January 4, 2021 by Ethics In Tech board member Brett Wilkins for Common Dreams
Decrying numerous policies and practices they say violate Google’s “don’t be evil” founding principle, more than 200 of the Silicon Valley tech giant’s workers on Monday announced they are forming a union, a move that was applauded by progressive lawmakers and labor advocates nationwide.
The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU)—named after Google’s parent corporation—says it “strives to protect Alphabet workers, our global society, and our world,” and to “promote solidarity, democracy, and social and economic justice.” It will operate as part of the Communications Workers of America and will be open to all 120,000 of the company’s employees.
“For far too long, thousands of us at Google and other subsidiaries of Alphabet… have had our workplace concerns dismissed by executives,” Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, respectively AWU’s chair and vice chair, wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday.
“Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world,” Koul and Shaw said. “They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of color.”
“Most recently, Timnit Gebru, a leading artificial intelligence researcher and one of the few Black women in her field, said she was fired over her work to fight bias,” Koul and Shaw continued. “Her offense? Conducting research that was critical of large-scale AI models and being critical of existing diversity and inclusion efforts. In response, thousands of our colleagues organized, demanding an explanation.”
“Both of us have heard from colleagues—some new, some with over a decade at the company—who have decided that working at Alphabet is no longer a choice they can make in good conscience,” added Koul and Shaw.
They then listed some of the successful employee activism that has borne results in recent years, including ending participation in the Project Maven AI warfare project with the Pentagon; terminating the Dragonfly censored search engine in China; winning a $15 per hour minimum wage for some subcontracted workers; and an end to forced arbitration of sexual harassment and other claims.
Koul and Shaw stressed that Alphabet “has a responsibility to prioritize the public good. It has a responsibility to its thousands of workers and billions of users to make the world a better place.”
“As Alphabet workers, we can help build that world,” they wrote.
Unionization is the exception to the rule in Silicon Valley. And unlike traditional labor unions, AWU is a so-called minority union—it represents only a small percentage of the company’s 260,000-strong global workforce—that will not negotiate contracts.
“Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of, ‘Are people getting paid enough?’ Our issues are going much broader,” Shaw, an engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area, toldthe Times in a report about the new union. “It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.”
Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, called AWU a “powerful experiment.”
“If it grows—which Google will do everything they can to prevent—it could have huge impacts not just for the workers, but for the broader issues that we are all thinking about in terms of tech power in society,” Dubal told the Times.
Progressive lawmakers and labor advocates hailed Monday’s announcement.
“The time is long overdue for the workers who built Big Tech to have a voice in their workplace,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the House Labor Caucus.
“The future of tech is stronger with the power of a union,” tweeted AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler. “We stand in solidarity with Alphabet workers who are courageously organizing for a better future at Google!”
Yasemin Zahra, chair of Labor Against Racism and War, asserted that by unionizing, “Google workers are not just standing up to management but also Lockheed-Martin and ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ties in the company. Silicon Valley giants are military-intel contractors. Incredible!”