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Alphabet union has a ‘long way to go’ before it can force Google to bargain, expert says

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A newly formed labor movement at Google parent company Alphabet (GOOG, GOOGL) could reverberate throughout Silicon Valley. It could spur a new generation of technology workers to demand greater say in their pay, how the tools they create are commercialized, and how their employers address ethical questions about their products.

The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) could also fail to coalesce into an entity that legally obligates the tech giant to entertain its demands.

According to Alex Colvin, dean of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, there’s plenty of reason to think AWU is part of a trend where tech workers seek to have their voices heard, especially concerning product ethics, such as user privacy and security.

“There are some new kinds of issues arising that are specific to this kind of industry, and I think do reflect that the workers in the industry have expectations that they should have a voice around these issues and be able to express themselves intellectually around these areas of work,” Colvin said.

However, the group may need to refine who it allows to join its ranks if it intends to exert legal pressure on Google to consider its demands, Glenn Smith, chair of Seyfarth Shaw’s labor management relations practice group, told Yahoo Finance.

“It may be the formation of a group that's just going to informally address issues of employees, or maybe one that's going to formally represent employees. There's a long way to go before you pare it down and figure out exactly what's going on here,” Smith explained.

Workers want a say in ethical questions

Two Google software engineers announced the new union on Monday, noting in a New York Times op-ed that it had more than 200 members (a fraction of the company’s workforce) and would be open to full-time workers, contractors, temporary employees, and vendors. The formation of the union comes comes after years of employer activism over sexual harassment, military contracts, and a censored search engine in China, in addition to the privacy issues that have plagued much of Big Tech.

While the AWU said it plans to address traditional labor issues, including the treatment of and compensation for contract employees, it also plans to focus on Google’s product development.

According to AWU vice chair Chewy Shaw, the group wants to take part in Google’s corporate conversations surrounding large-scale problems Google’s products can create.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google's Alphabet Inc., is seen as he testifies remotely during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing to discuss "reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act," which protects internet companies, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 28, 2020.  U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation/Handout via REUTERS
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google's Alphabet Inc., is seen as he testifies remotely during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing. U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation/Handout via REUTERS

“Our company is facing some really complicated issues. How you deal with proper privacy and internet security for users on the internet is not a simple thing,” Shaw told Yahoo Finance.

“And I don’t believe executives are intentionally hurting the world with these types of things, but that they are taking on these complex problems without the time or resources to solve them on their own properly in terms of coming up with a strategy.”

Which workers join could make or break the movement

Outside of those issues, Raksha Muthukumar, a representative for AWU, told Yahoo Finance Live on Monday that the roughly 250 Google workers who had become members also hoped to push Alphabet to address compensation and information sharing discrepancies between contract workers and employees.

Like other tech companies, including Yahoo Finance parent Verizon Media, Google has faced criticism for having a “shadow workforce” of contractors and temps who don’t receive benefits. The New York Times reported in 2019 that Google’s temporary workers outnumbered its full-time employees.

“Full-time employees like myself...are salaried and have the full benefits and perks of working at Google, while somebody who sits right next to me, who might also be an engineer doing very similar work to me, is classified as a contractor that Google hires through a third party, and doesn’t get similar compensation at all,” Muthukumar said.

But it’s unclear whether the AWU could ever turn into a federally recognized bargaining unit that Google is legally obligated to deal with, Smith said. That’s true, even though the group said its members will belong to a local chapter of the 700,000-member-strong Communication Workers of America (CWA) union.

“There are rules of the road that apply to all organizing efforts, whether or not this worker initiative fits into that remains to be seen,” Smith said.

For one, Smith said, although AWU reportedly said it did not intend to seek certification as the employees’ bargaining representative from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — a process that gives a workers’ union the right to bargain on behalf of certain employees — the group may be frustrating its own or CWA’s efforts to bargain on behalf of workers based on its policy to welcome membership to all Google employees and contractors.

By law, bargaining units must be composed of members who share an appropriate “community of interest,” or shared work circumstances that are similar in the types of jobs they perform, job classification, the location where they work, or other factors. Plus, employers can exclude supervisors from a labor union given that supervisors are not considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

Workers hold signs outside 14th Street Park across from the Google offices after walking out as part of a global protest over workplace issues in New York, U.S., November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon
Workers hold signs outside 14th Street Park across from the Google offices after walking out as part of a global protest over workplace issues in New York, U.S., November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

AWU has yet to share details as to whether its members share a community of interest, or whether it contains or had organizational assistance from supervisors. If there was assistance from supervisors in any organizing effort, it could taint the process for AWU and the CWA.

“In order to really sort this thing out and move it forward, they're going to have to refine themselves into an appropriate bargaining unit,” Smith said, adding that a group too diffuse or widespread, even if they work for the same employer, will face serious obstacles in becoming an appropriate unit.

Moreover, Smith said, a group with both employees and true independent contractors has almost no chance of meeting the NLRB’s standards for an appropriate bargaining unit. Still, uncertified organizations, which have become more common over the past 10 to 15 years, he said, can successfully apply pressure on companies using social and traditional media.

Certification of a collective bargaining unit can be accomplished either by a vote to unionize from two-thirds of the relevant workers, or by a company’s agreement to recognize an organization. Regardless of whether a legally recognized union is formed, AWU aims to exert some influence over the higher-ups.

“At the end of the day we’re relying on the collective power of workers to use the fact that we are the ones who actually create the products to then have influence in the decisions that the company makes,” Shaw said. “We don’t want the executives pulling the company away from the values that we all signed up to join.”

Yahoo Finance contacted Google to request the number of full-time employees who are entitled to full benefits versus those who are not, and did not receive a response.

In an emailed statement, Kara Silverstein, director of people operations for Google’s press team, told Yahoo Finance, “We've always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. 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.”

Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance and former litigation attorney. Follow Alexis Keenan on Twitter @alexiskweed.

Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoofinance.com over via encrypted mail at danielphowley@protonmail.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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