Dakota Lipscombe & Jeffrey M. Hirsch
A new white-collar labor phenomenon is emerging in Silicon Valley. On the first Monday of 2021, around 230 Google employees publicly formed a union. This new “minority union,” the Alphabet Workers Union, is the product of years of tension between employees, many of whom are software engineers, and Google, where the median compensation is about $200,000. Google, however, is not the only tech company to face recent labor organizing efforts. In February of last year, workers at Kickstarter, a company that provides online crowdfunding, held a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote that resulted in what its parent union, the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) calls “the first white-collar tech workforce to organize a union.” Soon after, workers at Glitch, a software collaboration site, joined the Communication Workers of America Union (CWA) in March of 2020. With these successes and others, the OPEIU and CWA, which also supports the Alphabet Workers Unions, have each announced a specific “tech organizing arm.” With these developments, many are starting to wonder if there is larger movement towards organized labor in the tech industry. Does what is happening at Google and Kickstarter signal a possible expansion of unions into white-collar technology jobs and, if so, what protections and barriers do existing labor laws pose to these new worker groups?
The rate of unionization in the United States has been on a steady decline for decades and, in the private sector, now stands at only 6.3%. In perhaps no other group is this low union density more pronounced than white-collar tech jobs. Although there are no perfect measures of the industry, the percentage of union members who work in the professional and technical services industry or whose work involves computer systems design is around only 1.2-1.3%. It is something of a surprise, therefore, that we’ve seen several high-profile collective organization drives at tech companies. However, some of these drives differ from traditional union campaigns.
Formal unionism under the National Labor Relations Act and related labor laws involves a union seeking to become the exclusive collective-bargaining representative for a group of employees. Such recognition only occurs with support from a majority of employees, shown either through an NLRB-run election or through other indicia of support voluntarily accepted by an employer. The central aim for such unionization is collective bargaining with an employer over terms and conditions of work—ideally culminating in a contract. That’s what is happening at Kickstarter and Glitch. But the union at Google is different.
In 2018, over 20,000 Google employees walked out of their offices “to protest sexism and racism at their company.” The following year, Google fired the “Thanksgiving Four,” who had organized employee opposition to projects that would have created warfare AI for the U.S. Department of Defense, a censored search engine for China, and IT assistance to the Customs and Border Protection agency. More recently, thousands of Google employees have expressed concern with the possibly forced departure of a prominent Google researcher who questioned the morality of some of the company’s practices and products, especially the presence of racial bias in AI systems. These cases indicate that many pro-union Google employees are less motivated by traditional concepts of better hours and higher pay and instead seek an organization that can advocate for changes to a company’s culture and products—subjects that employers and unions typically do not have to bargain over under labor law. Those aims, in addition to a current lack of majority support from employees, is why the Alphabet Workers Union is often referred to as a “minority union” or part of an “alt-labor” movement.
“The movement at Google and elsewhere  points to broader labor discontent in technology that has been stirring in the industry for years. Time will tell whether this will lead to more tech worker unionization or even a new chapter in labor law.”
Alt-labor groups can differ in their ultimate goals, such as whether to eventually become an exclusive bargaining representative. Still, they’re characterized by their focus on non-traditional demands or organizing strategies. Although these groups may include traditional “bread and butter” work issues, they also typically press for changes to a company’s business practices. Moreover, alt-labor groups try to achieve change not through formal collective bargaining, but by using pressure and persuasion outside of labor law. The techniques may be especially effective against tech companies, whose often high-profile nature means that workers can more effectively gain public attention and exert pressure on them. Also, because they may not be considered labor organizations under the law, alt-labor groups are free to exert broader types of pressure—particularly by enveloping third-party companies into the dispute—than traditional unions. On the other hand, this lack of labor law coverage presents risks, as alt-labor groups lack unions’ antitrust exemption.
So, what to make of these recent tech organizing efforts? Are they a harbinger of union growth in the tech industry or merely unique blips that are unlikely to be repeated? Although it’s too early to tell for sure, we’re unlikely to see a substantial level of traditional unionization among white-collar tech workers any time soon. Non-education professional employees generally unionize at much lower rates than blue-collar workers and the legal hurdles to unionization remain high. As we’ve seen during the current union drive at an Alabama Amazon plant, employers have numerous legal (and, at times, illegal) strategies that are very effective at resisting unionization. Thus, without major changes to labor law, along with broader acceptance by professional and other white-collar employees, traditional union membership in the tech industry will probably remain relatively low. But low formal unionization doesn’t mean that employees can’t or won’t be able to prompt changes at work. Indeed, as the Alphabet Workers Union illustrates, one might expect tech workers to gravitate to less formal and more innovative forms of collective action.
It’s also unknown how much power unions will have going forward in the tech industry. The Alphabet Workers Union is still only a minority union in a powerful company that has allegedly has not shied away from “spying on and firing” employees who engaged in past pro-union activities. In addition to almost certain pushback from big tech employers, it is unclear whether a labor movement can exist in a market where dissatisfied in-demand tech workers may simply opt to work for another firm that offers an environment which more closely resembles their values. The movement at Google and elsewhere, however, points to broader labor discontent in technology that has been stirring in the industry for years. Time will tell whether this will lead to more tech worker unionization or even a new chapter in labor law.