Google Global Union Campaign Provides Case Study in Employee Voice

February 04, 2021

This week’s international launch of “Alpha Global” – a global alliance of Alphabet employee unions – stumbled after incorrectly listing US-based “Alphabet Workers Union” as a signatory.  The subsequently issued retraction and resulting confusion underscore the difficulties for companies which work with non-traditional “unions” which utilize public pressure and employee voice campaigns outside of established legal and regulatory frameworks. 

The lack of formality and governance in this situation created an embarrasment for the newly formed “Alpha Global” alliance of Alphabet employee unions.  However, this same lack of formality is what gives these alliances many of their advantages and can present a significant challenge to global employers confronted with similar efforts. 

US, Global Efforts by Alphabet Employees Seek to Unite “Employee Voice”.  Since the beginning of the year, Google employees based in the U.S. established a “minority union” – the “Alphabet Workers Union (AWU)”, which cannot engage in collective bargaining and has not been recognized by the NLRB.  However, the arrangement allows the AWU to include Google independent contractors (a significant labor force for the company) and, at least from a public and media perspective, brand themselves as representing the employee population. 

Alpha Global Alliance provides a similar structure, consisting of about a dozen unions from 10 countries.   And while the alliance does not provide collective bargaining abilities in any one country, its partnership the UNI Global Union aims to influence employment conditions internationally at Alphabet through mainly media and employee voice campaigns like the recent “Make Amazon Pay” global campaign. 

Global Employee Voice Campaigns – Considerations for Global Employers:  Employee voice campaigns present a significantly different challenge for global employers than traditional union efforts in the US and other world power economies.  These campaigns all present very different strengths and weaknesses for those pursuing them. 

  • Structure and Framework:  Unlike “traditional” union campaigns, employee voice campaigns lack a legal framework providing governance for formation or conflict resolution.  Further making things difficult, employee voice campaigns often either completely lack or have numerous points of contact representing varying employee interests.   This can make it difficult for companies to engage to defuse situations.  The Alphabet Global Union demonstrates these difficulties.  The “Global Alliance” representing employees is just a pooled communication tool – the group cannot bind the company’s employees or any of the unions in the Alliance.  However, the scope of the “Alliance” being global in nature vs. isolated in a singular country adds a significant complexity.  For Alphabet, engaging, if they choose to, can be difficult.  If Alphabet chooses to engage with the Alliance, what is to say one of the individual members of the Alliance becomes unwilling to accept the changes?  It is a risk.
  • Speed:  Employee Voice campaigns can unfold rapidly without being restrained by the typical governance processes that traditional unions must adhere to in developed nations.  The speed can make it difficult for companies to react at all, which can be very problematic when a global company is facing a global campaign reaching many or all areas in which it operates.   Traditional union campaigns, as a contrast, are by nature isolated to individual countries which makes predictability and response significantly easier.    
  • Sustainability:  Sustainability is an area where employee voice and non-traditional union campaigns typically see a lower success rate than traditional unions and bargaining.  Without a firm unifying goal and governance, non-traditional unions and employee voice campaigns typically burn hot, but short.  However, like the speed issue, the issue can quickly spread globally as in contrast to issues which are isolated in individual countries. 
  • Results:  Results are a mixed bag.  Non-traditional unions and employee voice campaigns can be successful in courting public opinion against companies. 

HR Policy Global Takeaway:  Global “Alliances” of Unions represent a recent and continually emerging trend of non-traditional unionism which relies primarily on “employee voice” and social media. Companies, however, can manage risk more effectively by engaging with employees on the local level  to identify and address issues to avoid them becoming social media problems.