Is the Corporate Union making a comeback?

It was back in the summer of 2018 that I first got excited about the latent potential of employee activism. In the June 2018 Bullog I wrote about the Google Walkout and Microsoft workers protesting about the technology support the company was giving to the Trump Administration’s immigration policies which separated Mexican kids from their parents. A letter to the CEO saying “not in our name” initially had 100 signatories but rapidly went viral within the company forcing them to ditch the multi-million-dollar contract and add a clause around Human Rights into all future contracts.

I’ve tended to view employee activism as a close cousin of the intrapreneurship movement, but with key differences. There’s a greater focus on collective action to influence corporate policy as opposed to more entrepreneurial individuals (and teams) seeking to change products, services and business models that could provide value to the business while benefitting people or planet.

However, it was always going to be difficult to agree a consensus position across an entire corporate workforce that may have 10,000 employees of many different political persuasions. The early activism was quite haphazard and companies would find that one group of activists might campaign for greater LGBT rights for example, only to find another group campaigning to say they were doing pretty well actually. It was only a matter of time before more organised and coordinated action would be required. This led me to speculate about the emergence of so-called “white collar” trade unions in the October Bullog. Here’s a quote just in case any of you might have missed that month (how dare you!):

“Maybe the trade union of the next decade is more around collective bargaining on things like climate change, sustainability, purpose, business ethics or indeed what the company’s position should be on divisive political issues of our time. “

Bullog, October 2020

I’m not claiming to be Nostradamus here, nor did I have access to any insider information, but you can imagine I was quite tickled to read about the launch of the Alphabet Workers Union in Fast Company magazine in January, closely followed by a more recent announcement of Alpha Global, Google’s international workers union. This is a collection of 13 separate unions working across 10 countries whose stated goal is to keep the parent company in check on a range of issues and challenge anything the business does that is ethically questionable.

So far so good and I really applaud all the clandestine work behind the scenes by Google employees to bring these unions to fruition. Sadly this appears to have come at a price as there have been many accusations of Alphabet using “Termination and intimidation in order to quell workplace activism” according to the National Labor Relations Board in the US, who ruled in favour of a number of workers whose sackings were deemed unlawful. Two of the most high profile and vocal critics within Google’s AI Ethics department, Timnit Gebran and Margaret Mitchell both lost their jobs in the last 3 months to howls of protests from thousands of co-workers. They’d evidently breached company email policy — as has anyone who’s used their company computer to send a message to their partner as to when they might be home for dinner. It’s a cheap shot but is a widely used tool to get rid of troublesome or ineffective employees..

I had always thought that employee activism was potentially safer than intrapreneurship in that it’s not just your own head that is above the parapet -there are thousands which give safety in numbers. Clearly, I was wrong about that and these first-generation employee activists will probably go down in history as the martyrs that have started a quiet revolution towards more democratic corporations.

I firmly believe that Alpha Global and AWU are the thin end of a very thick wedge within business and that similar underground discussions will be going on in many multinationals across the globe. Rather than trying to quell and suppress such activism, my strong advice to business leaders would be to engage and embrace it. If they do — it will be a positive differentiator in the recruitment marketplace to attract smart, free-thinking talent. Ignore it at you’re peril as it’s not going away any time soon.

This article is an extract from the March edition of The Bullog*, my monthly blog. To read the full blog or to sign up to receive The Bullog directly each month visit………Make sense? Not bulldog, nor is it bulls**t although I’ll let you be the judge of that! It’s a brief synopsis on recent articles, events and opinions from my world and the things that have caught my attention over the past few weeks.

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Gib Bulloch is an award-winning social intrapreneur who consults, writes and speaks on topics relating to the role of business in society.

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Gib Bulloch

Gib Bulloch

Gib Bulloch is an award-winning social intrapreneur who consults, writes and speaks on topics relating to the role of business in society.

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