A lot of people think that tech workers have it made—high salary, great benefits, fancy catered lunches eaten while sitting on bean bags, and now pretty much unlimited working from home. Google’s original motto was even “Don’t be evil,” exuding optimism and confidence in a brighter tomorrow.
In recent years, however, that reputation has begun to falter. More than half of the people who work Google now are temporary workers, vendors, or contractors, who often earn less, get worse, if any, benefits, lack robust protections against discrimination, and are disproportionately people of color compared to employees at Google.
And this week, about 220 workers at Alphabet and its sister companies, including Google, formally announced that they are unionizing; membership has already almost doubled to more than 400. The Alphabet Workers Union is focused on ensuring that workers have the right to refuse to work on projects they deem unethical, holding perpetrators of harassment and discrimination accountable, and to improving worker conditions, particularly for TVCs. Union dues are set at one percent of total compensation.
“There’s no one kind of tech worker,” Dylan Baker, software engineer on Google’s ethical AI team, who has been active in the union since it was started roughly a year ago. I’m a queer, trans person, wasn’t a computer science major, didn’t come from techie parents … Google’s trying to enforce this tiered structure, where half of the employees get all these perks and benefits and the things Google is famous for, the massages and free lunches, and then the other half of the workforce has a lot more precarity, they earn a lot less, and is in need of a lot more of the union protections—better pay, paid vacation,” said Baker.
“We weren’t interested in forming a union that was solely for high-paid tech workers,” said Parul Koul, executive chair of the AWU. “This is the first wall-to-wall union that includes everybody that works at [Alphabet], regardless of classification.”
The importance of unionizing, also comes after recent issues with sexual harassment as well as ethically dubious projects by Google, such as Project Maven, where Google created drone technology for the Pentagon, sparking outrage among thousands of Google workers. The power to opt-out of projects and conflict with workers’ values is particularly important to workers who are likely to be employees, such as software engineers. For Baker, one moment that was disturbing for them was the recent ousting of their manager, Timnit Gebru, a computer scientist who led Google’s Ethical AI research team.
“She was fired really suddenly…It really got to me. Working in ethical AI feels sort of like how ExxonMobil had all this cutting-edge climate change research in the sixties and seventies, and then they started defunding it, and by the nineties they were pouring millions [of dollars] into actively refuting their own research…it feels like we’re in a similar place with AI. AI is dramatically shaping the world we live in and people are working really, really hard at finding out what’s going on, how can we stop it, and they’re getting fired and they’re getting pushed out. I’ve watched my own projects and team’s projects get sidelined, stopped, ignored, not invited to meetings. It’s ludicrous,” said Baker.
In the short term, organizing is likely to be limited to supporting employee activism that we have seen so far, with future hopes of getting collective bargaining powers down the line. The AWU has formed without federal ratification by the NLRB, which means it cannot collectively bargain with Alphabet, but Parul Koul, the union’s executive chair, said that the union is currently focused on growing its numbers and training members to organize and run campaigns successfully, which will in turn recruit union members.
Koul said the first step is outreach. “We’re going to bring people in, and get them have to get people trained to organize, and then actually run campaigns and win the demands that we talk about,” said Koul. “I think through that process, we are going to be able to show people that we can actually get together and use our collective strength to win real change in the workplace. I think that’s what’s ultimately going to convince thousands and thousands of people over time that this is a worthwhile effort.”
The training comes from the Communications Workers of America Local 1400, who the Alphabet Workers Union is affiliated with. Part of the reason that training is needed, according to Baker, was because workers in tech are not familiar with organizing—unions are rare in tech, unlike other trades. The CWA has helped other fledgling unions with organizing and training before a majority of staff had signed union cards upon going public, such as United Campus Workers of Georgia.
While the union is still in its infancy, going public has already helped some union members morale, in spite of the now-present threat of retaliation.
“It’s better to be organizing now, even though this thing feels so huge and so involved,” Koul said. “If we were to experience retaliation, we have the CWA on our side, union dues that we can use for supporting people who may lose their jobs, access to labor lawyers. I actually feel safer than I have in the past, with hundreds of people behind my back.”