Google employees vote to form trade union, in 'historic' move

Alphabet Workers Union is the first organised labour group to form within one of the big tech companies

FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a logo of Google in front of at an office building in Zurich, Switzerland July 1, 2020.   REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo
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Workers at Google and other Alphabet-owned companies voted to form a union aligned to the Communications Workers of America to protect workers’ rights and “promote solidarity, democracy and social and economic justice”.

The new union, named Alphabet Workers Union, will be open to all employees and contractors, including temporary employees, at any Alphabet company. It will have dues-paying members, an elected board of directors and paid organising staff, the workers' union said on Monday.

“This is historic—the first union at a major tech company by and for all tech workers,” said Dylan Baker, a software engineer at the company. “We will elect representatives, we will make decisions democratically, we will pay dues, and we will hire skilled organisers to ensure all workers at Google know they can work with us if they actually want to see their company reflect their values.”

Alphabet, which has more than 120,000 workers, is responsible for vast parts of the internet, including the Search, Maps and Gmail tools owned by Google and the Android mobile operating platform used by millions of people around the world. Other subsidiaries include the Waymo self-driving platform, Verily, Fitbit, and Wing.

“I joined because Alphabet wields disproportionate power … and is not incentivised to use it in the most responsible way,” Greg Edelston, software engineer at Google, said.

“I want to see Alphabet act as ethically as possible. The union offers a way to influence Alphabet's culture in the name of ethics," he said.

The company has witnessed a number of skirmishes between employees and management in recent months. Many employees have expressed discontent over the hefty package Alphabet's chief executive Sundar Pichai takes home.

Last month, the company fired leading artificial intelligence researcher Dr Timnit Gebru, who had raised criticisms about structural bias in some of the language used to develop AI. Her dismissal caused outrage among thousands of employees.

Laurence Berland addresses Google employees about how the company put him on administrative leave during a rally in San Francisco in November, 2019. Reuters
Laurence Berland addresses Google employees about how the company put him on administrative leave during a rally in San Francisco in November, 2019. Reuters

In January last year, a group of nearly 2,300 cafeteria employees working across Google offices in the San Francisco Bay area unionised after complaining they were underpaid and overworked.

"We've always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce," Kara Silverstein, director of people operations at Google, said in a statement to The National.

“Of course, our employees have protected labour rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we will continue engaging directly with all our employees,” she added.

The unionisation of its workforce comes at a difficult time in the history of the 22-year-old technology company, which has also become embroiled in several anti-trust probes initiated by both US and foreign regulators.

“We are glad to welcome the Alphabet Workers Union as members,” CWA local president Don Trementozzi, said.

“We are a democratic, member-driven union, with experience building and sustaining worker power at some of America’s largest corporations. This is a historic step towards making lasting improvements for workers at Google and other Alphabet companies.”

AWU complained that half of the workers at Alphabet companies are hired as TVCs (temporary, vendors or contractors), without the benefits awarded to full-time employees.

The company has taken on unethical government contracts, like drone targeting for the military, and kept the nature of that technology secret even to the engineers working on those projects, it said.

“Workers who have organised to stop these trends have been met by intimidation, suppression and blatantly illegal firings,” AWU said.