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When the Alphabet Workers Union launched with more than 200 Googlers at the beginning of the year, it saw a quick flood of new sign-ups, nearly quadrupling membership over a few weeks. But even with the more than 710 members it now represents, the union still stands for just a tiny fraction of Google's more than 200,000 North American employees and contractors. The broader Alphabet workforce could prove difficult to win over, which is a hurdle that could stand in the way of the group's long-term ambitions for substantive culture change and even collective bargaining.
The initial boom of interest from Googlers was thrilling for Alex Peterson, a software engineer and union spokesperson. "It's really reinvigorating what it means to actually be a community of Googlers, which is something that's been eroding over the past four or five years, or even longer."
But since those initial weeks, Peterson acknowledges that recruiting members beyond the early adopters has had its challenges. One of the biggest barriers, according to Peterson, is the union's dues structure. As Googlers' pay goes up, they become more hesitant to commit 1% of their salaries to dues: The more people are paid, the bigger that figure becomes. People with children and high Bay Area rents also have a more difficult time factoring the union dues into their budgets, Peterson said, though he remains impressed that hundreds of people are willing to pay dues anyway. "There's definitely going to be an ongoing conversation about whether or how to restructure the dues system with that in mind," he said.
Retaliation is another big fear preventing some from joining, though the union has strict security rules in place to protect anonymity for those who want it. When the union first launched, many of its founding members hoped that publicly putting their names behind the union would encourage people to join who were afraid of retaliation earlier in the process. But that fear hasn't gone entirely away. "We've gotten emails from people just asking how anonymous they can be," Peterson said.
Some union members never reveal their name to anyone but their captain — the person in charge of their particular unit of workers in a particular location — and they can use anonymous names in the AWU Slack group. Everyone is required to use a private email address, and they avoid using Google products in their work because, while they trust Google's privacy policies to protect them in theory, they worry that a rogue Google member could try to violate those policies to out members. The official member list is closely guarded by a few people on the union executive team.
The absence of a collective bargaining unit has also been a common deterrent for those hesitating to sign up, Peterson said. Traditionally, union members pay dues in part because of the promise of higher wages and better benefits negotiated through a formal bargaining process. Because AWU includes various groups of Google workers and company contractors, it isn't legally eligible to go through the formal collective bargaining process.
And yet, while the AWU can't form its own collective bargaining unit, there are other ways to enable some members to engage in collective bargaining, Peterson explained. Because workers in the union are organized by both their location and their role, the AWU hopes that it will be able to use its partnership with the Communication Workers of America, which helped organize AWU, to form smaller collective bargaining groups within the union. For example, a group of engineers in the Seattle office, or researchers in San Francisco, could form their own unit with the expertise and assistance of the AWU and their CWA union partners (Google warehouse workers in Pittsburgh did this independently in 2019).
"A really small group like this can end up having really big influence if they are strategic about what they're trying to accomplish," said Beth Allen, the spokesperson for CWA. "There is sort of big power for big change, and then there is influence and making a real difference for individual workers. Making a real difference for individual workers happens from day one." According to Allen, organizing and getting to know the new members is more than enough of a heavy lift for the organizers, and signals great early progress.
The AWU won't be the first union working with CWA to pursue a structure like this, Allen said. She cited the Committee for Better Banks, which pushes for industry change, as one example. Some workers within that committee later formed a collective bargaining unit to address their specific problems, a model AWU workers could emulate. "That's definitely a possibility if there is a particular work group where there's a large number of members and the kinds of problems they're facing would have a collective bargaining agreement as the best way to address that," she said.
The CWA has been working to organize tech and gaming workers since early 2020, when it launched a campaign called CODE-CWA. "We've seen activism throughout the industry in workers organizing, and have been approached by workers in the industry," said Wes McEnany, one of CODE-CWA's organizers. "CWA is trying to meet the moment. We're not creating the moment."
As part of that effort, CODE-CWA hosts regular trainings with tech workers, advising them on ways to talk to their colleagues about organizing. "It's not just winning the vote. It's building democracy in the workplace, and that's a process," McEnany said.
Since the AWU went public, McEnany said his team has been bombarded with inquiries from other tech workers interested in forming similarly-structured unions at their own companies. "They look at the two-tiered workforce, where there are more vendors and contractors in the industry than full-time employees. It's not hard to look around and see there are serious inequities happening here," McEnany said, noting that he believes the online content moderation space is particularly ripe for organizing.
McEnany and his growing team at CWA are hoping to convince some of these workers that minority unions can still have an impact, even if they lack collective bargaining power. "We think there's no reason to not bring this model back," he said. "This is not just solidifying protest culture, but taking a more robust organizing approach to it."
Peterson, for one, isn't worried that AWU is still relatively small compared to Alphabet. Many of the founding members envision a union that's united by community values, not just labor protections, and they know they need to prove themselves to the broader Googler community before that can happen.
He hopes that beginning in February, the various committees and groups will start to solidify and begin discussions about their first campaigns and goals, including setting a formal recruitment goal and plan. He's also hoping that some workers will be able to return to the office in the summer, which should ease some of the recruitment difficulties and also help union members get a better sense of how their colleagues feel about the work.
"Among those of us who have already joined, we're extremely motivated by not just workplace conditions and our ability to change policies and things like that, but also the consumer advocacy side," Peterson said. "We have to prove ourselves in a certain sense with our workplace victories to demonstrate what we have to offer to those who might be less tuned in to the consequences of some of Google's product decisions."
Issie Lapowsky contributed additional reporting.
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Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.