generous pay and benefit packages that make workers reluctant to organize, geographic dispersion that challenges the traditional manufacturing-floor organizing playbook, and differing priorities that would make it hard to convince at least 51% of Alphabet employees to elect to unionize without years of effort. To get around these challenges, the AWU is not a typical union with exclusive contract-negotiating power limited to specific Google employees. Instead, it's a non-contract union open to all types of workers, including third-party contractors. Some union staples are the same: Members will still pay dues (1% of their salary) and they can still file complaints with the NLRB if Google illegally retaliates. But there's one very important takeaway here: Unlike a more traditional union legally recognized by the NLRB, it cannot exclusively negotiate worker contracts with the company.

Non-contract union formation is an emerging tactic in a number of industries and makes even more sense for tech, which faces different organizing challenges than traditional manufacturing, Smith said.

The CWA representatives taught the AWU founders that unions don't need legal authority from the NLRB in order to act on behalf of and in favor of workers, according to Baker, who became involved in the planning process about three months ago. This opened the door for the group to formalize and support worker activism without the difficult legal wrangling that usually accompanies contract-union formation.

And while many software engineers and corporate Google employees don't need or want the pay and benefits protection of a traditional union, temporary and contract workers at Google do. Under U.S. labor law, those workers are legally prohibited from organizing in an NLRB-recognized union, meaning that a non-contract union is the only group that can advocate on behalf of both official Google-employees and third-party contractors. "If they had gone through the traditional NLRB process, the bargaining unit would have been quite restricted geographically or by job process," Allen said. That was the opposite of AWU's goal: to stand in solidarity with contract and temporary workers, who generally make less money and receive fewer benefits than traditional employees.

"There are advantages and some disadvantages to that approach," Smith said, "but I think the way that they're doing it is really smart, given the workforce that they're dealing with. By forming a non-contract union, they can exert pressure on Google in a lot of different ways without having to go through a formal contract negotiation." While people typically think about unions in terms of pay or benefits, they can exert pressure via collective power without negotiating a contract with a company, especially in terms of equity, health and safety goals, he added.

"The idea was much more focused on building really strong connections and a culture of care, rather than trying to spread as quickly as possible right from the get-go," Baker said. If they had tried to do so, "We're not going to get to 100,000 workers in a way that's sustainable and effective, and without getting totally squashed."

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