Google’s New Union Is a Historic Moment for Labor

0

Workers at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, publicly launched a “minority union” this week. They remind us that the power of the working class is not given to us by the state — an organized faction of tech workers can now disrupt commerce and make demands, whether or not the National Labor Relations Board says they can.

On Monday, workers at Google and other companies under the umbrella company Alphabet formed a “minority union,” affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). This Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) claims it aims to include workers of all job descriptions at Alphabet, including temps and contractors, who are normally excluded from union activities recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. These workers have explicitly said why they are unionizing: thousands of workers at Alphabet companies have been organizing for years to end forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment and assault, to end company cooperation with state-sponsored campaigns of violence, and to stop management’s retaliation against workers who have spoken out against its monopoly power. Recently, a leading AI researcher named Timnit Gebru, critical of Google’s large-scale AI initiatives and their failure to fight bias, said she was fired for speaking out. In an op-ed for the New York Times, the AWU’s newly elected executive chair and vice chair stated, 

Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of color. … 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.

While all workers have a strategic role to play in the struggle of the working class against capital, some are more strategically positioned than others. Technology workers, and these workers in particular, hold an enormous amount of power: they control large parts of the communications and business capabilities of a huge swath of the economy. Alphabet products include not only the portal through which 88 percent of the world accesses websites, but also the software for 84 percent of the world’s cellphones, 29 percent of all ads served over the Internet, and 7 percent of the world’s cloud computing services, as well as the physical infrastructure for the delivery of Internet and television services through Google Fiber, among other tentacles that wind their way into our everyday lives.

It is not hyperbolic to say this could be world-historic: the establishment of a strong, militant union within one of the world’s most powerful companies, whose products touch nearly every part of American life and extend into the lives of workers across the globe (whether through direct use of Alphabet’s products or because of the influence that Alphabet products and company decisions have on American government and geopolitics). It would, however, be hyperbolic to say that the AWU may be able to exercise this power anytime soon: as of January 5, the AWU had collected 530 signed union cards. For reference, in March 2019, Google had 102,000 full-time employees and worked with about 121,000 contractors.

What Is a Minority Union?

A minority union (also sometimes known as a “solidarity union” or a “noncontract union”), like the one formed by the AWU, is a union that does not represent the majority of the workers of a given employer and does not explicitly (with much legal precedent) have the right to compel management to bargain with them.

Minority unions differ from “majority unions,” which in the United States do have legal bargaining rights with bosses, in how they are created. To form a majority union, the kind most Americans are familiar with, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) requires that workers first collect signed union cards from at least 30 percent of the eligible employees of a workplace. This period of organizing — convincing coworkers to demand union representation and the right to bargain with management over their working conditions — is often done one-on-one and in secret, so as not to incur union-busting tactics by bosses. After collecting enough of these signed cards to meet the 30 percent threshold required by law (but often much higher than this, to protect their majority against the attrition associated with union busting), worker leaders can submit them to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and request an election. After unions “go public,” but before their vote (a waiting period that can take months), bosses frequently engage in union-busting tactics, either by themselves or after hiring a union-busting law firm to do it for them. To win, workers must muster yes votes out of “50 percent plus one” of all votes cast by the time the NLRB vote comes around. Once they win, workers in a majority union win the exclusive representation in their workplace for all eligible workers. This means that the workers can elect members of a bargaining committee and send them to negotiate with their bosses on a contract.

In contrast, the AWU is not held to the same standards of organizing a majority of workers in their workplace. Auni Ahsan, a member of AWU’s executive council and software engineer at Google, said, “We didn’t need our boss or the government to tell us we could have a union, we have a union because WE say we do — and because we’re hundreds of workers ready to fight in solidarity to make a change.” The power that workers hold by organizing is not granted by the state via the NLRB; it is granted by their strength in numbers and opposition to their bosses. “The mechanisms for safety are exactly the same for any union: collective power, exercised by striking (or the credible threat to do so),” said Google organizer Laurence Berland. “There is no safety without power. You can organize for power in any union structure, and you can fail to do so in any structure. The closer you are to being able to exercise that power through strike, the safer you are. The boss needs our labor, and we can choose the terms under which we give it. That’s the only real safety there is.”

That is not to say that there are not some things that might be easier to do with a majority union: a majority union can theoretically use the NLRB to force its bosses to negotiate a contract. The union can do this without striking. It is unclear if minority unions in the United States have the legal authority to compel their bosses to bargain. They likely do not have the authority to bargain with their bosses on behalf of all workers at their company, but they might have the right to bargain on behalf of their members only.

Regardless, the AWU will likely use its public status for the legal protection that its full-time members now have against retaliation for organizing and recruiting in the workplace. Such protection is granted by the NLRA (and is the same protection the union would have as a majority union), and is crucial, since Google is known for firing organizers. AWU members now have some semblance of safety in numbers, some legal protections, and an organized structure for future workplace activism.

What Does This Mean for Working-Class Solidarity?

It is a great thing that white-collar workers (who make up some, but not all, of AWU’s membership) are identifying as members of the working class (and they are, without a doubt, workers), in opposition to management, and are showing solidarity in a “wall-to-wall” union that includes workers in all departments, job titles, and employment statuses. Google employs workers and contractors in the U.S. and around the world, workers whom U.S. labor law does not allow in a bargaining unit — international solidarity with workers for the same company in other countries is possible with a strong domestic bargaining unit, but would be built-in with a “solidarity union,” which would directly include workers around the world. These workers will not be covered by the NLRA’s protections for full-time employees in the United States, but because those full-time employees are explicitly including international workers in their organization, the entire organization will benefit from the increased power of strength in numbers, power that will protect those international workers.

According to some common union-busting messaging, tech workers, and white-collar workers in general, do not need or deserve union power. These messages have begun making the rounds in reaction to the AWU’s launch. Contrary to popular belief, the most “skilled” workers have always played a big role in organizing. From the craftsman guilds to the American autoworkers of the 1930s, who were some of the most well-compensated workers in the industrial world, “skilled” labor has a long history of organizing and winning fights against capital. All workers deserve unions, regardless of their compensation and perceived proximity to capital — the actual control of that capital is what separates the working class from our bosses. All members of the working class have a role to play in the struggle against the exploitation of our labor, and the reason union-busters claim that skilled labor shouldn’t be included in our unions is that their inclusion makes us stronger.

But the formation of a union that includes only Alphabet’s white-collar workers would have failed to fulfill the revolutionary potential of such organizing. A real workers’ movement, organized against exploitation and oppression, must include and organize the sectors of the working class that are historically most oppressed: less specialized or “skilled” workers, as well as contractors, who are more likely to be members of historically oppressed groups. These members of the working class, even more than the rest, have been victims of a decades-long divide-and-conquer strategy aimed at reducing worker solidarity by encouraging identification among white-collar workers with management. Organizing together would not only build solidarity among different sectors of the working class; it would also, if successful, more than double the number of eligible members of this union at Alphabet, further increasing its power to stop work and make demands.

What Does This Mean for the Wider Struggle Against Capitalism?

We must remember the particular workplace these workers are organizing. The rank-and-file spokespeople of the AWU have stated that their reasoning for organizing includes pressuring their bosses to treat workers with equity, stop biased and unethical AI research, improve diversity among the workforce, and stand up for their contracted coworkers. Few of these issues involve bread-and-butter wage and benefit demands, and none are issues that would classically (or could potentially even legally) be included in the bargaining of a contract. Nor should the AWU be focused only on those issues — collective action by unions should not be limited to improving material conditions just within their own workplace, or just within their own sector.

If we, as socialists, must consider our goal in every move that we make, we need to consider the immense power that these workers have to stop surveillance, the spread of far-right propaganda and populist messaging, AI-driven incursions on civil life, and the empowerment of state violence that is enabled by big tech companies like Alphabet. As workers, we will have to defeat these aspects of bourgeois society if we are going to be able to overcome bourgeois oppression at all.

It is exciting that we are seeing activity in the labor movement that is not obviously or immediately associated with small economic sectoral- or workplace-specific gains. We are seeing, both in the fact that this union will not (anytime soon) be able to force Google management to the bargaining table, and in the language used by the workers themselves in public op-eds and interviews, that these workers are focused on making changes that will affect not only their own working conditions but also those of workers around the world.

The particular role that these workers hold in the wider strategy against capitalism is evident in an analysis of where worker power comes from. Work stoppages at Google would take down large swaths of the Internet — we have seen in accidental outages of Amazon Web Services’s cloud computing systems (which are similar to Google’s Google Cloud Platform cloud services) that many businesses, news outlets, e-commerce sites, and more are taken down when cloud computing systems go offline. An organized faction of these tech workers could significantly disrupt commerce worldwide and interfere with the profit collection of not only Google but also myriad more corporations. This is, of course, a scope of power that is not exclusive to tech workers — workers in the manufacturing, transportation, telecom, agriculture, pharmaceutical, and energy sectors could win big, but only if they fight.

***

Any formation of a new union is an opportunity to meet workers in their local struggles, a sign that workers across the world are organizing themselves to fend off their bosses, and, particularly in this case, a glimmer of hope against the deepest darkness of the Silicon Valley–powered surveillance states, right-wing propaganda machines, and tools of technological oppression that Google and its affiliates compel their workers to build.

What remains to be seen is if 530 AWU members, now that their organizing effort is public, can organize enough of their coworkers to wield enough power to realize their potential. They are protected in word only by both federal law and the CWA’s legal team, and they are up against Alphabet’s notoriously anti-union and historically well-funded general counsel, as well as what we can only assume will be the best union-busters money can buy. At the end of the day, protection for them comes from power on the shop floor. For the sake of our collective struggle against the state and the ruling class, we can only cheer them on and hope that they will succeed.

About author