The year started differently at Google. The web search giant’s workers have kicked off a long anticipated movement that will alter the status quo and ensure more accountability from their employer.
On January 4, the workers announced that they have formed a union of more than 200 employees who believe that Google needs to do better. The union comes at the heels of culminating controversies between Google and its workforce that have kept the Silicon Valley big name in the bad page of the news recently.
There have been issues of moral questions which spiraled into a degenerating toxic relationship between Google and its employees. The staff believe the situation can be ameliorated if there is a strong union to question some of the decisions of those at the helm. Google was said to have used its artificial intelligence technologies in military contracts among other things.
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On Nov, 1, 2018, about 200 Google employees teamed up with employees of other subsidiaries of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, including Waymo and Verily to stage a global demonstration. The protest had been based on the company’s inability to take action against cases of alleged sexual misconduct and racial discrimination. Two executives who were fingered in the allegation were paid tens of millions of dollars, and the company did little to amend the situation that enabled the impunity.
Two years later, nothing seems to have changed. The case of Timnit Gebru, a leading artificial intelligence researcher who was recently fired amplified the concerns of the employees – now they have had enough.
In a statement published by New York Times, the union leaders listed series of culminating events at Google that prompted the coalition of employees to take action. They have been silently working on the move for about a year.
“The two of us are software engineers, and we were recently elected executive chair and vice chair of the Alphabet Workers Union, a group of more than 200 workers in the United States who believe our company’s structure needs to change.
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.
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. Her offense? Conducting research that was critical of large-scale A.I. 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.
Workers have mobilized against these abuses before. Organized workers at the company forced executives to drop Project Maven, the company’s artificial-intelligence program with the Pentagon, and Project Dragonfly, its plan to launch a censored search engine in China. Some of Alphabet’s subcontractors won a $15 minimum hourly wage, parental leave, and health insurance after an employee outcry. And the practice of forced arbitration for claims of sexual harassment was ended after the November 2018 walkout — albeit only for full-time employees, not contractors. A few months later, Google announced that it would end forced arbitration for employees for all claims.
To those who are skeptical of unions or believe that tech companies are more innovative without unions, we want to point out that these and other larger problems persist. Discrimination and harassment continue. Alphabet continues to crack down on those who dare to speak out, and keep workers from speaking on sensitive and publicly important topics, like antitrust and monopoly power. For a handful of wealthy executives, this discrimination and unethical working environment are working as intended, at the cost of workers with less institutional power, especially Black, brown, queer, trans, disabled, and female workers. Each time workers organize to demand change, Alphabet’s executives make token promises, doing the bare minimum in the hopes of placating workers.
It’s not enough. Today, we’re building on years of organizing efforts at Google to create a formal structure for workers. So far, 226 of us have signed union cards with the Communications Workers of America — the first step in winning a recognized bargaining unit under U.S. law. In other words, we are forming a union.
We are the workers who built the Alphabet. We write code, clean offices, serve food, drive buses, test self-driving cars and do everything needed to keep this behemoth running. We joined Alphabet because we wanted to build technology that improves the world. Yet time and again, company leaders have put profits ahead of our concerns. We are joining together — temps, vendors, contractors, and full-time employees — to create a unified worker voice. We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.
As union members, we have created an elected leadership and representative structure with dues-paying members. Our union will be open to all Alphabet workers, regardless of classification. About half of the workers at Google are temps, vendors or contractors. They are paid lower salaries, receive fewer benefits, and have little job stability compared with full-time employees, even though they often do the exact same work. They are also more likely to be Black or brown — a segregated employment system that keeps half of the company’s work force in second-class roles. Our union will seek to undo this grave inequity.
Everyone at Alphabet — from bus drivers to programmers, from salespeople to janitors — plays a critical part in developing our technology. But right now, 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. We care deeply about what we build and what it’s used for. We are responsible for the technology we bring into the world. And we recognize that its implications reach far beyond the walls of Alphabet.
Our union will work to ensure that workers know what they’re working on, and can do their work at a fair wage, without fear of abuse, retaliation or discrimination. When Google went public in 2004, it said it would be a company that “does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.” Its motto used to be “Don’t be evil.”
We will live by that motto. Alphabet is a powerful company, responsible for vast swaths of the internet. It is used by billions of people across the world. It 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.”
Google said in a statement following this announcement that it will continue to interact directly with staff.
“We’ve always worked hard to create a workplace that supports and rewards our workforce,” said Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations. “Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support, but as we have always done, we will continue to interact directly with all of our employees.”
This statement suggests that Google will not recognize the newly formed union and will carry on like before. But the union leaders said their goal isn’t to force a new system, but to ensure that things are done right. So for the year 2021, it is not going to be business as usual at Google.