Google workers unionize, a watershed in Silicon Valley activism

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On Jan. 4, Google employees announced a union that includes hundreds of workers.

DREAMSTIME/TNS

BY SUHAUNA HUSSAIN
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

Google employees announced the creation of a union on Jan. 4 that includes hundreds of workers, marking the culmination of years of rising activism at the internet giant and across Silicon Valley at large, where high salaries and ample perks have long kept unionization at bay.

The new group of at least 227 engineers and other employees, called the Alphabet Workers Union after Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., has been quietly in the works for about a year, people involved or familiar with its organization said.

It has come together with support from the Communications Workers of America, a labor group representing about 700,000 workers that launched a campaign earlier this year aimed specifically at unionizing video game and tech companies in the U.S. and Canada.

Unique effort

The effort is unique not only because it is first-of-its-kind among big tech companies but also for its focus on what employees describe as the civic and ethical responsibilities of their employees — and the say that company workers should have in that.

“We deserve meaningful control over the projects we work on & the direction of this company,” a new Alphabet Workers Union account posted on Twitter.

“If your main motive is profit, you may not put ethical concerns as high as the profit motive. We want to serve as a counterbalance to that,” said Isaac Clerencia, a site reliability engineer in Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters.

Called minority union

The group’s structure as a so-called minority union, representing a relatively small number of Google employees, means that the union cannot negotiate a contract, as is typical for unionized workers.

Notably, it allows for the company’s part-time or contractor employees — who make up a vast portion of the Google workforce — to join alongside full employees, unlike in a traditional union.

Raine Serrano, a Google privacy software engineer in Seattle, said including subcontracted workers, sometimes called “a shadow workforce,” was a priority.

These workers — who fill a range of roles, from serving meals in the cafeteria and cleaning offices, to writing code, handling sales and managing teams — are employed through secondary companies, with little direct oversight of their pay and work conditions. “They need someone to fight for them,” Serrano said.

Past protests

The new union held officer elections and established bylaws last month, CWA spokeswoman Beth Allen said.

In recent years, Google workers have protested — in some cases successfully — how the company has handled alleged incidents of sexual harassment, what employees describe as disparate treatment of contract workers, and some business decisions including contracts with the military or law-enforcement agencies.

“Yet problems persist,” the union said in its introductory posts on Twitter, citing alleged discrimination, harassment, and retaliations. “A few at the top are getting enormously rich while others see nothing of that wealth.”

Race a factor

A swell of walkouts and petitions related to race, inclusivity and other issues have swept other tech companies too, with some of the loudest voices reverberating from Google. Until now, very few have voted to formally join a union.

“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support,” Google spokeswoman Kara Silverstein said in a statement. “But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

Minority unions began in the industrial era as first step to mobilize and channel workers’ discontent with a broader goal of gaining more power in the workplace, said Toby Higbie, a professor of history and labor studies at UCLA.

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