Unionizing Google Workers: We Want Democracy at Work

Last week, Google workers announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union, a groundbreaking step in organizing tech workers at one of the world’s largest tech giants. We spoke to two of the union’s rank-and-file members about the organizing effort, how unions can fight for democracy on the job, and why blue- and white-collar workers need to organize together.

The Google campus in Mountain View, California, 2009. (Shawn Collins / Flickr)

Interview by
Honda Wang

Last week, workers at Google and its parent company, Alphabet, announced a first-of-its-kind tech workers union. In a New York Times op-ed, the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) stated that “[we]’d had enough” of Alphabet’s mishandling of harassment and discrimination, its morally dubious ventures with the Department of Defense and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the company’s retaliation against workers who dared criticize the multibillion dollar tech giant.

Alan Morales and Raksha Muthukumar, two rank-and-file members of AWU, spoke with Honda Wang for Jacobin.


HW

Traditionally, labor unions as recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are organizations that represent a majority of workers at a company, and they collectively bargain on behalf of their members to establish a contract with employers that sets the terms for employment such as pay, benefits, and workplace protections.

The Alphabet Workers Union takes a different approach to organizing the workplace. Can you describe AWU? What makes it different from a typical union?

RM

NLRB unions need a 51 percent majority of eligible union members for legal recognition and the ability to negotiate contracts on behalf of their membership — but that’s not an immediate priority of ours. I’d describe us as a laterally organized democracy of workers around North America. We have working groups and location-based chapters.

It would be great one day to be a part of contract negotiations for our cafeteria staff or other kinds of workers, but I think our immediate goal is to solidify and add protections to the kind of worker-led advocacy that has always been going on at Google: the walkout against sexual harassment, petitions against ICE contracts.

I think this union is a form of giving people who do that work protection and backing from their own coworkers; a democracy to back them up, so Google can’t say, “This is just two individuals who have their own opinions.” We can respond, “No, this is a contingent of hundreds of Google workers.” Our power comes from that collective.

I also think the idea that we need state recognition to be an entity representing workers’ power is wrong. The idea that we need the state’s permission to access our power is not something that resonates with us. We are our power through our organizing, through our negotiating, through our solidarity with each other, and by making a platform for each other’s voices.

HW

As you mentioned, Google employees have been involved in activism within the company for many years now, and the media has partly portrayed AWU as the culmination of that activism. Would you say this is an accurate description of how AWU came about?

AM

Yes. A lot of union members are the same people that were involved with previous activists’ efforts. Forming a union is a way to amplify our voices and focus our demands as employees.

RM

I absolutely think that AWU is the culmination of years of work. I’m excited about what we’re going to do, yet it’s a bittersweet moment when I think of all the organizers who gave their all for so many years, but can’t join the union now because they were fired or pushed out. They laid so much of our groundwork.

HW

How did AWU come to settle on its broad mission, from protecting contract workers and vendors to societal issues of social and economic justice, such as Google’s involvement with ICE & Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)?

RM

It’s a culmination of years of organizing at Google that followed the same moral compass. We as workers have already voiced our opinion on things like police contracts and workplace retaliation; the union is a way to protect those voices.

Google staff stage a walkout at the company’s UK headquarters in London on November 1, 2018 as part of a global campaign over the US tech giant’s handling of sexual harassment. (Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images)
AM

The mission echoes all the previous employee-led social justice efforts. The mission is something that the union discussed as a whole and voted to ratify.

HW

AWU cites Alphabet’s former motto, “Don’t be evil,” as a reason why you organized. On face, the motto seems like an endorsement of activism and advocacy on the part of Google employees. But outspoken workers have faced retaliation from management over the years. How did the tension between Alphabet’s professed values and their practice of them factor in your decision to organize?

RM

It was a major part of our decision. Google recruits on this culture of progress and outspoken employees. They sort of accidentally collected the exact type of people who would unionize. I also think the hypocrisy of the message really started to rub many people wrong and accelerated our desire to do something about it.

AM

Advocating and organizing around our working conditions is our right, and it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against employees looking to enhance their working conditions. In the past years, we have seen a pattern of retaliation against employees that organize around their worker rights. We realized that forming a union was an effective way to protect each other from company retaliation.

HW

Additionally, some of those outspoken voices are uniquely situated as leaders in their fields like Timnet Gebru, and many Google engineers are highly skilled — and highly desirable — workers. Could you speak to why AWU seeks “lateral” or “horizontal” organization alongside workers who don’t have the same options afforded to them such as temporary employees, contractors, and even vendors?

AM

Our union is about solidarity. We want to protect each others’ rights and working conditions. TVCs [Temporary, Vendor, or Contractors] are often in precarious conditions, and our goal is to show solidarity toward them and advance their working conditions.

RM

Solidarity is my vision not just for Google, but for other tech companies. Imagine if Amazon office workers went on strike when their factory colleagues did, or if the engineers at Uber/Lyft walked out when gig workers were exploited by Prop 22. That’s how we make real change.

HW

In Jacobin, Alex Press recently outlined the potential risks and rewards for your model. How would you describe AWU’s path to power? What are the obstacles you expect to overcome and the opportunities that have opened up now that you’re public?

RM

Our power comes from us standing behind one another, not through a legal or corporate recognition, and I think that’s really radical. We’re fighting for ourselves and joining together despite official bodies questioning our “legitimacy.” I expect that we’ll face obstacles as we scale up around what our core beliefs are. Many of us are quite progressive in the current union membership, but I don’t think that is a necessary pre-requisite of union membership. Unions have always allied with strange bedfellows, for better or for worse.

Just earlier this week I had a debate with another socialist friend about what AWU’s stance on James Damore’s firing would be; on one hand, we obviously don’t allow that kind of misogyny between our members, but on the other hand, Google firing someone abruptly and without a transparent process is exactly what we’re fighting against. I think it’ll be interesting to see where we end up on tricky questions like these.

HW

How do you bridge the gap between organizing around broader political issues as Google employees were doing before AWU and organizing directly for workers’ material interests (alongside those aforementioned broader political issues) within the union?

RM

It’s going to be tough. I’m personally a socialist and that really informed my decision to join the union. I also don’t personally believe there’s workers liberation without queer liberation, black liberation, women’s liberation, etc. But we’re a democracy before everything else.

HW

Some people might say that you’re asking too much; that you should be thankful that you’re getting paid so much for what you do. Why does a worker have the right to demand this of their employers? How would you address someone accusing you of stepping beyond your bounds?

RM

Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of that in my Twitter mentions this week. I guess my response is: Why do we all want democracy out of our government? If you live a good enough life, why do we ask for a vote? Why do we ask for a voice? Why do we ask to choose our own representation? That’s all we’re asking for here.

We’re asking not to cede our power to this hierarchical, totalitarian culture of corporate America. I think that being a well-compensated worker can feel good, and it is a way to make us not want to shake the table. But I don’t think that takes away from the fact that we don’t get to make the major decisions around our company’s values or that our voice is not heard, or that when our voice is raised we get retaliated against.

I also think being well-compensated doesn’t protect you from discrimination, sexual harassment, or retaliatory firings. There’s so much that we need to protect each other from that goes beyond a cushy compensation package.

AWU is specifically for workers across lines at the company, and there are workers with more and less comfy compensation packages. I think our solidarity is a really important part of that. A question needs to be asked: Why would so many people — six hundred people — some people who made decisions the same day [we announced AWU], that want to give up 1 percent of their compensation for more of a say in the workplace? It’s clear that compensation isn’t making up for the fact that we don’t feel heard.

HW

AWU explicitly states that its decisions are made democratically “not just by electing our leaders who set the agenda, but by actively and continuously listening to what workers believe is important.” How have you been communicating how AWU will practice rank-and-file democracy to fellow workers?

RM

One of the things that’ll [help us organize] horizontally is that we’re breaking into chapter locations based in New York, Southern California, and elsewhere. We’re also breaking into working units such as Google Search, Maps, groups that will allow us to react on certain topics more quickly based on who’s impacted by them.

We’re working hard to make sure every member feels tied into multiple smaller entities because we realize that when you have such a large organization that spans the entire continent (and we’re all remote right now), it’s really easy to get lost in the mix especially because AWU tripled [in membership] this week. Breaking out into smaller groups will really encourage people to speak up on the issues that are closer to them, and at least help them get to know their cohort even if they can’t get to know all six hundred people across all the offices.

HW

This is reminiscent of DSA’s structure: grouping organizers by chapter location and connecting people through working groups. I also know that the Tech Action Working Group in NYC-DSA has been involved with this effort. Would you be able to speak to that involvement and the relation between AWU and DSA?

RM

I’m on the organizing committee for NYC-DSA’s Tech Action Working Group and I’ve been on it for over a year now. DSA and the kind of organizing they’ve done in tech has a really close relationship [to AWU]. Tech Action is a NYC-DSA working group and this is a cross-country thing, so I can only speak from my personal experience. But there are several Alphabet Workers Union members who I’ve met through Tech Action. I was even invited to the union through somebody I met through Tech Action. So I can say for me it was a place where we were building solidarity and building our community out before union talks even began or it was open.

That has been invaluable, to have a group of people who were organizing around these issues and building a space for our values before a union was even involved. Beyond that, we’ve done lots of solidarity work with different tech workers, whether it’s Amazon warehouse workers or gig workers.

We also did a large labor panel in May where we brought together the first people involved with white-collar tech organizing: people from the Kickstarter Union, the Glitch Union, the Google Pittsburgh contractor union, and then representatives from Amazon warehouse organizing and professional campaigning around the CODE-CWA campaign, and that was huge. We got a lot of questions afterward about “How do I start these conversations around our office?” People were pleasantly surprised to hear these initiatives were going on, so I think Tech Action has been proactively on top of these kinds of labor organizing and openly supportive of them.

HW

You mentioned the possibility of connecting white-collar software engineers with warehouse workers to participate in labor actions. Unions have traditionally been viewed as blue-collar institutions. Software engineers and tech workers broadly often see themselves as a part of a separate, more professionalized class.

Given that, how does AWU situate itself within the broader labor movement?

RM

We feel very tied to the labor movement, past, present, and future. So much of the work that has brought us to where we are has been spearheaded by blue-collar workers. We can’t rightfully say we’re the exact same as those workers, but our union is grounded in similar principles of solidarity.

Tech workers need to see how connected we are to other workers. It would be incredible to one day see Amazon office workers walk out when their warehouse workers walk out or when gig workers are being exploited, or for their engineers to say, “No, we won’t stand for this either.”

Google employees walk off the job to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct claims, on November 1, 2018, in Mountain View, California. (Mason Trinca / Getty Images)

AWU is really trying to set a template for that, because we’re open to all workers who are affiliated with Alphabet, and we really are trying to center this idea of a second-class citizen in the tech industry — whether you’re a contractor, a full-time engineer, or you’re a part of making the machine go in a different way. We really believe that there shouldn’t be stratification, that everybody should have a seat at the table. I think that’s really radical.

HW

A former Google executive has said, “[T]he union’s creation is proof that the company has failed to engage with directly growing calls for reform.” How has Google management responded to AWU so far?

RM

There’s been silence. At first I was pretty surprised about it, but after a little more research, it appears that [Google has never met] the Google contractor’s union in Pittsburgh that formed over a year ago. [Google] never pushed [HCL Technologies] to meet [the HCL union] at the table, even though they are a majority union and the NLRB has called Google and HCL to appear at the table.

I think Google is going to take that same tactic with us where they try to hold off legitimizing us by not talking to us, as if we’re going to disappear and as if our legitimacy comes from the board room’s acknowledgement. But I don’t think that takes anything away from the work that we’re going to do.

HW

Just how prevalent is this issue within the tech industry of not addressing workers’ concerns directly or in a meaningful way? How much of this is rooted in the tech industry’s inability to change itself or fix itself?

RM

I think it’s been increasing over time. Which is one of the things we want to address with having a union. There was definitely this culture earlier on in the tech industry that you can speak up, that differing opinions are interesting and valid, and “we’re going to be a different kind of company” — that was always the slogan. And now it feels like, over time, even with massive petitions and walkouts, it’s really hard to get a response from the board room. That’s exemplary of the culture we want to challenge.

I’m optimistic for some sectors of the tech industry, though. For example, the Glitch union was voluntarily recognized. So I think that was a huge step from tech CEOs deciding to take that step with their workers. I really hope we see more of that.

HW

Recently, Facebook suspended Trump’s ability to post and Twitter banned his personal account outright. While some are praising tech companies for taking a strong stance against Trump incitement to violence, others are also concerned about the unilateral ability of big tech CEOs to censor anyone they could disagree with.

Unions themselves have coalesced around a message of opposing Donald Trump and the insurrection that took place in DC last week. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants which is affiliated with CWA, called for pro-Trump rioters to be barred from flights to keep cabin crew members safe.

How does AWU and organizing across tech workers generally factor into these situations — what impact do you hope to have?

RM

I hope that we can make decisions and encourage tipping the scale toward ethics and justice when it’s so imbalanced by profit motives. When you think about YouTube ad money or Twitter interactions, there are a very clear dollar sign incentives to them. But on the other side, workers are very motivated to do something they want to believe in. We don’t want to work on platforms that elevate fascism, and we’re not looking at the bottom line as much as we’re looking at a place that reflects our values.

That we can make the board room realize that they’re going to lose their talent pool if they keep working on things we don’t believe in and if they don’t relate to and listen to their workers. That’s an interesting and invaluable use of tech worker power right now. I think that Twitter workers, whoever was involved in this decision, made huge choices. Of course we don’t have a stance on that formally as a union yet, but I commend whatever workers were behind that.