Google’s New Union Will Put an Unconventional Organizing Model to the Test

The newly announced Google employees union, the Alphabet Workers Union, is the first union of white-collar workers at a major tech company. They'll be tasked with figuring out how to wield power while only a minority of the workforce.

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

Google workers just announced the formation of a union: the Alphabet Workers Union.

The union — named after Google’s parent company — is not the first at the trillion-dollar tech behemoth. Eighty contract workers at Google’s Pittsburgh office voted to unionize in 2019. That same year, more than two thousand cafeteria workers at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California did the same. Security guards at Google have been organized since 2017. But a union that includes white-collar workers who are directly employed by Google is new. Also new is the union’s wall-to-wall approach, encompassing temps, vendors, and contractors, or “TVCs,” alongside direct employees, a good strategy given that TVCs make up over half of Google’s workforce.

Tech companies like Google work hard to keep their companies union-free. I’ve previously written that hostility to unions is foundational to the industry — it was a major reason Silicon Valley became tech’s epicenter, rather than the East Coast. As Intel cofounder Robert Noyce once said, “remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies.” Noyce died a long time ago, but many current tech companies’ only claim to innovation is in finding new ways to evade labor law. White-collar workers at crowdfunding site Kickstarter and the app developer Glitch recently unionized, but the Alphabet Workers Union is the first such effort to go public at one of the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) companies. As such, the announcement will trigger strong reactions in some boardrooms, regardless of what the union says or does.

The new union is backed by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which has some seven hundred thousand members. It is affiliated with CWA Local 1440, and members will pay 1 percent of their total compensation as dues. According to the New York Times, CWA organizers began meeting with Google employees in late 2019, and the union’s seven-person executive council was elected by members last month. The union was organized as part of CWA’s Coalition to Organize Digital Employees (CODE) campaign, an effort that seeks to unionize video game employees and other tech workers.

As of this morning, the Alphabet Workers Union represents 227 people. That number raises a question. When TVCs are included, well over two hundred thousand people work at Google. What does a two-hundred-person union mean in that context?

Minority Unionism

“Minority unions” are unions that do not represent the majority of workers, and do not act as exclusive bargaining agents with employers. This approach is nothing new. Before the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, which codified workers’ right to union elections and exclusive representation by a union with majority support, minority unionism was common practice. Even without company recognition or a contract, such unions had shop stewards tackling workplace problems and pressuring the boss to redress them. They sustained momentum rather than allowing it to dissipate. And once the NLRA passed, those structures were a launching pad for broader unionization.

Minority unions aren’t simply relics of the past either. The difficulty of winning union recognition from employers in the United States has led many workers, particularly those in right-to-work states, to organize in such formations. Minority unions aren’t as powerful as a bargaining unit, but when conditions make such a unit impossible, they are better than nothing, offering additional protections and serving as a structure for collective action.

The question of whether the NLRA provides workers the right to bargain with an employer on a members-only basis, with the minority union representing its members and no one else, is unresolved. As Moshe Marvit and Leigh Anne Schriever note in a 2015 report on minority unionism, a case that would have brought the issue to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2006 was ultimately cut short. Should Joe Biden nominate more labor-friendly appointees — and successfully get congressional approval for those nominees — the NLRB could conceivably rule in favor of this interpretation. Indeed, it may not be a coincidence that the Alphabet Workers Union went public just before Biden’s inauguration. Also of relevance for minority unions is a 2017 decision by the Trump-era NLRB that makes it harder for workers to carve out smaller bargaining units. Previously, unions had the ability to form in one unit and, after gaining a foothold there, expand to other units within the firm. That is no longer a possibility.

Although most Google employees do not live in right-to-work states, they do face an uphill battle. Pro-union Googlers likely do not believe they can get majority support for a union anytime soon, which is a reasonable assessment. The company has immense resources for fighting unionization and, according to a recent NLRB complaint, is willing to break the law to do so. The workforce is dispersed across the country and around the world, which makes organizing much more difficult. The majority of the workforce are TVCs, not directly employed by Google, meaning they can’t legally belong to a recognized bargaining unit that deals with the company — a more traditional union would exclude these workers, substantially weakening its leverage and standing, while deepening divisions between TVCs and direct employees. Most direct employees are highly paid, adding another potential source of division.

But in the United States, almost every workplace is a hostile climate, and yet workers still sometimes organize majority unions. It’s possible that the members in the Alphabet Workers Union see it, as the New York Times put it, as “an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than negotiate for a contract.” Such activism has been building at Google. In recent years, Googlers have scuttled a contract with the Pentagon, criticized work with US Customs and Border Protection, and organized a twenty-thousand-person walkout over the company’s mishandling of workplace sexual harassment.

If “union” is the word we use for workers acting collectively, a union drive at Google is no surprise given this recent history. Minority unions can still win workplace victories, even if they’re not in a position to bargain. These unions can also clarify divisions — Google, like many employers, pushes for employees to feel ownership over the company. But tech is like every other industry— executives are scheming to drive down wages. Every worker, even a software engineer, needs a union, and the existence of one at Google clarifies the antagonism that is foundational to any capitalist workplace.

But there are dangers in announcing a union effort so early on. Unions are about workers’ collective power; unionizing is a show of strength, one that doesn’t just protect workers engaged in collective action, but also inspires them to get off the sidelines and join the effort. A minority union with so few members risks doing the opposite, suggesting to workers who are not yet involved that unionism is a fringe concept, further isolating the organization.

It’s too early to know what the effect of the public launch of the Alphabet Workers Union will be, but the members hope it will build the organization. As Auni Ahsan, a software engineer and founding member of the union, told In These Times, “Thousands or millions of people will wake up and see this story and see that you don’t need to wait for the labor board to approve your union. You have a union when you say you have a union.”

The path to unionizing a tech company is strewn with obstacles, but that’s true of any company. If the existence of the Alphabet Workers Union encourages workers, both within Google and beyond it, to unionize, it’ll be a contribution. What remains to be seen is what exactly the union will do, and how Google will respond.