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Google Workers Say the Endless Wait to Unionize Big Tech Is Over

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The five most valu­able com­pa­nies in Amer­i­ca are all big tech com­pa­nies, and none of them are union­ized. Com­pound­ing this exis­ten­tial chal­lenge for orga­nized labor is the fact that the huge work forces of the com­pa­nies make union­iz­ing them seem an impos­si­bly large task. Now, one union has solved that prob­lem with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary approach: Just start. 

This morn­ing, work­ers at Alpha­bet, the par­ent com­pa­ny of Google, announced the for­ma­tion of the Alpha­bet Work­ers Union (AWU), affil­i­at­ed with the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, one of the few major unions that has ded­i­cat­ed resources to orga­niz­ing the tech indus­try. The AWU is start­ing with just over 200 mem­bers?—?a tiny frac­tion of the more than 200,000 total Google employ­ees, includ­ing full timers and con­trac­tors, that make up the $1.2 tril­lion com­pa­ny. But, after years of iso­lat­ed issue-based activism by employ­ees, they real­ized that if they ever want­ed a union, the only way to get it was to forge ahead. 

“A lot of us joined the com­pa­ny because we believed in the val­ues. That wasn’t a sec­ondary thing, that was why we joined,” says Chewy Shaw, a Google soft­ware engi­neer since 2013 who is now the vice chair of the AWU. Shaw describes a slow sour­ing of his rela­tion­ship with the com­pa­ny in recent years, as work­ers per­ceived as trou­ble­some were pushed out by hos­tile man­age­ment, and oth­ers chose to leave over sharp eth­i­cal dis­agree­ments about the company’s direc­tion. The inter­nal uproar last year over Google’s con­tracts with gov­ern­ment agen­cies like ICE was a clar­i­fy­ing moment for Shaw, who decid­ed that if he was going to stay at the com­pa­ny, he had to start organizing. 

Since the 2018 Google walk­outs protest­ing sex­u­al harass­ment (and the sub­se­quent retal­i­a­tion against its orga­niz­ers), Google has been the most high pro­file hotbed of work­er orga­niz­ing among the big tech com­pa­nies?—?though all of that orga­niz­ing focused on spe­cif­ic issues as they arose, rather than on form­ing a union. Shaw began attend­ing events that employ­ees set up relat­ed to orga­niz­ing: a lun­cheon, a book club, a lec­ture. Even­tu­al­ly, he con­nect­ed with CWA staff and began actu­al labor orga­niz­ing in earnest. Last June, a group called Googlers Against Racism got more than 1,000 employ­ee sig­na­tures on a Cowork?er?.org peti­tion urg­ing the com­pa­ny to take a num­ber of steps to pro­mote diver­si­ty and end con­tracts with police. That group pro­vid­ed a pool of inter­est­ed activist work­ers that led direct­ly to dis­cus­sions about union­iz­ing, and to recruits for the union. Shaw says that the fir­ing last month of Timnit Gebru, an inter­nal crit­ic of the com­pa­ny, was ?“a real­ly big ral­ly­ing moment.” 

(In response to today’s news, the com­pa­ny said in a state­ment: ?“We’ve always worked hard to cre­ate a sup­port­ive and reward­ing work­place for our work­force. 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.”)

Google is a com­pa­ny of engi­neers, and if there’s one thing engi­neers under­stand, it’s struc­tur­al issues. After the 2018 walk­out, ?“it became clear to me that it wasn’t enough. We weren’t able to move the com­pa­ny the way it need­ed to be moved,” says Auni Ahsan, a soft­ware engi­neer and one of the union’s found­ing mem­bers. ?“We need a struc­ture that we can devel­op that can be resilient.” 

Shaw scoffs at the long­stand­ing canard that engi­neers are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly hos­tile to labor orga­niz­ing, an idea that has often been float­ed with­in both the labor and tech worlds to explain why the tech indus­try remains large­ly non-union. ?“Peo­ple are at a com­pa­ny that has orga­nized 250,000 peo­ple to work on sim­i­lar projects,” he notes dri­ly. As Google employ­ees have worked with CWA to build their union, they have also been study­ing labor his­to­ry and Amer­i­can labor law, and their diag­no­sis of the weak­ness­es in today’s labor move­ment has helped inform their path. ?“We’ve been think­ing some of [the decline of unions] is due to how peo­ple have been lean­ing on the legal struc­ture, and it does­n’t give enough pro­tec­tion unless you fit a spe­cif­ic sce­nario,” Shaw says. 

The AWU’s struc­ture could be a mod­el for future tech orga­niz­ing. It will be a dues-sup­port­ed orga­ni­za­tion, like a union, but it will be open to both full time employ­ees and con­trac­tors, who make up more than half of Google’s work force. The union has been orga­niz­ing in secret, mean­ing that much of its recruit­ment work was restrict­ed to the social net­works of its var­i­ous employ­ee orga­niz­ers. They decid­ed to go pub­lic after claim­ing 200 mem­bers, and they hope that the rush of pub­lic­i­ty will bring in thou­sands of more mem­bers in short order. AWU will not be able to engage in for­mal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing like a union that rep­re­sents the entire staff, but it will be a per­ma­nent, grow­ing, and very vocal labor group posi­tioned square­ly inside one of the world’s most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies?—?some­thing that would have been vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble if CWA had tried to fol­low a tra­di­tion­al union orga­niz­ing route with­in Google. 

“Thou­sands or mil­lions of peo­ple will wake up and see this sto­ry and see that you don’t need to wait for the labor board to approve your union,” Ahsan says. ?“You have a union when you say you have a union.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Dolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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