SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith, and I'm joined today by Preeti Varathan.
PREETI VARATHAN, BYLINE: Hi. I'm so glad to be here.
VANEK SMITH: And you have brought us a story about unions. So, of course, unions are on the decline. They have been for a while.
VARATHAN: Right. But there is actually one place where union organizing is surprisingly growing, and you'd be surprised by how much those workers make.
Do you mind if I ask you what you make?
XAVID PRETZER: I'd rather not, like, go into the numbers here. Would it be OK if I sort of followed up with you afterwards?
VARATHAN: Yeah, that's totally fine.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, art of the dodge.
VARATHAN: I should tell you they did actually follow up. And let's just say they probably make more than we do - roughly 350- to $450,000 a year.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, wow. They work, I am assuming, not in public radio.
VARATHAN: No, just, you know, a small little shop called Google - might have heard of it.
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VARATHAN: Today on the show, we're looking at a different kind of union led by white-collar workers who aren't just thinking about money and pay but about what companies do with the stuff they make and whether these workers should have a say.
VANEK SMITH: Welcome to the union of the 21st century. And we should say, by the way, that Google is one of the funders of this program.
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VARATHAN: If right now you're thinking, why the hell would Google workers want a union, you're probably not alone. I mean, the perks at this company are totally wild, like the cafeteria food.
VANEK SMITH: Google workers have been served banana cheesecake, lobster, slow-cooked duck. And the perks extend way beyond food too. I mean, Google is a place where you can get on-site haircuts. They'll do your laundry. This is literally a place that had Lady Gaga come speak on campus.
VARATHAN: And so, like, I wouldn't fault anyone for thinking, why do these workers need a union?
VANEK SMITH: And basically, there seem to be two main reasons. That is according to Xavid Pretzer, a software engineer at Google and a member of the new Google union.
PRETZER: I started to have a growing sense that, you know, Google as a company was making decisions more like a conventional company in search of, like, whatever would make the most profit, rather than, you know, sticking to the ideal of prioritizing making the world a better place over other concerns.
VARATHAN: This leads to reason No. 1. Google workers want a say in the decisions the company makes.
VANEK SMITH: Google used to have this motto, don't be evil. Xavid loved that motto, and they think that nowadays, Google sometimes can be a little bit evil.
VARATHAN: What was the decision you saw that made you think, OK, hold on; sometimes, this company does sort of do things that maybe are considered evil?
PRETZER: Yeah, so, I mean, I think the biggest one for me personally that changed how I see things was related to some of the activism around the Customs and Border Patrol contracts.
VANEK SMITH: Here is what Xavid is talking about. Back in 2019, more than 1,000 Google workers signed a petition asking the company to stop doing any work with the U.S. Border Patrol, which included groups like ICE. The idea was that workers wanted a say in all kinds of company decisions.
VARATHAN: Right. And to be honest with you, Stacey, the first question I had to ask was, should workers have a say in this kind of stuff? - because when you work for a private company, there's a bit of an assumed contract. You know, you exchange your work for pay and proper working conditions. And the company, in exchange for paying and treating you well, well, they get to do what they want with your work. Veena Dubal, though, says that thinking is wrong. She's a labor lawyer in San Francisco.
VEENA DUBAL: You can imagine if you are a worker at Google that's producing something and has strongly held political beliefs and you don't want what you're working on to ultimately be used for war, then that impacts your working conditions, impacts how you feel about what you're doing at work and how you're contributing to your employer.
VARATHAN: What Veena is saying is that how we think about working conditions and what can and cannot impact them has to evolve.
VANEK SMITH: So reason No. 1 that Google workers wanted to form a union was that they did not want their employer to be evil, which brings us to reason No. 2.
VARATHAN: Basically, union members really want all the workers at Google to be treated equally. Here's Xavid again.
PRETZER: We talk about the cafeterias. But for the people who put on all the work to create that food to make the cafeterias function, they're not compensated or treated nearly as well as the people like me consuming the food.
VARATHAN: Google actually employs more than 130,000 contract and temp workers who work alongside Google's full-time workforce. In fact, at Google, there are more contract and temp workers than full-time workers.
VANEK SMITH: Temp workers, on average, are paid less. And when the company hits an economic downturn, those workers are often the first to go.
VARATHAN: So a lot of Googlers like Xavid feel like this is deeply unfair.
VANEK SMITH: But there were some obstacles to changing things. For instance, federal labor law makes it really hard for different kinds of workers, like full-time workers and temp workers, to form a union together.
VARATHAN: And so Google workers chose a different path. They formed what's called a minority union. And, Stacey, I think we should probably explain that one.
VANEK SMITH: Yes. OK, so here's how it works. In a standard union, workers have the right to sit down with their employer and bargain over a contract. This is a traditional way that unions exercise power through arguments over things like wages and unfair labor practices, and those are reflected in a revised contract.
VARATHAN: But what Google has - a minority union - works a little differently. Minority unions don't have the support of a majority of workers. Right now Google's union only has about 800 or so workers, and that's super-small. It's just a fraction of Google's workforce. And because of this, under current labor law, Google isn't forced to recognize this union. They're not forced to sit down with them at the bargaining table. Basically, if Google wanted to, they could pretend this union didn't exist.
VANEK SMITH: We did reach out to Google. It responded with a written statement saying it's worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace and that it would continue to engage directly with all of its employees. The company did not clarify whether it recognizes this new group as a bona fide union or even whether it would work with them going forward, which kind of begs the question, like, what power does this union even have, if any, right? I mean, like, why are they calling this a union instead of, like, a workers advocacy club?
VARATHAN: Right, and look. On its face, maybe there isn't much that differentiates this group from a club, except one important thing. And you actually kind of said it, Stacey - that they call themselves a union. Veena Dubal, our labor lawyer from earlier, says that that one word uniting underneath it, it changes things.
DUBAL: Their vision is not to change things necessarily through the official channels or talking to managers but to actually use worker power to use the tools that workers have always had, direct actions in particular, to change things.
VARATHAN: What this all comes down to is basically one thing - raw people power. And before those skeptics in the back smirk, let me explain. Today 800 people at a powerful company can actually make a lot of noise. They can blast the internet with stories of poor working conditions or shady things their company is doing.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah, and we actually saw proof of this at Google back in 2018. This was during the height of the #MeToo movement, and thousands of Google workers across the globe dropped whatever they were doing, and they walked out to protest how the company had handled cases of sexual harassment.
VARATHAN: And the photos of those workers standing, agitating, making a list of demands - that took over the internet.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah, and it is safe to say that was a very, very bad day for Google.
VARATHAN: This union - they're following in the steps of that kind of legacy. And it may not seem like much, you know, just a band of 800 people trying to take on a titan of industry. But perhaps when you're dealing with these kinds of laws and a company that has the power and resources of a small country, your best bet is to defer to the original source of labor power - people organizing, making some noise, showing up.
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VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Josh Newell. It was fact-checked by Sam Cai. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.
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