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How Google’s workers are pushing for a better Google

April 10, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

Shannon Wait, a technician at a Google data center in South Carolina, never thought something as inconsequential as a water bottle could get her into trouble. But in January, she was suspended without pay for complaining on Facebook that Google wouldn’t replace her company-issued water bottle, which was missing its cap after it had loosened over time. The punishment came after she had also talked to managers about a delay in promised COVID-related hazard pay for herself and fellow contractors. But after posting about the water bottle, Wait was escorted from the data center floor to a conference call, during which she was accused of violating Google’s nondisclosure agreement. “I could do nothing but laugh, because there is nothing proprietary about a water bottle,” she says. 

After hearing about the incident, Alphabet Workers Union, which represents employees and contractors of Google parent Alphabet, sprang into action. The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against Google and Adecco, the contracting company that had hired Wait. It alleged that Wait’s suspension was unfair and that the companies had tried to stop workers from discussing their pay. About two weeks later, before any government ruling on the complaint, Wait was allowed to return to her job—with back pay and a new water bottle to boot. 

“That’s the kind of work we’re trying to do,” says Parul Koul, the Alphabet union’s leader. “And stories like hers are coming up every day.” 

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A walkout by Google workers in 2018 over sexual misconduct by executives helped to spark a union drive.
Original Photo: Michael Short—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The union’s founding and its face-off with Google over Wait are examples of growing worker activism across the tech industry. Once considered to be utopias, with high pay and free food, many technology companies are now increasingly seen by some of their staff as adversaries

Facebook employees held a virtual walkout protesting the company’s lax stance on then-President Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts on its service. In March, Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama wrapped up voting on whether to unionize amid the company’s intense opposition. The unionization effort failed to garner sufficient support, but organizers plan to challenge the result. Meanwhile, employees at crowdfunding service Kickstarter have already formed a union. 

“This is a reaction to the level of power these megacorporations are having on people’s lives,” says Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director at Cornell University’s labor research center, the Worker Institute.

The type of employee being recruited by unions varies by company. In some cases, as at Amazon, it’s blue-collar workers, while elsewhere, such as at Google, the push includes high-paid engineers.  

The Alphabet union made its public debut in January, but its roots arguably date back to three years ago. That was when news leaked that Google was working on a censored search engine for China, called Project Dragonfly. Many employees complained that the project, ultimately shelved amid the uproar, prioritized money over free speech.  

That episode was followed by a walkout of 20,000 Googlers who were upset about the company’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against executives. Google ultimately agreed to some employee demands like eliminating forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault cases. 

In addition to improving working conditions, the new union hopes to pressure Google to work only on tech that serves the public good. Although the union is small—it has just 900 members out of 135,000 Alphabet employees globally—its leaders say they are pleased with how things are going. 

As a “minority union,” it has limited power and can’t force Alphabet to bargain over a labor contract. The union is part of the Communications Workers of America, which represents 700,000 workers nationally, mostly in the telecom, media, and airline industries.

Janice Fine, director of Rutgers University’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization, argues that Google’s union, despite its minority status, has power. For example, it could publicly expose any Google projects that are deemed unethical, organize work stoppages, and help federal and state governments with their ongoing antitrust investigation into the company. “Who better to do reputational damage than people who are on the inside?” Fine says. 

Auni Ahsan, an executive council member for Alphabet’s union, said the pace of recruiting new union members demonstrates that workers believe they can change the status quo at Google. To succeed against such a huge company, the union admits that it must be nimble. “We’re going to have to be unconventional and creative,” Ahsan says. “How can we find pressure points and attack from different directions?”

Google declined Fortune’s request for an interview and instead provided a statement. “Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support,” says Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations. “But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

So far in terms of taking action, the union has condemned Google’s YouTube subsidiary for a “lackluster” policing of hate on its service following the U.S. Capitol riots. The union also criticized the suspension earlier this year of Margaret Mitchell, a leader of Google’s Ethical A.I. team who was later fired, following the ouster of another high-profile researcher, Timnit Gebru. 

But for now, organizers say the union is mostly focused on setting up operations and training members how to grow their ranks. “That’s what’s going to be necessary to keep the fight up for many years,” Koul says. 

In the end, judging the union’s impact is difficult. To the public, reinstating one contractor at a data center may seem relatively minor. But for that one contractor, the win is huge. “The union has only been around since January, and they’ve already made a difference in one person’s life,” Wait says. “Imagine if they had been around the last five years.” 

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State of the tech union

Google workers aren’t the only tech employees who have recently pushed to unionize.

Kickstarter 

In February, employees of the startup funding service agreed to organize under the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

Medium

Workers at the online publishing platform recently tried to form a union, but the drive failed to win a majority. Union supporters have since paused their organizing activities.

Glitch

After joining the Communications Workers of America in March 2020, the software company’s employees negotiated and approved a contract with management in about a year. 

Video gaming 

Some of the gaming industry’s employees are pushing to unionize to stop from being overworked. Last year, the Communications Workers of America backed the effort. 

Amazon 

Warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., ultimately voted not to unionize.

A version of this article appears in the April/May issue of Fortune with the headline, “A check on Big Tech.”