“Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of, ‘Are people getting paid enough?’ Our issues are going much broader,” he said. “It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.”
FILE -- Employees stage a walk out to protest how Google handled sexual harassment complaints, outside the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Nov. 1, 2018. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has settled a series of shareholder lawsuits over its handling of sexual harassment claims, agreeing to greater oversight and committing to spend $310 million over the next decade on corporate diversity programs. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
In response, Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations, said: “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.”
The new union is the clearest sign of how thoroughly employee activism has swept through Silicon Valley over the past few years. While software engineers and other tech workers largely kept quiet in the past on societal and political issues, employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest and others have become more vocal on matters like diversity, pay discrimination and sexual harassment.
Nowhere have those voices been louder than at Google. In 2018, more than 20,000 employees staged a walkout to protest how the company handled sexual harassment. Others have opposed business decisions that they deemed unethical, such as developing artificial intelligence for the Defense Department and providing technology to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Only a few small union drives have succeeded in tech. Workers at the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and at the app development platform Glitch won union campaigns last year, and a small group of contractors at a Google office in Pittsburgh unionized in 2019. Thousands of employees at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are also set to vote on a union in the coming months.
“There are those who would want you to believe that organizing in the tech industry is completely impossible,” Sara Steffens, CWA’s secretary-treasurer, said of the new Google union. “If you don’t have unions in the tech industry, what does that mean for our country? That’s one reason, from CWA’s point of view, that we see this as a priority.”
The union is likely to ratchet up tensions between Google engineers, who work on autonomous cars, artificial intelligence and internet search, and the company’s management. Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, and other executives have tried to come to grips with an increasingly activist workforce — but have made missteps.
Google reportedly fired 2 employees for protesting last month
Last month, federal officials said Google had wrongly fired two employees who protested its work with immigration authorities in 2019. Timnit Gebru, a Black woman who is a respected artificial intelligence researcher, also said last month that Google fired her after she criticized the company’s approach to minority hiring and the biases built into AI systems. Her departure set off a storm of criticism about Google’s treatment of minority employees.
“These companies find it a bone in their throat to even have a small group of people who say, ‘We work at Google and have another point of view,’ ” said Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Google might well succeed in decimating any organization that comes to the floor.”
The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents employees in Silicon Valley and cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Seattle, gives protection and resources to workers who join. Those who opt to become members will contribute 1% of their total compensation to the union to fund its efforts.
But several Google employees who had previously organized petitions and protests at the company objected to the CWA’s overtures. They said they declined to join because they worried that the effort had sidelined experienced organizers and played down the risks of organizing as it recruited members.
Amr Gaber, a Google software engineer who helped organize the 2018 walkout, said that CWA officials were dismissive of other labor groups that had supported Google workers during a December 2019 phone call with him and others.
“They are more concerned about claiming turf than the needs of the workers who were on the phone call,” Gaber said. “As a long-term labor organizer and brown man, that’s not the type of union I want to build.”
The CWA said it was selected by Google workers to help organize the union and had not elbowed their way in. “It’s really the workers who chose,” Steffens of CWA said.
Although they will not be able to negotiate a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union can use other tactics to pressure Google into changing its policies, labor experts said. Minority unions often turn to public pressure campaigns and lobby legislative or regulatory bodies to influence employers.
“We’re going to use every tool that we can to use our collective action to protect people who we think are being discriminated against or retaliated against,” Shaw said.
Members cited the recent NLRB finding on the firing of two employees and the exit of Gebru, the prominent researcher, as reasons to broaden its membership and publicly step up its efforts.
“Google is making it all the more clear why we need this now,” said Auni Ahsan, a software engineer at Google and an at-large member of the union’s executive council. “Sometimes the boss is the best organizer.”