C Gopinath

Google scores again

C Gopinath | Updated on January 27, 2021

Its staff has set up an unconventional union

Silicon Valley in California, a hot bed of high tech start-ups that have disrupted several industries, saw a disruption of its own. A few hundred workers of Alphabet Inc, the parent of Google, announced that they have formed a union.

The rise of a union is sometimes seen as symptomatic of the failure of the organisation’s human resource function. If you understood and took care of the needs of the employees, why would they need a union to fight for their rights, the traditionalist would argue.

Tech companies are not known to be conducive to labour union formation. They are not hierarchical. They employ a few highly skilled people who like to be left alone to pursue their passion rather than be constantly instructed and closely monitored. To attract such people, the companies pay them well with the promise of earning significant reward in the future through stock options as part of their compensation. They are not governed by eight-hour work days and usually spend many more hours at work keeping timings of their choosing.

So why would they think of forming a union which is traditionally driven by objectives of job security and fair wages?

For one, many large tech companies have grown beyond their start-up mentality of alternative work cultures. They have become hierarchical and rather conventional. As their products matured, competition dragged them down from their lofty management styles. They laid off workers and bought and sold businesses. Non-tech employees of these hi-tech companies like cafeteria workers and security guards have unionised. But the engineers didn’t. They still thought they were going to change the world while their companies changed in other ways. That is changing.

Different concerns

So the Google union, although affiliated with a conventional national body, the Communication Workers of America, is still a little different. They are not talking of pay and security but of gender and racial discrimination. They think their company is too powerful and is straying from accountability and there needs to be a check on it. Google employees have been upset that a senior executive who was accused of sexual harassment was given a golden handshake on his way out. They also don’t like it that the company’s YouTube subsidiary did not do enough to stand against the chaos of disinformation that the ex-US President indulged in. Facebook employees also have similar concerns with how their organisation has not kept a check on the misuse of its social media platform.

Conventional unions represent a majority of the employees. They ask their employer to recognise them failing which they would go to the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election so they can become a bargaining unit. In contrast, the Google employees have formed a minority union and do not have powers recognised by the government. However, they hope to expand across the company so they can be a force that would help keep the culture true to the company’s original values.

Tech companies in Silicon Valley are still the preferred employers. Unemployment levels is low and many have not laid off workers due to the pandemic and in some cases have continued paying wages even when some activities have shrunk. But clearly, they need new mechanisms to listen and respond to their employees concerns if they do not want a growing and disrupting union.

The writer is a US-based academic

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Published on January 27, 2021
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