After years of mounting worker organizing, Google employees, in addition to those within other Alphabet companies, announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union earlier this week.
“Our new union,” said Program Manager Nicki Anselmo in a press release, “provides a sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade.”
The Alphabet Workers Union is supported by Communications Workers of America (CWA) and is a part of the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees Campaign (CODE-CWA), which aims to organize workers across the tech, digital and gaming industries.
The new organization, which says it has more than 400 members, prides itself on being made by and for tech workers and is the first union to be open to all employees regardless of their roles at Alphabet.
The group’s goals differ from traditional unions, which are designed to negotiate contracts with employers; instead, this union says it’s focusing on long-term advocacy and inclusive decision-making structures at the company. Organizers say they are striving to uphold Google’s since retired motto, “Don’t be evil.”
While the move goes against the grain in the union-averse tech world, newly minted union members outlined the long history and successes of collective action and employee organizing that paved the way for this announcement.
Google employees have long exhibited their ability to organize, speaking out against the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations in 2018 when 20,000 employees walked out of their offices after the New York Times reported that Google executives had been provided with millions of dollars in severance packages despite accusations of sexual harassment.
Various Google employees also successfully organized in protest of the company’s external partners and practices, including a petition to preempt a contract for cloud services with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2019 and an outcry against Google’s drone-based A.I. contract with the Pentagon, known as Project Maven. Concerns about the ethics of these contracts have been at the heart of the protests, highlighting the tensions between Google’s stated goals and the company’s actions.
Google’s highly visible employee activism places specific pressure on company leadership and could have also compelled other tech giants into action. In 2020, though unverified by the company, Apple was widely reported to have pulled its newly acquired startup, Xnor.ai, from ongoing work with Project Maven in order to fend off any potential criticism from employees and customers.
Actions taken at the highest levels in the tech industry indicate that the collective power of employees is a force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, the informal petitions, pressure, and other forms of organizing done by Google employees in recent years are accompanied by an uptick in unionizing amongst tech workers throughout the sector.
Recent successes include union campaigns from tech companies Kickstarter and Glitch, as well as a group of Google contractors in Pittsburgh who were able to unionize based on their employment status. If the momentum continues, thousands of workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse may also win their unionizing vote later this year.
Over the past year, under immense pressure and scrutiny to take a stand against racism, climate chaos, and economic inequality, employee activism has become an integral part of risk mitigation and social responsibility for brands, whether or not employees are unionizing. During the Global Climate Strike, for example, purpose-driven businesses across the U.S. encouraged their employees and customers to participate, while companies like Amazon faced criticism from their employees due to their silence on the matter.
Although the establishment of unions at tech companies is a divergence from business as usual in Silicon Valley, it provides valuable insight into the future of the tech space and begs important questions about who holds decision-making power, how decisions are made, and how companies can live up to their stated values. Tech companies that want to succeed long into the future will have to start answering these questions.
Image credit: Kai Wenzel/Unsplash
Amelia Ahl is an MBA/MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School, pursuing a degree in sustainable solutions. She has a background in humanitarian and international development, which fueled her interest in regenerative business models. Amelia's experience ranges from social business and impact investing to policy and the nonprofit sector. Her research and work is guided by social justice and antiracism. Amelia is a consultant for sustainable businesses and the co-founder of an accountability group for female and non-binary entrepreneurs.