A group of nearly 230 workers from Google parent company Alphabet launched a union on Monday, a move that could push tech worker organizing beyond petitions and protests.
But because the union is not seeking ratification through a federal agency, it won’t have collective bargaining rights, potentially limiting the leverage the group may be able to wield within the tech giant.
It’s the latest organizing effort by tech workers, who have gone public with frustrations over what they say are unfair labor practices and unethical business deals in recent years. Amazon workers are attempting to form a union at a warehouse in Alabama, while Google contractors in Pittsburgh have voted to form a union. (Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
By the end of Monday, the union said the number of new members had grown to more than 400.
Much of Silicon Valley has pushed back against unionization efforts, surveilling suspected organizers and hiring consultants to suppress nascent efforts.
“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce,” said Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations, in a statement. “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.”
The Alphabet union is attempting a new path forward to avoid that. Typically, unions are formed after an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, the agency enforcing U.S. labor law. If the majority of voters choose to join, the NLRB certifies the union to represent the workers and bargain collectively with their employer.
The union at Alphabet is forming without federal ratification, limiting its rights. And Google has signaled its willingness in the past to fight back against such efforts. In December, the NLRB filed a complaint against Google for surveilling and terminating employees, and in 2019, the company hired consultants known for their anti-union efforts.
Communications Workers of America, a labor union representing more than 700,000 members, is supporting the Alphabet union. CWA Communications Director Beth Allen says even without the NLRB certification, this type of organizing is considered protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act.
The CWA includes other unions without collective bargaining rights, says Allen, such as the Texas State Employees Union, which represents 11,000 public-sector workers who are generally not allowed collective bargaining rights under state law.
Unions working with the NLRB typically have to deal with narrowly defined work groups, limited by type of worker or location, which “makes it very easy for employers to attack,” Allen says.
She compared the Alphabet union to CWA’s partnership with bank workers from Wells Fargo, who in recent years were able to push for changes to sales goals and incentive structures that they believed led to unethical practices. However that group, the Committee for Better Banks, is not a union.
Legal scholars disagree about whether the National Labor Relations Act requires employers to recognize minority unions, says Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. But this model of organizing was standard practice in the United States in the 1930s, before companies found a strategic advantage shifting norms toward unions certified by the NLRB election process.
“The NLRB as it operates today is the product of decades of litigation, much of it organized by companies aiming to make it more difficult to organize a union that has a right to bargain collectively,” Fisk said.
What’s more unusual is the Alphabet union’s decision to welcome contractors, Fisk said. “Companies have figured out they can lower their labor costs by hiring their workers as contractors, because essentially it allows them to opt-out of protective labor and employee laws legislation, so the group of workers who are eligible to unionize under the NLRA has correspondingly shrunk,” she said.
The Alphabet Workers Union will have an elected board of directors and paid organizing staff members, according to the group’s news release. Members will pay 1 percent of total compensation, which includes salary and equity. A representative declined to say how many of the 230 or so members are full-time employees versus contractors.
“This union builds upon years of courageous organizing by Google workers,” Nicki Anselmo, Google program manager, said in a statement that referenced the company’s decision not to renew a Pentagon contract to analyze drone footage after employees protested. “From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively.”
She continued, “Our new union provides a sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade.”