Google workers organize innovative new type of union with CWA
Google employees walk off the job in a protest against the tech company's mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against executives on Nov. 1, 2018, in New York. | Bebeto Matthews / AP

Using innovations to attract their colleagues—everyone from software engineers to outside “contractors”—a committed group of Google workers has taken on the task, aided and encouraged by the Communications Workers of America, of organizing the high-tech behemoth.

And its size and reach means they’re working around the restrictions U.S. labor law puts on organizing drives, Chewy Shaw, a software engineer and vice-chair of the new unit, Alphabet Workers United, told People’s World in a telephone interview.

Shaw and unit chair Parul Koul announced the campaign on Jan. 4 on both CWA’s website and in an op-ed in the New York Times. Their unit is going after workers not just at Google but at the social media giant’s associated businesses, all grouped under the corporate name Alphabet.

The organizing drive is significant not just for the workers and the union, but for the entire U.S. high-tech industry. Social media firms in particular—Google among them—are a fast-growing and vastly influential part of the U.S. economy. Alphabet alone has 120,000 full-timers in its enterprises and an equal number of part-timers, temps, contractors, and vendors, Shaw said.

They’re also a mix of white- and blue-collar workers, and their bosses have, with a few small exceptions, successfully resisted unionization, by holding out the promise of immense profit-sharing and other perks, while turning aside complaints not about wages, but about discrimination and other ills.

“The big thing that pushed us was the women’s walkout,” Shaw said of the protests, more than three years ago, against rampant sexual harassment by Google honchos. Google workers worldwide marched off the job in solidarity with the women who suffered and demanded justice for them.

They didn’t get it. One main harasser walked off with a multi-million-dollar “golden parachute” from Google top brass. The company named an outside consultant with a checkered record on the issue to deal with it. Most other problems, complaints, and demands, all through channels before and after the worldwide campaign, “were ignored,” said Shaw.

Sometimes Google yielded to the workers, he explained—such as when the firm eventually dropped its requirement that every worker-boss dispute be submitted to mandatory arbitration, a situation where statistics show corporations beat workers 90% of the time or more.

The workers went public with two other complaints: Google’s high-tech work for the U.S. military and its bosses’ cooperation with foreign dictators’ censors.

Google’s and Alphabet’s more requent response was to harass, intimidate, and fire workers who spoke up, including four on Thanksgiving and two since. The four were let go, Shaw said, when internal Google memos were circulated among workers about controversial issues—and bosses interpreted that as releasing the memos to the public. No reasons were given for the other two firings.

And it’s responded to the organizing announcement by piously saying it respects workers while hiring a “consultant”—a union-buster—to fight them.

“Discrimination and harassment continue. Alphabet continues to crack down on those who dare to speak out, and keep workers from speaking on sensitive and publicly important topics, like antitrust and monopoly power,” Koul and Shaw wrote in the op-ed.

“For a handful of wealthy executives, this discrimination and unethical working environment are working as intended, at the cost of workers with less institutional power, especially Black, brown, queer, trans, disabled, and women workers. Each time workers organize to demand change, Alphabet’s executives make token promises, doing the bare minimum in the hopes of placating workers.

“It’s not enough.”

The workers’ complaints focus on helping the firm become the good corporate citizen it first pledged to be as a Silicon Valley startup in 2005. That dictum, “Don’t be evil,” isn’t on its website anymore.

“So we felt we needed a structure” to help workers speak for, and defend, themselves, Shaw said. The solution: Start an organizing drive. They chose the Communications Workers because of its experience with other tech firms “and because they were really supportive and made sure we were in control” of the campaign.

“We’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively. Our new union provides a sustainable structure to ensure our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after headlines fade,” another worker, Program Manager Nicki Anselmo, told CWA in its announcement.

More on Google and the digital economy:

> Growing backlash against unethical tech, employees of Big Tech are speaking out

> In high-tech breakthrough, workers at Google contractor vote to join union

> Empire of High Technology: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook achieve ‘monopoly power’

> Trump’s Google antitrust lawsuit: Blow against monopoly or political theater?

“We are the workers who built Alphabet. We write code, clean offices, serve food, drive buses, test self-driving cars, and do everything needed to keep this behemoth running,” Koul and Shaw wrote.

“We joined Alphabet because we wanted to build technology that improves the world. Yet time and again, company leaders have put profits ahead of our concerns.” So the workers want the union in order to have a voice in company policy about the products they make. “We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.”

The drive got a boost when the National Labor Relations Board’s regional officers issued complaints, based on evidence from the workers, and a follow-up investigation, against Google for retaliating against workers who brought up various problems, Shaw noted.

“It was a direct attack on workers, who also wanted to move the company forward,” he said. “The NLRB will file charges on both cases. What Google did was illegal.”

That doesn’t mean they’re immediately going to go the NLRB recognition election route, though. “Getting 50% plus one is tough, so we’re focusing on the concept of what it means to be a union—coming together to fight” for themselves, he explained.

In this Nov. 1, 2018, photo Google employees fill Harry Bridges Plaza in front of the Ferry Building during a walkout in San Francisco. | Eric Risberg / AP

That makes sense. Alphabet Workers United has 226 members and counting. So it’s trying something different. Their first decision was to let anyone who works for Google or other Alphabet-owned firms join, voluntarily, no matter their position, company, or responsibilities. They then set up a union structure to brainstorm how to carry out their goal, complete with officers and a board.

They immediately instituted democratic elections and went beyond that, to ensure the most exploited workers—women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, who are overrepresented among the non-full-timers—have their own voice on the job, too, and “can focus on specific issues” important to them. The unit’s annual assembly will have “similar structures.”

So in general meetings, any idea the Alphabet Workers United board hasn’t considered can be brought up by a petition from 10% of the membership. And there are smaller subgroups within Alphabet Workers United for those often underrepresented groups of workers. The unit itself will be allied with CWA Local 1400.

Shaw believes those features will attract more and more Google and Alphabet workers to the union. So does CWA.

Local 1400 President Don Trementozzi welcomed the Google workers, adding: “We are a democratic, member-driven union, with experience building and sustaining worker power at some of America’s largest corporations. This is a historic step toward making lasting improvements for workers at Google and other Alphabet companies,” he said.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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