Google Employees Start To Unionize — Is Clean Energy Labor Far Behind?

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The decision for some workers to unionize at Google caught the tech industry by surprise this week. Activists persevered, emphasizing the need for tools to sustain pressure on management so that workers could force changes on workplace issues. Rather than a traditional union with bargaining around a contract, though, the Alphabet Workers Union will be what’s known as a minority union to give structure and longevity to activism at Google. Minority unions often turn to public pressure campaigns and lobby legislative or regulatory bodies to influence employers.

At its onset, the new union will represent just a fraction of the company’s more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors. This is in keeping with most Silicon Valley industry workplaces which are not unionized, largely due to already high wages and a primarily white-collar work force.

That trend could change, however, as workers across different wage, demographic, and skill structures come into the clean energy industry. Data from multiple sources acknowledges that a unionized construction work force, for example, is paid better, enjoys stronger benefits, is more productive, and experiences fewer on-the-job injuries than their non-union counterparts.

The Alphabet Workers Union is part of what seems a transformational trend to unionize. President-elect Biden intends to tackle ambitious energy transformations alongside a mandate to create good union jobs. Climate action policies outlined on the Biden-Harris transition website are “dramatic cost reductions in critical clean energy technologies, including battery storage, negative emissions technologies, the next generation of building materials,” and others.

During the 20th century, the fuels sector was primarily seen as encompassing mining, extraction, and processing of petroleum, natural gas, coal, and other liquid fuels such as corn ethanol and biomass. These fuels’ employers have a 3% unionization rate, half the national private sector rate of 6%.

Solar and wind energy generation have grown, though, while coal generation has contracted, most recently by 6,400 employees in 2019. It’s important to note how the composition of the workforces in these different energy technologies differ.

  • 74% of construction the solar workforce is devoted to construction.
  • In the wind industry, that number is 33%.
  • Coal and natural gas are primarily utility workers.

The energy efficiency workforce is much more unionized than the private sector overall at 10%, almost double the national private sector average of 6%.

Image retrieved from NASA (public domain)

The Roosevelt Project notes that these variations underscore a significant energy transition issue, as clean energy jobs are lower paying and currently less unionized technologies that have begun to displace existing ones in stationary base load power plants. And it’s not just in the US where the green economy and the desire to unionize are caught between an energy past and future: in Canada, unions seem to be at a standstill in regard to the fight against the climate crisis, torn among a progressive take on environmental issues, the protection of jobs, and waiting for others to take the lead.

Energy Democracy Includes the Need to Unionize

The transition away from fossil fuels toward more renewable-based energy systems is taking shape differently in communities, states, and countries throughout the world. Rather than merely a shift from choosing one source or energy over another, this transition also involves social, institutional, and cultural innovations that resist an existing and formidable  dominant energy agenda and reclaim and democratically restructure energy authorities.

Called energy democracy, this movement aims to create green jobs and supports the need to unionize. In order to protect workers’ rights and generate secure and meaningful work, much research suggests that workers must co-lead the energy transition. Such leadership requires that jobs in the renewable energy sector be primarily unionized.

The influence of the private sector is at odds with some of the community-oriented goals of the energy democracy agenda, and the sector generally lacks a strong union presence. That’s because achieving a different energy labor economy is fundamentally about power.

Consider that worker productivity in California soared in the last 35 years even as the real median wage stagnated, according to a study out of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at USC. This was not just a function of shifting returns to technology—that helps to explain why skill-based wage gaps have grown but not why the middle has been stuck.

The authors say a widening wage gap has been less about uninformed economic policies and more about an imbalance of influence due to weaker unions and stronger corporations. “Rebalancing forces is now key to a new economic strategy,” they explain. “We argue for enhancing worker bargaining power through facilitating unionization, establishing industry wage boards, and other mechanisms. If we are to support innovation—and we should—we must also guard against the imbalance of power that can result.”

2018 survey suggests a novel but paradoxical vision of the future of American politics and trends to unionize. While they fail to support the Democrats’ push for regulation on business, technologists could help push lawmakers, especially Democrats, further to the left on many social and economic issues.  The New York Times concurs, saying that, while Silicon Valley tech elites are wary of unions and government, they are also overwhelmingly supportive of higher taxes and more social services, including universal healthcare.

Final Thoughts

The green transition will be an opportunity for growth and economic development, as it creates new jobs and revitalizes some traditional industrial sectors through technological innovations. The new Alphabet Workers Union is the clearest sign of how pervasively employee activism is becoming part of Silicon Valley culture. While software engineers and other tech workers largely been silent on societal and political issues, employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest, and others are increasingly more vocal on matters like diversity, pay discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Research indicates that union workers tend to recognize the challenges of the fight against the climate crisis and are willing to play their part in this fight. Although they are aware of the impacts of work on the environment, they are also worried about the impacts of the fight against climate change on the future of workers, especially those employed in traditional sectors such as fossil fuels, where many jobs will be lost, or deeply transformed. The concept of just transition arises as a result, in which the transition to a greener economy must be planned with the active participation of workers.

Unions’ main active contribution to the green transition will be to infuse awareness by sharing knowledge with their members about climate change, renewable energies, and environmental regulations as well as providing tools to assist workers in creating an environmental committee in their workplace.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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