By AI Trends Staff
In a highly unusual undertaking in the technology industry, the Alphabet Workers Union was formed by over 400 Google engineers and other workers in early January. The union now has about 800 members.
The Alphabet Workers Union is a minority union, representing a fraction of the company’s more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors. The workers stated at the outset that it was primarily an effort to give structure to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.
The union is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a union representing workers in telecommunications and media in the US and Canada.
“There are those who would want you to believe that organizing in the tech industry is completely impossible,” stated Sara Steffens, CWA’s secretary-treasurer, in an account in the New York Times. “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 Google union is seen as a “powerful experiment” for bringing unionization into a major tech company by Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “If it grows… 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 stated.
The minority union structure gives the union the ability to include Google contractors, who outnumber full-time employees some 121,000 to 102,000, according to a recent New York Times account.
Pittsburgh Workers for Google Contractor HCL Voted to Unionize in 2019
GWA is not the only Google-affiliated union trying to form. In the fall of 2019, some 65 Google contract workers in Pittsburgh voted to form a union, seeking better pay and some benefits. The members had been working for a Google contractor, HCL, on the Google Shopping platform. HCL America as an IT services contractor, with 15,000 employees in the US, The HCL Group was founded by Shiv Nadar in India in 1976, since growing into a global organization. The company reported revenue of $11 billion in 2021.
Data analyst Gabrielle Norton-Moore said she and other HCL workers voted for a union in the fall of 2019 because they were being treated unfairly.
“Normally if you have seniority, you [would] be getting benefits, like maybe more vacation days or a bigger raise—just something,” stated Gabrielle Norton-Moore, a data analyst, in an account from 90.5 WESA in Pittsburgh. “They don’t even remotely offer that. And the fact that they only give us like a 1%, or barely that, raise annually… [it] doesn’t even remotely cover inflation.”
Since the HCL contractors voted to affiliate with the United Steelworkers (USW), not much has happened. Union organizer Ben Gwin stated HCL has been slow-walking the contract negotiations. “They’re not willing to meet more than twice a month. It’s insulting,” Gwin stated. “And it just feels like a complete joke that they’re not taking the process seriously.”
More recently, the National Labor Relations Board alleged that HCL implemented more strict workplace rules after the union vote, left positions unfilled in Pittsburgh, and moved some work to Krakow, Poland. The NLRB in June issued a corrected complaint, asking that HCL be ordered to restore work sent abroad, according to a press release from the USW, which represents 850,000 workers in a range of industries including technology and services.
The HCL workers may have little recourse. “There are no tight time structures within the law as it exists now, so workers can end up bargaining for years,” stated Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute, in the 90.5 WESA account.
From 1875 to when the last steel plant in Pittsburgh closed in 1984, local unions had a lot of sway and helped workers to win high wages. Since then, union membership has fallen dramatically. University of Pittsburgh law professor Mike Madison sees that workers have lost power in today’s modern service economy.
“So one of the things that you’re seeing in a place like Pittsburgh is a revival of interest in labor organizing as a way to recapture some of the equity associated with income distribution that used to be associated with steel,” Madison stated.
The USW has sought to unionize more tech employees through its Federation of Tech Workers.
“As employers come in and really see Pittsburgh as a place to have a low cost of living with a highly-educated workforce, it opens the door to exploitation,” said Mariana Padias, the USW’s assistant director of organizing. An increasing number of tech employees view “union democracy” as important to having “more of a say in their work environment,” she stated,
Why Workers Joined the Union
A number of Alphabet Workers Union members post comments on the AWU website on why they joined the union and what they hope will be the result.
For example, software engineer Greg Edelston stated that he joined the union because, “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.”
Software engineer Alberta Devor stated that he joined the union “to make sure Google and Alphabet follow the slogan that our executives have abandoned: ‘don’t be evil.’”
[Ed. Note: The motto “don’t be evil” was part of Google’s corporate code of conduct since 2000. When Google was reorganized under the Alphabet parent company in 2015, the phrase was modified to “do the right thing,” according to an account in Gizmodo.]
Parul Koul, a software engineer at Google, is the executive chair of the union. Interviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek in January, she stated, “The union is going to be a hugely important tool to bridge the divide between well-paid tech workers and contractors who don’t make as much.”
Asked about the union’s mission statement that says, “We are responsible for the technology that we bring into the world,” Koul stated, “That statement means acting in solidarity with the rest of the world… I believe we have to see ourselves as part of the working class. Otherwise, we’re going to end up being wealthy people just fighting for our own betterment.”
The AWU issues press releases on matters of interest. One example is a statement issued in January about the suspension of corporate access for Margaret Mitchell, then a senior scientist at Google and head of its Ethical AI Team. This followed Google’s parting of the ways with Timnit Gebru, was co-leader of the Ethical AI Team at Google. (AI Trends, Dec. 10, 2020) Gebru had submitted a paper on the ethical considerations around large language models to a conference; her managers asked that she withdraw it to give them more time for a review. (AI Trends, Jan. 28, 2021)
The AWU statement on the matter stated in part, “together these are an attack on the people who are trying to make Google’s technology more ethical.”
For its part, Google management calls attention to its efforts with AI for Good and for racial equity. In a June blog post, Melonie Parker, Google’s chief diversity officer, stated the company is committed to doubling the number of Black employees by 2025. She also mentioned a student loan repayment program to help Black employees, and partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) to broaden access to higher education and opportunities in tech. She announced that 10 HCBUs will each receive an unrestricted financial grant of $5 million.
A search of the Google blog found no mention of the Alphabet Workers Union.