Last week, workers announced the formation of the Alphabet Union at Google. There has been a lot of publicity attached to this unveiling. Coverage has been mixed in terms of favorability. Some of that, however, has to do with political allegiances, which we will dive into.
The tech industry, as a whole, is paying close attention to what is currently playing out at Google. Silicon Valley has been immune to real unionization efforts. Hedge fund managers are scrambling to see if their obscene amounts of wealth might take a hit if the Alphabet Union finds success and inspires other groups of workers to take collective action. Should they be worried is a related question and one that is worth examining.
The Labor Movement has been taking a lot of losses over the last several decades. Wealthy individuals and corporations, alike, have found creative ways to break union density and keep workplaces union free. Their motives are entirely selfish. As the top income earners take more and more, middle class share of income has declined. When union density was greatest in the United States, the middle class held its greatest share of wealth. Profitable corporations will sell any lie to keep unions out of their workplaces. They are terrified if workers actually take a look at the books and divvy out money more appropriately. It will mean one less yacht or two for a high ranking executive and a front line worker not being behind on rent. What a catastrophe that would be!
As the Labor Movement tries to find its identity at a time when union density is so low, new campaigns have been launched to try to rejuvenate the working class. One problem? Labor hasn’t really been asking the working class for their input. The working class is feeling the weight of unchecked capitalism. Many people see what their bosses make and are simply asked to do too much day in and day out for low pay. Different national unions have sought to capture the plight of the working class by launching broad, industry-wide, organizing campaigns. One such campaign was SEIU’s Fight for $15, which I did some work on.
Fight for $15 was launched more or less in a board room. Senior Organizers identified some obvious problems, such as the low pay fast food employees receive from their very profitable employers, a lack of any real benefits, and unstable work schedules. Senior Organizers created catchy slogans and pristine websites to draw in people who would support a call to change the types of things mentioned above. One problem with this model is that it does not ever really get to the root of the problem because it created an advocacy arm for fast food workers versus organized shops with real bargaining power. The idea for this campaign came from the top down. It did not start on the shop floor, and the fast food industry remains union free. This does not mean that this effort did not do anything meaningful for fast food workers, and working people in general. Minimum wage went up in various places across the country, and workers benefited from that. Fast food workers, however, still do not have a vehicle to negotiate with their employer on all of the other issues that affect them. We are seeing something similar play out at Google now.
The Alphabet Union, a project of CWA, has nowhere close to a majority of support. Campaigns like this run the risk of looking like they are only for activists. A tech worker might feel like they cannot join because they do not want to be a spokesperson for the union and get quoted in an Atlantic article. The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, “Google’s Fake Union Insults the Labor Movement.” That headline already gives away their hand (read: bias). The Wall Street Journal isn’t in the business of helping workers have more power in their workplace. They have never stood for that. Of the many inaccuracies in that piece, one thing that stuck out to me was the classist undertones present in their argument against unionization. They basically posited that some workers are worthy of unions and others are above it. What do engineers who make $100k/year need a union for? Well, that really misses the boat and is exactly the kind of messaging Google will double down on when they direct anti-union messaging at their staff.
$100k/year sounds nice until you realize how far that gets you in the Bay Area. $100k/year sounds nice if you don’t think too hard about what your boss makes or what high up executives make. $100k/year sounds nice until you think about how little that really is compared to what the .1% of the 1% have. Google and the Wall Street Journal are happy to make this “professional worker” argument to tech workers so that they see themselves above the kinds of people they see as traditional union workers (think: janitors or teachers). All a union does is allow you to sit down 50/50 with your employer and take a look at the books together. Leave that “professional worker” jargon someplace else because every industry follows the same pattern. Money is concentrated at the top, and everyone else has to fight for scraps. Sometimes the scraps are a bit bigger so you’re supposed to suck it up and pretend that you don’t have any problems at work. You’re not supposed to think about class solidarity and how you have more in common with someone making minimum wage than your CEO who never comes in, and has multiple homes, boats, and cars. You’re supposed to want to be the one lucky person who becomes the boss someday, compete with your coworkers day in and day out until you move up, and not think about class solidarity. You’re a tech worker for Christ sakes!
Despite that sort of rhetoric, “professional” workers form unions all the time. SEIU has tens of thousands of doctors in their union. You know what these union members spend a lot of time doing? Advocating for patient care and calling on hospitals to stop gauging the people they take care of. These members are able to see past the classist arguments that they’re supposed to buy into. They did that by understanding that they can use their collective power to advocate for the things they care about. The Alphabet Union has already started to do this by taking obvious moral stances that their employer is too slow to move on. They recently condemned the occupation of the Capitol before their boss did. Unions don’t just have to be about getting more money. You can advocate on a broad array of issues, including things that do not affect your paycheck. You can use your collective voices to help create a better world. Unions are cool, people.
All of this is to say that I am optimistic about the Alphabet Union. Labor has been getting hammered so an effort like this is certainly not an insult to what we stand for. Google and the Wall Street Journal seek to squash things that upset the status quo of capitalism. Those entities are an insult to us. They disseminate things like that to dissuade people from joining unions to protect their wealth. What I hope for is for workers to join the Alphabet Union in droves because they want to create change in their workplace. I want to see campaigns like this shift from top down organizing to ground up models where shops organize one by one. That might not happen this go round, but that should be something we put our efforts towards in the future. Maybe other wins for workers will come out of this that aren’t on our radars right now. Either way, workers in the tech industry should talk to one another about their work experiences and decide what it is they need and how best to get there. The answer is probably through a real union, and maybe that’s what this can become. Maybe other workplaces will be inspired to take similar action.