Labor & Workforce

Unions begin to make inroads in Silicon Valley

By Marc Arcas

San Francisco, Feb 10 (efe-epa).- Absent for decades from a Silicon Valley tremendously hostile to organized labor, unions are starting to win adherents in the US tech sector with a particular mixture of traditional demands and political activism.

This week, employees at an Amazon distribution center in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting by mail on a proposal to make their workplace the e-commerce giant’s first unionized facility in the United States.

Last month, several hundred staff and contractors with Google announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union (Alphabet is Google’s parent company) with a mission that includes “fight(ing) the systems of oppression.”

The organization grew from 230 members to more than 700 within a week. As a “minority union,” AWU can welcome temporary workers and contractors, but it is not recognized by the National Labor Relations Board and can’t force Google to the bargaining table.

“At least for the college-educated engineering workforce, the idea of joining a union is sort of counter to their sense of their own professional identity,” Peter Meiksins, professor emeritus of sociology at Ohio’s Cleveland State University, told Efe.

“There’s a long history in the United States of professionals, not just in the tech sector but in all kinds of industries, of seeing themselves as somehow not really an appropriate constituency for unions, that that’s … blue collar people, people who bash metal and make things,” he said.

That history is what made the emergence of the Alphabet Workers Union such a surprise, given that the core group of organizers was made up mainly of well-paid software engineers.

Though the AWU’s founding statement says that the organization will seek to ensure that “working conditions are inclusive and fair” and to hold accountable “perpetrators of harassment, abuse, discrimination and retaliation,” it also emphasizes the importance of pushing Alphabet in a positive direction.

“Alphabet can make money without doing evil. We must prioritize the wellbeing of society and the environment over maximizing profits,” the statement says.

One of AWU’s first initiatives was to urge Google on Jan. 8 to shut down the YouTube channel of then-President Donald Trump in wake of the assault on the US Capitol by his supporters.

The organizing effort at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama is more in line with traditional unionism, driven by a desire for better pay and conditions.

Unlike some other tech titans, Amazon employs hundreds of thousands of people in blue-collar occupations.

“Amazon is pretty hostile to unionization efforts,” Meiksins said. “They’ve taken advantage of that – in the last 15 or 20 or even 30 years in the United States, since Reagan – the climate for organizing in the United States has been very difficult in all industries.”

The awakening of interest in unions among Amazon workers can be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen management engage in well-publicized reprisals against employees who have complained about unsafe conditions at company facilities. EFE arc/dr

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