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Is joining a union… Googley?

Organizing with co-workers is probably the clearest shot Google workers have at actually contributing to racial and economic….who’s in? Anyone??? Hello? Where’d everybody go?

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I have to admit that when news broke that Google workers had formed the Alphabet Workers Union, my first thought was, “haha, no one in my old department would EVER join this.” But as AWU’s numbers have modestly but steadily climbed–now 800ish since going public with 200 in January, I started instead to wonder: well, why not?  

It’s not for lack of love for social justice that my former colleagues on YouTube’s marketing team haven’t “signed their card;” on any given day on Instagram, they’re out there elevating marginalized voices, boosting BLM posts, decrying kids in cages. They strenuously document and display their goodness: one senior manager whom I generally saw as being on the wrong side of workplace issues memorably broadcast her agony over the ethics of cutting down her own Christmas tree in the woods near her pandemic country house. When Biden was inaugurated, my feed was flooded with Googlers posting about how happy, proud, and emotional they felt about the better days in America dawning, while solemnly noting that, of course, “there’s so much more work to be done.” Joining the Google labor movement is probably the clearest shot that any of them have at actually contributing to racial and economic justice…so….who’s in? Anyone??? Hello? Where’d everybody go?  

I tease my ex-colleagues from a place of love and identification. Of course I, too, am a card-carrying member of the liberal-coastal-elite PMC (professional-managerial class). In Catherine Liu’s new book, Virtue Hoarders, she argues that the PMC is well aware of how dystopian and intensely unequal the status quo is, but they’re not actually interested in changing it. All the virtue signalling and insistence upon the correctness of its ideology and tastes is pure PMC anxiety: “There’s this hyperrational desire to be perfect,” she said on the Jacobin podcast recently. “they know the world they’ve made is a bad world, and they want to be perfect to defend themselves from the badness of that world.” OK, so getting the Junior Managers of America to join the traditionally working class struggle against the bosses is going to be a tough sell. I don’t think AWU’s success hinges upon its ability to recruit my old team, per se, but to some extent it does depend on recruiting workers like them. To build real power, the union needs big numbers, and Google is absolutely swimming in PMC. 

I knew exactly nothing about organizing when I helped plan the Google Walkout. Though it has been billed as “one of the biggest worker protests in the United States in a generation,” it was not built in the typical way, over years of careful solidarity-building around shared grievances. I was very eager to shape and frame the thing in a way that felt “Googley”– that brew of altruism and stuff about how we were going to change the world. After years of working in the comms department, I was totally indoctrinated into all the crap about Google being a vanguard company leading the way for the lowly and less enlightened (PMC alert!). Execs were quick to capitalize on this framing, to say nothing of the farce of them all walking out that day. “If the tech industry can make cars that drive themselves,” CFO Ruth Porat said at a WSJ conference the next week, “why can’t we solve this?” 

Of course they didn’t solve “this,” and anyway, it isn’t their job—I don’t know who needs to hear this, but it’s their duty to be capitalists on a rampage to amass wealth and power, and it’s workers’ job to strenuously check and counterbalance that! While the Walkout posed some very good, concrete demands (keep working towards pay transparency, people!), without sustained momentum and pressure from workers the execs cruised into full-on manage mode, pumping calendars full of listening sessions and flooding internal sites with empty words about diversity and equity commitments. I still chuckle darkly thinking of how, a couple of weeks after the Walkout, I was invited to share my “lessons learned” at a team event and presented with a pair of Doc Marten boots. A few months after that, I was pushed out of the company altogether. In many ways, Google has managed to have its cake and eat it too, satisfying enough of the PMC base with performative gestures to indicate they’re “taking the issues seriously,” while clearly signalling to the rest that if you speak up and push back, you’re risking your job.  

Nevertheless, I believe the Walkout illuminated some of the paths forward for tech worker organizing, chiefly in revealing Googlers’ very legitimate material concerns and frustrations, including the abysmal way in which worker complaints against management are handled, how chronically under-leveled and underpaid newcomers are (especially women and POC), how slow, arbitrary, and punitive the performance management and promotion processes are, how parents and pregnant women are often discriminated against or given impossible choices, etc.  

This—and nowhere else—is the place to start building real power. It’s tempting to tap into PMC anxiety—it’s a very real, if weak force. But winning looks like simple, material gains and stronger worker protections. What do the SWEs at Google care about? On call burden? I don’t even know what that is but I’d be willing to bet that it is something people could really rally behind. AWU is an enormous, ambitious undertaking and as with anything that directly challenges Capitalism itself, the odds are never in the workers’ favor. Still, as an experiment in power-building, I find it worthwhile, exciting, and cool—if nothing else, it’d make for some killer Instagrams.