Google workers begin unionizing — a test for big tech in 2021?

The new union is a sign of just how much employee activism has taken hold of Silicon Valley — and it will serve as a 'powerful experiment'.
4 January 2021

Google AI Research Scientist Timnit Gebru. Source: AFP

  • Alphabet employees are forming their own union, as activism continues to surge 
  • The organization will seek to issues such as workplace ethics, rather than issues like pay 
  • Analysts have said the union will serve as a ‘powerful experiment’ for big tech 

2021 could be the year big tech finally has to face up to its biggest challenge yet: its own people. 

More than 225 Google and Alphabet employees have announced plans to form a union, following years of “courageous organizing” and activism among the company’s expansive workforce. 

The Alphabet Workers Union will be part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and will be open to all employees and contractors working under Google’s parent company. As a members-only union, however, the organization will represent only those who join voluntarily and won’t seek to negotiate a new contract. 

The goal will be to tackle issues like pay disparity, retaliation, and controversial government contracts. According to the New York Times, workers said it was an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than negotiate a contract. 

According to Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and the vice-chair of the union’s leadership council, the aim is to force changes in the workplace by sustaining pressure on management. 

“From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively,” Shaw said. 

“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.”

Google’s work on Project Maven, an effort to use AI to improve targeted drone strikes, led to protests among employees who saw the work as unethical and ultimately contributed to the company’s decision not to renew its contract with the Pentagon. Meanwhile, 20,000 workers walked out in protest of former executive Andy Rubin receiving a US$90 million exit package after being accused of sexual harassment. 

More recently, Google was accused of illegally firing two workers who were organizing employee protests against the firm’s decision to work with ‘anti-union’ IRI Consultants. 

It also follows the firing of Timnit Gebru last month, which the Alphabet Workers Union said “caused outrage from thousands of us, including Black and Brown workers who are heartbroken by the company’s actions and unsure of their future at Google.”

The new union is a sign of just how much employee activism has taken hold of Silicon Valley tech in the past few years. 

Tech workers and software engineers have largely stayed under the radar in the past on societal and political issues. But now workforces at the world’s biggest tech firms — be they Google, Amazon, Facebook, or otherwise — have become more vocal, to the chagrin of senior management and their desire for a polished, unified, and well-wired company appearance. 

Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, told the New York Times the Google union served as a “powerful experiment” for unions in big tech.

“If it grows — which Google will do everything they can to prevent — it could have huge impacts not just for the workers, but for the broader issues that we are all thinking about in terms of tech power in society,” she said.