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Jan 4, 2021

Well, it finally happened. Google workers have unionized. The move is especially noteworthy because the professional workforce of Silicon Valley isn’t exactly a union hotbed. Nonetheless, Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) formed today to “protect Alphabet workers, our global society, and our world. We promote solidarity, democracy, and social and economic justice.”

The birth of AWU is also noteworthy given that Google had recently hired an anti-union consulting firm to help manage agitation among its people. What’s more, just last month, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Google, claiming that the company discouraged “its employees from forming, joining, assisting a union or engaging in other protected, concerted activities.” 

Today’s official launch of AWU, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents U.S. and Canadian workers in telecommunications and media, is the culmination of clandestine planning over the past year, according to The New York Times. Here’s how the union explains why it exists: 

“For many years, organizers at Alphabet worked to raise the profile of ethical issues and abuses of the company leadership. As time went on the company stopped listening, and eventually started clamping down more severely — shutting down internal discussion and retaliating against workers. Alphabet workers had to adapt to the changing circumstances. We realized that in order to keep this fight going and start winning, we needed to get organized. We needed a structure with elected and accountable leadership. We needed to pool our resources to support one another when volunteer labor wasn’t enough. We needed to start thinking ahead and strategizing, being proactive with a plan to build power in the workplace. We needed a union…By joining the union movement, we are combining the struggle for the soul of Alphabet with the broader working-class struggle in America and around the world.”

A Times op-ed penned by the new union’s chair and vice chair, titled, “We Built Google. This Is Not the Company We Want to Work For,” also points out, “Our company’s motto used to be ‘Don’t be evil.’ An organized workforce will help us live up to it.” The opinion piece continues: 

“For far too long, thousands of us at Google — and other subsidiaries of Alphabet, Google’s parent company — have had our workplace concerns dismissed by executives. Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. 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.”

There are currently 226 Google workers in the union, which is of course a tiny fraction of the mega-corporation’s worker base of just over a quarter million individuals. To put the number into starker perspective, AWU members represent about 0.0009% of the company’s workforce. So it’s not as if the group will be in a strong position to engage in any sort of traditional bargaining. 

But that’s not the union’s intent (for now). Rather, the AWU — which includes not just full-time employees but also temporary workers, vendors, and contractors — will serve as a means to organize activism more effectively around issues like pay equality, diversity, and harassment. As Nicki Anselmo, a Google program manager, explained in a statement, “Our new union provides a sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade.”

Google’s Director of People Operations Kara Silverstein had this response, according to the Times:

“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.”

Sure enough, engaging with employees has increasingly entailed managing a thorny range of issues at the intersection of society, politics, and business. More and more workers (not just at Google) feel emboldened these days to demand that their employers take and act on certain stances related to social justice, climate change, and other issues.

Indeed, it was less than three years ago that tens of thousands of Google employees walked off their jobs to protest sexual harassment. Then there was the recent departure of Timnit Gebru, a computer scientist and AI researcher who claims she was fired after expressing disappointment with the company’s diversity efforts and its approval process related to her research paper.  

These and other incidents are all part of the impetus for unionizing. Still, as AWU seeks to grow and use its power to effect change, the union is aware that, as the Times opinion piece points out, “Alphabet is a powerful company.” It will therefore be interesting to watch the evolution of this power play.

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