In January, workers at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, announced that they were forming a union with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). I’m a technology and telecommunications lawyer and lobbyist who has worked with both tech companies and labor unions. CWA is a client of mine, and, until recently, so was Google.
I helped facilitate conversations in 2014 between Bay Area shuttle bus drivers, who were organizing to join a union so they could bargain for better pay and health care benefits, and Silicon Valley tech companies. It was a great example of what can happen when tech companies understand the value of working together with labor.
Unfortunately, Google’s response to worker organizing shows that it has become trapped in an old, adversarial paradigm for labor relations. Instead of viewing the union as an opportunity to facilitate communication within the company and build a stronger, more supportive workplace, Google has retained IRI Consultants, a firm that specializes in preventing workers from organizing to join unions.
It is the workers, in fact, who are thinking outside the box. Recognizing the challenges of mounting a traditional union recognition campaign at a corporation that has unlimited resources to interfere in a union election by exploiting loopholes in the National Labor Relations Act, they have opened union membership to all Alphabet workers, including the temps, vendors and contractors upon which Google increasingly relies. Instead of focusing on winning formal recognition, they are systematically building power within the company through a transparent, democratic, worker-led process.
In announcing the formation of their union, the Alphabet workers called on Google to live up to its values, and I realized that I also need to live up to mine, so I am no longer a registered lobbyist for Google. But I have not given up hope that tech companies will update their thinking and encourage their employees to join unions.
Here are four ways that doing so could strengthen tech companies and improve tech policy-making:
- Unions build trust among employees. I am a lawyer, but I also belong to the Service Employees International Union, Local 500 because I am an adjunct professor at a union-represented university. When I attend union meetings, I encounter teachers, nurses, sanitation workers, and other people from all walks of life. When making decisions and developing policy recommendations, we must consider each other’s perspectives and develop trust and a shared understanding across a wide range of professions, races, and creeds. Such opportunities are sorely missing from public discourse these days and definitely missing from debates over technology policy.
- Union members serve as watchdogs for consumers. Much of “tech-lash” stems from consumers’ believing, accurately or not, that they may be harmed in ways they cannot perceive simply by using certain technology platforms. A union-represented tech workforce can help allay such concerns because consumers get another layer of protection. For example, bank employees who are members of CWA’s Committee for Better Banks helped to uncover illegal actions by some of their managers to defraud customers. A union member feels safer blowing the whistle on anti-consumer actions, increasing brand equity and customer trust in the process.
- Unions bring a different voice to the table. Many policy-makers and elected officials have stopped listening to tech executives’ arguments. A union can address that by bringing a different voice, that of the workers, to the table. I saw this happen most recently when one of my clients, FUSE MEDIA, a Latino-owned independent television network, was facing untenable financial terms for continued distribution on AT&T’s video platforms. CWA came to the network’s defense, persuading members of Congress to support continued carriage of FUSE, which has publicly committed to leave the choice about whether to join a union to the workers themselves. In the end, the network maintained its distribution, demonstrating the power of business working with labor.
- Unions provide stability for workers. Big tech companies often compete with each other for talent, and the smart ones could get a leg up on the competition by understanding that their employees’ having a voice and power on the job is more often than not a real net positive for unionized companies. From the chaos of the Trump administration to the pandemic, Americans have been rattled by uncertainty. Unions provide stability and an independent, legally protected channel for workers to resolve issues through union representation and collective bargaining agreements and advocate for improvements. Union representation could have a positive effect on attracting and retaining talent in this climate.
At a time when so many divisions rip Americans apart, from income inequality and wealth disparities to opportunity gaps and ethnic, religious, and cultural differences, increased union membership would help to heal America by raising incomes, uniting workers, and building trust just as it did in the decades following World War II, when the USA boasted the biggest per-capita middle class in the world. What better place to start than in the heart of America’s tech industry? It would help workers, industry, and American society itself.