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 Pittsburgh 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.
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.