How Google’s resistance to employee organizing endangers our democracy
In October, I wrote an op-ed for Newsweek about big tech's gradual destruction of our democracy. Specifically, I argued that big tech continues to undermine pillars of freedom including free speech, free elections, and personal privacy. Unfortunately, this trend does not seem to be slowing down.
This month, news emerged that Google has fired yet another employee who, by creating a browser notification for her colleagues, reminded them of their right to organize and negotiate collectively with management. A few weeks before that, Google fired four employees who appear to have been actively organizing Google labor. Interestingly, in both cases, Google has cited security concerns for its decisions.
Let me be blunt: This is bad for our democracy and this trend must change. Technology is not above the law and tech labor is still labor. We should stop further encroachments on our democratic values before they disappear from American society completely. They are worth protecting!
Collective bargaining is an inherently democratic process. When employees organize and choose a representative based on a majority vote to negotiate with management, they realize our most fundamental democratic values in the workplace.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or the Wagner Act) explicitly grants employees the right to collectively bargain and join trade unions in the United States. Enacted in 1935, it applies to most private company employees and establishes procedures to select a labor organization to represent employees in collective bargaining. It also regulates the tactics each side may employ, including prohibitions against retaliation on the part of management against employees who seek to organize their colleagues.
The right for employees to organize is not just an abstract expression of representative democracy; it also leads to inclusive negotiation-based and consensus-building conflict resolution methods. It allows employees to self-govern and re-create many democratic processes at a local level.
When empowered by a collective bargaining unit, employees can demand not just pay, benefits, or working conditions but also — equally important, but more often forgotten — whistleblower protections, proper training, mentoring and other career opportunities, fair performance rating, and more. In other words, collective bargaining is a process that gives unionized employees a seat at the bargaining table. It holds employers accountable.
And in the United States, the right to organize is rooted not just in one law passed in the mid-20th Century, but in the many Constitutionally and statutorily protected rights of association, speech, and petition, each of which is critical to a thriving democracy. Thus, exercising a right to organize is a basic civil right.
Association: At its core, a union is an association of individual employees to address workplace issues. The First Amendment right of association protects employees' ability to meet with co-workers to discuss issues they care about. And in the case of Google, employees have recently been raising numerous public policy related issues – from the handling of sexual harassment and treatment of contract employees to working with the Department of Defense, federal border agencies, and the Chinese government.
Speech: While the First Amendment does not protect private sector employees from efforts by their private employers to censor speech, the NLRA and other federal and state statutes ensure the right of employees to join a union and engage in collective bargaining to protect basic free speech. This allows union members to participate meaningfully in workplace debates without fear of retaliation, which is critical to a functioning democratic society.
Petition: Finally, unions defend the First Amendment right to petition the government rights of their members. Unions often lobby the government and file legal actions in court to protect the rights of individual members. Thus, unions give employees the opportunity to exercise the critical right of petition when individual employees would lack the resources to on their own.
Outside of the United States, which has comparatively weak labor protections, Google's recent retaliatory actions would be even more legally dubious. In fact, the right to organize free of employer interference is often seen as a fundamental human right, not just a constitutional or civil one. For example, even though the United States has not ratified U.N. Convention No. 87 on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize or U.N. Convention No. 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, most countries, including most democracies, respect the employees' right to unionize and have ratified these documents. Global companies like Google have a larger social responsibility to protect human rights, and especially the human rights of their global workforce.
Finally, collective bargaining is beneficial to the economy and to society at large. It empowers employees to dream bigger in creating a meaningful career and a better world. It frees employees from their individual, often oppressive immediate circumstances. By participating in a dialogue with management, employees collaboratively engage with their employer to improve internal processes, often leading to higher employee retention. And unionized employees often address larger societal issues, beyond just wages and working conditions, that we all care about.
In the end, to say that Google's reaction to employee organizing is immature, especially in hiding behind the hot-button buzzword of “security” after the fact, is an understatement. It encroaches on our democratic values, violates human rights, and jeopardizes our economic prosperity. A global company like Google can and must use its resources to protect our democratic values, safeguard human rights, and facilitate economic well-being for everyone. Isn't that what leaders do? Isn't that what changing the world with technology is all about?