People

Google's union has big goals — and big roadblocks

Absence of dues, retaliation fears and small numbers could pose problems for the union's dream of collective bargaining, but Googlers are undeterred.

Google's union has big goals — and big roadblocks

Recruiting union members beyond the early adopters has had its challenges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

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.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins