The Alphabet Workers Union is the latest example of top-first organizing

A tech worker critiques campaigns that begin by creating the “top” of the organization first (name, demands, public presence, organizational leaders) instead of building up from ground-level organizing.

If you’re following labor news, many of the more widely-covered and flashy organizing efforts of the last few years will be familiar: Tech Workers Coalition, Amazonians United, Target Workers Unite, Game Workers Unite, Crew for a Trader Joe’s Union, Rideshare Drivers United. These campaigns cover plenty of ground, including unrest among employees in the notoriously unorganized tech industry, attempts to build worker power in the gig economy, and union drives at retail and grocery behemoths. 

These efforts don’t just swirl through the news cycle. They have touched the organizing efforts in my local IWW branch, whether because their participants sought out membership and our advice, or because our members became active in them, through personal interest or working at one of the targeted employers. 

Then we started to notice a pattern that made us scratch our heads. An organizer in my branch was talking to a group of our members who were deeply involved with one of these exciting and newsworthy campaigns that had international coverage and reach. The organizer said to me, “The thing about it is, whenever I talk to them, they say a lot about how busy they are, how they’re dealing with tons of interest from workers. But whenever I ask whether they have organizing committees in shops, they nervously laugh and admit that they’re not very far along on that front.” The participants had impressed us with their diligence and their analysis. Their project had dozens of working groups across several countries. But not much seemed to be getting done.

Other members locally and union-wide who had gotten involved in the wave of tech organizing had also begun to notice that despite the massive news coverage and the commitment of a core group of workers and activists, their progress on achieving their demands was almost nonexistent.

What’s happening here? Why do we see so many campaigns springing up almost fully-formed in the media, but seemingly incapable of moving the needle on the ground? The people involved have all the ingredients for a great campaign by most union standards: they’re charismatic and hardworking, they understand the importance of rank-and-file leadership, they talk cogently about building support. But little happens.

To put it simply, these campaigns have all the right pieces arranged in exactly the wrong order; they are upside-down or “top-first.”

The top-first campaign

“Top-first” is not the same as “top-down.” Most organizers in top-first campaigns are adamant the effort is to be led by workers. Many top-first campaigns lead reading groups for “No Shortcuts” and other manuals of deep organizing; they talk cogently about social mapping and one-on-ones; in fact they emphasize taking direct action in pursuit of their demands. 

But if all of the vocabulary of a solid campaign is there, the grammar is not. Like Yoda’s backwards talk, these campaigns prioritize and center their activity around the top of their organization — name & branding, logos, flagship issues, media presence, spokespeople — while the minutiae of organizing in shops and work groups is treated as an afterthought, or an inevitability once a campaign reaches a certain size. 

When workers in these campaigns do achieve solid numbers in shops, it’s not from deep organizing, but the “Texas Sharpshooter” approach: natural variation in random signups means somewhere in the data there’s got to be a work group with a majority signed up, and drawing a circle around it creates an “organized” shop.

The latest top-first campaign to make headlines is the Alphabet Workers’ Union, a project affiliated with the Communications Workers of America that aims to organize workers at Google and its parent company Alphabet. The AWU has already drawn various criticisms from corners of the labor movement, mostly for going public with a very small minority of around 200 workers out of the 200,000 employed by Alphabet.

At first glance, it’s one of the more professional campaigns in tech over the last few years, an apparently refreshing change of pace from the structureless activism that has characterized much of tech organizing. It is affiliated with an established union with experience representing workers, it has a clear organizational structure, collects dues, and even includes a mechanism for in-shop organizing through “Workplace Units.” But one look at AWU’s mission and the dynamics of its membership reveals it as a top-first effort.

The union started by announcing itself with an executive council, a well-produced website, and a Twitter account. It advertised that workers are organizing towards the mission of “protect[ing] Alphabet workers, our global society, and our world.” The hope is that a large number of workers across the company will see this publicity, read the provided materials, decide they agree, and fill out an online form to join the union. Workers brought in online have an orientation session, and begin paying dues to cover a range of services. At this point, if a worker is fortunate enough that at least five of their coworkers on the same team have also happened to sign up, they can form a group with those members called a “Workplace Unit,” which is meant to allow workers to discuss their local issues and plan actions, and is described as the “foundational building block of AWU,” although its position in this timeline suggests that is not, in fact, the case.

Contrast this with the timeline of a campaign that, sticking closely to our organizer training (and most unions’), runs in what could be called the “shop-first” direction: A worker or group of workers decides their workplace needs to change, and after learning the basic skills of organizing, they gather contacts and socially chart their coworkers. They actively pursue the leaders in their shop to have one-on-one discussions about their issues at work, and to convince them that acting together gives workers the power to fix things. As the campaign grows through these discussions, committees and structure are created to carry the effort forward in a disciplined way. Eventually the campaign grows big enough to take action on a small demand, and prove to fence-sitters that the union can put power in workers’ hands. This unlocks more conversations, more signed-up members, and bigger demands. Having built a union of workers winning on the shop floor, now it’s time to make the Twitter account and website, right? Ah, but it turns out you don’t really need them anyway, because your leverage at work comes from your organized action.

These outlines are, of course, sketches. And it’s easy to say that the order of a campaign’s priorities doesn’t matter, or even that the top-first approach is the only way to effectively organize in a large company or industry. But the drawbacks of working top-first are what stymie these campaigns.

Top-first campaigns tend to post big numbers in the absolute: hundreds or even thousands of worker-members may well join due to the public campaigning. But more important than how many workers a campaign has, is who and where they are. If a campaign like AWU signs up 10,000 workers, that number sounds huge, but it would be 1 in 20 workers at Alphabet. A five-person team would have a one-quarter chance of containing a single AWU member. “They can’t fire all of us” is a common refrain, but it is more untrue when your union is thinly dispersed across a twentieth or hundredth of a company or industry. Of course that density sounds dismal, but variation ensures some teams will be entirely composed of AWU members! Will they be able to take action? It’s doubtful. 

Because it’s one thing to sign up for a union online, it’s another to be the union in practice. A worker filling out a form demonstrates interest, but getting that person to participate in collective action requires a high level of commitment and courage, which can only be built through trust between workers. Taking action against your own direct manager is difficult and scary — that’s why it’s so much more tempting for workers to pursue broader and more abstract issues and projects in public demonstrations if that option is available. Signing up online as a first step encourages passivity. For that matter, there is a difference between an intake session for a new signup, and an AEIOU conversation that wins over an immediate coworker and potential union skeptic.

Finally, the organization itself must quickly absorb and manage thousands of voting members without falling prey to internal strife or careening towards advocacy rather than action. When a very small self-selected group deputizes itself with executives at a really early stage, there is a huge front-loaded democratic issue of who governs the campaign in the future, should it grow. Granted that all organizing campaigns start with a few activists, but there’s a reason you want a majoritarian effort before you actually start electing positions.

In practice, because of these drawbacks, we have seen top-first organizations cycle through worker petitions, outside protests, legal tactics, and defeats. We have also seen their leaders fired and the organizations implode over internal strife. 

Organizing shop-first has its own difficulties, but meeting those difficulties is what makes a campaign strong enough to survive and win. The benchmarks in a top-first campaign — earned media, passive recruitment — have a lot less to do with collective worker power. Even before a shop-first campaign starts posting wins, the focus on demands and on the boss produce a clarity of purpose. While top-first campaigns can tread water for a very long time, shop-first campaigns must organize or die.

Making the hard parts harder

Why do these upside-down campaigns find themselves stuck standing on their head, kicking in the air, unable to move? After all, in many cases the organizers involved have the tools to mount an effective shop-first campaign.

But all of the knowledge in the world can’t change the fact that the single hardest part of any campaign is talking to your coworkers. Almost every shortcut and miscalibration in organizing pivots around the universal truth that most workers would rather personally and publicly challenge Sundar Pichai or the President of the United States than ask Meng from accounting to have an emotional conversation about his issues at work, and pitch him on acting collectively on the job.

Out of this conflict comes the impulse to use the easy parts of organizing to soften up the harder targets: having a name and logo can get media coverage, media coverage can get the word out, people who agree with our cause will contact us, once we become popular enough, we’ll have critical mass, the skeptics will join us, and through our intake process we will build a rank-and-file organization.

But while relying on viral growth to achieve escape velocity works for startups and crowdfunding campaigns who want a monetary exchange for services, it is kryptonite to a union effort. Because contrary to intuition, picking off the low-hanging fruit makes the hard parts of organizing harder. It alerts the boss to your presence, giving them plenty of time to go after your leaders, figure out your strategy, and mount a counteroffensive before you reach a majority. Building an organization through passive, mass recruitment also makes the effort activist-dominated, coming off as cliquish and political—accusations that have already been levied at AWU and other top-first campaigns. Workers who have not been approached by open-endedly asking about their issues will look at the specific branding and messaging and perhaps decide that the campaign is not for them — they care about workload, or losing ground in their career if they have kids, not “prioritizing the wellbeing of society and the environment over maximizing profits.” In these upside-down campaigns, the biggest and most exciting moment is usually the day the campaign is announced, and once that initial excitement has worn off, every worker that didn’t join right away has formed an opinion on the effort that organizers must now laboriously overcome. In large-scale campaigns, it’s normal for some workers to find out about an organizing effort before being individually asked to join. But usually the union hasn’t already established a detailed, public-facing mission and policy platform before the ask.

The tough truth—that a union unable to win pedestrian demands from small-time managers, also cannot win world-changing demands from billionaire executives—offers a road map to actually building the power to topple giants. Instead of trying to instantly gather hundreds of thousands of workers to force Jeff Bezos to end climate change, talk to three coworkers about how to make Jeff, the Level 5 Software Dev Manager, push back harder on estimates so that you don’t have to work overtime. Rather than announcing a nationwide campaign to unionize Trader Joe’s, work with the coworkers at your side to demand better PPE from Melissa, the store Captain. These efforts and demands might be criticized as small potatoes, but they’re only small in the way that learning to frame a wall is a small achievement compared to building a house, or writing your first “Hello World” program is a small task compared to building a massive online store. Just like these scenarios, building a team that has mastered the fundamentals unlocks the next level of coordination that gets you closer to the big goal.

Adopting a shop-first strategy—socially mapping the workplace, recruiting leaders, having deep conversations with coworkers, testing your strength with small job actions, and building structure as needed to coordinate between shops, work groups, and locals in an industry—is difficult. But it is critical to building a workers’ union that is organized in the most basic sense of the word. With each moving part in its place, the membership, reach, demands, and actions of the campaign grow together, and each component of the campaign reinforces the other. 

If we are going to build a credible challenge to organized capital, we have to resist the impulse to take shortcuts to mass appeal, and embrace the hard and protracted work of building campaigns that are as practiced in their fundamentals as they are powerful.

“Max Dewes” is a tech worker for a large company and a member of the IWW.