On Monday, roughly 230 Google employees announced they were forming a union with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). It’s open to employees and contractors at Alphabet, Google’s parent company. As a minority union, it doesn’t need to go through a formal legal process in order to exist. It just needs to announce itself. That part is done. World, meet the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU).
The news prompted a wave of support from organizers like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ellen Pao, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It also led to some questions. What is a minority union? Isn’t 230 members rather small? Why is CWA involved?
Here’s what we know so far about the Alphabet Workers Union — and what we are still waiting to find out.
Where did this union come from?
Over the past three years, Google employees have been organizing major walkouts and protests to oppose the company’s decision to work with the Pentagon on targeted drone strikes, pay former executive Andy Rubin $90 million after he was credibly accused of sexual harassment, and design a censored search engine for China. More recently, employees have stood up against Google’s firing of prominent AI ethicist Timnit Gebru. Now, union organizers want to unite all of those efforts under a single umbrella. The Google Walkout Twitter account is publicly supporting AWU, although the efforts aren’t one and the same.
What is a minority union?
As a minority union, or a solidarity union, AWU doesn’t need to go through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and hold a vote to convince the majority of employees to sign on. With the announcement, “Google workers are taking immediate advantage of the power of a union,” according to Clarissa Redwine in Collective Action in Tech. This structure puts the emphasis on employee organizing, rather than politics and negotiations, which can come later. Workers told The New York Times that it was “primarily an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.”
What’s the benefit of that?
The structure allows AWU to welcome Alphabet contractors as well as employees. At Google, temporary workers outnumber full-time staff but often receive just a small fraction of the benefits. AWU wants to unite the interests of janitors and cafeteria workers with those of engineers and product managers. This would be difficult to do with a majority union. “Organizing Google as a labor union via existing labor laws would be next to impossible,” says Veena Dubal, a law professor at Hastings. “Google would have so many advantages to avoiding recognizing any kind of majority union.” Dubal also says that Google’s use of temporary workers is likely strategic. “We can understand Google’s use of temporary workers as part of their effort to avoid unionism,” she says. “It’s an effort to divide workers, and avoid having to work with the majority bargaining unit.”
Is there anything else like this in tech?
As Redwine wrote, this isn’t the first time Google workers have unionized.
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 Kickstarter is a small company with fewer than 200 employees. Google, in contrast, has 123,000 full-time staff and more than 130,000 contractors, making AWU’s effort unprecedented. If it’s successful, it will likely be a bellwether for organizing efforts at big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Apple.
What is the Communications Workers of America?
CWA is one of the largest unions in the US, with 700,000 members. It was formed by telecom workers but has since branched out into game developers and, more recently, tech employees. The Google union is affiliated with CWA’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees.
Google employees organized in secret for almost a year before deciding to go public with the support of CWA. As a minority union, it doesn’t need the backing of a larger organization. Part of the point, after all, is to avoid the bureaucracy that comes from working with a big institution. But CWA’s experience will likely come in handy when going up against Google management.
And people like CWA?
Not everyone is happy about CWA’s involvement. Amr Gaber, an engineer who helped organize the Google walkouts in 2018, told The New York Times that the organization was “more concerned about claiming turf” than listening to the needs of workers.
Kathryn Spiers, a security engineer who was wrongfully fired from Google in 2019, according to the NLRB, wrote that CWA has “a tendency to jump the gun and announce things early (they put my name in a press release without my permission) and this feels similar.”
So what are the goals of the union?
AWU hasn’t published a list of demands. As a democratic organization, it wants to hear from new members before deciding on major initiatives. But organizers have hinted that they’re not stopping at pay disparity. “Our goal with the union is to ensure that tech companies use their technology to make the world a better place,” says Alan Morales, a Google engineer and AWU organizer.
Can a union with only a few hundred members be effective?
The short answer is probably not — but AWU isn’t expecting to stay at just a few hundred. When the union went public, it had about 230 members. Less than 24 hours later, it has more than 400. Organizers anticipate the membership base will continue to swell. “We are expecting more members over the few coming weeks, now that the union is public, possibly in the thousands,” Morales says. Still, with roughly a quarter of a million Google workers, AWU has a long way to go to reach a critical mass.
We started today with 200+ #AWU members, the result of more than a year of intense discussions, one-on-one's, & other organizing.— Alphabet Workers Union (@AlphabetWorkers) January 5, 2021
We ended today, our first day as a public group, with over 400 members.
It's the first Monday of 2021. We're going to keep it up this whole year.
How has Google responded to the union?
Google issued a statement yesterday saying “of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support.” But if AWU continues to grow, the company will likely change its tune. Google already hired IRI consultants, a firm widely known for its anti-union sentiment, in 2019 in the wake of employee organizing efforts. That same year, it fired four workers who were engaged in employee activism.
This time around, “it’s not necessarily going to be as clear cut as firing individual activists,” says Liz Fong-Jones, a former Google engineer. “Yes, they will continue to fire individual activists, but I think the more likely thing is that activists will face negative performance reviews, being told that they’re not team players or that they’re not positive about the company. We saw some of those things with Dr. Timnit Gebru.”
That’s going to be especially true if the union starts going after major strategy initiatives, like the company’s government contracts. But that’s also kind of the point. Meredith Whittaker, one of the organizers of the 2018 Google walkout, tells The Verge: “I’m not interested in a movement about what kind of tea workers have in the free snack kitchen. This is a fight for power over everything at Google — what they build, how they treat people, whether certain parts of the company should exist.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Google employees.