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Panel: Tech industry activists could transform the workplace

Worker voices at leading technology companies will play a huge role in understanding the future of the American workplace, ILR School dean Alexander Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, said March 25 during “The Future of Work: Labor in America,” the first installment of a new ILR eCornell Keynotes series.

“How are we going to shape labor relations in these key industries going forward? It’s a big question for our society,” said Colvin, the Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean and Martin F. Scheinman ’75, M.S. ’76, Professor of Conflict Resolution.

Colvin was joined for “Unionization in Big Tech: Why Now?” by panelists Chewy Shaw, a site reliability engineer and union organizer at Google, and Jessica García, assistant to the president of the Retail, Wholesale Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is helping Amazon workers organize in Bessemer, Alabama.

Nearly 1,000 people attended the virtual event.

The national discussion about work has been transformed in recent years, Colvin said, noting the shifting American workplace is reflected in several ways – the “Fight for $15” minimum wage push, teacher strikes, conflicts caused by COVID-19 health and safety concerns, debates over the rights of gig workers, a pro-labor president and proposed labor law reform.

In Alabama, mail-in voting for 5,800 Amazon employees ended March 29, and the vote count could take weeks. A pro-union outcome could trigger other drives that some think could help reverse the decline of organized labor. Fewer than 11% of workers in the U.S are union members. 

Many Bessemer workers say they are treated like robots, García said. When COVID-19-related hazard pay ended in June, interest in unionizing heightened, she said.

“The fact that they were, in essence, told they weren’t essential and they were dealing with all these other working conditions, just really exacerbated the situation for them,” she said.

Customers value Amazon services, she said, but are often unaware of employee working conditions, which include timed bathroom breaks.

“Yes, Amazon Prime is awesome, but there should be some standards [for workers] that should be upheld,” she said. “The company has so much visibility and a good reputation with consumers. We have to do a lot of work to educate folks.”

A speak-up culture fostered at Google has crumbled in recent years, said Shaw, one of the activists who led more than 800 Google workers to form the Alphabet Workers Union.

Most workers now are contract workers who don’t receive the benefits and status of Google employees. Supporting the needs of colleagues, whether they are contract workers or company employees, is “on us,” said Shaw, a Google employee since 2011.

Activists concerned about Google policies consulted with Communications Workers of America to form an experimental “minority union,” which did not go through a vote. Rather, people joined individually and contributed dues equal to 1% of their total compensation.

Shaw said workers were motivated to organize by a number of incidents.

“We started seeing, more and more, executives trying to hide controversial contracts from workers, and that made people get really concerned,” Shaw said. “We started seeing executive pushback, people getting fired for sharing information internally.

“We want to have the freedom to discuss and decide for ourselves how we want to take part in different projects,” he said. “We can start highlighting situations that we think are important to the public.”

Mary Catt is the ILR School’s communications director.

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Rebecca Valli