Skip to main content

How the Google union could boost labor organizing in Silicon Valley

How the Google union could boost labor organizing in Silicon Valley

/

The Alphabet Workers Union’s apparent weaknesses could be a strength

Share this story

Illustration: Alex Castro / The Verge

Just over a year ago, I spent some time in Austin meeting with Google contractors. They had been hired through Accenture to moderate some of the most disturbing content on YouTube: videos that contain violent extremism, including murders and acts of terrorism. Several told me they had either been diagnosed with or were suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The people I talked with made about $37,000 a year, and several had immigrated to the United States from the Middle East. Many found their working conditions intolerable, but they feared speaking out publicly for fear they would be fired.

They were, in short, the sort of people who benefit from membership in a union. But with a handful of exceptions, the labor movement has made few inroads in the world’s most valuable companies. White-collar workers earn high salaries, enjoy world-class perks, and should they ever grow unhappy, have ample opportunities to get lucrative jobs elsewhere. And the blue-collar workers who support and enable much of their work have been outsourced to companies like Accenture, making them ineligible for collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act.

If the arrival of an Alphabet union, no matter how modest, seems surprising, perhaps it shouldn’t be

These and other factors have prevented unions from forming inside the tech giants, even as tensions between workers and their employers have risen across the industry. But not anymore: a small number of Googlers announced on Monday that they have formed an unconventional union, and if successful, it could upend labor relations across the industry.

The initial group of 230 Googlers is not immediately seeking ratification for their union, which is being supported by the 700,000-member Communication Workers of America through the National Labor Relations Board. As such, the Googlers will not have collective bargaining rights. But the union does include contractors, greatly expanding its base of potential members. (Google has 123,000 full-time employees, and 130,000 contractors.)

Nitasha Tiku introduces us to the Alphabet Workers Union in The Washington Post:

The Alphabet Workers Union will have an elected board of directors and paid organizing staff members, according to the group’s news release. Members will pay 1 percent of total compensation, which includes salary and equity. A representative declined to say how many of the 230 or so members are full-time employees versus contractors.

“This union builds upon years of courageous organizing by Google workers,” Nicki Anselmo, Google program manager, said in a statement that referenced the company’s decision not to renew a Pentagon contract to analyze drone footage after employees protested. “From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively.”

If the arrival of an Alphabet union, no matter how modest, seems surprising, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Collective Action in Tech’s Clarissa Redwine points out that organizing efforts inside Google have been building for some time — and have been met with increasing resistance from management:

In 2017, security guards at Google and Facebook had their union recognized and fought through a long contract negotiation. In 2019, Google cafeteria staff employed by vendor Bon Appetit won their union election. In September 2019 a group of 80 contract office workers in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers, forming Google’s very first office worker union. But shortly after these workers won their union, the company that contracted these workers to Google outsourced their roles to Poland, decimating the union’s bargaining unit in retaliation for unionizing. 

Since then, Google has ramped up its anti-union strategy. In November 2020, Google illegally fired four workers for organizing. In an attempt to further chill worker organizing, the company has shut down key channels for challenging leadership, tracked expressions of dissent, and hired an anti-union firm

The subsequent forced resignation of AI researcher Timnit Gebru last month only further galvanized organizing efforts inside the company.

“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce,” Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations, said in a statement. “Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

members now have a powerful megaphone for talking about workplace inequality

But Isaac Clerencia, a senior site reliability engineer who has worked at the company since 2010, told me he joined the union after coming to feel like managers had grown gradually less responsive to the workforce over time. “I feel like the culture has changed significantly,” he said. “It used to be possible to raise your voice internally and maybe get Google to change some decisions. [Now] it seems harder and harder.”

To be sure, the Alphabet union is tiny relative to the company’s total number of employees. Much of the early discussion around the effort has focused on how powerful the union can be given its unconventional structure. The Markup’s Adrianne Jeffries, a longtime chronicler of Google, called it “relatively toothless”; Kathryn Spiers, a former Googler who was fired after organizing in the workplace, said Alphabet’s union “could and should be more radical.”

And if the Alphabet union stays small, its impact could be limited. But with a quarter-million potential members, and tensions inside the company continuing to boil over, I wouldn’t bet on it staying tiny forever.

We’ll see how many Googlers sign up — and fork over 1 percent of their salaries for the cause — in due time. In the meantime, here are a few guesses about what we can expect to see next.

For the Googlers in the union: members now have a powerful megaphone for talking about workplace inequality, and they can assume their grievances will get wide attention. That they officially speak for just a few hundred employees won’t much matter because Twitter exists, and there’s nothing a Twitter user loves to retweet more than a Big Tech employee calling out their employer. More importantly, union members will now have real legal protections as they continue their work — and new resources to expand their ranks.

For Google management: managers now face an entrenched internal opposition with added legal protections, a growing social media presence, and prominent supporters in Congress. (Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin were among the elected officials who publicly congratulated the group.) The union reportedly plans to weigh in on antitrust issues; Bloomberg notes that the CWA previously joined a coalition calling for the breakup of Facebook. During a fraught time, Google will now have a high-profile group of employees working to undermine its favored narratives on a variety of sensitive topics.

it could serve as a model for organizing efforts elsewhere

And for everyone else working for a tech giant? I expect a lot of nervous looking around. I expect more surveillance of employees, more consulting with lawyers, and more outright union busting. The faster the Alphabet Workers Union grows, the faster I expect these efforts to accelerate.

But Google tried those things, too, and in the end it didn’t matter. At least, it didn’t stop the union from forming. Maybe the company can stop it from growing; maybe it can rein in the union’s power. But the union is here, it has big plans, and it could serve as a model for organizing efforts elsewhere.

Moreover, I’d argue that the very aspects of the union that make it appear weak — the fact that workers have to opt in to joining, that it won’t seek formal recognition, and that it won’t attempt to bargain for a contract — make it easier for workers at other tech giants to copy. It may turn out that traditional unions remain unpalatable, or simply unworkable, at most big tech companies. But a giant, legally protected megaphone to air your grievances with management? That might be something that a lot of workers find useful, in Silicon Valley and beyond.

I get why some have been dismissive of the Alphabet Workers Union, particularly in its initial form. But the trend within tech companies over the past few years has been for labor movements to grow more powerful, not less. Viewed through that lens, today’s news was probably inevitable. And the organizing efforts that began inside Google are not likely to stop there.


This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 23 10 minutes in the clouds

J
Twitter
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


A
External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.


Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
A
External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.


E
TikTok
Spain’s Transports Urbans de Sabadell has La Bussí.

Once again, the US has fallen behind in transportation — call it the Bussí gap. A hole in our infrastructure, if you will.


J
External Link
Jay PetersSep 23
Doing more with less (extravagant holiday parties).

Sundar Pichai addressed employees’ questions about Google’s spending changes at an all-hands this week, according to CNBC.

“Maybe you were planning on hiring six more people but maybe you are going to have to do with four and how are you going to make that happen?” Pichai sent a memo to workers in July about a hiring slowdown.

In the all-hands, Google’s head of finance also asked staff to try not to go “over the top” for holiday parties.


E
External Link
Insiders made the most money off of Helium’s “People’s Network.”

Remember Helium, which was touted by The New York Times in an article entitled “Maybe There’s a Use for Crypto After All?” Not only was the company misleading people about who used it — Salesforce and Lime weren’t using it, despite what Helium said on its site — Helium disproportionately enriched insiders, Forbes reports.


J
Youtube
James VincentSep 23
Nvidia’s latest AI model generates endless 3D models.

Need to fill your video game, VR world, or project render with 3D chaff? Nvidia’s latest AI model could help. Trained on 2D images, it can churn out customizable 3D objects ready to import and tweak.

The model seems rudimentary (the renders aren’t amazing quality and seem limited in their variety), but generative AI models like this are only going to improve, speeding up work for all sorts of creative types.


R
Richard LawlerSep 23
Green light.

This week Friday brings the debut of Apple’s other new hardware. We’ve reviewed both the new AirPods Pro and this chonky Apple Watch Ultra, and now you’ll decide if you’re picking them up, or not.

Otherwise, we’re preparing for Netflix’s Tudum event this weekend and slapping Dynamic Island onto Android phones.


The Apple Watch Ultra on a woman’s wrist
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
J
External Link
Jess WeatherbedSep 23
Japan will fully reopen to tourists in October following two and a half years of travel restrictions.

Good news for folks who have been waiting to book their dream Tokyo vacation: Japan will finally relax Covid border control measures for visa-free travel and individual travelers on October 11th.

Tourists will still need to be vaccinated three times or submit a negative COVID-19 test result ahead of their trip, but can take advantage of the weak yen and a ‘national travel discount’ launching on the same date. Sugoi!


T
External Link
Thomas RickerSep 23
Sony starts selling the Xperia 1 IV with continuous zoom lens.

What does it cost to buy a smartphone that does something no smartphone from Apple, Google, Samsung can? $1,599.99 is Sony’s answer: for a camera lens that can shift its focal length anywhere between 85mm and 125mm.

Here’s Allison’s take on Sony’s continuous-zoom lens when she tested a prototype Xperia 1 IV back in May: 

Sony put a good point-and-shoot zoom in a smartphone. That’s an impressive feat. In practical use, it’s a bit less impressive. It’s essentially two lenses that serve the same function: portrait photography. The fact that there’s optical zoom connecting them doesn’t make them much more versatile.

Still, it is a Sony, and like.no.other.


C
External Link
Corin FaifeSep 23
If God sees everything, so do these apps.

Some Churches are asking congregants to install so-called “accountability apps” to prevent sinful behavior. A Wired investigation found that they monitor almost everything a user does on their phone, including taking regular screenshots and flagging LGBT search terms.