Culture / Machine Learning

Alphabet Workers Union Tests Tech Industry Appetite for Unionization

8 Feb 2021 3:00am, by

Over the last decade, technology companies have been easing past traditional oil and gas conglomerates to become the wealthiest industry in the world. And yet, despite that vast wealth, there is still a massive tech talent gap. And now there’s a growing trend of tech workers coming together to call for greater unionization in this sector. This is moving beyond petitions and signed letters from staff, to increased walkouts, employee resource groups, and even formal trade unions.

On January 4, the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) launched with 230 members, instantly making it the biggest tech union. A few weeks later, the membership of this American and Canadian union, which includes permanent, contracted and vendor company employees of Google, its subsidiaries, and other Alphabet Inc. brands, has quadrupled. Earlier this week, international Googlers across 13 countries formed a coalition of unions called Alpha Global.

“Together, we will change Alphabet,” the global alliance commits.

But Google employees aren’t the first to want to change their tech companies and we are pretty sure they won’t be the last. So today we reflect on the growing mobilization of people in tech, and try to predict where it’s headed.

OK, Google, How’d You Get Here?

We write it a lot — if the tech industry is building the future, then we have to be sure what kind of future we’re building. But before it goes cross-industry, any push for change often starts within a company. In tech’s case, it started with Google.

“At Google, we have a really long history of employee activism. A decade or more of working together to steer the company in an ethical direction,” Andrew Gainer-Dewar, Google software engineer and spokesperson for AWU, recently told The New Stack.

Don’t do evil. Do the right thing. These used to be the mottos for Google. But, in April 2018, when the world learned of the now-infamous Project Maven contract with the U.S. Department of Defense for AI-backed drone feeds, about four percent of the Google  staff wrote an open letter to the Alphabet CEO, demanding not only that Google pull out of the contract, but that “Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.” In the minds of these Google employees, adding muscle to a war machine could be viewed as doing evil, and they were complicit in this direction (Google declined to interviewed for this story, though provided written commentary and associated resources).

“The company is an architect of the new world of work. It is a major incubator of innovations, and as a technology leader, it is a laboratory for new methods of communications and working. Unfortunately, Alphabet is also a creator of inequalities, implicated in sexual harassment and oppression of sexual minorities and people of colour. It is a place where many workers came to change the world — to make it more democratic — only to find Alphabet suppressing speech and cracking down on worker organizing while consolidating monopolistic power.” — Alpha Global

Among other things, this letter notably stated — in bold — that the Project Maven affiliation “will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.” This feels pointed, like it was reminding their boss how hard tech talent is to come by. Google decided not to renew its Project Maven contract and even created a new set of AI principles, which specifies that its AI research should not be used for weapons.

Now, while Google got rid of the simple statement, “Don’t do evil,” that wittily ended their much more extensive Code of Conduct with: “And remember… don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up!”

However, Google’s response to people speaking up has been less than welcoming.

In November 2018, more than 20,000 Google employees staged a global walkout to protest the way the company handled sexual harassment and pay inequality, and to end forced arbitration where all lawsuits had to be settled out of court.

In September 2019, a group of about 80 Google contract workers who worked on-site in Pittsburgh, in an effort to bargain over wages and working conditions, voted to unionize and join United Steelworkers. The outsourcing company working for Google, in response, started a trend of offshoring that work to Poland, the protesters alleged. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which handles U.S. labor law, has scheduled a hearing.

In November 2019, a few more employees were fired for organizing a protest against the company’s work with the U.S. Border Patrol.

Then a few weeks later, four employees — hence known as the Thanksgiving Four — were fired, allegedly accused of “breaking security policies” in their efforts to expose Google’s work with notorious union-busting firm IRI Consultants. Of course, this only served to make public Google’s affiliation with IRI public knowledge.

The ex-Googlers partnered with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and, in part, successfully petitioned the NRLB to challenge Google. This last December, the NRLB issued a complaint against Google for unlawfully monitoring and questioning several workers who were then fired for protesting against company policies and trying to organize a union.

This complaint charged that Google repeatedly violated U.S. labor law by using “terminations and intimidation in order to quell workplace activism.” It also charged that Google’s checking of employee calendars — installing a tool on employees’ web browsers that flagged internal calendar events requiring more than ten meeting rooms or 100 participants — to be “unlawful surveillance.”

Google’s official response to this step by the NRLB:

“We strongly support the rights our employees have in the workplace, and open discussion and respectful debate have always been part of Google’s culture. We’re proud of that culture and are committed to defending it against attempts by individuals to deliberately undermine it — including by violating security policies and internal systems. The NLRB determined today that Google was justified in terminating three employees who violated our data security policies.

“We’ll continue to provide information to the NLRB and the administrative judge about our decision to terminate or discipline employees who abused their privileged access to internal systems, such as our security tools or colleagues’ calendars. Such actions are a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility, and we will be defending our position.”

This case will be brought in front of an administrative law judge on April 12.

Also last December, Google made headlines and inspired outrage again when it fired then Co-Lead of Google’s Ethical AI team Dr. Timnit Gebru, which Gebru charged was an effort to suppress her research and her internal criticism of Google’s lack of genuine diversity efforts and lack of transparency surrounding both employee and research feedback.

On Dec. 4, Jeff Dean, senior fellow and head of Google’s research organization, publicly shared an internal email sent the day before that outlined the chain of events leading up to “her decision to resign from Google.”

About 2,700 Googlers have signed a letter standing with Gebru, stating that Gebru’s exit was a termination not a resignation and dubbing Google’s actions “unprecedented research censorship” and the letter includes the following:

“Instead of being embraced by Google as an exceptionally talented and prolific contributor, Dr. Gebru has faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now a retaliatory firing… The termination is an act of retaliation against Dr. Gebru, and it heralds danger for people working for ethical and just AI — especially Black people and People of Color — across Google.”

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai also wrote a letter on Dec. 9 saying that the company was opening a review to “assess the circumstances that led up to Dr. Gebru’s departure, examining where we could have improved and led a more respectful process.” There hasn’t been an official response from Alphabet since.

Just this week AWU filed an unfair labor practice charge against Modis Engineering, a subcontractor that provides data center services for Google, on behalf of contractor and AWU member Shannon Wait. Wait was suspended last week after she complained on behalf of herself and other workers about conditions at the center, which includes a prohibition of talk about salaries. According to Wait, workers at the South Carolina Google data center, who often perform heavy manual labor, have seen their daily repairs doubled during the pandemic, increasing safety concerns.

And not to just focus on the organizing work of the technical, so-called white-collar staff of Google, up until this month the most significant unionizing effort was back in December 2019 by about 2,300 Google Silicon Valley cafeteria workers. These workers are among Google’s majority shadow workforce, which generally shares in worse, stagnant wages and benefits, while these particular workers live in the wildly expensive Silicon Valley. These service workers were following suit of 500 Facebook cafeteria workers who unionized back in 2017.

Still, these cafeteria workers aren’t the majority of Googlers and working for the world’s fifth-richest company is still what many people in tech dream of. So what’s the point of starting a union?

Unionization efforts are also taking place within other IT companies.

About a year ago, Kickstarter United OPEIU Local 153 was formed. Kickstarter was the first major tech company to unionize, under the chartered goals of “transparency, inclusion, solidarity, accountability, and joy” and of supporting “organizing efforts across the tech industry.”

In an industry defined by scrambling for venture capitalist investment, Kickstarter’s employees stood out as reflective of a turning point for tech employee activism — not the impetus, but the first to reveal their plans.

OPEIU is taking seriously the commitment we unanimously made at our 2019 convention to organize in the tech sector.

Today, we’re officially launching @techunion1010 — a union by & for tech workers.

Read our statement on this historic day➡️ https://t.co/8tj9fXlB6n #TechWorkers pic.twitter.com/2cOp9LcPbb

— OPEIU #PassThePROAct ✊ (@OPEIU) January 25, 2021

What’s a White-Collar, Non-Binding Union to Do?

The difference is that, while anomalistic for the tech industry, Kickstarter United is a traditional union with collective bargaining power. And the crowdfunding platform has less than 250 employees.

There are 250,000 Alphabet employees and contracted workers worldwide. AWU includes everyone from the permanent employees to that shadow workforce, from cloud architects to massage therapists, including staff who could already be in other traditional sector unions.

“We are the first wall-to-wall whole company union,” Gainer-Dewer said, which, at the time of the interview, just covered the U.S. and Canada officially through a CWA partnership.

Joining AWU is completely voluntary. An Alphabet worker just has to fill out a form and sign a card, and then the union performs an employment check. Dues are one percent of total compensation, which Gainer-Dewer says seems on the low side for affiliated industries.

The Alphabet Workers Union is filed as a so-called minority union, which means it can’t leverage collective bargaining. Under U.S. labor law, Alphabet Inc. can ignore the union’s demands until a majority of employees support it. However, there is something to be said about the power in numbers, particularly when tech retention is so directly tied to profits.

Google responded to the announcement of AWU in early January, by way of director of people operations Kara Silverstein, with: “We’ve 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’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

Gainer-Dewer dubbed this “corporate doublespeak” that Google says they “will continue to engage directly to all employees which they haven’t done in years and will continue not to do.”

He said that Alphabet Inc’s “executive strategy has been to pretend we are irrelevant, and aggressive retaliation will be a part of that.”

So, without collective bargaining and other big union wins, and when Google has unofficially acted increasingly anti-union and even overtly retaliated against people for organizing, why pay to join AWU?

Gainer-Dewer was compelled to get involved in organizing after the Thanksgiving Four fires because, in his words, he witnessed “this escalation from engaging with employees to ignoring employees to really aggressively retaliating. Made me worry the next time no one would or could speak up.”

As our short history lesson proves, Alphabet employees have a formed a habit of inner-company activism, but now it’s about making it sustainable.

Gainer-Dewer said that while “People have been organizing to stand up to leadership for a very long time, building this kind of sustainable long-term structure to build our organizing capacity is new,” maybe 18 months in the works.

He continued, “We are building a structure that can support continued growth and building resilience over time.”

Resilience isn’t just referring to momentum, but also, in the past, those who have tried to stand up, without this support infrastructure in place, experienced a lot of burnout.

Gainer-Dewer said AWU members are also looking to foster a “resilient capacity to speak with a collective voice, to have all of our members democratically reach consensus on what’s important to us, and to speak up to executives.”

While the most significant milestone is AWU growing past 800 members in its first three weeks, it has already seemed to have influenced some of Alphabet Inc’s decision making.

After the Jan. 6 insurgence on the U.S. Capitol, AWU criticized Alphabet subsidiary YouTube’s response of just taking down President Donald Trump’s video that seems to have incited the domestic terrorist attack.

AWU’s official response called this “lackluster, demonstrating a continued policy of selective and insufficient enforcement of its guidelines against the use of the platform to spread hatred and extremism.”

Soon after the union’s statement, YouTube revised its response to offer the Trump account an equivalent of a second strike, which means the account is frozen for at least two weeks.

Last week, AWU also responded to the suspension of the corporate access of Margaret Mitchell, AWU member and lead of the Ethical AI team, which notably lost Gebru a month earlier.

There’s no doubt if nothing else, the formation of this union has the media’s ears open to the concerns of this sub-section of Alphabet employees.

Is the Tech Industry on the Cusp of Change?

Gainer-Dewer says it feels like a historic moment for tech giants to form unions.

He said, “I suspect there are groups of other people at other big tech companies, writing the open letters and doing the petitions.”

Just this last week, the union Kickstarter United is affiliate with — the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), AFL-CIO — has announced “the formation of its Tech Workers Union Local 1010, an arm of the union with a mission to raise industry standards and provide all tech workers a better future in their workplaces through collective bargaining.”

There are already chapters of the Tech Workers Union in tech hotspots Austin, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC, New York City, San Diego, Seattle and Washington, as well as in Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, Berlin, London and Bangalore, India. TWU’s definition of a “tech worker” is anyone involved in the tech industry in any capacity, ranging from programmers and designers to product managers to gig workers like Uber drivers and even to students. Google, Microsoft, ASOS, Monzo and Deliveroo are said to be planning to join the London chapter.

There is also a movement to unionize tech workers in the Global South.

The New Stack looks forward to watching this space to see what comes next when tech turns activist.

Feature image by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash.

The New Stack is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners. TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in the following companies: MADE.

A newsletter digest of the week’s most important stories & analyses.