- Most of them, like the general workforce, are happy with the work they do at Google and consider themselves lucky to be part of a great company, casting doubts about the efficacy of a minority union.
On January 4th, the first working day of the year, Silicon Valley was getting ready to go back to work and bracing for more bad news on the pandemic front and chaos in Washington D.C. What they saw in the headlines that day was a completely different story. More than 400 Google workers announced that they were forming a union. Google has been in the news for several years because of increasing activism by its employees. But nobody expected an outcome like a union at a company that has a motto of “Don’t be evil.”
The union at Google is not a traditional one but a minority union comprising a small percentage of more than a quarter of a million Google employees and contractors. Union leaders announced that their focus will be on diversity, pay discrimination, and sexual harassment. On each of these issues, Google has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Unlike traditional unions, it also includes Google contractors who are more in numbers than employees. The union members will contribute 1 percent of their total compensation.
Many questions were going through my mind as I read this news. The main one was, is it the start of a new Silicon Valley phase where employees call the shots on decisions related to policy, ethics, and pay? The second question that came to mind was how it affects Indian Americans working in Google, both as employees and as contractors. Google has a large number of employees who are of Indian descent. Many are contractors working at Google but are employees of Indian contracting giants like HCL and Wipro. It is the contractors who stand to benefit most from the formation of a labor union.
In the fall of 2019, a group of 90 HCL employees working as contractors in Google at Pittsburgh had voted to unionize in affiliation with the United Steel Workers union. In October of last year, the National Labor Relations Board accused HCL of illegally discouraging its workers from joining the union and retaliated by shipping work to Poland. The unionization at Google couldn’t have come at a better time for these contractors. The union leaders have made it very clear that the union belongs to all workers regardless of classification. They will work for these contractors to ensure parity with full-time employees regarding wages, benefits, and job stability.
Seeking answers for my questions, I reached out to my contacts at Google, expecting excitement and a lot of action within Google, but to my surprise, most of them were either not aware of the news or had found out through external sources. The reaction from them was total indifference. Their take: they are happy with the work they do at Google and consider themselves lucky to be part of a great company. They are aware of some of the high profiled issues reported in the media but felt that every company has problems and praised Google for taking immediate action.
Reactions from other Silicon Valley software professionals were more extreme. Entrepreneurs and professionals in leadership roles felt that a union in silicon valley is unnecessary. Their rationale: engineers get compensated with high salaries and stock options. Google typically does an excellent job of taking care of their employees. Being a software engineer means you don’t get overtime pay; instead, you get stocks, and if your company does well, you get much more money than typical overtime pay.
Some of them felt that Google employees are a pampered lot. They gave the example of some employees demanding food allowance since they were working from home because of Covid. They used to eat at five-star cafeterias at Google campus, and ever since they started working from home, they couldn’t avail of it. A friend who works at Ford Motor Company had an excellent comparison between Ford and Tesla. Ford has a unionized workforce, while Tesla is the only large U.S. maker that doesn’t have a workers union. Right now, Tesla is a hugely successful company, while the other car manufacturers are languishing. As per him, unions affect a company’s productivity and efficiency but admitted that it does help create a healthy working environment for their employees.
One Silicon Valley veteran with friends in companies like Google, Facebook, and Uber thinks that unions are a stretch. Still, companies do need to do more to avoid situations like the high profile cases that happened at Google and Uber, where executives who allegedly sexually harassed employees were either promoted, given a payout, or were protected. None of these companies have done enough, and there needs to be a structure to address these issues. The union leadership at Google has made it very clear that their focus will not be just on pay disparity but on other topics like discrimination, sexual harassment, and ethics.
The consensus in the valley is that Silicon Valley doesn’t need a union to run its labor force. For decades the valley has been churning out companies that start in a garage and grow to become multi-billion behemoths, in the process sharing its profits with employees through higher pay and stocks. On the other hand, there is the realization that companies have gone too far in their quest for profit, efficiency, and productivity. There is a need for accountability and social responsibility. Whether a minority union at Google is the answer, only time will tell.
Nimish Singh lives in Fremont, California, and has made Silicon Valley his home for the last 26 years. He has led engineering in startups before and currently heads one of the engineering groups in a leading Cybersecurity company. An avid reader, Nimish is actively involved in local theater as a playwright and songwriter.