Leslie A. Farber
The Movement to Unionize the Tech Sector
In January of 2021, more than 400 Google engineers and other workers formed a union. The creation of the Alphabet Workers Union (named after Google’s parent company) was highly unusual for the tech industry, which has long resisted efforts to organize its work force. It also follows years of growing activism, not only by Google employees but across the tech sector, where workers are demanding changes in how their companies do business.
The new union is a sign of how employee activism in Silicon Valley has expanded over the past few years. Workers at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest and other companies have become more vocal on matters like diversity, pay discrimination and sexual harassment. However, many tech workers have rejected labor groups as being too focused on issues like wages and not equipped to address concerns about ethics and the role of technology in society.
Technology unions are new labor organizations that full-time and contract employees at major tech companies are attempting to form. These unions fight for traditional issues like better wages, hours, and working conditions. But given the high number of well-paid tech workers, they also engage in activism around the morality of tech companies' operating practices and business relationships.
The Alphabet Workers Union is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), itself an affiliated union of the AFL-CIO that specifically focuses on organizing workers in the technology, gaming, and digital sectors. The Google union is a minority union, not a traditional union. Traditional unions typically negotiate with a company over a contract or a single issue for the majority of employees at a company. They petition a state or federal labor board like the National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B) to hold an election, and if they win the vote, they can bargain with their employer.
A minority union represents a fraction of employees and lobbies for them across a range of issues. Employees can organize without first winning a formal vote before the N.L.R.B. In the case of the Alphabet Workers Union, the structure gives the union the latitude to include Google contractors, who would be excluded from a traditional union. However, minority unions do not have collective bargaining rights.
Only a few union drives in the tech sector have succeeded so far. Workers at the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and at the app development platform Glitch won union campaigns in 2020, and a small group of contractors at a Google office in Pittsburgh unionized in 2019. The CWA’s efforts have spurred employees at Medium, a publishing platform created by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, to also unionize. More than 70% of employees at the company have expressed their support. Like the Alphabet Workers Union, the Medium Workers Union is organizing around broad support and protections for workers, rather than a single issue or list of demands.
However, a high-profile unionization effort last year by workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, failed when workers at the warehouse voted overwhelmingly against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
As unions continue engaging with workers, tech companies are fighting to keep unions out. Under U.S. law, companies may not threaten workers with the of loss their jobs if they unionize, but they can predict adverse consequences. Strategies include warning employees about the negative impact a union would have, casting doubt on why they need a union, and hiring law firms and consultants to drive home the point. Amazon has fought vigorously to keep its workers from unionizing, going so far as to hire Pinkerton detectives to spot unionizing efforts worldwide.
Despite leadership’s resistance, the tech sector’s growing receptiveness to organized labor speaks to the importance placed by employees on issues around company practices, policies, and customers. The Alphabet Workers Union evolved out of concerns with the company not living up to its highly publicized social values. The push by unions may be at an early stage, but as workers, Congress, and the public continue to raise questions about the workplace practices of tech giants like Google and Amazon, it is likely to gain momentum.
If you have questions or concerns about unionization efforts in your workplace, please contact us at 973.707.3322 or via email at LFarber@LFarberLaw.com.
The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.