yesAnna KramerNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

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."

People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

Keep Reading Show less
Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

The PRO Act hurts American competitiveness

"The U.S. needs to focus on helping, not hurting, small businesses," says CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro.

Nancy Pelosi is among the PRO Act's supporters in Congress.

Photo: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Getty Images

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association.

Should employers be required to give up personal and private information about their employees to union organizers? If 216 Congressional Democrats and two Republicans get their way, employers would have to give a name, phone number and home address to any union official claiming to want to organize their facility. As if anyone in America wants to be visited in their home by a union official financially incentivized to make them sign a unionization petition.

Keep Reading Show less
Gary Shapiro
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer technology companies. He's also a New York Times bestselling author.
Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Power

Cord cutting in 2020: Pay TV industry lost 5.5 million subscribers

Subscriber defections slowed toward the end of the year, but there's no end to cord cutting in sight.

The pay TV industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift.

Photo: Nicolas J Leclercq/Unsplash

The five biggest pay TV providers lost a combined 5.5 million subscribers in 2020, narrowly staying below the 5.8 million subscribers the companies collectively lost in 2019. Subscriber losses slowed a bit toward the end of the year, but pandemic-related cutbacks still hit the industry hard — and may have led to hundreds of thousands additional cancellations if not for industry-wide billing relief efforts.

The industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift, with pay TV subscribers switching from traditional operators like Comcast and AT&T to tech companies like Google and Hulu and their respective pay TV services. However, a closer look at pay TV trends suggests that these gains may be temporary, as so-called skinny bundles fall out of favor with consumers once operators are forced to increase their price tags to make up for ever-increasing network licensing costs.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Latest Stories