Google has unionised!

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Workers at Google walk out on strike in 2018

‘DON’T let this get around, but professionals are forming unions like crazy these days. And, just yesterday, a union unveiled itself at Google … adopting the form of a semi-union in a clear effort to keep Google from crushing it,’ wrote a US labour activist on Tuesday.

In just the past couple of years, journalists at new and old media outlets, graduate student teaching and research assistants at public and private universities, employees of non-profit foundations and non-profit recipients of foundations, and the workers who make the tech world go round have all opted to unionise.

To that end, the new Google union isn’t seeking collective-bargaining rights – which, under the whittled-down National Labour Relations Act, would effectively enable Google management to do just about anything to threaten and harass its members.

By not submitting itself to the jurisdiction of the stunted law governing employment relationships, the new union can exercise its First Amendment rights to raise a host of issues – including Google’s impact on the wider world and its coddling of executives who’ve sexually harassed employees – in ways that what passes for labour law in the US might restrain.

Google is certainly ripe for such worker uprisings. In 2018, some 20,000 Google employees walked off the job to protest at the tens of millions of dollars Google had paid to two executives who’d resigned when the charges of sexual harassment were lodged against them. Employees have also protested at the company’s providing its technology to Trump’s border guards.

Google will still surely seek to undermine its new union, even though it isn’t seeking the company’s recognition or bargaining rights; such worker-rights phobia seems to be the knee-jerk reaction of Big Tech’s owners generally.

Right now, Amazon is campaigning against the efforts of its employees in a Birmingham, Alabama, warehouse to win bargaining rights, notwithstanding the fact that Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, whose current estimated wealth is roughly $180 billion, could personally buy the entire state of Alabama if he so desired.

By a number of metrics, American workers’ desire to unionise has seldom been higher. The most recent Gallup poll on the subject shows that 65 per cent of Americans have a favourable view of unions, the highest level in many decades.

The immovable object that counters what is not yet an irresistible force is the pathological hatred of unions by the nation’s CEOs, who exploit the deficiencies in our labour laws to threaten their workers’ livelihoods if they want to organise and bargain.

When a workforce consists of hard-to-replace professionals, however, the balance of power may shift to the workers: hence the recent wave of unionisation among professionals. (This is also why professional athletes and airline pilots have long had some of the strongest unions around.)

The growing militancy and strategic smarts of American workers are a hugely welcome development; at some point, though, those qualities need to be augmented by sufficient political clout to change our labour laws so that workers can finally receive what’s due them for their work.

More than 400 Google engineers and other workers have formed a union, the group revealed on Monday, capping years of growing activism at one of the world’s largest companies and presenting a rare beachhead for labour organisers in staunchly anti-union Silicon Valley.

The union’s creation is highly unusual for the tech industry, which has long resisted efforts to organise its largely white-collar work force. It follows increasing demands by employees at Google for policy overhauls on pay, harassment and ethics, and is likely to escalate tensions with top leadership.

The new union, called the Alphabet Workers Union after Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was organised in secret for the better part of a year and elected its leadership last month. The group is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents workers in telecommunications and media in the United States and Canada.

But unlike a traditional union, which demands that an employer comes to the bargaining table to agree on a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union is a so-called minority union that represents a fraction of the company’s more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors. Workers said it was primarily an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.

Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and the vice chair of the union’s leadership council, said the union was a necessary tool to sustain pressure on management so that workers could force changes on workplace issues.

‘Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of “Are people getting paid enough?” Our issues are going much broader,’ he said. ‘It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.’

In response, Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations, said: ‘We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. 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 new union is the clearest sign of how thoroughly employee activism has swept through Silicon Valley over the past few years. While software engineers and other tech workers largely kept quiet in the past on societal and political issues, employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest and others have become more vocal on matters like diversity, pay discrimination and sexual harassment.

‘Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of “Are people getting paid enough?”’ Shaw said.

Timnit Gebru, an artificial intelligence researcher, said Google had fired her after she criticised biases in A.I. systems.

Nowhere have those voices been louder than at Google. In 2018, more than 20,000 employees staged a walkout to protest at how the company handled sexual harassment. Others have opposed business decisions that they deemed unethical, such as developing artificial intelligence for the Defence Department and providing technology to Customs and Border Protection.

Even so, unions have not gained traction in Silicon Valley. Many tech workers shunned them, arguing that labour groups were focused on issues like wages – not a top concern in the high-earning industry – and were not equipped to address their concerns about ethics and the role of technology in society. Labour organisers also found it difficult to corral the tech companies’ huge workforces, which are scattered around the globe.

Only a few small union drives have succeeded in tech in the past. Workers at the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and at the app development platform Glitch won union campaigns last year, and a small group of contractors at a Google office in Pittsburgh unionised in 2019. Thousands of employees at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are also set to vote on a union in the coming months.