Will Alphabet’s Unionization Effort Spread to Other Big Tech Companies?

large google sign lit up against brick wall
Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

By: Tekla S. Perry

On Monday, a group of employees from Google and other companies under the Alphabet umbrella announced the creation of the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). The organization, formed with support of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), indicated that it had 226 members at Monday’s launch, by Friday its membership had grown to 530. The union is open to all employees and contractors of Alphabet, including engineers and other tech workers. Two software engineers, Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, have been elected to head the organization as executive chair and vice chair, respectively. Members will contribute one percent of their total compensation to fund its efforts.

“This is historic—the first union at a major tech company by and for all tech workers,” said Dylan Baker, a Google software engineer, in the press release.

It is indeed historic, agrees Peter Meiksins, a sociology professor emeritus at Cleveland State University who has studied engineering unions. Engineers generally haven’t been friendly to the idea of unionization, he says. And the AWU is also groundbreaking because it has formed to address social issues, not economic concerns that more typically spark union movements. Simply, many of the first members of the AWU would like to see the company return to its original company standard: “Don’t be evil.”

As one of its first official acts, the organization on Thursday released an open letter to YouTube executives blasting the company for its lackluster response to President Donald Trump’s part Wednesday in what it described as a “fascist coup attempt.” (YouTube is under the alphabet umbrella.) YouTube, the letter states, “refuses to hold Donald Trump accountable to the platform’s own rules by choosing only to remove one video instead of removing him from the platform entirely. Additionally, the platform only cited ‘election fraud’ as the reason for removing yesterday’s video, even as he clearly celebrates the individuals responsible for the violent coup attempt. … YouTube must no longer be a tool of fascist recruitment and oppression.”

In recent years, unionization efforts sparked at a few small tech companies. In early 2018, startup Lanetix fired 14 software engineers after they petitioned to be represented by the CWA; the workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and, in 2019, shortly before hearings were to begin, Lanetix settled with the former workers. (Lanetix recently rebranded as Winmore)

And tech workers at Kickstarter unveiled an organizing effort in 2019, meeting resistance from senior staff but ultimately prevailing. Moreover, in 2019 four former employees fired by NPM, the company behind NPM JavaScript, filed complaints with the NLRB indicating that they the dismissals were retaliation for union organizing activities. The company and former employees reached a settlement fairly quickly.

While these formal unionizing efforts were going on at smaller companies, numbers of tech professionals at Google held protests and petition drives without an official organization behind them.

The largest such protest, a worldwide walkout in 2018, opposed the company’s handling of sexual harassment charges; more than 20,000 employees participated. A sit-in followed to protest retaliation taken against organizers of the original workout. Google employees also held a petition drive opposing involvement with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Project Maven, an effort involving using artificial intelligence in a way that would potentially be used for drone warfare. And another petition drive opposed efforts to build Dragonfly, a search app intended for use in China that would allow government censorship.

Google eventually dropped both Project Maven and Dragonfly. But friction between the company and its tech workforce has continued. The most recent outrage, according to AWU’s announcement, was the firing of AI researcher Timnit Gebru, who had coauthored a paper on issues of bias and other concerns about AI. It was these and other situations that sparked the formation of the union, though the organizers indicated that economic issues are not off the table.

“The only tactic that has ensured workers are respected and heard is collective action,” the statement said. “The Alphabet Workers Union will be the structure that ensures Google workers can actively push for real changes at the company, from the kinds of contracts Google accepts to employee classification to wage and compensation issues.”

I asked Cleveland State’s Meiksins to put the Alphabet unionization effort in historical perspective.

IEEE Spectrum: Why have engineers typically not formed unions?

Peter Meiksins: Engineers in the U.S., especially since the latter part of 19th century, have seen themselves as professionals like doctors and lawyers and accountants. They see unions as a blue collar thing. Because they think of themselves as professionals, they organize themselves through societies like IEEE and ASME [the American Society of Mechanical Engineers]. Those organizations historically haven’t been friendly to the idea of unionizing. That’s not surprising, there is a significant corporate presence in their membership. And labor laws favor that perspective. If you have any supervisory responsibility at all, you are not seen as appropriate for a union member.

Spectrum: How will those laws affect the Alphabet union, which right now is pitching itself as, basically, Come one, come all?

Meiksins: I do wonder if somebody will question whether, if engineers are parts of hiring committees that hire other engineers, they are eligible to be members of unions. You may have to draw a line somewhere between project managers and line engineers.

Spectrum: The announcement indicated that the Alphabet union builds on activity involved in organizing the Google protests of recent years.

Meiksins: That’s the thing that is most striking. The traditional economic motivation for forming unions is largely absent here, rather, it seems to be of a response to social issues, particularly, military involvement and gender issues. They’re not complaining about their pay.

I’m not aware of too many examples of this. During the Vietnam war, there were grumblings by engineers who worked in the defense industry. These never got to the level of organized protests, but there were questions raised about collaborating with the military. I did some research on that by looking at the letters to the editor of IEEE Spectrum published in the early 1970s. There was a lot of discussion about the war then. This particular movement echoes that a little.

Spectrum: At this point, the AWU is a ‘minority union,’ which does not give it formal bargaining power; that would take recognition of the union by management, either voluntarily or forced by a company-wide vote. Do the members have any power or protections?

Meiksins: The union might provide moral support. That is, there is a collective voice that could speak on behalf of someone, but [it] has no power. The members can only get that if they organize a formal union and negotiate a contract that has a grievance procedure in it. With just an informal organization, the company does not have to pay any attention to it if they don’t want to.

Spectrum: Would you expect to see the Alphabet union formation spark similar efforts at other large tech companies?

Meiksins: Some of the issues motivating the movement at Google exist at plenty of companies. The question is whether, if there isn’t a real economic basis for the formation of a union, people will risk their livelihoods. In the United States, it is pretty easy to fire people. If Google fires some of the ringleaders, that could have a chilling effect on what happens elsewhere. People do take a risk when they do something like this.

Of course, for engineers today, particularly those in the computer sector, it is a seller’s market. So they may be more willing to take a risk, saying, “I like working here, but I don’t like what you are doing, and I can go make just as much across the street.” These people are well paid and in demand, so they aren’t taking a huge economic risk.

The alternative, of course, would be to just leave, not protest. However, what you may be seeing is that the job-hopping culture that engineers have lived in for decades now has led to the conclusion that there is nothing better out there. Google was supposed to be the great company. Now it is apparently not. So people are saying, “I want to work in tech, so I need to make tech some place I want to work in.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 8 January 2021.