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Google Union’s Future Likely Hinges on Tech Giant’s Response

Jan. 6, 2021, 9:12 PM

The quasi-union formed at Alphabet Inc.‘s Google lacks the legal clout to force major changes at the tech powerhouse, but it could be a springboard to greater unionization efforts in an industry that’s increasingly come under fire from its workforce.

On the surface, the Alphabet Workers Union, named after Google’s parent company, has all the touchstones of a fully fledged union: It has enlisted hundreds of dues-paying members since its launch Monday, plans to elect a board of directors and pay its organizing staff, and it’s affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, one of the nation’s largest unions, with more than 700,000 members.

But it’s not actually a union—at least not under federal labor law. The group’s leaders haven’t earned support of a majority of Google’s workers—a process typically accomplished through a National Labor Relations Board election—and they don’t plan to take that step anytime soon.

The union therefore won’t have legal authority to bargain on behalf of the workers they claim to represent. And it will have to operate without key federal protections granted to “official” unions. That reality will severely limit its influence with one of the most powerful employers in tech, a sector where unions have barely managed to gain a foothold.

And yet, both labor allies and management-side attorneys say Google and other tech companies shouldn’t underestimate the significance of the union’s emergence. Not only could it provide a platform for a more robust organizing campaign in the future, the union also could educate workers about federal protections for concerted activity—applicable to union and non-union workers alike—which could make life increasingly difficult for management.

“It’s in the workers’ hands and the union’s hands to use their power creatively to put pressure on this very high-profile employer,” said Charlotte Garden, a labor law professor at Seattle University School of Law. “There are all sorts of levers that they’ll be able to pull.”

A Union, Sort of

Without formal recognition through the NLRB process, the union’s arsenal will be limited to collective speech activities that federal law affords to virtually every worker, union and non-union. The National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right to form and join unions, and to engage in “other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The law also prevents an employer from taking actions that “interfere with, restrain or coerce employees” from exercising those rights. That means the group can use a variety of tactics, including petitions and strikes, without fear of retaliation—at least in theory.

Some of those available tactics were utilized in 2018 when thousands of Google employees staged a coordinated walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims. In response, the company agreed to abandon forced arbitration and publish an internal harassment report with details of allegations and disciplinary actions.

Google workers also have spoken out against the company’s contracts with the U.S. military, disparate treatment of contract workers, and a plan for a censored search engine in China.

“This is putting a name and structure on something that it seems like has been going on at Google already,” Garden said.

Because the labor group doesn’t have formal recognition under federal law, Google won’t be bound by the federal requirement for an employer to negotiate with the bargaining unit over wages, benefits, and working conditions; the company can refuse to negotiate at any time, and there’s little the union can do.

“The key is to convince the management of Google that they don’t want to fight this, and, No. 2, if they go along they’ll have a better company,” said Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America.

Membership in the nascent labor group is open to Google’s independent contractors in North America regardless of their employment classification, a factor that could expand its reach. That wouldn’t be an option for a formal union, which is limited to representing only those who are considered employees under federal labor law.

‘A Foot in the Door’

Google seemed to suggest it won’t try to interfere with the union’s activities, for the time being. In a statement Monday, Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations, acknowledged that “our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with our employees.”

In the past, the company has responded forcefully to worker agitation. Last month, the NLRB general counsel accused Google of illegally firing, interrogating and surveilling activist employees in response to unfair labor practice charges CWA filed with the board in late 2019. The company has denied wrongdoing.

In November, Google hired an anti-union consulting firm, IRIConsultants, to advise management. The firm advertises a variety of avoidance services, including “union vulnerability assessments” that identify potential targets for an organizing campaign.

Google’s strategy of acknowledging the union suggests the company already sees the group as a threat, and with good reason, said Marta Fernandez, chair of the labor and employment department at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Mitchell in Los Angeles.

Even an informal labor group could easily be transformed into a full-fledged unionization drive if its leaders are successful in getting workers to warm to the idea.

Though it might seem counterintuitive, the best way to ward off a large-scale union drive is to cooperate with the new labor group, Fernandez said. By allowing employees to air grievances through a semi-formal structure, the company might be able to undercut a traditional organizing effort.

“The test will be whether they can, in fact, steer this group away from a real union,” Fernandez said.

The answer is likely years away. Alphabet Inc. employs more than 100,000 people; as of Tuesday, the union said it had about 500 members. Beth Allen, communications director for CWA, said Monday, when asked whether the union would seek formal recognition, that it “might need to see some substantial changes in labor law before that’s a realistic goal.”

But a slow, sustained approach to organizing could be more effective than the traditional method of gathering support in secret and filing for a fast election, said Cohen, the former CWA president. In the meantime, he added, the group could make sizable gains through collective influence and media exposure.

And for unions, it serves as an invitation to organize the company.

“This is a foot in the door,” Fernandez said.

—With assistance from Josh Eidelson

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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