With membership down, unions rethink their priorities
When they can’t bargain over pay and benefits, unions are trying other ways of boosting workers’ voices.
By Ellen Ruppel Shell
In recent weeks, workers at a nearly 6,000-person Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., firmly voted against forming a union. To many observers, the vote dealt a crushing blow to the already dwindling prospects of organized labor. But for a growing number of workers and labor activists, what happened in Alabama simply renewed their commitment to reinvent unions for the 21st century.
More than 800 workers at Google and its parent company Alphabet have joined the Alphabet Workers Union, formed in January with the support of the Communication Workers of America. In a company with 260,000 employees, the union represents too few people to engage in traditional collective bargaining with management. But it has different priorities, chief among them to ensure that employees can speak out on company policies and practices without fear of retribution. As Chewy Shaw, veteran Google engineer and vice chair of the union, says, “We want a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.”
This new approach to labor organization reflects a radical change. Historically, unions were structured around contract negotiations, a set of demands brought to management by workers at a specific location — like the Amazon warehouse in Alabama. The union’s job was to see those demands were accepted and then met throughout the term of the contract. But unions generally did not try to influence strategic business decisions for fear that doing so would use up leverage they would need to forge effective collective bargaining agreements. As a result, unions were left to negotiate the consequences of employers’ decisions rather than being part of making those decisions. Too often, this approach failed to improve matters for employees as a whole and alienated those who sought lasting improvements in company practices. At Alphabet, the union hopes to avoid this problem.
“Our idea is to create a collective power force that pushes the company to align with the expectations that employees come with,” Shaw says. “We intend to empower our people to come together to create a plan that will help the company stay strong and grow, while at the same time addressing the ethical issues we care about.”
Another important aspect of the Alphabet union is that it intends to represent not only permanent employees but also the company’s 140,000 contract workers, who are employed through a subcontractor. Typically these workers are paid far less than permanent employees and receive no benefits or job security. (A small group of Google contractors in Pittsburgh voted in 2019 to join the United Steelworkers Union.) Contract workers who choose to join the Alphabet Workers Union will have the same right as permanent employees to raise concerns — both individually, with a help of a union attorney, and collectively, through one of 17 union committees. Nonmembers can also petition for help. “It’s going to be a lot harder for management to fire a contract worker or anyone just for raising awareness about problems at the company,” Shaw says. Indeed, the union’s first legal action was to successfully defend Shannon Wait, a temporary $15-an-hour employee suspended for a Facebook post in which she complained of unfair working conditions at a Google data center in South Carolina.
An MIT-trained engineer, Shaw says he had no thoughts of forming a union when he joined the company in 2011. Google’s unofficial motto at the time — “Don’t be evil” — pretty much kept the company aligned with the values of employees, he says, and when it seemed the company was straying from that mission, workers felt free to speak their minds at weekly open meetings. Shaw says, “We had a say. The culture focused on uplifting workers.” But as the company grew from 32,000 to more than 260,000 employees, those channels narrowed. “It’s no longer a startup culture; we don’t have a direct relationship with management,” Shaw says. “There are multiple layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy. There’s a lot of talk about issues like diversity and fairness, and expressions of ‘sadness’ and belief we should ‘do better.’ But mostly it’s just talk. I’m Black and gender fluid, but rather than leveraging that difference to inform decision-making, management expects me and others like me to change to accommodate the status quo.”
He’s far from alone in expressing disillusionment with the company. In 2018, thousands of employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases. Employees also have questioned the ethics of artificial intelligence technologies and Google’s work for the Defense Department.
Because Alphabet is one of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential companies, labor activism there is likely to have a significant impact on work of the future. It’s an especially high-profile attempt to push back on long-term trends in the global economy, where decentralized, dispersed work is increasingly the norm. Since the 1980s, temporary work, contract work, and self-employment have all grown far more rapidly than permanent full-time jobs have.
Other new mechanisms that unite workers and sustain their power are also taking hold — part of a movement that has become known as “alt-labor.”
For example, the “individual services” union model lacks formal collective bargaining rights but offers a broad array of benefits to independent workers, including help with job searches and job training, health insurance, retirement benefits, unemployment insurance, and legal representation both in the workplace and for civil law issues, like housing. For example, the 500,000-member Freelancers Union has assisted independent workers of all kinds in — among other things — simply getting paid for their work.
Another model relies on informal worker activism. Coworker.org helps individuals work collectively — across industries — to share information, create campaigns, and advocate for change. Coworker.org has helped workers such as grocery clerks and Uber drivers gain concessions, including family leave and pandemic hazard pay.
The union organizers at Alphabet chose an auspicious time to take action. In March, President Biden endorsed the <a href="https://www.npr.org/2021/03/09/975259434/house-democrats-pass-bill-that-would-protect-worker-organizing-efforts" target=_blank>Protecting the Right to Organize Act</a>, arguably the boldest union legislation in recent decades. The act would make it easier to form unions and more difficult for companies to block them. Its prospects appear dim in the Senate. But last September, <a href="https://news.gallup.com/poll/318980/approval-labor-unions-remains-high.aspx" target=_blank>the Gallup Poll</a> found that 65 percent of the public approved of labor unions, the highest such figure since 2003 and not far from the peak of 75 percent in the 1950s.
Approval was highest among the youngest workers. Getting more of them to join unions, however, might take more efforts like the ones at Alphabet — unions that aren’t necessarily like the ones their grandparents might recognize.
As Shaw says of the Alphabet union: “We’re not following a playbook.”
Ellen Ruppel Shell is the author of “The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change” and “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.”