Technology

Is Unionization Coming to Amazon and Google?

Technology companies have avoided (and discouraged) unionization since the days of Fairchild Semiconductor. It probably remains true that the only union employees in Silicon Valley are janitors, and they work for contractors, not for the tech companies.

That’s why it’s no surprise that both Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) are now engaged in keeping the industry’s no-union streak alive.

The most imminent threat to the industry’s walled garden is a unionization vote sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. More than 2,000 of the facility’s 5,800 workers signed cards seeking an election to determine if workers wanted to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

The NLRB ruled last week that voting by mail would begin on February 8 and all ballots must be returned to the agency by March 29. Votes will be counted on March 29.

The last time Amazon U.S. employees voted on union representation was 2014 in Delaware when a group of just 30 technical workers at a warehouse chose to remain non-unionized by a vote of 21 to six. German workers in Amazon’s second-largest market have held strikes since 2013 during the holiday season, seeking to force the company to recognize collective bargaining agreements that apply to other major employers.

In the coming vote in Alabama, Amazon has challenged the NLRB’s decision to allow a mail-in vote. The company has insisted on in-person voting at the warehouse. The NLRB has ruled against in-person voting, but Amazon asked for a delay last week, again insisting that voting should be done in person. The company is pointing to declining coronavirus infection rates as a reason to have the voting done in person.

If Bessemer’s employees do vote to join the union, they will represent less than 1% of the company’s nearly 800,000 U.S. full- and part-time employees. Even that tiny number could be bad news for Amazon. Success breeds success, and the company faces a toppling dominoes reaction from other operations around the country and the world.

As for Google, the possibility of unionization is far less threatening. Earlier this month, a group of workers at Google and other Alphabet companies announced an Alphabet Workers Union that is being supported by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the union that represents 700,000 workers at companies like AT&T, Verizon and General Electric.

The difference between the Amazon and Alphabet unions is that the latter is not seeking collective bargaining rights and ratification from the NLRB. Nevertheless, Alphabet and Google are fighting back hard. According to the Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos), the NLRB filed a complaint against Google in December, “accusing it of surveilling and terminating employees, and in 2019, the company hired consultants known for their anti-union efforts.”

One other unionization move worth noting is the approval of Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) representation last March by workers at Brooklyn’s Kickstarter facility. The election was sponsored by the NLRB and affects fewer than 100 employees.