A new Google union is taking the unusual step of including contractors as members

Calling for changes.
Calling for changes.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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A group of about 250 workers at Google parent company Alphabet have formed a union open to all workers, even contractors.

Unions typically do not include contract workers, who are not federally protected by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But the Google union says it’s forgoing the NLRB’s certification process, which begins with an NLRB-conducted election once 30% of a company’s workers indicate they want a union. (This is in part because it would be difficult to organize a third of Google’s vast workforce, or to win a majority vote in favor of unionization, as would be required for NLRB certification, as labor law experts point out.)

The members will be affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a union representing workers in telecommunications and media in the US and Canada.

Not constrained by the rules of the NLRB, the new union can organize contractors outside the purview of federal protection, paving the way for more inclusive approach to unionizing. But by forgoing federal certification, the group also gives up a right to collective bargaining—the process where employees, through their NLRB-certified unions, negotiate contracts with their employers over terms including pay, benefits, hours, and leave—all of which would be particularly beneficial for contractors.

William Gould, a professor emeritus at Stanford Law and a former chairman of the NLRB, says it’s unclear whether the union members have sufficient support to be able to create an incentive for Google to talk to them. “There’s nothing by way of law or policy which would compel Google to negotiate or speak with this group,” he says.

What’s clear is that Google workers across the board “have been dissatisfied with various aspects of the employment relationship for some period of time,” he says, evidenced by collective actions like an employee walkout in 2018 over the company’s sexual-harassment policies.

Gould says the question of whether contractors could be included in the same unit as employees has been an issue for “the better part of a quarter of a century.”

The shadow workforce of contractors at tech companies is sometimes bigger than the workforce of the companies themselves. According to the New York Times, Google has around 120,000 employees—and works with over 130,000 temps and contractors, who are not granted the same protections or benefits as staff who are classified as employees.

“What makes [the new union] unique is that it is open to everyone who works for Google, either directly or through a contractor,” says Beth Allen, a CWA spokeswoman. “That’s a decision the workers made when they came together, partly because of how central the issues around the two- or three-tiered system at Google are for the workers. They work alongside these folks every day, and they know that there’s a lot of injustice by having so many people in the two different kinds of classifications.”

Allen says the cushy offices and free food that tech companies provided to workers “prevented them seeing the need for collective action for a long time.” But a recent uptick in social activism, particularly in the tech industry, has “inspired people to think about how can they build on that… even after people who may have been involved in one or more of those protests have moved on or lost interest. And the workers at Google see this union as one way to do that.”

Allen did not disclose the breakdown of full-time employees vs contractors in the new union.

While overall unionizing continues to be on the decline in the US, there have been some notable gains in representation within the tech sector, particularly at Google. In 2017, security guards at Google and Facebook had their union recognized after five years of organization and negotiating. In 2019, Google cafeteria workers employed by an outside vendor unionized. And last year, Google contract office workers in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers union. But shortly after the Pittsburgh workers won their union status, Google reportedly outsourced their roles to Poland, squashing the union’s bargaining efforts.