New Google Union Triples in Size in First Week, But Faces Formidable Challenges

Google employees in Mountain View walk off the job on Nov. 1, 2018 to protest the company's handling of sexual misconduct claims. (Mason Trinca/Getty Images)

The new union at Alphabet, the parent company of Google, launched publicly last week with around 225 workers. Now, according to union leaders, its ranks are north of 700, and growing.

One of the organizers of the Alphabet Workers Union is software engineer Alexander Peterson.

Peterson remembers how he felt the day he got his software engineering job at Google in 2016. “I was thrilled. It was this magical place where we all work together,” he said.

Peterson said he totally nerded out on what was going on at the company, like Google’s “planet-scale” computer and its “oceanic cable” for data.

But since then, Peterson has become increasingly disenchanted. He participated in a walkout in 2018, when 20,000 Google workers protested the company's handling of sexual harassment claims, as well its lack of diversity and the second-class status given to the temps and contractors who account for over half of its workers. The following year, he supported his co-workers who opposed Google's contracts with the military.

Sponsored

“We really want to save Alphabet from itself, stop it from becoming just another one of these huge, inhuman, faceless entities that just bulldozes humanity for the sake of profit,” he said of the nascent union.

Earlier this month, some of Peterson's fellow organizers wrote an op-ed for the New York Times detailing some of their grievances and underscoring their key goal of increasing the amount of influence employees have in the company's operations.

Growing Activism in the Silicon Valley

Although not the first labor movement in Silicon Valley, the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union marks the largest organizing effort so far among white collar employees of a prominent tech giant. It comes from years of growing worker activism.

Until now, there have been two tracks of labor organizing in Silicon Valley. The first includes service workers who over the last decade have been fighting for higher pay and better benefits. The second: white collar workers, many of whom have been subjected to a second-class tier as temporary contractors.

Over the past decade, service workers at companies like Apple and Facebook have joined large unions like the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union. During a major subcontracting scandal at Microsoft in the 1990s, employees there also formed a small union called the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers.

Following the election of President Trump in 2016, a growing number of software engineers and product developers began to question Silicon Valley contracts with the U.S. military and police departments.

They formed into activist groups like the Tech Workers Coalition and publicly challenged management decisions. The Google walkout in 2018 was the most dramatic public showing of this growing discontent.

Last year, a group of about 80 subcontracted white-collar workers at a Google office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, joined the U.S. Steelworkers union (and faced retaliation as a result.) That same year, employees at Kickstarter formed their own “enterprise” union, solely for employees of the company.

But not everyone involved in recent Silicon Valley activism has joined the new Google union.

Among those critical of the effort is Amr Gaber, a software engineer at the company who has been involved in worker activism there for years. He has specifically criticized the union's partnership with the Communications Workers of America.

“We had relationships with a wide range of unions and worker support groups before CWA showed up,” he recently said on Twitter. "But CWA was the only group that pulled these stunts of marking territory and publicly taking credit."

Because the new union doesn’t represent a majority of workers at Google, it's what's called a "minority union.” And unlike many other trade unions, it includes a variety of workers, from software engineers to cafeteria staff.

The fledgling union is also not yet recognized by the National Labor Relations Board or by Google itself, which in a statement responding to the union's formation, said it “would continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

Barriers to Organizing

Silicon Valley companies like Google have done a lot to make it difficult for workers to form unions, said Chris Tilly, a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

“There are a lot of barriers to building worker solidarity within Google,” he said.

Tilly said it used to be easier to organize at places like manufacturing companies, where large numbers of workers were doing similar tasks on similar contracts. But Google, like many other companies, tech and otherwise, has been effective at “fissuring” workers, hiring some as contractors, others as temps and also outsourcing labor around the globe, he said.

The workers are in different physical locations and the contractors have different employers, making in-person organizing all the more difficult. They also have a very disparate set of employment statuses at the company — different wages, benefit packages, contracts and protections — creating a two-tier class system.

Tilly said this makes it particularly tricky to organize workers around common goals. “It also creates all kinds of divisions among workers and it potentially means different groups of workers can be pitted against each other,” he said. Temps, contractors or overseas workers, for instance, may now be seen as a threat to full-time employees.

The concentration of wealth at these companies also plays a role in dampening unionization efforts. Companies like Google and Facebook have been able to generate large profits with a smaller number of full-time employees. They can afford to offer relatively high pay, benefit packages and perks to keep most workers satisfied, without letting them have much say in how the companies operate or what they produce.

The Opposition

There has also long been an anti-union streak in Silicon Valley, as Jacobin editor Alex Press noted in an article about the formation of the Google's union. She referred to a famous quote by Robert Noyce, who co-founded Intel in 1968: “If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we’d all go out of business.”

Michael Solana, a venture capitalist at Founders Fund, is an open critic of the new union. The union, he wrote on Twitter, is “appropriating the language of exploited coal miners.”

Others naysayers of the effort have criticized the broad extent of grievances among union members.

But labor lawyer and activist Caitlin Vega says what Google workers want is actually not much different from what workers want in any union.

“Every union is about worker power and workers getting a say about what’s happening on the job,” she said. “And I think even when you read back to some of the earliest unions — the unions of teenage girls who were working in garment shops — their demands were also not always simple.”

Corporations have made unionizing harder by concentrating wealth, fissuring workplaces, subcontracting and relying on temporary workers, Vega said, and the Google union is organized in a way that responds to that.

Sponsored

For his part, Peterson, the Google software engineer, has one big hope for the union: He wants to send a message to other workers in Silicon Valley that they are not alone.