Google is far from perfect, but with a union, things can get better

Google Campus Logo
Google Campus Logo (Image credit: Android Central)

Everyone who works for or at an Alphabet-owned property now has a union they can join. Dubbed the Alphabet Workers Union, it's open to full-time staff, part-time and seasonal staff, and contractors like the folks who provide security or work in the cafeteria. It's not a union in the traditional sense — there won't be a committee that bargains for vacation hours or benefit packages, but is instead a group that has a singular goal in mind: make sure every single worker at Google has a voice.

Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, executive chair and vice executive chair of the newly-formed AWU make things very clear in a New York Times opinion article:

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. 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. We are joining together — temps, vendors, contractors, and full-time employees — to create a unified worker voice. We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.

This isn't the first time Google employees have unionized, but it is the first time a union for all employees and workers of any tech company has been formed. It's also already official — because of the type of union the AWU is there is no need for any sort of legal process. The union simply states its intentions and people are welcome to join. As of now, there are over 400 members.

Google Walkout

Source: Stephen Lam / REUTERS (Image credit: Source: Stephen Lam / REUTERS)

Google does more than make some of the best Android phones and other products. It is a company with a very diverse staff. It's not as diverse as it could be, but diversity is usually seen as a plus and not a liability. What's the best way to represent people of color or people with disabilities through your products? Have those people help build them.

This is a great idea in theory and most likely works well the majority of the time, but we've all seen how things can break down into a situation where an overrepresented group calls all of the shots. When that overrepresented group is the executive leadership team, things tend to go poorly.

Most recently, the company fired Dr. Timnit Gebru, a leading artificial intelligence researcher, for no reason whatsoever. The firing has caused outrage from thousands of us, including Black and Brown workers who are heartbroken by the company's actions and unsure of their future at Google. — AWU press release

We've also seen what can happen when enough Google workers show solidarity and rally against company policy they don't agree with. We've seen Google pull out of defense department contracts and stop working on a censored version of search designed to placate the CCP because enough employees banded together to protest. Google workers — all Google workers — deserve this level of support when Google says or does something its employees don't agree with, or even worse, affects someone's livelihood because they disagree with an executive decision.

Is this an effective strategy?

CWA March on Washington

Source: Communication Workers of America (Image credit: Source: Communication Workers of America)

Maybe. Google has over 250,000 employees and thus far only 400 or so have joined the AWU. And while the AMU is working with the Communication Workers of America, being a minority union — where organizers don't have to get a majority of workers to vote through an official National Labor Relations Board official tally — has its restrictions. But it also has benefits.

Because the AWU is a minority union, temporary workers, contractors, and seasonal workers can participate. Google, like many other companies, hires a lot of temporary workers and contractors who don't receive the same benefits as a full-time Google employee would. Because those workers are also eligible to join the AWU they are suddenly granted the same voice as a full-time employee member.

But still, right now this is a numbers game. Unless the number of workers who join the AWU reaches a critical mass, Google can at best ignore them and at worst retaliate against them through things like bad performance reviews. Or worse.

How has Google reacted?

Sundar Pichai

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Google has issued a blanket statement saying "of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support" and little else. And to be frank, with only a few hundred members of a newly formed union that's all it needs to say. But should the numbers swell, the company will have to act.

If the AWU grows into numbers that could affect Google's bottom line, expect turmoil at the least.

It's already prepared to act, too. In 2019 the company hired IRI Consultants to quell employee organizing activity. IRI is known for its anti-union efforts, and once a contract was signed five worker-activists were promptly fired by Google.

Should the AWU target profitable yet controversial programs Google has in partnership with the U.S. Government expect to see severe crackdowns on union organization and employee activism as a whole. I'm not saying that I think Google's leadership doesn't care about its employees, but I am saying it cares more about the company's bottom line.

That's what executives and bean counters should care about if they work for a huge Silicon Valley corporation. And it's why a union should be in place to care about the people who keep it up and running. The AWU doesn't exist to make sure the candy bins in the common areas are always filled or to fight for another week's paid vacation. It's there to make sure that everyone is treated with dignity and fairly.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.