Yesterday, 250 Googlers announced that they’ve taken the plunge and formed a union, and, after a torrent of news coverage, they ended the day over 400-strong. The effort is unique in that it’s aimed at uniting all workers, from maintenance to full-time developers to perma-temps. In the tech industry, it’s undeniably a bold and important step.
But—and there’s always a but—what can a few hundred dues-paying members in a company with 120,000 workers do? Especially at a company that’s previously responded to dissent with potentially illegal firings? It’s not immediately clear how the Alphabet Workers’ Union (AWU) can currently ensure major protections, like job security. And its low membership compared to the overall company workforce makes it a minority union—meaning that Google is likely not obligated to not bargain with it.
“Under the dominant interpretation of federal labor law, an employer is not legally required to recognize a union until it has support of a majority of workers in a unit,” UC Berkeley law professor Catherine Fisk wrote to Gizmodo in an email. “A unit is not necessarily all Google workers; it could be a department or division. (There is a good argument that the law requires an employer to recognize and bargain with a union even if it represents only a minority, so long as the union bargains only for its members. But that is not the dominant interpretation of the law.)”
Organizing a single campus or a subset of Google workers, as Google contractors in Pittsburgh did in 2019, might be a more straightforward strategy to secure contracts, if this is AWU’s goal. Multiple units could even be set up under the umbrella of AWU, rather than trying to tackle the totality of Google’s workforce all at once. In order to form a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified union—one Google would be required to negotiate with—at least 30% of all workers within a unit would need to sign union cards. Then, in an election overseen by the NLRB, a majority of votes would need to be in favor of a union.
The road to good faith bargaining is long, and Googlers’ bosses have more than a few ways to make it gruelingly difficult or otherwise stall the process. But AWU isn’t currently thinking about contracts. “Our union is going to center workers’ voices and give us a platform for advocacy that’s much-needed right now,” software engineer on Google Search and AWU member Raksha Muthukumar told Gizmodo via email. “While it will be incredible to one day reach the majority required to negotiate contracts, that’s not our main agenda because we think there’s a lot of work we can do in the meantime.”
In addition to building membership, the primary goal seems to be building on past victories. Googlers have famously succeeded in pressure campaigns: employee uproar led Google to kill both the CCP-friendly search engine Project Dragonfly, and Project Maven, which would have improved drone AI for the Pentagon. What’s likely to make or break AWU as a project will be identifying similar concerns broadly shared among the workforce and acting on them.
To gain momentum, AWU will have to reduce the now-widespread fear of retaliation. Looming in recent memory is Google’s ouster of AI ethicist Timnit Gebru, the firing or departure of other employee activists, and the company’s decision to retain an anti-union firm, the discriminatory methods of which were leaked in documents earlier today by Vice.
As several labor scholars pointed out to Gizmodo, punishment for violating federal labor law is light and poorly enforced. The existence of AWU, however, makes it harder for Google to justify retaliatory behavior. “Organizing a minority union is still a protected, concerted activity,” Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, told Gizmodo on a phone call. “It’s still illegal to fire somebody for a protected, concerted activity, even if penalties are incredibly weak.” Whether the association with an existing union stops Google from acting as harshly against organizers remains to be seen.
And the relatively low number for a global workforce should probably be expected, if not embraced, as a start. “All unions begin as minority unions,” Catherine Fisk wrote. “That’s how the United Auto Workers began in Detroit, and how the United Steelworkers began, along with teachers, nurses, janitors, and every other union. Whether they gain power depends on whether they grow.”
Chaumtoli Huq, Associate Professor of Law at CUNY School of Law, told Gizmodo over the phone that unions don’t have to be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, or even include a majority of workers, to make progress. She pointed to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents 25,000 of New York City’s 180,000 drivers, who are considered independent contractors. (Huq previously worked as an attorney for the alliance.)
While this means the NYTWA isn’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act, it is part of the largest U.S. union federation, the AFL–CIO. Through pressure campaigns, litigation, and work stoppages, it’s achieved victories in New York’s legislature like wage raises and health care and disability funds.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, told Gizmodo over the phone that organizers can’t afford to wait for a plurality of workers to get on board with collective action—especially when tech companies have proven that they can easily pool a few hundred million from their vaults and buy a law. “I think it’s important to send a message, especially to the tech sector, that workers don’t have to wait until that moment in order to have a collective voice and engage in collective action.”
Even without a formal union structure Googlers have been engaging in collective action, most visibly during a 2018 walkout, where over 20,000 Google employees worldwide abandoned their desks to protest sexual misconduct company executives.
Huq sees this as a win not just in the tech sector but for the growing labor movement in general—which has lately been joined by white collar workers from game developers and journalists as well as historically excluded shadow workers, like app-based drivers and domestic workers.
“They’re contemplating a broader imagining of what the labor movement could look like,” Huq said. “I’m really excited about that prospect.”