The five most valuÂable comÂpaÂnies in AmerÂiÂca are all big tech comÂpaÂnies, and none of them are unionÂized. ComÂpoundÂing this exisÂtenÂtial chalÂlenge for orgaÂnized labor is the fact that the huge work forces of the comÂpaÂnies make unionÂizÂing them seem an imposÂsiÂbly large task. Now, one union has solved that probÂlem with a revÂoÂluÂtionÂary approach: Just start.
This mornÂing, workÂers at AlphaÂbet, the parÂent comÂpaÂny of Google, announced the forÂmaÂtion of the AlphaÂbet WorkÂers Union (AWU), affilÂiÂatÂed with the ComÂmuÂniÂcaÂtions WorkÂers of AmerÂiÂca, one of the few major unions that has dedÂiÂcatÂed resources to orgaÂnizÂing the tech indusÂtry. The AWU is startÂing with just over 200 memÂbers?â€”?a tiny fracÂtion of the more than 200,000 total Google employÂees, includÂing full timers and conÂtracÂtors, that make up the $1.2 trilÂlion comÂpaÂny. But, after years of isoÂlatÂed issue-based activism by employÂees, they realÂized that if they ever wantÂed a union, the only way to get it was to forge ahead.
â€śA lot of us joined the comÂpaÂny because we believed in the valÂues. That wasnâ€™t a secÂondary thing, that was why we joined,â€ť says Chewy Shaw, a Google softÂware engiÂneer since 2013 who is now the vice chair of the AWU. Shaw describes a slow sourÂing of his relaÂtionÂship with the comÂpaÂny in recent years, as workÂers perÂceived as trouÂbleÂsome were pushed out by hosÂtile manÂageÂment, and othÂers chose to leave over sharp ethÂiÂcal disÂagreeÂments about the companyâ€™s direcÂtion. The interÂnal uproar last year over Googleâ€™s conÂtracts with govÂernÂment agenÂcies like ICE was a clarÂiÂfyÂing moment for Shaw, who decidÂed that if he was going to stay at the comÂpaÂny, he had to start organizing.
Since the 2018 Google walkÂouts protestÂing sexÂuÂal harassÂment (and the subÂseÂquent retalÂiÂaÂtion against its orgaÂnizÂers), Google has been the most high proÂfile hotbed of workÂer orgaÂnizÂing among the big tech comÂpaÂnies?â€”?though all of that orgaÂnizÂing focused on speÂcifÂic issues as they arose, rather than on formÂing a union. Shaw began attendÂing events that employÂees set up relatÂed to orgaÂnizÂing: a lunÂcheon, a book club, a lecÂture. EvenÂtuÂalÂly, he conÂnectÂed with CWA staff and began actuÂal labor orgaÂnizÂing in earnest. Last June, a group called Googlers Against Racism got more than 1,000 employÂee sigÂnaÂtures on a Cowork?er?.org petiÂtion urgÂing the comÂpaÂny to take a numÂber of steps to proÂmote diverÂsiÂty and end conÂtracts with police. That group proÂvidÂed a pool of interÂestÂed activist workÂers that led directÂly to disÂcusÂsions about unionÂizÂing, and to recruits for the union. Shaw says that the firÂing last month of Timnit Gebru, an interÂnal critÂic of the comÂpaÂny, was ?â€śa realÂly big ralÂlyÂing moment.â€ť
(In response to todayâ€™s news, the comÂpaÂny said in a stateÂment: ?â€śWeâ€™ve always worked hard to creÂate a supÂportÂive and rewardÂing workÂplace for our workÂforce. Of course our employÂees have proÂtectÂed labor rights that we supÂport. But as weâ€™ve always done, weâ€™ll conÂtinÂue engagÂing directÂly with all our employees.â€ť)
Google is a comÂpaÂny of engiÂneers, and if thereâ€™s one thing engiÂneers underÂstand, itâ€™s strucÂturÂal issues. After the 2018 walkÂout, ?â€śit became clear to me that it wasnâ€™t enough. We werenâ€™t able to move the comÂpaÂny the way it needÂed to be moved,â€ť says Auni Ahsan, a softÂware engiÂneer and one of the unionâ€™s foundÂing memÂbers. ?â€śWe need a strucÂture that we can develÂop that can be resilient.â€ť
Shaw scoffs at the longÂstandÂing canard that engiÂneers are conÂstiÂtuÂtionÂalÂly hosÂtile to labor orgaÂnizÂing, an idea that has often been floatÂed withÂin both the labor and tech worlds to explain why the tech indusÂtry remains largeÂly non-union. ?â€śPeoÂple are at a comÂpaÂny that has orgaÂnized 250,000 peoÂple to work on simÂiÂlar projects,â€ť he notes driÂly. As Google employÂees have worked with CWA to build their union, they have also been studyÂing labor hisÂtoÂry and AmerÂiÂcan labor law, and their diagÂnoÂsis of the weakÂnessÂes in todayâ€™s labor moveÂment has helped inform their path. ?â€śWeâ€™ve been thinkÂing some of [the decline of unions] is due to how peoÂple have been leanÂing on the legal strucÂture, and it doesÂnâ€™t give enough proÂtecÂtion unless you fit a speÂcifÂic sceÂnario,â€ť Shaw says.
The AWUâ€™s strucÂture could be a modÂel for future tech orgaÂnizÂing. It will be a dues-supÂportÂed orgaÂniÂzaÂtion, like a union, but it will be open to both full time employÂees and conÂtracÂtors, who make up more than half of Googleâ€™s work force. The union has been orgaÂnizÂing in secret, meanÂing that much of its recruitÂment work was restrictÂed to the social netÂworks of its varÂiÂous employÂee orgaÂnizÂers. They decidÂed to go pubÂlic after claimÂing 200 memÂbers, and they hope that the rush of pubÂlicÂiÂty will bring in thouÂsands of more memÂbers in short order. AWU will not be able to engage in forÂmal colÂlecÂtive barÂgainÂing like a union that repÂreÂsents the entire staff, but it will be a perÂmaÂnent, growÂing, and very vocal labor group posiÂtioned squareÂly inside one of the worldâ€™s most powÂerÂful comÂpaÂnies?â€”?someÂthing that would have been virÂtuÂalÂly imposÂsiÂble if CWA had tried to folÂlow a traÂdiÂtionÂal union orgaÂnizÂing route withÂin Google.
â€śThouÂsands or milÂlions of peoÂple will wake up and see this stoÂry and see that you donâ€™t need to wait for the labor board to approve your union,â€ť Ahsan says. ?â€śYou have a union when you say you have a union.â€ť
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 writÂing about labor and polÂiÂtics for GawkÂer, SplinÂter, The Guardian, and elseÂwhere.