January 4, 2021
New Orleans A well-orchestrated rollout welcomed workers back from the holidays with the news that around 225 people of the 260,000 employees of Google and its parent company, Alphabet, have formed the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). This is news in tech-world where unionization is unheard of and swiftly opposed, and given the fact that we all live in Google’s world these days, it’s news for all of us as well. The story in the New York Times was as close to a recruiting document as organizers might have ever wished. There was even a commentary signed by two of the newly elected leaders of the union. They say they organized to this point in secret, but clearly have decided the secret is out of the bag bigtime now.
I was especially interested in their argument that they are building a “minority union.” As the Times reports,
…unlike a traditional union, which demands that an employer come to the bargaining table to agree on a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union is a so-called minority union that represents a fraction of the company’s more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors. Workers said it was primarily an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.
I’m a big fan and advocate of this organizing strategy, which I’ve called “majority unionism,” since traditional unionization and collective bargaining efforts now represent such a small percentage of the workforce that the classic strategy defines minority representation, and other labor union strategies rightly argue for organizing formations that are majoritarian. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) has a long experience with such strategies and good success in places like Texas with state workers.
The AWU leadership makes a strong case for the potential success of internal company worker advocacy.
Organized workers at the company forced executives to drop Project Maven, the company’s artificial-intelligence program with the Pentagon, and Project Dragonfly, its plan to launch a censored search engine in China. Some of Alphabet’s subcontractors won a $15 minimum hourly wage, parental leave, and health insurance after an employee outcry. And the practice of forced arbitration for claims of sexual harassment was ended after the November 2018 walkout — albeit only for full-time employees, not contractors. A few months later, Google announced that it would end forced arbitration for employees for all claims.
Where they might be confused or at least challenged is when they argue that they are taking “…the first step in winning a recognized bargaining unit under U.S. law. In other words, we are forming a union.” Recognition is a mirage at this point.
Some internal voices criticize them for their announcement as little more than declaring “turf.” Maybe? It’s irrelevant. With minority unions, many other unions can find plenty of support among 260,000 workers, and, if turf is the issue, there’s plenty of it. It’s “push and shove” now, so we’ll see who is willing to put their shoulder to the wheel.