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Union throws Googly at Alphabet: But will Unions cut ice with tech workers?

Digital Adoption

The subject of trade unions is a very evocative one. It elicits different kinds of responses, depending on your side of the fence – whether you are an employee or part of the management.

That said, till even two decades back, trade unions in India were a force to reckon with. Many leaders of trade unions were known to bring the entire nation to a grinding halt with massive turnouts on the streets. We have fewer rallies and bandhs today. Besides, even those that are held periodically, do not receive a very enthusiastic response.

The digital transformation of industries is one of the primary reasons why many of these protests and bandhs fail to make an impact any longer. A bandh called by bank unions, for instance, no longer impacts daily transactions since many people bank online. Digital payments, mobile wallets and ATMs have further made banking a breeze. Hence, most people do not even realise when a bank bandh started or ended. The pandemic-imposed ‘Work From Home’ practice, will only reinforce this trend.

However, this is the case mostly with companies in the services sector. The scene plays out very differently in the manufacturing industry where a bandh can not only impact a company but also affect the whole country’s supply chain, making people sit up and notice.

For instance, while a bandh in an auto manufacturer’s unit will only impact its bottom line despite all the technology it uses, a truckers’ strike or a bandh called by the Indian Railways will severely disrupt the movement of goods and foodgrains and raise prices of goods, affecting households too. The current farmers’ protest, which the whole nation can relate to, is also a good case in point.

Do Unions make sense for high-end tech?

Given this context, it’s interesting to see how unions are gaining traction in the high-end technology services sector too. These are rare cases as the case with Google demonstrates.

On January 4, employees of Google and parent company Alphabet Inc. announced the creation of a union with support from the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The Union will be open to all employees and contractors at any Alphabet company, “with dues-paying members, an elected board of directors, and paid organizing staff”, the Alphabet Workers Union said in a press statement. The new union is part of CWA’s Coalition to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA) project.

CODE-CWA was launched in early 2020 to “support workers’ organizing efforts in the technology and game industries”, according to the website. It claims that the Union workers’ wages are 22% higher than their non-Union counterparts. Other benefits include “…improved security in our jobs, including important safeguards against discrimination, policies around work-life balance, and fairness protections around layoffs”.

Explaining the rationale behind the move, the Union asserts that while Google began as a small tech company with a “Don’t Be Evil” mantra, it “…now has more than 120,000 workers (and is) responsible for vast swaths of the internet, controlling tools used by billions of people across the world, with subsidiaries as varied as Waymo, Verily, Fitbit, and Wing. Yet, half of Google workers at Alphabet companies are hired as TVCs-—temps, vendors, or contractors-—without the benefits afforded to full-time employees”.

The Unions have also underscored other issues such as the “documented sexual harassment against fellow Googlers”, “unethical government contracts, like drone targeting for the military (reference to Project Maven)” and the “firing” of Timnit Gebru–a leading artificial intelligence (AI) researcher. Incidentally, Project Maven was launched in April 2017. A year later, more than 3,100 Google employees signed a letter dissuading Google CEO Sundar Pichai from being “…in the business of war”, as reported by The New York Times.

“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce…Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees,” said Kara Silverstein, director of people operations at Google, in a statement, according to Bloomberg.

Relevance to India’s tech sector

One may recall that India’s IT services industry has had its own share of brushes and tussles with unions that were formed to handle call centre employee grievances and safety of women employed by BPOs. Both the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) were involved in these efforts. CITU had even carved out a new unit called UNITES Professionals to address the issue.

These moves, however, were expectedly opposed by software body, Nasscom and the Bangalore-based IT Professionals Forum on grounds that BPO employees were nurtured well by the IT industry. The Unions were not able to make much inroad, though, and not much has been heard from them since.

Part of the reason is that the nature of the IT services industry itself has changed with the introduction of a lot of automation and AI in processes. The other reason is the common perception that Unions only lobby for an increase in wages even as this limited perception is unfair to Unions that do a lot more.

Regardless, we seldom see Unions engaged in contemporary issues that dog the India’s technology sector such as reskilling of employees; lobbying for more online certification for employees; empathizing with the needs of today’s millennials; getting involved in Ethical AI committees to ensure that companies do not abuse HR practices or gender, race, and ethnic inclusion with manipulative AI algorithms; and understanding what automation and AI entail for these sectors.

Unions will become relevant to an educated tech workforce only if they themselves understand these issues, failing which they would lose the plot.

In this context, the Union formed at Alphabet in collaboration with CODE-CWA does reveal that Unions can be an important part of a company since they have the bandwidth to mount continuous pressure on technology companies that can go astray if they only pursue profits for their shareholders. But it’s simultaneously imperative that the pressure exerted by Unions remains constructive, else they will fail the very employees they seek to help.

Leslie D’Monte is Publishing Director, Trivone

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