Opinion: Google Unionization Marks a Watershed Moment for Labor Rights in Silicon Valley

In 2018, Rick Paulas, writing for The Atlantic, described the emergence of “a new link of labor movement in the Silicon Valley.” More precisely, Paulas’s article traced an internal pattern of opposition in companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

Rank-and-file workers were protesting their employers’ collaborations with foreign and domestic governments engaged in less than democratic and socially just projects.

Encased in the article (actually it was prominently displayed in the subheading) was a striking question: “Employees at Google and elsewhere are protesting their bosses’ business decisions. Will that evolve into a more sustained labor movement?”

Here we are, a little over two years later, and an answer seems to be materializing.

This week, news outlets were awash with headlines describing the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union. Under the banner of the Communication Workers of America, the AWU represents over 200 Google employees. While this is but a fraction Google’s labor force, the AWU is the first organization of its kind in the company’s history.

In an industry with a well-documented and virulently anti-union track record, this is surprising to say the least. At last, a sustained labor movement geared toward tech seems to be gaining real traction here in the Silicon Valley.

How should those of us who call this region home view this new development?

Though it may seem premature, I suggest that the efforts of the AWU are to be championed at the local level for a number of interrelated reasons. 

To be fair, we often think of tech workers as being generally well-off. One might reasonably wonder, if they are highly-compensated and privileged with quality benefits packages, why do they need a union? However, recent analyses of the industry suggest that our preconceived views of tech are less than accurate.

Job descriptions might place many tech employees in the “Tier 1 Occupations” described by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average worker in this stratum makes $116,333 per year in the Silicon Valley. However, such data conceals more than it reveals.

Recent labor research shows that our local tech labor force is not a monolith nor are high-quality wages and benefits evenly distributed. Some have argued that tech is better seen as a “two-tiered caste system” split between full-time employees and contract labor. Even this critique is a bit overly simplified.

Others argue that the industry is better organized into three categories: direct tech, white-collar contract, and blue-collar contract. The average white-collar contract employee makes 35 percent less than their direct tech counterpart. This puts that $116,333 figure into context and suggests that tech workers are not as well compensated as we might think, hence the need for a collective bargaining unit.

For those in the blue-collar contract category, the situation is even worse. Wages are lower, and job security is all the more tenuous.

Just ask the Verizon cafeteria workers who had to resort to GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for laid off workers in the middle of the pandemic.

When we consider that (at the national level) the average non-union worker’s median weekly earnings are only 81 percent of the average union member, one begins to wonder how unionization stands to benefit these contingent laborers.

AWU has already pledged to represent workers regardless of whether not they are full-time or contract. And while the union will not be negotiating wages in the immediate future, when national unionization rates are half what they were in the 1980s, the news of AWU should be encouraging for anyone sympathetic to the plight of workers.   

Additionally, the inequities that exist in the current incarnation of the tech industry are deeply racialized. Some 58 percent of the blue-collar tech workers that make up the Silicon Valley labor force are Black and Latinx. In tech hubs like San Jose, where racial equity can often be confined to symbolic gestures at the governmental level, organizing tech workers might be a means to turn symbols into material realities.

Groups like AWU might also benefit residents and cities in other ways.

The last few years have shown that big tech has Bay Area municipalities over a barrel.

From the mega-campus Google wants to build in downtown San Jose, to eBay’s controversial “tax-sharing” partnership, to Tesla holding Alameda County at metaphoric gunpoint during the coronavirus pandemic, we continue to see how most residents have little to no say over how these companies operate.

Most recently, the passage of Proposition 22 is a clear indication that companies will spend record sums of money to circumvent state law no matter how disastrous the results might be for workers. AWU and organizations like it have the potential to be the power that checks these companies.

While last year’s statewide ballot initiatives were largely a disaster for progressives, November saw important gains for Bay Area progressives with the election of Dave Cortese, Dave Cohen, Lissette Espinoza-Garnica, and Alex Lee. Even competitive, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaigns from candidates like John Lashlee and Jake Tonkel suggest the tide might be changing in the Silicon Valley.

The news of AWU should incentivize officials to hold tech companies accountable and to reprioritize the true source of tech’s value—workers.

Don’t get me wrong. Tech, in and of itself, is not the enemy. But big tech, unencumbered by community oversight is hardly a friend to working people no matter the color of their collar or, perhaps more appropriate, ID badge.

Many readers may know that before this region became known as Silicon Valley, it was called the Valley of Hearts Delight, a hub for agriculture and related industries such as canning. More than that, it was an important node for organized and organizing labor. Much of that momentum dissipated in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the rise of neoliberal policies at the local and national level.

Our recent perception of the region as a place of the pioneering tech worker going at it alone is just that—recent. This was once a place of not just organized but dignified labor.

Efforts like that of AWU suggest that it may be again.

Dr. Nicholas Barron, a San Jose native, teaches anthropology at Mission College. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches and letters to [email protected].

3 Comments

  1. It’s so heartening to see steps in the right direction, especially after so much concerted effort by Google to crush unions!

  2. Gee!

    Monopoly unions dictating to a monopoly search engine company who will be allowed to advertise on their platform and what information the public will be allowed to know about.

    What could go wrong?

  3. Many thanks to Dr. Barron for the fine opinion piece. Worker organization has and will have positive impacts on the distribution of income and the quality of life for a wide swath of people both inside and outside of any union. Wage rates of non-unionized workers in areas of concentrated union labor also get a boost (http://www.wipsociology.org/2018/12/05/what-do-unions-do-for-non-union-workers/).

    For those who are interested in learning more about, or supporting, the ABC workers, here is some relevant information and sources: https://alphabetworkersunion.org/; https://collectiveaction.tech/2021/the-abcs-of-googles-new-union/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFxCKO3CXN4&list=PLLri3HDD8DQv766_F1h3XhuW26sJBKnwH&index=7.