An explainer on non-contract unions, how workers at Alphabet are using this structure to build and maintain power, and why you should too.
Ever since I learned that unionizing was an option for workers like me, I knew I wanted to be a union worker. It seemed so obvious to me—why do we demand democracy from our government, then cede our individual power in our workplaces? And the longer I’ve been at Google, the more pressing the need feels. We’ve seen retaliation against workers speaking up against sexual assault, accessibility, and diversity. The voices I came to Google to be surrounded by are slowly but surely being silenced. I believe that The Alphabet Workers Union is our chance to reclaim that power and make Alphabet a company we can be proud of once again.
– Raksha Muthukumar, Google Software Engineer & union member
Google workers have organized for pay equity, opposed unethical uses of machine learning, protested sexual assault, and more. Our small team at Collective Action in Tech has been archiving these organizing events for years. Now the workers of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, are building worker power through a non-contract union they’ve named The Alphabet Workers Union.
This isn’t the first time Google workers are unionizing. In 2017, Security guards at Google and Facebook had their union recognized and fought through a long contract negotiation. In 2019, Google cafeteria staff employed by vendor Bon Appetit won their union election. In September 2019 a group of 80 contract office workers in Pittsburg voted to join the United Steelworkers, forming Google’s very first office worker union. But shortly after these workers won their union, the company that contracted these workers to Google outsourced their roles to Poland, decimating the union’s bargaining unit in retaliation for unionizing.
Since then, Google has ramped up its anti-union strategy. In November 2020, Google illegally fired four workers for organizing. In an attempt to further chill worker organizing, the company has shut down key channels for challenging leadership, tracked expressions of dissent, and hired an anti-union firm. To combat management’s increasingly aggressive anti-organizing tactics, workers at Google are now fortifying their collective action efforts with a structure that enables them to strengthen and maintain the power they’ve been building for years.
Today organizers announced they are launching The Alphabet Workers Union, a union for all employees and contractors at Alphabet and all of its vendor companies in partnership with the Communications Workers of America Union (CWA). In this piece, we explain the non-contract structure of The Alphabet Workers Union and how it works, with some help from fellow organizers.
1. What is a non-contract union?
Instead of going to the NLRB and winning recognition through an election, Google workers are taking immediate advantage of the power of a union. All unions start out as non-contract unions. A union, in its broadest sense, is formed when two or more workers collectively act to improve working conditions. For example, if you’re talking to a coworker about pay inequity and you both decide to do something about it, you’ve just formed a union (just not a very strong one…yet). This kind of union—where workers are acting as one to improve the workplace but have not yet pursued a formal contract negotiation with the employer—is what’s known as a non-contract union, an open union, a minority union, or a solidarity union.
Semantics are really important in union organizing. The problem with a non-majority union is that it might grow to include the majority and still have this structure. Solidarity unionism is also a strange term because it implies that other union structures don’t have solidarity. That term is also ahistorical because it positions this type of union as an alternative to the norm when, in reality, NLRB-sanctioned unions are a blip in the long arc of union organizing history. It wasn’t until 1935 that we even had a framework for a contract union sanctioned by the NLRB. Prior to 1935, all unions organized just like this one. Non-contract union works well but I would simply describe The Alphabet Workers Union as a union, because that’s what they are.
– Emma Kinema, Campaign Lead at CODE-CWA
Workers can choose to go through those legal processes (such as through recognition from the NLRB in the US) down the road if they want, but even without formal recognition from an outside entity, there is no legal roadblock holding back a group of workers from being a powerful collective that functions as a union. Non-contract unions embody the idea that worker power does not come from legal processes, but rather through building power through solidarity.
Our union is not defined by our company, nor is it defined by the US government and labor law. We the workers define our own union, as workers have been doing for hundreds of years, long before the National Labor Relations Act established a government sanctioned union recognition process in 1935. We define our union because it’s ours.
– Emma Kinema, Campaign Lead at CODE-CWA
2. Why build a non-contract union?
Every worker deserves a union. In tech, we’ve seen activism lead to change but often at a significant cost to activists and organizers. Instead of acting individually, or on independent issue-based campaigns, it’s time to make each other stronger and come together as a collective. For US workers, forming a non-contract union is the original way to unionize. Our laboring forebears used this strategy before gaining enough power to pressure the government to create worker protections through labor law.
Google was supposed to be the gold standard in tech, but even with the relatively high FTE salaries and office perks, there’s no substitute for democracy and dignity on the job. I think it’s amazing this is happening in our industry.
– Ben Gwin, HCL Union Organizer
3. Who can join a non-contract union?
That’s up to the workers of the union. The Alphabet Workers Union will be the first union open to all employees and contractors at any Alphabet company. A collective that unites workers across teams, roles, and locations is known as a wall to wall union. The structure of a non-contract union allows workers to organize a collective that makes sense to them and is not constrained by the rules of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Google organizers have invited a wide range of workers to join the union, including some workers who would not normally be eligible to join under NLRA guidelines. This includes contractors, non-office workers, and lower-level managers.
For years, companies have creatively diminished worker power by decreasing unions’ headcount through increasing reliance on contract workers and by creating a sprawling layer of middle management. With a non-contract union, the workers of Google are in control of the union composition and can invite anyone they feel is aligned in a community of interest.
The safest way to organize across roles within the structure of a union that is not sanctioned by the NRLB is to keep the participation of individuals in subgroups like managers and contractors secret until there is a critical mass of this subgroup. This makes it harder for the company to retaliate against workers who are not protected under the NLRA and would have no legal recourse if fired for union activity.
As long as the union is worker-led, it will empower a lot of people and help grow the labor movement in tech. Our situation in Pittsburgh is not the norm (unionized full time employees through third party vendor HCL). A lot of TVCs (temporary, vendors or contractors) don’t have the opportunity we had because of their employment status. Joining a minority union alongside FTEs (full time employees) is a solid alternative to build worker power. Just from a numbers standpoint, the wall to wall union helps. It also makes sure that voices from different offices are heard and that more perspectives are included in organizing discussions. They hold an incredible amount of leverage with their ability to withhold labor. The tiered system is in place to prevent this very thing from happening, which makes this even sweeter.
– Ben Gwin, HCL Union Organizer
4. Who’s in charge of a non-contract union?
Just like a union that goes through the NLRB recognition process, Alphabet’s union is worker-led. The collective has elected a council of workers, hired organizing staff, and is formally supported by the CWA. Workers have created structure and process to bring democracy to the workplace. In other words, The Alphabet Workers Union is run democratically by workers themselves.
We’ve learned a lot from the experience of CODE CWA staff who’ve helped us set up structures to ensure that every union member is empowered to speak up. We’ve elected an interim executive team for now, and are in the process of establishing teams in chapter (location) offices, we’re staffing committees that focus on diversity & equity, we’re ensuring that new members know that they’re heard. In fact I think we’ve specifically kept a few things fluid before going public because we expect an influx of membership, and we want to make sure we’re not set in stone before more people weigh in!
– Raksha Muthukumar, Google Software Engineer & Union Member
5. Do members of a non-contract union pay dues?
That’s up to the union. Traditionally, dues fuel the support system for a union. They typically go into a pool for legal support, strike funds, and paying the salaries of other kinds of hired union support. The Alphabet Workers Union set their own dues with guidance from CWA. The dues are a percentage of a worker’s individual total compensation. But this is only one model for collecting union dues. Tech workers who are building a union can decide how they want dues to work and come up with creative systems. For example, your coworkers may want to include stock grants in this compensation formula.
6. Will a non-contract union be less safe for organizers?
Because workers in the US have the right to organize under the NLRA, any group of two or more workers are protected by labor law, no matter how their collective is structured. This means that whether a worker is part of an NLRB-certified union, a non-contract union, or just organizing with another coworker, they are protected from retaliation to the same extent. However, because a non-contract union might try to organize workers who are not considered eligible under the NLRA, such as independent contractors or managers, organizers might need to take extra precautions to protect certain workers who are not covered by labor law.
The mechanisms for safety are exactly the same for any union: collective power, exercised by striking (or the credible threat to do so). There is no safety without power. You can organize for power in any union structure, and you can fail to do so in any structure. The closer you are to being able to exercise that power through strike, the safer you are. The boss needs our labor, and we can choose the terms under which we give it. That’s the only real safety there is.
– Laurence Berland, Google Organizer
7. Can a non-contract union still take advantage of labor law to protect workers?
Workers acting within a non-contract union outside of the NLRB recognition process can still file charges against a retaliating company just like any other union drive. Labor law can still offer basic protection to workers for protected concerted activity as outlined in the NLRA. In fact, if the organizers build a strong collective committed to protecting the group against retaliation, the non-contract structure has the potential to rise above the protection offered by the NLRB. A strong union of workers can be more powerful and give workers more control than resting on formal protection under existing labor law which can be slow and conservative when evaluating worker issues.
I do believe that labor law has the potential to be a great force for worker protection, but even if we had that sort of labor law, we would need to maintain our power to keep such laws, both in text and in practice. As for the NLRB, as a worker who is currently going through their process, in part due to my being fired, I can say that there are good people there who want to see workers organize and win, but their hands are tied by existing labor law, which is not very good, and the process built around it, which is cumbersome and was written with the goal of minimizing disruption above all else. It took a year after my firing just for the NLRB to issue a complaint. Many workers don’t ever get that. If there had been a strike over my firing, I would’ve been back at work a long time ago.
– Laurence Berland, Google Organizer
8. What is a specific advantage to forming a non-contract union?
This kind of union keeps us creative. The NLRA and other forms of legal representation can certainly benefit workers, but these institutions have also allowed tech companies to use the system to their advantage for far too long. As tech workers join the labor movement, we can take the path that is as limitless as our solidarity. That path is the classic non-contract union.
If you don’t have to worry about defining a bargaining unit, you can include all of your coworkers, instead of thinking about whether the NLRB will find your unit properly defined. Many tech companies, especially big ones, have complex structures with TVCs doing everything from technical analysis to making coffee, with different employers from each other and the company. If you want to build one union for all of you, you can spend a lot of time thinking about bargaining units and NLRB hearings, or you can get to organizing. Besides, you can always define a bargaining unit and demand recognition when it makes sense to you.
– Laurence Berland, Google Organizer
9. What does this union mean for tech?
The Alphabet Workers Union is one step in Google’s rich history of tech organizing. Years of activism, community building, and worker strength has shown workers the power of the collective. Google remains an example of what tech workers face when we stand up for ourselves and the communities we serve and the launch of their union is a beacon for what we can achieve together.
Only a few years ago, calling for a union that included all workers at Google or in tech was grounds for social death. At the very least, you’d be met with derisive laughter and libertarian mansplaining.
There were only a handful of people organizing, and our organizing was experimental, testing the ground to see where we could lay a foundation. Before we could get to the point of forming an all-worker union–structuring it, calling on others to join and contribute–we had to make the case that a union was necessary. We had to map the issues that mattered. We needed to connect the plight of contract workers to the outsized wealth of executives; the racism within Google’s workplace culture to the racial bias and harm perpetrated by Google’s technologies and business decisions. We had to provide a clear counter-narrative that showed exactly how far Google was willing to go to put profits and executive comfort above worker safety and social justice. We had to expose the contradictions, and lay down an intellectual bedrock that could counter the marketing and platitudes issued by the company.
This took years, significant research, and many campaigns, in which we worked to put Google’s unsatisfactory responses and duplicity in the spotlight. Solidarity grew organically around these campaigns. We set up “ethics lunches” and other fora where people could speak openly about their concerns. We had 1:1 conversations with our colleagues. We made commitments to support each other, even if this meant endangering our place within the corporate hierarchy. A small group became a larger group, suddenly not everyone organizing knew each other. Signal threads proliferated. Issues of accountability, decision making, and strategy rose in importance. And in the meantime, the company continued on its astounding streak of unforced errors.
This was the first stage, which fertilized the ground out of which it was possible to grow an all-worker union. This is a joyful moment! The establishment of the AWU union at Google is the clear next step in the serious fight to take power back from Google and Big Tech, and to ensure that workers, and those who bear the harms of technology, are in charge of how these companies operate, and for whose benefit.
– Meredith Whittaker, former Google organizer
If you want to learn more about unions… Google it! Or contact the folks who helped organize these workers at CWA. If you want to show support for the workers of Google please express your solidarity with a retweet @AlphabetWorkers. If you want to start organizing your company check out our resources and get inspired by the Collective Action in Tech archive.
We stand with the workers of Alphabet and every worker taking collective action to make tech more equitable and just.