Written by Carlos Jara
In early January, workers at Google and other Alphabet subsidiaries publicly announced the establishment of a union, the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), formed with the support of the Communication Workers of America (CWA). The union’s founding marks one of the first times that white-collar workers have moved to unionize at a major US tech company, following years of worker-activist campaigns and just under a year of secretly organizing the union effort.
After going public with only slightly more than 200 workers out of Alphabet’s workforce of 120,000, the AWU is organized as a minority union. While the AWU has rapidly grown since it was organized, ballooning to over 700 members in its first week, CWA representatives have stated that in the short term, they are not seeking formal recognition of a bargaining unit. Instead, they are hoping to use their public minority position to draw in new members and raise visibility for similar union efforts across the tech sector.
Organizing a minority union in a white-collar private sector company is somewhat uncharted territory: the strategy is primarily associated with public sector unions for a few reasons. Public sector employers are more vulnerable to pressure from the general public, allowing minority unions to use awareness raising campaigns to pressure their employers despite not having the ability to call decisive strikes. While Google is a company that is very much in the public eye, it remains to be seen whether this model of unionizing will be successful there. Critics of the model argue, that even if publicizing a union draws in more members from across the company, the union’s base will likely remain thinly spread out, unable to win bread and butter demands against managers or to defend itself against retaliation from the company. Such a union is reduced to making very large and often abstract demands of the top leadership of the company, demands that it lacks the leverage to enforce. Without the threat of serious collective action on behalf of their workforce, the company has all the power and can choose to either ignore these demands or embrace them for good PR. Since the outcome is out of the hands of rank-and-file workers, this strategy does little to build worker self-confidence and can even encourage workers to entertain illusions that they can successfully appeal to the CEO’s moral sensibilities.
Although the ink on the AWU’s press release is still drying, worker activism at Google has a history that predates these most recent unionization efforts. 2018 in particular saw important victories for workers at Google: first the cancellation of contracts with the Pentagon, followed by the company giving up on its plans to develop and deploy a censored version of its search engine for China, and finally an end to forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases. While these victories were positive developments, the success of these initiatives may have had more to do with the specific circumstances of these campaigns, rather than a general sign of workers’ strength at Alphabet. The success of efforts against the Pentagon and China contracts was the largely the result of high-level research teams refusing to carry out work on the projects. These campaigns inadvertently represented something closer to a shop-by-shop model of unionism than the minority strategy currently being pursued by AWU. Meanwhile, the end to forced arbitration coincided with the MeToo movement, which represented an unprecedented high water mark of public scrutiny around sexual misconduct and put additional pressure on the company. While organizing a significant walkout over a high-profile social issue is a situation where the minority union model can shine, it remains to be seen if the AWU will be able to mount similar pressure in the absence such high pressure from outside of their workplace. Additionally, while the sexual misconduct walkouts did win the concession of a change to the company’s policy, it was not a total victory: high-level executives whose sexist behavior precipitated the action walked away with multimillion dollar severance packages. Even worse, the following months saw reprisals both against key organizers and others raising grievances against the company through official channels, as well as the retrenchment of a culture of secrecy at the company more generally. Other worker activism efforts, such as a 2019 call for greater accountability on climate change organized by workers at Amazon and supported by workers at Google and elsewhere failed to inspire as much participation and largely fell on deaf ears. It remains to be seen whether the AWU will be able to harness the activist energy of these past workers’ initiatives and develop into a force within the company moving forward.
It is worth noting that the establishment of the AWU at Google does not represent the first union at the company: prior successful efforts include the unionization of tech workers under the banner of United Steel Workers at a contracting company hired by Google in Pittsburgh, and the unionization of cafeteria workers in the Bay Area with UNITE HERE. AWU does, however, represent the first union at Alphabet or its subsidiaries to be open to all workers at the company, and the first to attempt to organize full time engineers at the company. It is encouraging that the AWU’s public statements have largely steered clear of the pitfalls of elitist trade unionism, identifying their intent to fight against the two-tier full-time/contractor system, and to include all workers, “from bus drivers to programmers, from salespeople to janitors” in their union. Organizing at all levels of employment and forming bonds of solidarity across them will be critical to the long-term success of organizing efforts at Alphabet.
Despite the limitations and obstacles faced by AWU, there is no denying that this is a qualitative step forward in worker organizing in the tech industry, representing a foothold of unionism in one of the largest and most important tech companies. Even beyond the immediate struggles for workers at Google, the establishment of a high-profile union will hopefully embolden workers across the sector to start their own unionization efforts. Our comrades in the AWU are fighting to build the power of working people at their workplace in doing so they are both organizing a critical sector, and the working class as a whole.
Alphabet Union Takes its First Steps
Written by Carlos Jara