January 4 a group of workers at Google Parent company Alphabet said it has formed a union to influence the company’s approach to political and social issues. Three days later, the Alphabet Workers’ Union had its first chance. A crowd incited by President Trump had stormed the Capitol in Washington, DC, sparking recriminations in the capital and in the atomized home offices that now make up Silicon Valley. YouTube had deleted a video the president posted amid the violence on Wednesday. But unlike Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Twitch owned by Amazon, YouTube does not have to suspend Trump’s Account.
The Alphabet Workers Union said YouTube’s response was “lackluster” and inadequate. In a statement, the group said Google does not enforce its own policies, despite the platform being used to “spread hatred and extremism”. “YouTube will continue to function as a growth vector for fascist movements if it persists in prioritizing advertisers while exposing the public,” the AWU wrote. Google did not respond to requests for comment, but Told Fortune that the president’s story did not violate his tri-strike policy.
The AWU is somewhat unusual in that it is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, but will not seek recognition or collective bargaining rights through the National Labor Relations Board. “We will use our reclaimed power to control what we are working on and how it is used,” AWU writes in its mission statement. “We will ensure that Alphabet acts ethically and in the best interests of society and the environment.”
The group says it now has more than 700 paying members. But that’s still a small percentage of Alphabet’s 130,000 employees – and an even smaller share of the company’s total workforce, including temporary workers, contractors and suppliers. The union is unusual in another respect, as it welcomes contractors and temporary workers.
Labor experts say this non-traditional arrangement could chart a course for organizers of tech companies, which – like many white-collar workplaces – have proven hostile to the organization. Today, organizers are likely to struggle to generate enthusiasm for a union among Google employees, many of whom enjoy their jobs and are well paid, says Janice Fine, professor at Rutgers University and director of research and of the strategy of its Center for Innovation in Organization of workers. “These workers are not going to get the majority of the workers on their side, but they are trying to figure out how you protect the minority who are ready to speak up and create an organization that can push Google,” she said.
“Minority”, “solidarity” or “open” unions like Alphabet’s exist outside certain protections of federal labor law. AWU cannot bargain collectively with Alphabet, which may limit its influence with the company. But any group of more than two employees organizing together is legally protected against retaliation. The model might be particularly suitable for sprawling multinational tech giants, whose workers have many diverse roles.
“This model opens up a lot of possibilities and creates a dynamic in which workers can leverage their power through an organization,” says Wes McEnany, East Coast Manager of the CWA Campaign to Organize Digital Employees. He says that since the organization’s launch last week, the union has heard from employees of other tech companies interested in organizing their own solidarity groups. (WIRED editorial staff are members of a union affiliated with the CWA.)
Fine says workers have been looking for new ways to organize for three decades, as court rulings and state laws have made the country less hospitable to traditional unions. Only 10.3% of American employees were union members in 2019compared to 20.1 per cent of employees in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available. “Alternative work” organizations such as non-profit worker centers have sprung up to provide legal advice and other forms of support to workers. The Fight for $ 15 movement has since 2012 organized fast food workers across the country to strike for higher wages, achieving victories in places like New York, California, Florida and Seattle. More recently, site workers for companies such as Uber, Instacart and DoorDash have organized themselves in support of the legislation to make them employees instead of contractors, without the imprimatur of official recognition. CWA has experience organizing public employees in states like Texas, where collective bargaining by public servants is not protected by law.