Google worker on union: Employees need to re-claim their ‘workplace power’

Google Software Engineer Raksha Muthukumar joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss Google and parent company Alphabet’s employees creating a union.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: And we're watching shares of Google right now, down about 1% on reports more than 200 employees are organizing to establish a new union. Leaders of the Alphabet Workers Union say membership includes everybody from bus drivers on the Google campus to programmers, and they are aiming for a workplace, in their words, that gives workers-- workers a meaningful say in decisions that affect the company and the society they live in.

Meanwhile, we've got this statement from Google to Yahoo Finance saying, "We have 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 will continue engaging directly with all of our employees."

Let's bring in Raksha Muthukumar. She's a software engineer at Google, also a part of the union. We've also got our very own Alexis Keenan joining in on the conversation. Raksha, it's good to talk to you today. Let me just ask the first question to you, because this feels like it is a long time coming given the way that employees have organized on a number of issues going back to executive compensation for those who were accused of sexual harassment. How does this union put you in a stronger position to affect change within the company, when we're only talking about just over 200 employees?

RAKSHA MUTHUKUMAR: Yeah, absolutely. So first of all, we are around 250 right now, which is our pre-going-public number. So that was all people through word of mouth, and recruiting their co-workers who they knew were sympathetic or would be a safe person to talk to. And I suspect after we go public that that number will go up significantly more, especially because when you talk about the sexual assault walkout, or people who signed the letter after Dr. Gebru was fired, those numbers were significantly higher, and I expect a lot of those people to be interested in this organizing as well.

ALEXIS KEENAN: Raksha, this Alexis Keenan here. Now, there are reports that say that your new union really plans to advocate for a couple of key issues, and those are compensation and also employee worker classification. But can you be more specific with us about what exactly you want to happen with the compensation, supposedly discrepancies there, and also the classification system at Google?

RAKSHA MUTHUKUMAR: Yeah, so the classification system is one of the particular things we really want to address as part of this union. So full-time employees, like myself, are salaried and full time, have the full benefits and perks of working at Google, while somebody who sits right next to me, who might also be an engineer doing very similar work to me, is classified as a contractor that Google hires through a third party, and doesn't get similar compensation at all.

And we've noticed kind of an increase of shutting down of those contractors. So for example, the contractors in the Pittsburgh office last year unionized, and after that the internal pages were less accessible to contractors as they were like external employees. And we just generally feel like that stratification is really divisive in the workplace, when the work and the responsibility is shared equally.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, Raksha, I mean, when we talk about unionization it's interesting, because, you know, a lot of people might think to, you know, mine workers or, you know, some of these other jobs that don't necessarily fall under the skilled labor camp here. And people might look at Google and say, look, this is kind of the City on a Hill when it comes to perks that you're describing there that workers at Google might get. We touched a little bit on the issues that might be driving some workers to sign up on this as well, but, I mean, what's the main driving factor of what you would explain to people maybe outside the company saying, look, there is a real reason for us to unionize here? Here's the one thing we'd be pushing for.

RAKSHA MUTHUKUMAR: So I think, two important factors to me are solidarity, first of all. So there are cafeteria workers, there are bus drivers, there are people at the office who don't live on that Hill, as you put it, people who don't live in that comfortable life, who live with more uncertainty about their day-to-day jobs who are employed by Alphabet. And I think one of the things we can do as a union altogether is put our weight, as the more privileged on-the-Hill people, to stand beside those people who work with us every single day.

And then the other thing I think is that regardless of our compensation, our low-level employees don't have power in a certain way for advocating for ourselves. You see that with retaliatory firings after women reported sexual assault or spoke up about diversity standards. It didn't matter that they were getting compensated well while they were at Google. When they stepped out of line they were shut down. And that's a real lack of power and a lack of say and freedom in the office.

ALEXIS KEENAN: Raksha, Alexis again. You volunteer with the political group Democratic Socialists of America and its Tech Action group, as I understand it. And the organization, it says that workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them as well. So how does this new union effort further the interests, if at all, of the Democratic Socialists of America?

RAKSHA MUTHUKUMAR: That's a good question. So to be clear, I don't speak fully for DSA here. I'm only a member in that organization and not on, like, a national leadership or anything. I do think that working as a socialist organization, we really do believe in workers having the say in their workplace, because one of the tenets of our organization is democracy, and people having a say. And when we push for that in government but give that up in the workplace, that's where most of us spend our days. We expect to say in our democracy, but give that up when we're in the offices. And so, I do personally believe that reclaiming our workplace power and democracy is a socialist tenet.

AKIKO FUJITA: And Raksha, finally, beyond Google, tech companies in general have been largely resistant to any kind of organization, whether we're talking about a company like an Uber or delivery companies. To what extent do you think this establishment of a union, at least in Alphabet, is going to set a precedent in the way that other employees of some other Silicon Valley companies are likely to approach their grievances, and also try to negotiate with the companies they work for?

RAKSHA MUTHUKUMAR: Yeah, I really hope that our methods spread. I really hope to see gig workers unionizing, Amazon factory workers, people in their offices at different companies. I think that really is the hope here, that we can be setting some sort of precedent, or at least be able to open the doors to the conversation, like, be able to answer the questions of what our process was and what the downsides were, how to be prepared better. They could learn from our mistakes or our successes. I really do think that Google workers have the power to set a precedent.

ZACK GUZMAN: We'll be tracking to see the progress there, but appreciate you coming on to discuss. Raksha Muthukumar, Google software engineer, alongside Yahoo Finance's Alexis Keenan. Thank you to you both.