Student Opinion: Google’s First Worker Union May Revolutionize the Tech Industry

(Jim Wilson)

By Liam Benedict

Labor unions have a long, troubled history in the United States, with the first example of a union starting as early as the late 1700s. Their popularity and power have fluctuated over many years, with the power of labor growing weak in recent decades. 

Still, strides towards better working conditions for workers in a variety of workforces have been made. Most recently, labor unions have taken root into a relatively new but vital industry: Tech. 

Recently, a new union made up of Google employees, known as the Alphabet Workers Union (named after Google’s parent company), has risen to some prominence as of yet. Labor unions have been on the decline for years now and are practically nonexistent in the tech industry. But this new union, though still in the early stages, could be an essential force for good in the industry with impacts felt worldwide. 

The status of labor unions is curious. Despite having a high approval rating from the American public (65 percent in the current year according to Gallup), they do not have much power as of late, with only 11.6 percent of Americans currently members of one––a drastic decrease from its peak in decades past. 

Some people believe that labor unions are not important, but I’d argue that people who feel this way don’t remember our country’s history. After all, labor unions are the reason that most of us have weekends off. They also helped establish a minimum wage, overtime hours and shutting down cruel child labor. Another of their lasting achievements is collective bargaining, allowing employees to negotiate as a group for health and pay benefits. 

Despite the glory of these past accomplishments, a changing marketplace and the ultra-conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan brought the labor movement low with union membership falling by 5 million between 1975 and 1985. 

Regardless of this decline, labor unions are still very important, especially in industries with worldwide effects, such as the tech industry. This relates to the Alphabet Workers Union’s mission, whose focus is on having more control over the company’s actions, an idea often seen in some European unions. 

In the words of Ms. Koul and Mr. Shaw, the elected executive chair and vice-chair of the union, they are committed to holding Google to its former motto of: “Don’t be evil.” 

In an article published by The New York Times, the two explain the union’s motives in more detail. “For far too long, thousands of us at Google — and other subsidiaries of Alphabet, Google’s parent company — have had our workplace concerns dismissed by executives. Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group.” 

These are not the typical problems faced by your average worker. This type of intense moral dilemma could only occur in the tech industry, all the more reason why unionization is needed in this workplace. The two also cite Google’s gross mishandling of a sexual harassment case recently, involving two of their higher-ups as a motivating factor forming their union. 

The article also goes on to say: “Organized workers at the company forced executives to drop Project Maven, the company’s artificial-intelligence program with the Pentagon, and Project Dragonfly, its plan to launch a censored search engine in China. Some of Alphabet’s subcontractors won a $15 minimum hourly wage, parental leave, and health insurance after an employee outcry.” This is proof that Google employees can affect change for the better while inspiring messages to workers in any field when they band together. 

Now, the union is still in its earliest stages. At the moment, they only have about 400 members, compared to the 100,000 employees Google has worldwide. Also, as Recode puts it: “At the moment, the union has no way of forcing Google’s management to come to the bargaining table. This is because the union doesn’t currently have an officially recognized bargaining unit under US labor law.” 

However, this works to the union’s advantage. It is not looking for a bargaining unit at the moment. Instead, it is focusing on gaining members. Not only this, but the structure of the union allows it to recruit Alphabet contractors and employees. 

The Alphabet Worker Union is the first time this has been attempted on a company as large as Google. Although it’s in the early stages, if this union continues to grow and stick around, it could forever change the tech industry. It is finally giving its workers justice and a say in their profession. 

Liam Benedict is a first-year English major from the small town of Galt, California. He is a writer and is planning on becoming a lawyer in the future.

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3 thoughts on “Student Opinion: Google’s First Worker Union May Revolutionize the Tech Industry”

  1. Ron Oertel

    These are not the typical problems faced by your average worker. This type of intense moral dilemma could only occur in the tech industry, all the more reason why unionization is needed in this workplace.

    True – you pretty much need to be “privileged” (and of a particular political persuasion) to be highly concerned about what your employer does regarding this in the first place.  Most “normal” workers are more concerned about wages, benefits, and working conditions.

    Other places in the country, along with China and India are increasingly going to challenge the Bay Area’s tech industry.  And, those workers aren’t yet as privileged or demanding.  😉

  2. Ron Oertel

    Here’s an interesting, related article that I just came across.  I wasn’t aware of such a high percentage of foreign-born workers.

    Fully 60 percent of the Valley’s science and engineering workforce was born outside of the United States, mostly from India, China and Korea, according to the Index.

    But “some who have lived and worked here for years are beginning to ‘go home,'” observes Tom Friel, retired board chair of the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Woops – that’s a pretty old article.

      Regardless, there is a mass outward migration occurring, as I presume most of you already know. Nothing stays the same forever, especially when technology such as telecommuting becomes increasingly available.

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