Google Fiber workers in Kansas City, MO who voted to join Alphabet Workers Union. Credit — AWU
On March 25, Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) won its first legally-recognized bargaining unit of retail associates at Google Fiber stores in Kansas City, MO. The workers voted 9-1 to form a bargaining unit that will now negotiate a first union contract with BDS Connected Solutions, a contractor hired by Alphabet Inc.’s Google Fiber division to run its retail operations. Alphabet is the parent company of Google and other companies. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are each worth over $100 billion, making them two of the world’s richest individuals alongside other tech oligarchs like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk.
Alphabet Workers Union, a member of Communications Workers of America (CWA), is a wall-to-wall union made up of workers across Google, other Alphabet companies, and various sub-contractors hired by Alphabet to perform certain functions. The union has over 900 members, and though the vast majority do not yet have collective bargaining agreements with their respective employers the workers have still fought for and won numerous improvements in their working conditions with collective action.
The Google Fiber retail store associates are the first to run and win a union recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. BDS Connected Solutions is now required by law to bargain with these AWU workers collectively.
This recognition will be a welcome change, as the company was aggressively anti-union during the leadup to the election. Erick Derickson, a member of the new bargaining unit, observed, “Our campaign faced many efforts to discourage us from exercising our right to a collective voice on the job.” BDS Connected Solutions even hired union-busting consultants who threatened employees with job loss and denigrated the workers’ union in leaked audio from a captive audience meeting.
The AWU workers, prepared for BDS’s own anti-union campaign, countered the consultants’ talking points and put management on the back foot. Importantly, workers pointed out who comprised their union at their stores: the workers themselves. It was not – as the consultants argued – a third-party looking to sow trouble and collect dues.
This is AWU’s first victory in a campaign for collective bargaining rights but not the first action by Alphabet workers. AWU grew out of a long history of tech workers organizing at the company. For a long time, Google maintained a reputation as a great place to work; it was known for its free food, progressive values, and famous “Don’t Be Evil” motto. In 2018, that motto was removed from its code of conduct, and cracks began to appear in the sunny Silicon Valley facade.
That same year, employee revolt forced the company to not renew a contract with the Pentagon, named “Project Maven,” that had Google employees write software to analyze imagery from U.S. military drones. Later that year, worker organizers led a massive walkout over Google’s repeated failure to properly handle sexual harrassment against employees. The company had offered credibly-accused executives hefty payouts as they were asked to resign and reassigned abusive managers to protect them from consequences. Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android operating system, was gifted $90 million on his way out – even though Google’s own investigation found an allegation that he sexually assaulted an employee in 2013 to be credible.
Although it claimed to be chastened and promised to listen to employee concerns, Alphabet retaliated against some of the walkout organizers the next year and later fired organizers who created a petition that called on Google to stop work for US Customs and Border Protection. Workers then began to look for other ways to protect their rights on the job. The organizers got into contact with CWA’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE), which has become a driving force in tech worker organizing across the country. AWU formed secretly throughout 2020 and launched publicly in January 2021. Though they lack a bargaining agreement, the AWU workers have solidarity with one another. They have successfully won back an attendance bonus for datacenter workers, secured housing stipends for remote interns, and forced Alphabet to issue badges with employees’ chosen names.
The rapidly growing tech sector has driven much of the economic recovery since the 2008 financial crisis. The workers who make that economic growth possible have increasingly become aware of their status as members of the working class and have banded together to prevent abuse by employers and to win a fair share of the fruits of their labor. Indicative of tech worker organizing growing in its strength, the New York Times Tech Guild – also organized with CODE-CWA – recently celebrated the creation of tech’s largest bargaining unit with 600 members.
Tech workers are not just the stereotypical Bay Area computer programmers – many workers in different jobs and different firms around the world provide necessary labor needed to power a search engine, phone app, or online marketplace. These workers might maintain data centers worldwide, assemble smartphones in Asia, label data in Syrian refugee camps, or cook food for the software developers’ free meals in Silicon Valley. Most of these workers are not directly employed by the well-known tech giants. For example, the drivers of the ubiquitous blue Amazon delivery vans are not employed directly by Amazon but by hundreds of smaller “delivery service partner” firms.
Alphabet takes advantage of this two-tier employment system to reap super-profits and maintain an almost $2 trillion market capitalization with only 150,000 full-time employees. This is deceptive: Google itself employs even more temps and contractors than full-time employees in order to manage its operations. This tiered employment system allows Alphabet to cut costs by devolving as much work as possible to cheaper contractors and subcontracted workers. These workers have fewer rights and are in a more unstable position than full-time Alphabet workers. The Google Fiber workers in Kansas City are exemplary of this “divide and conquer” staffing strategy.
The victory of the Google Fiber workers at BDS Connected Solutions opens the door for these contracted workers to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that narrows the gulf between them and workers directly employed by Alphabet. Meanwhile, AWU continues to fight for workers across the conglomerate and its subcontractors to end the two-tiered employment system, prevent illegal retaliation, and assure all workers dignity at work.