Googlers of the World, Unite! Oh, Wait ...


As big tech companies have become more entrenched in our lives, the rise of remote work has made their employees more disposable. So it’s no surprise that the pandemic has catalyzed new efforts to unionize tech workers. Last week, a group of Google employees announced the formation of an Alphabet Workers Union in partnership with the Communications Workers of America.

But instead of mobilizing as most unions do for better pay, more benefits and better job security, this labor union hopes to seize the means of managerial decision-making. Unlike previous petitions and protests, the union at Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, will require a tangible commitment in the form of hefty membership dues. That’s a sacrifice it’s far from clear that many of the organizers’ colleagues are willing to pay.

“Why do we demand democracy from our government, then cede our individual power in our workplaces?” asks Raksha Muthukumar, a Google software engineer and union member.

OK, fair enough, but every time I read about Google employees staging a walkout over workplace grievances, I can’t help but wonder how such a privileged group of people became so convinced of their victimhood. Google frequently ranks near the top of Glassdoor’s annual list of best places to work (although it fell from #8 to #11 last year), with a hiring process even more exclusive than that of Ivy League admissions (over 99% of job applicants are rejected). Sure, there are plenty of reasons one might disagree with the company’s business practices, but there’s an easy solution to that problem — go work somewhere else. Google employees have a lot more career mobility than the steelworkers and coal miners who organized unions during the industrial era.

That said, unions do have a long record of improving wages and conditions for the working class. And there is a tech worker contingent that suffers legitimate injustice with limited recourse: Contract workers. Google employs more than 130,000 temps, vendors, and contractors, a workforce that outnumbers the company’s 123,000 full-time employees. Many temp workers put in the same hours as full-time employees, but with none of the insurance, benefits or worker protections. Efforts to unionize temp workers in the tech industry were underway even before the pandemic. The Teamsters union already represents shuttle drivers for tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google. In 2019, a group of Google contractors voted to join the United Steelworkers.

Full-time employees may also have a financial interest in organizing to secure their own positions. As tech companies extend remote-work policies into late 2021, the coordination and knowledge-sharing benefits of on-site employment become irrelevant. Alphabet union members may be motivated by concerns about managerial ethics, but they also have reason to worry about losing their jobs to cheap contractor labor.

While temp workers are invited to join the newly formed union, its website admits that membership is overwhelmingly comprised of full-time employees.

Social justice activism tends to be a divisive basis for organizing a union. In its mission statement, the Alphabet Workers Union promises, “We will ensure Alphabet acts ethically.” The group lists past triumphs, including a campaign that pressured the company to withdraw from Department of Defense contracts, protests to stop providing infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and, most recently, a petition to stop selling technology to police departments.

It’s not clear that these goals are a top priority for Google’s entire workforce. It’s one thing for employees to join a one-day walkout while the servers are running automated processes; it’s a whole different matter when workers are expected to pay 1% of their total compensation towards union dues. The fact that the Alphabet Workers Union only has a few hundred members to date may be a hint that activism isn’t as popular as it sometimes appears.

Furthermore, corporations aren’t democracies. Alphabet’s executive team has a fiduciary duty to the company’s shareholders and might have a difficult time explaining why the company chose to forgo all these contracts. Tech employees who want to participate in workplace democracy may be better off working at a co-op.

They may also find opportunities at the fledgling tech companies trying to provide ethical alternatives to Google’s products. Google’s brilliant workforce is its greatest asset, and the company pays gaudy salaries to keep tech talent from joining the competition. If these disgruntled employees had been willing to take their talents elsewhere, maybe Google wouldn’t have ended up in its current monopoly position.

The Communications Workers of America may prove to be an asset. In 2019, CWA launched a campaign supporting two major bills to prevent corporate off-shoring of U.S. jobs.

Unionizing is a risky move. One of Google’s contracting companies was recently accused of shipping jobs offshore in retaliation for unionization efforts.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Elaine Ou is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access in San Francisco. Previously she was a lecturer in the electrical and information engineering department at the University of Sydney.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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