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Google employees form labor union

January 4, 2021

In a rare move among Silicon Valley giants, over 200 employees at Google and its parent company Alphabet have formed a labor union. Their move coincides with growing scrutiny of influential high-tech operators worldwide.

A Google sign
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Dernbach

Leaders of the new Alphabet Workers Union went public Monday in a New York Times opinion piece, saying they wanted a workplace "without fear of abuse, retaliation or discrimination" and accusing Google of abandoning its founding "don't be evil" ethics in current artificial intelligence (AI) projects.

On its website, the new union said it would be "open to all employees and contractors at any Alphabet concern" [120,000 people in all], adding that it wanted an end to "unfair disparities" between casual employees and benefits paid to full-time staff.

"A few wealthy executives define what the company produces and how its workers are treated. This isn't the company we want to work for," wrote union chair Parul Koul and vice chair Chewy Shaw.

'Engaging directly' with employees, says Google

Google's director of people operations Kara Silverstein responded Monday: "We've always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce."

Google would continue "engaging directly with all our employees," she said. 

The EU could revolutionize how Big Tech does business in Europe

Formation of the new union, which will be affiliated with the Communication Workers of America, was part of a "growing techlash" against very wealthy tech giants, said Darrell West, governance studies director at the Brookings Institution in Washington and prize-winning author of books on AI and the future of work.

"This unionization drive differs from the past ones from the industrial era in focusing not just on pay and benefits, but the broader role of technology in society," said West. 

'Collaborated with repressive governments'

Union leaders Koul and Shaw, both software engineers, in their New York Times opinion piece accused Alphabet executives of dismissing workplace concerns. In 2018, thousands of workers protested worldwide over the company's handling of allegations of sexual harassment.

Executives accused of sexual misconduct toward co-workers that year had reportedly left with exit packages worth "tens of millions of dollars," they recalled.

And, they added, Google's founding motto "Don't be evil" was under threat. 

"Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the [US] 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," wrote Koul and Shaw.

Dismissal of Black researcher

They cited the dismissal in early December of a Black artificial intelligence ethics researcher, Timnit Gebru, in a dispute over the societal dangers of AI and her questioning the giant's record on diversity.

More than 1,200 Google employees signed an open letter calling her ouster "unprecedented research censorship" and faulting the company over racism, reported news agency AFP.

Also at that time, America's National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) riled a complaint, accusing Google of using surveillance and interrogation against activist employees.

Long struggle, says expert

To win recognition by Alphabet via its diverse structure, including car division Waymo, the new union would need at least 30% membership support, said Arthur Wheaton, labor relations specialist at Cornell University.

"Union organizing drives take a long time with no guarantees of success," Wheaton said. "US labor law is not very good for workers' rights. It's heavily tilted in management's favor."

ipj/rs (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)