January 15, 2021
A very small minority of Google workers have formed the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) but, despite its affiliation with the Communications Workers of America, the union seeks only to influence certain company actions, rather than engage in traditional collective bargaining.
The launching of the AWU is the latest in a series of innovative actions by organized labor and other pressure groups to capitalize on new forms of employee voice. Traditional union representation in the private sector has followed an NLRB-conducted election (or voluntary recognition by the employer), where a majority of the workers elect an exclusive union to represent them in collective bargaining with the employer over wages, benefits, working hours and other broadly-construed “terms and conditions of employment.” The represented workers pay dues (or agency fees) to the union (voluntarily in Right to Work states) for this and to represent them in grievances with the employer. The only attribute the AWU shares with this construct is the payment of dues by those Google employees who belong to the union.
The AWU’s focus is on specific issues rather than broad representation on all workplace issues. The effort was described in a New York Times article as “giv[ing] structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.” Issues that have been raised in the past as part of this activism have included workplace harassment, diversity, pay discrimination and business decisions deemed unethical because of the customers' objectives. Federal law imposes severe restrictions on any relationship between an employer and a "minority union." A spokesperson for Google responded to the union’s formation: “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our work force. Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”
Why it’s important: Federal policymakers continue to wrestle over potential changes in the federal labor laws—such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—but the Google workers’ union underscores the potential irrelevancy of those laws to how employee voice may evolve. If the AWU thrives, it will challenge the notion of having a union only where it is supported by a majority of the workers. More importantly, it questions whether union representation must involve every single component of the workplace relationship. That aspect of American labor law has generated resistance by employers who prefer the flexibility of making changes in operations to adjust to changes in the marketplace.