Google workers launch unconventional union with help of Communications Workers of America

Google workers launch unconventional union with help of Communications Workers of America

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 Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But 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 Google’s director of people operations Kara Silverstein 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 NLRB certification, this type of organizing is considered protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act.

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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, called the Committee for Better Banks, is not a union.

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 vs. contractors.

“This union builds upon years of courageous organizing by Google workers,” Google program manager Nicki Anselmo 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.”

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The new union has nearly 230 members. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it had nearly 280.

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