Day 6

Google union organizers could face retaliatory action, legal expert says

While labour experts and tech industry-watchers agree that the recently Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) is a savvy step toward workplace equity and improved accountability in technology, some are nonetheless concerned about retaliatory action aimed at disrupting employees' organizing efforts. 

Law professor Veena Dubal says Google has been accused of engaging in union-busting before

Google employees launched the Alphabet Workers Union in order to hold the company accountable over concerns of harassment, workplace inequity and a lack of ethics in technology. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

While labour experts and tech-industry watchers agree that the recently unveiled Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) is a savvy step toward workplace equity and improved accountability at Google, some are nonetheless concerned about retaliatory action aimed at disrupting employees' organizing efforts. 

Named after Google's parent company, the AWU is open to all employees who work for Alphabet Inc.'s global portfolio of companies — including the company's shadow army of temporary, part-time and third-party contractor workers. 

Despite the name, however, the AWU is what's sometimes called a minority union. Though it's affiliated with the recognized Communications Workers of America labour group — and AWU members pay union dues — it still doesn't have formal status under the U.S. National Labour Relations Board (NLRB).

Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, told Day 6 that Alphabet management have the option of ignoring the union's asks, even if the employees organized under the union's banner do have some legal protections. 

"It is different because it is not a majority union, which is sort of the legal standard in both the U.S. and in Canada, where, in order to have a union, you have to have a majority of workers on board," said Dubal, while speaking with host Brent Bambury. 

"Google does not have to bargain with this union, Google does not have to recognize the union or do anything the union says."

Veena Dubal is a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. (Submitted by Veena Dubal)

Nonetheless, Dubal was clear that, in the U.S. at least, AWU members have the right to work toward improved conditions, to collectively organize and to "not be terminated or otherwise punished for that organizing." 

Still, she drew attention to previous allegations of union busting levied at Google by the U.S. NLRB, adding "we will see some of that in the coming months."

Dubal was referring to a complaint filed by the NLRB in Dec. 2020 alleging that Google violated U.S. law by spying on workers who organized employee protests and subsequently firing two of them. 

In response to a request for comment about the AWU, Google told Day 6 in a statement attributed to Kara Silverstein, Google's director of people operations, that it has "always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace," and that they will continue to engage "directly with all our employees."

Union says it aims to improve Google

According to a New York Times op-ed penned on Monday by the AWU's executive chair Parul Koul and vice chair Chewy Shaw, the union was established in part as a result of the Nov. 2018 walkouts that saw approximately 20,000 employees walk off their jobs around the world following news that Google had paid millions to two executives accused of sexual misconduct. 

"For far too long, thousands of us at Google … have had our workplace concerns dismissed by executives," reads an excerpt from the Monday op-ed. 

"Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defence and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of colour."

The op-ed also draws attention to the concerns of Google's part-time, temporary and contract workers who are allegedly paid less and who do not enjoy the same benefits or employment standards as their full-time counterparts.

"Our union will seek to undo this grave inequity," AWU's top leaders wrote. 

Enacting 'scorched earth policy' a bad idea: historian

Though the group doesn't have the same legal protections as a majority union under the NLRB, technology historian Mar Hicks told Day 6 that public knowledge of the AWU means that it will be "much more difficult for Google to then unceremoniously fire people who are engaging in this protected union activity, or protected in most states."

"I think most of those employees would have a very good case to sue the company and hopefully probably get the NLRB on their side," said Hicks, an associate professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology. 

Hicks added that should Google enact a "scorched earth policy" when it comes to seeking retaliation against the new union, that would be a clear signal to lawmakers that improved tech regulations are necessary.

Mar Hicks is professor of tech history at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Submitted by Mar Hicks)

While Google plans its approach to dealing with the AWU, Dubal says the union's existence will send a "huge shockwave" to other Silicon Valley giants. 

"I know after the Google walkout, for example, that every tech company in Silicon Valley was talking to their lawyers about avoiding a similar act at their firm," she said.

"So you can bet that these conversations are happening: 'How can we avoid having the same king of organizing at our firms?'"

Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.