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After Years Of Activism, More Than 200 Google Employees Form A Union

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now to a surprise announcement today - a surprise at least for Silicon Valley. A group of engineers and other workers at Google have formed a union. It's a notable breakthrough in labor organizing in the tech industry, where employees have clashed with executives over workplace culture, diversity and ethics. NPR's Alina Selyukh is here with us now to walk us through all of this new development.

Hey, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: All right. So we should note that Google, first of all, is among NPR's recent financial supporters. So what exactly is this union?

SELYUKH: So this is a union. At the moment - last number I got was 227 workers at about half dozen Google offices in the U.S. and Canada. They're calling themselves Alphabet Workers Union for parent company Alphabet. And they are supported by the Communications Workers of America, so they will be part of that union.

And to your point earlier, it is after growing activism, lots of clashes with corporate executives. These workers have staged walkouts and protests in recent years over a variety of issues, including sexual harassment, Google's artificial intelligence work for the Pentagon. Recently, there was a firing of a prominent Black AI researcher. And this union news is a big deal on Google. It is a company that's been pushing back against labor organizing and actually faces a federal complaint, alleging that it illegally fired, surveilled and otherwise fought organizing efforts.

CHANG: You said 227 people. That's, like, a tiny fraction of Google's workforce. I mean, how much power will this...

SELYUKH: Indeed.

CHANG: ...Union actually have, you think?

SELYUKH: So it's very small for a company employing over 130,00 workers. So this union will not have that conventional collective bargaining right over pay and benefits, for example. But I talked to the union folks, and they say it's essentially about giving structure to the activism that the workers have already been doing - maybe more professional support, more structured funding from the dues they will collect and a unified public voice, hopefully - hoping that they might even get some workers raising their concerns to Congress or federal agencies.

CHANG: Why do you think these workers didn't try to find - try to form a bigger, more traditional union?

SELYUKH: Well, Google's reliance on contractors and temporary workers might have been a big factor. They are believed to make up about half of Google's actual workforce. Google workers say they want contractors to have the same protections, but they are not considered direct employees.

I spoke to Catherine Fisk, who teaches labor law at Berkeley. And she says today's labor law has made it almost impossible to get contractors represented by a union alongside regular employees, so that's one major obstacle. Fisk also says it has become more difficult to stage that kind of classic majority vote in general. She says companies have been getting more and more leeway to whittle down who can be represented. And so in a way, just signing cards and saying, here it is; we're in a union, just for members who join is actually pretty old-school. It is the way most unions formed back in the day before modern labor law.

CHANG: And how has Google responded so far to all of this?

SELYUKH: They've issued a statement, saying, of course, workers' protected labor rights - Google does support - that it will continue to create a supporting and rewarding workplace. It will continue engaging directly with all its employees. And there lies a suggestion, as expected, that the company does not recognize this union.

CHANG: That is NPR's Alina Selyukh.

Thank you, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZAE KINCHEN SONG, "JUSSAPRAYER.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.