National Post (Latest Edition)

Alphabet workers launch union

- Nitasha Tiku

A group of nearly 230 workers from Google parent Alphabet Inc. on Monday launched a union, a move that could push tech worker organizing beyond petitions and protests.

But because the union is not seeking ratificati­on through a federal agency, it won’t have collective bargaining rights, potentiall­y limiting the leverage the group may be able to wield within the tech giant.

It’s the latest organizing effort by tech workers, who have gone public with frustratio­ns over what they say are unfair labour practices and unethical business deals in recent years. Amazon workers are attempting to form a union at a warehouse in Alabama, while Google contractor­s in Pittsburgh have voted to form a union.

But much of Silicon Valley has pushed back against unionizati­on efforts, surveillin­g suspected organizers and hiring consultant­s to suppress nascent efforts.

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

The Alphabet union is attempting a new path to avoid that. Typically, unions are formed after an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. If the majority of voters choose to join, the NLRB certifies the union to represent the workers and bargain collective­ly.

The union at Alphabet is forming without federal ratificati­on, limiting its rights. And Google in the past has signalled its willingnes­s to fight such efforts. In December, the NLRB filed a complaint against Google for surveillin­g and terminatin­g employees, and in 2019, the firm hired consultant­s known for anti-union efforts.

Communicat­ions Workers of America, representi­ng more than 700,000 members, is suppor ting the Alphabet union. CWA communicat­ions director Beth Allen says even without NLRB certificat­ion, this type of organizing is considered protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act.

The CWA includes other unions without collective bargaining rights, says Allen, such as the Texas State Employees Union, which represents 11,000 public sector workers who are generally not allowed collective bargaining rights under state law.

Unions working with the NLRB typically have to deal with narrowly defined work groups, limited by type of worker or location, which “makes it very easy for employers to attack,” Allen says.

She compared the Alphabet union to CWA’S partnershi­p with bank workers from Wells Fargo, who in recent years were able to push for changes to sales goals and incentive structures that they believed led to unethical practices. However that group, the Committee for Better Banks, is not a union.

The Alphabet Workers Union will have an elected board of directors and paid organizing staff members, according to the group’s news release. Members will pay one per cent of total compensati­on, which includes salary and equity. A representa­tive declined to say how many of the 230 or so members are full- time employees vs. contractor­s.

“This union builds upon years of courageous organizing by Google workers,” Google program manager Nicki Anselmo said in a statement that referenced the company’s decision not to renew a Pentagon contract to analyze drone footage after employees protested. “From fighting the ‘ real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multimilli­on- dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first- hand that Alphabe t responds when we act collective­ly.”

She continued, “Our new union provides a sustainabl­e structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade.”

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