Big tech will be sweating over prospect of worker unionisation

Karlin Lillington: Is an in-house union for Google the start of a wider rebalancing of power?

File image of workers standing outside the Google offices in Dublin after walking out as part of a global protest over workplace issues. File photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

File image of workers standing outside the Google offices in Dublin after walking out as part of a global protest over workplace issues. File photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

If I had to pick the most far-reaching and significant threat facing big technology companies in the future, I would not make an obvious choice. 

Here, I mean “threat” from the companies’ perspective, the thing most capable of overturning their highly profitable business-as-usual, what they see as their unique corporate culture and defend as exciting new work paradigms and lucrative move-fast policies that allow them to “innovate”. 

Many of the rest of us may be more likely to identify these as the more noxious aspects of the industry. 

We’ve seen plenty of obvious threat candidates coming out of headline-making international political hearings, regulatory actions by nations and US states, new laws (such as the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU, and new state privacy laws in the US), and the continued establishment of case law from the EU. 

From this menu, the list of “uh-oh” factors for tech is easy to compile. Most boil down to greater outside regulation and oversight via the use of antitrust, data protection, privacy and, to a lesser extent, employee protection laws. 

And yes, this all (rightly) poses significant worries for big tech, including very real prospects of being broken up; of being subjected to greater operational transparency; of having more comprehensive limits placed on the use of personal data; of the crumbling of the data-gathering advertising model that is so lucrative. 

But none of these industry alarms is as likely to cause the profound, long-term change that could emerge over time from the actions of just 200 individuals this week: the North American employees of Google parent company Alphabet, who have formed the first major union within a technology company. 

“We’d had enough,” stated the two elected union executives of the new Alphabet Workers Union, Google software engineer Parul Koul and Google site reliability engineer Chewy Shaw, on Monday in anopinion piece for the New York Times. An initial 226 employees now have union cards affiliated to the Communications Workers of America. 

Focusing minds

That action will have sent shockwaves through the executive suites and boardrooms of the big technology companies around Silicon Valley. They won’t admit it, of course. Google issued a statement in which it said it would “continue engaging directly” with employees. 

Because this is what these companies want: to handle employee grievances individually, out of public view. But as the history of the union movement has shown, nothing focuses a company’s negotiating mind like having a unified bloc of employees backing the complaints of an individual, or fighting for employees as a whole. 

While the thoroughly un-unionised technology industry has long argued its pampered employees have no need for unions – and indeed, many of its work conditions and contracts have been generous – mounting evidence indicates this may be true for the younger, white, male employees that form the majority of the tech workforce, but not so much for women, LGBT+ employees or people of colour. 

Recent years have demonstrated that tech companies are not kindly, benevolent guardians of their huge workforces

In addition, employees of many technology firms have grown increasingly unhappy with the ways their companies operate.

In 2018 many Google employees globally staged protests over a company culture that had, among other things, been involved in a secret AI drone surveillance project with the Pentagon, and awarded a generous severance package to an executive accused of sexual harassment.

More recently, many Google employees were disturbed by the company’s firing of black AI researcher Timnit Gebru, who was critical of company diversity programmes. 

Unreliable HR

Walk-outs and internal protests of the type we have seen at Google are important symbolically, but it’s easy for companies to divide and conquer workers who, as has been raised in several court cases and public campaigns, cannot always rely on the support of human resource or legal departments to address even the most serious bullying and harassment issues. 

In addition, tech has a specific technique for disempowering workers: just don’t hire them directly. Instead, make them gig economy workers. Get their labour, but as little-to-no-benefits “independent contractors” or outsourcing hires. 

At Google, such workers outnumber regular employees by 135,000 to 115,000. Notably, in 2019, a number of such Google contract workers in Pittsburgh formed a small union which, because of the dearth of unions within tech, ended up affiliating with the United Steelworkers. 

The new Alphabet union intends to represent all workers, whether contract or casual, or direct employees. 

So many of the complaints that have surfaced in recent years within tech – about working conditions, pay and benefits discrepancies, corporate culture, company operations – are exactly the kinds of issues that unions have traditionally acted upon for workers. 

Recent years have demonstrated that tech companies are not kindly, benevolent guardians of their huge workforces. Companies know unions can and will change the nature of what they do, and how they do it, in profound ways. The establishment of a first in-house union is groundbreaking. 

Expect the industry to fight unionisation every inch of the way. But if tech workers want real workplace change, they need to put power behind their protests. Tech workers need unions.

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