Photo from Alphabet Workers Union Press Kit

Google employees form first-of-its-kind Silicon Valley union

On January 4th, a group of more than two hundred Google employees announced that they had joined forces to form the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). While arguably unprecedented in Silicon Valley, AWU’s formation was far from spontaneous, representing the culmination of a steady drumbeat of Google employee-led activism in recent years.

In 2017, employees unearthed a $250 million Department of Defense contract leveraging Google technology to “track people and vehicles in video footage captured by drones.” Following intense employee opposition alleging that it was contrary to the company’s values, the contract was not renewed for the following year. The following year brought renewed outrage about an initiative to censor Google search results in China on behalf of the Chinese government, and widespread walkouts when an executive received a $90 million exit compensation package following allegations of sexual misconduct. 2019 was no less noisy: after Google appointed the President of the Heritage Foundation to its artificial intelligence council, employees called for her removal following public comments they perceived as anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant. The council was dissolved a week later. Finally, Google’s information technology contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection created significant internal uproar.

The formation of AWU is all the more interesting when one considers the history and decline of unions in the United States. Unions arose in the early 1800s in response to rapid industrialization, a development which spurred longer working hours, wage cuts, and gruesome working conditions. While met with great resistance by employers throughout the nineteenth century, collective bargaining had its major breakthrough in 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act—still considered the most important piece of labor legislation in American history—which gave workers the legal right to join labor unions.

Almost 90 years later, unions, once the backbone of the middle class, are now moribund. As of January 2020, only 10.3 percent of American workers were union members, compared to nearly 30 percent in 1964; private sector unionization sits at just 6.2 percent. Though union organizing in Silicon Valley is not completely unprecedented, the union at Google is the first of its kind for a major employer in Silicon Valley. And its aim is no less novel. Departing from a traditional union’s objective to negotiate contracts with stronger worker protections, the primary objective of AWU is to bolster employee activism on social and human rights issues.

In late 2019, Alphabet workers began meeting with the Communications Workers of America Union (CWA). Founded in 1938, CWA represents workers at more traditional companies such as Verizon, General Electric, and The Wall Street Journal. AWU’s affiliation with CWA underscores the juxtaposition of employees leveraging an old-school labor rights vehicle to advocate for the role of ethics in cutting-edge technology development. AWU notes that its goals are four-fold, ensuring that: (1) working conditions are inclusive and fair; (2) perpetrators of harassment, abuse, discrimination, and retaliation are held accountable; (3) Alphabet employees have the freedom to decline to work on projects that don’t align with their values; and (4) all workers, regardless of employment status, can enjoy the same benefits. Additionally, AWU aspires to be Alphabet’s enforcer of corporate social responsibility, urging that the company “prioritize the well-being of society and the environment over maximizing profits.”

The union has not wasted any time. Days after its formation, AWU called on YouTube to permanently ban President Trump from the platform, following the January 6th insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. In a statement released on Twitter, AWU implored, “YouTube must no longer be a tool of fascist recruitment and oppression. Anything less is to countenance deadly violence…Everyday without change is complicity. We remain committed to building change in our workplace for the betterment of all, while continuing to build power for working people everywhere.” While AWU has not been credited, a week later YouTube suspended Trump’s account for at least seven days.

While some hopefuls see the union’s formation as a potential end to the predominance of corporate stockholders, as it currently stands, AWU is limited in leverage. To force Alphabet to the bargaining table, under U.S. labor law AWU needs a recognized bargaining unit comprised of a majority of workers united by a common interest. Once these workers vote to form a union and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, the employer’s management must thereafter negotiate with the union to make any modifications. Given the National Labor Relations Board’s narrow legal interpretation of bargaining units, it is unclear whether AWU members’ shared interest in social activism would be considered a common interest.

Although AWU launched with just 230 members on January 4th, as of January 11th, its ranks have risen to over 700 members. AWU’s growing numbers suggest that its “limited in leverage” designation may be short-lived.

Nicole Fulk

GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2021; University of California Berkeley, B.A. 2014 © 2021, Nicole Fulk.