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January 6, 2021

Where regulation has failed, could a workers’ union hold Google to account?

Employees at Google's parent company, Alphabet, have formed a union to address the company's impact on society.

By Laurie Clarke

Google’s workers have announced they’ve formed a union – a first for Big Tech. But the Alphabet Workers Union has ambitions that go far beyond bartering for better pay and working conditions. It also wants to address the impact of Google’s business on society and the world. While regulators have so far struggled to govern the power of Big Tech, could worker activism become the blueprint for reining in the tech giants in the next decade?

Google union

Google workers have formed a union which could become the blueprint for reining in tech giants in the next decade. (Photo by Bryan R Smith/AFP via Getty Images)

At present, 227 of the company’s 260,000 full-time employees and contractors have signed union cards. The union isn’t formally recognised by Google, and hasn’t attracted the numbers necessary to force recognition yet. But by going public, and skipping the arduous logistical work of recruiting among a global workforce, the union is expecting “thousands” more to join in the coming months. 

Unions typically concern themselves with improving daily life for their employees. This is one of the reasons workers at companies such as Google have been slow to join labour movements. Fighting for better wages and working conditions has historically been of little concern to well-paid white-collar employees at a company regularly praised for its work culture. 

But the Alphabet Workers Union is candid that its horizons stretch much wider than conditions on the ground. “Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of, ‘are people getting paid enough?’.” Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and the vice-chair of the union’s leadership council told the New York Times. “It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.”

Addressing Google’s role in society

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Alphabet Workers Union’s executive chair Parul Koul and vice-chair Shaw highlighted management decisions which, they argue, have had a negative societal impact. 

“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 colour.” 

It mentions Timnit Gebru, an artificial intelligence researcher fired by Google after she critiqued the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts; the multi-million dollar settlement the company reached with former executives accused of sexual harassment; Project Maven, Google’s AI programme with the Pentagon; and Project Dragonfly, its censored search engine project in China.

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All of these were met with employee protests at the time, and Alphabet dropped both Project Maven and Dragonfly as a result. But union leaders say this kind of pressure is no longer sufficient, achieving only token concessions on the part of management. They lambast the company for continuing to put profits ahead of their concerns. 

The letter alleges that the company “keep[s] workers from speaking on sensitive and publicly important topics, like antitrust and monopoly power”. It nods to Google’s size and sprawling influence over the lives of billions worldwide, saying: “We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.”

“At issue here is one of the most important things in workers’ lives: do they get to have any control over doing things that they find unethical or destructive without simply being replaced, forced to leave their current job?” says Mar Hicks, technology historian and author of Programmed Inequality. “This is not an issue only at Google. It’s a major conversation going on amongst employees at all major tech corporations, particularly in the FAANG [Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet (formerly known as Google)] group, but also older and more established tech corporations.” 

What’s at stake here is the direction of the company itself.
Mar Hicks, technology historian

Google has previously resisted unionisation among its employees. In 2019, it hired IRI Consultants, which advises employers on thwarting employee efforts to unionise. In December 2020, the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) alleged that Google had violated the National Labor Relations Act by illegally spying on, interrogating and firing software engineers involved in employee activism.

Hicks attributes this to fears about the potential influence of a unionised workforce over business decisions. “What’s at stake here is the direction of the company itself,” they say. “Workers are organising not just to ensure their jobs remain safe but also so that ethics and civil rights won’t repeatedly take a back seat to unchecked growth and profit.”

What does this mean for Big Tech?

The Alphabet Workers Union claims to be the first at a Big Tech company. The tech sector as a whole has been slow to unionise, but this could be changing.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) has launched an industry-wide campaign to unionise workers in the tech and video gaming industries. Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter unionised in early 2020, and is represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). And an Amazon-operated warehouse in Alabama, could soon become the first union for the e-commerce giant’s workers in the US, and employee activism has long been fomenting in the company.

These worker-led efforts are increasingly co-ordinated with policy initiatives. The Make Amazon Pay movement takes a pincer-like approach – corralling sympathetic lawmakers across the globe to affect legislative change as well as strengthening an international workers coalition. The joint pressures of regulation and worker organisations could become the playbook for influencing Big Tech in the next decade. 

European efforts to regulate Big Tech have often had minimal impact or even the opposite to intended effects. While the newly proposed Digital Services Act could change this, and the US has recently opened antitrust proceedings into Google and Facebook, there is the pervasive sense that attempts at regulation have failed to constrain tech giants thus far. 

“Because of the speed at which changes in high technology often happen, regulation can usually only play catch-up,” says Hicks. “What I’d hope to see, and I think what a lot of these workers hope to see, is a two-pronged approach where regulation and labour organisation both help solve these problems we’re seeing, where Big Tech has negatively impacted our civil rights and the functioning of our democracies by becoming overly powerful.”

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