Google’s old corporate slogan was “Don’t be evil.” And in recent conversations with two Catholic Labor Network members – Stephen McMurty of the Alphabet Workers Union and Chuck Hendricks of UNITE HERE – who have firsthand knowledge, I’ve been pleased to learn that Google’s labor relations practices seem more enlightened than some other companies I’ve heard about. Unfortunately, in a time where union-busting has become ubiquitous, the bar that other companies have set is pretty low. Workers at every company need a union – even companies that proclaim “Do the Right Thing” as their current motto.
Direct employees of Alphabet, the parent company, often enjoy good salaries – recent college grads earning six digits are not unusual. They are less likely than workers at Amazon and other tech companies to complain of long hours and a high-pressure work environment. So why do they need a union? Even well-paid workers want a voice on the job – that’s why a number of them, including CLN member Stephen McMurtry, banded together in the Alphabet Workers Union, affiliated with the Communication Workers of America.
McMurtry says that workers at Google want, in short, to hold Google to its slogans – they want to know that they are creating socially useful products. In recent years, Google has seen workers organize a petition opposing Google contracts with ICE and the Customs and Border Patrol – and has engaged in unlawful retaliation against ringleaders. Others have objected to military contracts, both foreign and domestic. Joining together in a union would help protect workers engaged in such advocacy.
That doesn’t mean there are no economic issues in play at Google. Some employees who have relocated from the Bay Area are now facing pay cuts from a company saying that their pay packet assumed a Bay Area cost of living. And many workers on a Google campus are in fact temps or contractors, who generally are paid less, even when performing similar work.
McMurtry describes AWU as “open and experimental.” In most cases, a union rushes to a union election (or sometimes a “card check”) to be certified as THE representative of employees in a bargaining unit, compelling the employer to bargain a contract with them covering wages and benefits for all employees. AWU is content, at least for now, to operate as a “minority union” which represents the workers who join and delving into issues that are outside the usual scope of American collective bargaining. (Although many people don’t realize it, the National Labor Relations Act protects “concerted activity” by workers whether or not they claim to represent a majority of the employees.)
The future of unions in the tech sector is still being written, and part of it is being written by the pioneering members of the AWU.