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Google workers make waves with new labor union

Google workers make waves with new labor union
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This week’s move by more than 200 workers at Alphabet to form a union is being seen as an alternative framework for organizing at other Silicon Valley giants.

The Alphabet Workers Union was organized with the help of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) as what’s known as a minority or non-contract union, meaning the group is not seeking recognition from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), nor will it have formal collective bargaining power.

The model has primarily been used to organize workers at universities and in states that prohibit collective bargaining by government employees, but its roots stretch back to early industrial labor movements.

Alphabet Workers Union and CWA representatives who spoke to The Hill gave two main reasons for choosing to pursue this model: growth opportunities and inclusivity.

The union at Alphabet and its subsidiary Google started with a little over 220 members, but they are hopeful that the attention being paid to the group as well as the ability to speak about it in public will increase those numbers.

“I think there’s a lot of latent energy that we’re going to tap into,” said Kimberly Wilber, a software engineer in Google’s New York City office. “We’re expecting to bring in a whole bunch more people now that we can actually talk about it publicly.”

Google is already a hotbed for collective action — whether it be against Pentagon contracts or pressing for improvements of sexual misconduct policy — showing that many workers are least interested in collectively pressuring the company.

The massive size of Alphabet, which employs upward of 120,000 workers worldwide, is another reason to go with the nontraditional unionization route, according to Seattle-based Google privacy engineer Raine Serrano.

“One of the things that was really important to us was that we include all Alphabet workers, and that includes subcontractors,” Serrano told The Hill.

Including contractors and subcontractors in a traditional union could be difficult given that they’re often employed by other companies.

“If you go through the NLRB process, what's going to happen is that all of these contractors, most of which are probably misclassified, are going to get thrown out of any bargaining unit,” said Connor Lewis, an editor at the labor publication Strikewave.

Close to half of Alphabet staff are contractors or subcontractors, filling a variety of roles from cafeteria workers to developers. Those workers do not have the same protections afforded to full employees. Previous unionization pushes at Google — in Pittsburgh and the Bay Area — have been organized exclusively by contractors.

The CWA has been involved in building minority unions among public workers in Texas and Tennessee, two states where they cannot engage in collective bargaining.

Beth Allen, the group’s communications director, said the model avoids constraints that might otherwise be put in place.

Non-contract unions don’t necessarily end up becoming fully recognized ones, and Google workers who spoke with The Hill said going down that path is not in their near-term plans.

“Some [minority unions] evolve into certified majority unions, others do not — they carry on as advocacy groups,” said Toby Higbie, a professor and labor historian at UCLA. “But one way or another they can begin the process of addressing what they see as their mutual concerns.”

Even without becoming an NLRB-recognized union, workers will gain benefits from having gone public. They will maintain existing legal protections from being fired for organizing while also gaining a unified messaging vehicle.

“They have the ability to democratically decide what their demands should be and who should voice those demands, they are part of a larger international union ... they have high-quality legal representation and they have democratic structures for working for the changes that they want,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations.

There is also a legal theory that could see unions gain collective bargaining rights while remaining a minority of the workforce, according to Minnesota-based labor organizer Dave Kamper, but it has yet to be tested at the NLRB.

There are potential drawbacks to the Alphabet workers going public early, though.

Kathryn Spiers, a Google software engineer whose dismissal in 2019 is currently being challenged by the NLRB, warned that the group may not be strong enough yet to withstand the company’s potential response.

“I’m just extremely worried about the initial wave of retaliation that is definitely about to come,” she said. “I expect them to identify key organizers and fire them.”

Spiers stressed that the union launch is “extremely exciting” even if she has concerns about strategy.

Organizing efforts have for the most part been unsuccessful in the tech industry, largely because of opposition from employers.

“Silicon Valley companies from the very beginning have seen unions as not relevant to what they do ... kind of emblematic of a different kind of company, and have actively opposed unionization,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington who has written extensively about Silicon Valley.

Labor experts said they don’t expect the new effort at Alphabet to bring about any immediate change in behavior.

“I think we should anticipate that Google will continue down the path of being absolutely opposed to any form of collective organization among its employees,” said John Logan, an expert on anti-union strategy at San Francisco State University. “I think it is absolutely ideologically committed to unilateral control of the workplace.”

Google’s Kara Silverstein said in a statement to The Hill that the company has “always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce.”

“Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support,” Google’s director of people operations added. “But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

Labor and tech experts said the approach taken by Alphabet workers can provide a model for workers at other Silicon Valley giants, like Facebook or Amazon, but that the group will need to prove itself first.

“Other tech workers will be watching,” Givan said, “and I think if they have a few key wins then we can expect this model to spread.”