The five most valu¬≠able com¬≠pa¬≠nies in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca are all big tech com¬≠pa¬≠nies, and none of them are union¬≠ized. Com¬≠pound¬≠ing this exis¬≠ten¬≠tial chal¬≠lenge for orga¬≠nized labor is the fact that the huge work forces of the com¬≠pa¬≠nies make union¬≠iz¬≠ing them seem an impos¬≠si¬≠bly large task. Now, one union has solved that prob¬≠lem with a rev¬≠o¬≠lu¬≠tion¬≠ary approach: Just start.
This morn¬≠ing, work¬≠ers at Alpha¬≠bet, the par¬≠ent com¬≠pa¬≠ny of Google, announced the for¬≠ma¬≠tion of the Alpha¬≠bet Work¬≠ers Union (AWU), affil¬≠i¬≠at¬≠ed with the Com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tions Work¬≠ers of Amer¬≠i¬≠ca, one of the few major unions that has ded¬≠i¬≠cat¬≠ed resources to orga¬≠niz¬≠ing the tech indus¬≠try. The AWU is start¬≠ing with just over 200 mem¬≠bers?‚ÄĒ?a tiny frac¬≠tion of the more than 200,000 total Google employ¬≠ees, includ¬≠ing full timers and con¬≠trac¬≠tors, that make up the $1.2 tril¬≠lion com¬≠pa¬≠ny. But, after years of iso¬≠lat¬≠ed issue-based activism by employ¬≠ees, they real¬≠ized that if they ever want¬≠ed a union, the only way to get it was to forge ahead.
‚ÄúA lot of us joined the com¬≠pa¬≠ny because we believed in the val¬≠ues. That wasn‚Äôt a sec¬≠ondary thing, that was why we joined,‚ÄĚ says Chewy Shaw, a Google soft¬≠ware engi¬≠neer since 2013 who is now the vice chair of the AWU. Shaw describes a slow sour¬≠ing of his rela¬≠tion¬≠ship with the com¬≠pa¬≠ny in recent years, as work¬≠ers per¬≠ceived as trou¬≠ble¬≠some were pushed out by hos¬≠tile man¬≠age¬≠ment, and oth¬≠ers chose to leave over sharp eth¬≠i¬≠cal dis¬≠agree¬≠ments about the company‚Äôs direc¬≠tion. The inter¬≠nal uproar last year over Google‚Äôs con¬≠tracts with gov¬≠ern¬≠ment agen¬≠cies like ICE was a clar¬≠i¬≠fy¬≠ing moment for Shaw, who decid¬≠ed that if he was going to stay at the com¬≠pa¬≠ny, he had to start organizing.
Since the 2018 Google walk¬≠outs protest¬≠ing sex¬≠u¬≠al harass¬≠ment (and the sub¬≠se¬≠quent retal¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion against its orga¬≠niz¬≠ers), Google has been the most high pro¬≠file hotbed of work¬≠er orga¬≠niz¬≠ing among the big tech com¬≠pa¬≠nies?‚ÄĒ?though all of that orga¬≠niz¬≠ing focused on spe¬≠cif¬≠ic issues as they arose, rather than on form¬≠ing a union. Shaw began attend¬≠ing events that employ¬≠ees set up relat¬≠ed to orga¬≠niz¬≠ing: a lun¬≠cheon, a book club, a lec¬≠ture. Even¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly, he con¬≠nect¬≠ed with CWA staff and began actu¬≠al labor orga¬≠niz¬≠ing in earnest. Last June, a group called Googlers Against Racism got more than 1,000 employ¬≠ee sig¬≠na¬≠tures on a Cowork?er?.org peti¬≠tion urg¬≠ing the com¬≠pa¬≠ny to take a num¬≠ber of steps to pro¬≠mote diver¬≠si¬≠ty and end con¬≠tracts with police. That group pro¬≠vid¬≠ed a pool of inter¬≠est¬≠ed activist work¬≠ers that led direct¬≠ly to dis¬≠cus¬≠sions about union¬≠iz¬≠ing, and to recruits for the union. Shaw says that the fir¬≠ing last month of Timnit Gebru, an inter¬≠nal crit¬≠ic of the com¬≠pa¬≠ny, was ?‚Äúa real¬≠ly big ral¬≠ly¬≠ing moment.‚ÄĚ
(In response to today‚Äôs news, the com¬≠pa¬≠ny said in a state¬≠ment: ?‚ÄúWe‚Äôve always worked hard to cre¬≠ate a sup¬≠port¬≠ive and reward¬≠ing work¬≠place for our work¬≠force. Of course our employ¬≠ees have pro¬≠tect¬≠ed labor rights that we sup¬≠port. But as we‚Äôve always done, we‚Äôll con¬≠tin¬≠ue engag¬≠ing direct¬≠ly with all our employees.‚ÄĚ)
Google is a com¬≠pa¬≠ny of engi¬≠neers, and if there‚Äôs one thing engi¬≠neers under¬≠stand, it‚Äôs struc¬≠tur¬≠al issues. After the 2018 walk¬≠out, ?‚Äúit became clear to me that it wasn‚Äôt enough. We weren‚Äôt able to move the com¬≠pa¬≠ny the way it need¬≠ed to be moved,‚ÄĚ says Auni Ahsan, a soft¬≠ware engi¬≠neer and one of the union‚Äôs found¬≠ing mem¬≠bers. ?‚ÄúWe need a struc¬≠ture that we can devel¬≠op that can be resilient.‚ÄĚ
Shaw scoffs at the long¬≠stand¬≠ing canard that engi¬≠neers are con¬≠sti¬≠tu¬≠tion¬≠al¬≠ly hos¬≠tile to labor orga¬≠niz¬≠ing, an idea that has often been float¬≠ed with¬≠in both the labor and tech worlds to explain why the tech indus¬≠try remains large¬≠ly non-union. ?‚ÄúPeo¬≠ple are at a com¬≠pa¬≠ny that has orga¬≠nized 250,000 peo¬≠ple to work on sim¬≠i¬≠lar projects,‚ÄĚ he notes dri¬≠ly. As Google employ¬≠ees have worked with CWA to build their union, they have also been study¬≠ing labor his¬≠to¬≠ry and Amer¬≠i¬≠can labor law, and their diag¬≠no¬≠sis of the weak¬≠ness¬≠es in today‚Äôs labor move¬≠ment has helped inform their path. ?‚ÄúWe‚Äôve been think¬≠ing some of [the decline of unions] is due to how peo¬≠ple have been lean¬≠ing on the legal struc¬≠ture, and it does¬≠n‚Äôt give enough pro¬≠tec¬≠tion unless you fit a spe¬≠cif¬≠ic sce¬≠nario,‚ÄĚ Shaw says.
The AWU‚Äôs struc¬≠ture could be a mod¬≠el for future tech orga¬≠niz¬≠ing. It will be a dues-sup¬≠port¬≠ed orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tion, like a union, but it will be open to both full time employ¬≠ees and con¬≠trac¬≠tors, who make up more than half of Google‚Äôs work force. The union has been orga¬≠niz¬≠ing in secret, mean¬≠ing that much of its recruit¬≠ment work was restrict¬≠ed to the social net¬≠works of its var¬≠i¬≠ous employ¬≠ee orga¬≠niz¬≠ers. They decid¬≠ed to go pub¬≠lic after claim¬≠ing 200 mem¬≠bers, and they hope that the rush of pub¬≠lic¬≠i¬≠ty will bring in thou¬≠sands of more mem¬≠bers in short order. AWU will not be able to engage in for¬≠mal col¬≠lec¬≠tive bar¬≠gain¬≠ing like a union that rep¬≠re¬≠sents the entire staff, but it will be a per¬≠ma¬≠nent, grow¬≠ing, and very vocal labor group posi¬≠tioned square¬≠ly inside one of the world‚Äôs most pow¬≠er¬≠ful com¬≠pa¬≠nies?‚ÄĒ?some¬≠thing that would have been vir¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly impos¬≠si¬≠ble if CWA had tried to fol¬≠low a tra¬≠di¬≠tion¬≠al union orga¬≠niz¬≠ing route with¬≠in Google.
‚ÄúThou¬≠sands or mil¬≠lions of peo¬≠ple will wake up and see this sto¬≠ry and see that you don‚Äôt need to wait for the labor board to approve your union,‚ÄĚ Ahsan says. ?‚ÄúYou have a union when you say you have a union.‚ÄĚ
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 writ¬≠ing about labor and pol¬≠i¬≠tics for Gawk¬≠er, Splin¬≠ter, The Guardian, and else¬≠where.