Professionalism/Labor Organizing at Google

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Motivation[edit | edit source]

Unionization efforts in Big Tech are often met with confusion: “Why would employees at a company famous for high salaries and free lunches want a union?” [1] While workers in retail typically unionize to improve wages and working conditions, workers in Big Tech often unionize to demand stronger policies against sexual harassment and discrimination and accountability for their company’s unethical uses of technology.[1] The most prominent unionization efforts in Big Tech have come from Google employees. Several of these employees recall joining Google with the simple mantra and founding slogan “Don’t be evil,” which motivated them to create technology to benefit society and make the world better and more equal. As Google poorly responded to sexual harassment charges and engaged in controversial business decisions, many Google employees realized their pledge was not consistent with the decisions made by their company’s senior executives.[2]

Walkout for Real Change[edit | edit source]

In 2018, The New York Times reported that Google had protected several senior executives accused of sexual misconduct, including Android founder Andy Rubin, who was paid $90 million in severance after he left the company.[3] A week later, Google employees organized a “Walkout for Real Change” in protest of sexual harassment and Google’s history of pay discrimination and systemic racism.[4] Around 20,000 Google employees from across the globe took part in the protest and compiled a list of five demands: end Forced Arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination, a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity, a publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report, a clear, uniform, and globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously, and to elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO.[5] Claire Stapleton, then marketing manager at YouTube, lamented that Google “did not ever address, acknowledge, the list of demands, nor did they adequately provide solutions to all the five."[4] Stapleton mentions Google “did drop forced arbitration, but for sexual harassment only, not discrimination, which was a key omission. Nothing was addressed regarding TVCs [contract workers] ... I think we didn’t see accountability in action.”[4]

Union Organization and Retaliation[edit | edit source]

The Thanksgiving Five[edit | edit source]

Google Chrome logo, the web browser Katheryn Spiers modified to alert coworkers of organizing rights.

In late 2019, five employees were fired by Google directly after their involvement in the organization and participation in petitions or protests against the company, most notably the Walkout for Real Change. One of these employees was Katheryn Spiers.[6] She was fired just three hours after she published a piece of code that notified employees of their organizing rights without keeping to the Google code approval process.[7] When interviewed about why she did it, she said “I had been involved in other workplace organizing in the past, but the reason I wanted to push this change was a combination of Google hiring IRI and four of my co-workers being fired the same day... I thought a lot of my co-workers could use a reminder of their rights.”[6]

IRI Consultants[edit | edit source]

Shortly after the Walkout for Real Change, Google hired IRI Consultants[8], an anti-union consulting firm known for shady tactics such as "collecting data on workers' personality, motivations, and work ethic to bust unions." While it is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 for companies and managers to spy on workers' labor organizing activity, IRI consultants train managers to gather and use data to advise managers on how to best manipulate workers into harboring resentment towards unions.[9] A Google spokesperson told reporters that “No-one at Google, nor any consultant or firm who we've ever engaged or worked with, has done what you've described."[9]

Alphabet Workers Union[edit | edit source]

History[edit | edit source]

On January 4, 2021, Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) formed as a local chapter of the Communication Workers of America Union (CWA).[10] Standing at 1400+ members as of 2023, AWU advocates for equality among full time employees and contract workers, a welcoming environment, project transparency, democratic decision-making, and overall ensuring that Alphabet, Google's parent company, acts ethically, referencing Google's founding slogan: "Don't Be Evil."[11][12]

Challenges[edit | edit source]

Unlike traditional unions, minority unions cannot enroll a majority of a work force and petition a state or federal labor board like the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election. Therefore, they legally cannot bargain with their employer on a contract. Instead, the AWU can use other tactics to pressure Google into changing its policies, labor experts said. According to Kate Conger, a technology reporter at the New York Times, "Minority unions often turn to public pressure campaigns and lobby legislative or regulatory bodies to influence employers."[13]

Controversial business decisions[edit | edit source]

Google also has a history of engaging in controversial business practices. In 2015, Google hosted applications of the Saudi government, including an app called Absher that allowed men to track and control the movement of their female family members. Google received backlash from human rights activists and lawmakers for carrying the app, but it is still available on the Google app store.[14] In 2017, Google secretly developed a censored search engine for users in China, code-named “Dragonfly,” catering to the Chinese government’s censorship demands.[2] About 1,400 Google employees signed a letter to company executives requesting more details about the project and demanding employees get more transparency and input on future decisions.[15] In a senate judiciary hearing in 2019, Google confirmed the project had been terminated.[16] Google employees, enraged that their executives prioritized profits over human rights, felt the company’s slogan “Don’t be evil” was no longer a reflection of the company’s values; it had become nothing more than another corporate marketing tool.[2] Workers looked to unionize to hold Google accountable for unethical uses of their technology.

AWU Organizing Efforts[edit | edit source]

In a survey conducted of 1,853 Alphabet contractor's workers[17] AWU discovered that Alphabet's wages and benefits standards were provided to contracted workers, unlike what Alphabet promised[18]. As part of AWU's mission to "ensure Alphabet acts ethically"[19] AWU has pressured Alphabet and their contracted companies to provide promised worker privileges and protections.

Modis[edit | edit source]

In 2021 Shannon Wait, a worker at a Google data center, was suspended from her job after posting on Facebook about worker condtions including not receiving hazard pay and water breaks[20]. The AWU filed cases to the National Labor Relations Board on her behalf and overturned her suspension with Alphabet confirming that employees "have the right to discuss wage rates, bonuses, and working conditions"[20]. This success allowed unionized Modis data center workers to organize an emailing campaign forcing Modis to resume paying their promised $200 bonus for each full week they worked[21].

BOLD Internship Program[edit | edit source]

Tyrese Thomas and Jacob Ngai, interns under Google's BOLD internship program, were concerned with their ability to work remotely in their houses with Ngai "sharing a room with [his] brother" and having "constant Wi-Fi issues"[22]. They, with the advice of AWU organizer Raksha Muthukumar on how to write and convince interns to sign their petition, secured a $5,000 stipend for interns to use "however they deem best, including their WFH experience".[22]

Cognizant[edit | edit source]

Google Maps workers, concerned by the "unsafe working conditions" from Cognizant's June 6th 2022 return to office order, worked with AWU to pressure Cognizant to extend the deadline[23]. After over 70% of workers signed a petition and threatened a strike, Cognizant extended their return to office deadline by 90 days[23].

RaterLabs[edit | edit source]

In May 2022, RaterLabs workers, who responsible for rating Google search ads' quality, and the AWU petitioned Google's vice president to increase their pay to Alphabet's basic pay standard of $15 per hour[18][24]. Through this petition and repeated meetings with RaterLabs management, the AWU was able to secure a pay raise to $14-$14.50 per hour from $10 per hour[24].

YouTube Music[edit | edit source]

YouTube Music workers became the 2nd fully AWU unionized workplace[25] in October 2022 preceded by 10 Google Fiber workers unionizing their workplace in March[26]. After unionization, the AWU alleges that Cognizant tried to break the union by requiring all workers to return to their office by Febuary 2023[27]. To resist the order, YouTube Music workers organized a strike[28] with the AWU offering support and spreading the links to the strike's GoFundMe and fundraising album[29].

Google's 2023 Layoffs[edit | edit source]

On January 20th, 2023, Alphabet announce that 12,000 Google employees were fired, with many of them first discovering their firing when they tried to log in[30]. Google workers in countries with workers councils, like France and Germany, were able to prevent the firing of their employees[31] while other European workers organized walkouts with their respective unions in response to Google's layoffs[32][33]. The AWU, being a minority union, was not able to negotiate with Alphabet to prevent Google's layoffs, but they were able to increase their notoriety through public campaigns. On the same day as the layoffs, the AWU protested in front of Google's New York office, hosted good-bye card write-a-thons, and created a discord server which offers financial and work related advice[34][35]. As a result of the layoffs and the increased union noteriety, Google employees in Europe[36] and United States[34] have increased unionization resulting in the AWU growing to over 1,400 members as of May 2023[37].

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b De Vynck, Gerrit (April 30, 2021). "Six things to know about the latest efforts to bring unions to Big Tech". The Washington Post.
  2. a b c LaJeunesse, Ross (Jan 2, 2020). "I Was Google's Head of International Relations. Here's Why I Left". Medium.
  3. Wakabayashi, Daisuke; Benner, Katie (Oct 25, 2018). "How Google Protected Andy Rubin, the 'Father of Android'". The New York Times.
  4. a b c Ghaffary, Shirin; Johnson, Eric (Nov 21, 2018). "After 20,000 workers walked out, Google said it got the message. The workers disagree". Vox.
  5. Mathur, Natasha (Nov 1, 2018). "Google employees 'Walkout for Real Change' today. These are their demands". Packt.
  6. a b Wong, Julia Carrie (2019-12-17). "Fifth Google worker-activist fired in a month says company is targeting the vulnerable" (in en-GB). The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. 
  7. Lee, Timothy B. (2019-12-17). "Engineer says Google fired her for browser pop-up about worker rights". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  8. Scheiber, Noam; Wakabayashi, Daisuke (2019-11-20). "Google Hires Firm Known for Anti-Union Efforts" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  9. a b "'Lazy,' 'Money-Oriented,' 'Single Mother': How Union-Busting Firms Compile Dossiers on Employees". Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  10. "Google Workers, Demanding Change at Work, Are Launching a Union With the Communications Workers of America". Alphabet Workers Union. 2021-01-02. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  11. "Home". Alphabet Workers Union. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  12. "Our mission". Alphabet Workers Union. 2021-01-01. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  13. Conger, Kate (2021-01-04). "Hundreds of Google Employees Unionize, Culminating Years of Activism" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  14. Sydell, Laura (Feb 12, 2019). "Apple, Google Criticized For Carrying App That Lets Saudi Men Track Their Wives". NPR.
  15. Campbell, Alexia (Sep 25, 2018). "Google's censored search engine for China is sparking a moral crisis within the company". Vox.
  16. Su, Jeb (Jul 19, 2019). "Confirmed: Google Terminated Project Dragonfly, Its Censored Chinese Search Engine". Forbes.
  17. "Alphabet Workers Union-CWA Conducts Largest Google Vendor Survey Revealing Google Hypocrisy & Grave Disparities Amongst Workers | Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA)". Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  18. a b "US Wages & Benefits Standards - Alphabet/Google Suppliers Help". Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  19. "Our mission". Alphabet Workers Union. 2021-01-01. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  20. a b "The woman who took on Google and won" (in en-GB). BBC News. 2021-04-07. 
  21. Wakabayashi, Daisuke (2021-11-05). "Google Temps Fought Loss of Pandemic Bonus. And Won." (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  22. a b Kramer, Anna. "Google interns make more money thanks to union, petitions - Protocol". Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  23. a b Seitz, Jacob (2022-06-03). "Google Maps contract workers win delayed return to office date". The Daily Dot. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  24. a b "In Response to Worker Demands—Thousands of Alphabet Contract Workers Secure Historic Pay Raise | Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA)". Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  25. "YouTube Music contractors vote to unionize". Engadget. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  26. Harrington, Caitlin. "Google Fiber Workers Vote to Unionize" (in en-US). Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. 
  27. "YouTube Illegally Uses Return-to-Office Push to Derail Union, Complaint Claims" (in en). 2023-01-24. 
  28. Silberling, Amanda (2023-02-03). "YouTube Music contractors strike over alleged unfair labor practices". TechCrunch. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  29. "YouTube Music Content Operations". Alphabet Workers Union. 2023-01-31. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  30. Thorbecke, Clare Duffy,Catherine (2023-03-20). "Google was beloved as an employer for years. Then it laid off thousands by email | CNN Business". CNN. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  31. "Google and Amazon Struggle to Lay Off Workers in Europe" (in en). 2023-04-06. 
  32. Coulter, Martin (2023-04-04). "Google workers in London stage walkout over job cuts" (in en). Reuters. 
  33. Tabahriti, Sam. "Hundreds of Google workers in Zurich walked out after 200 of their colleagues got laid off". Business Insider. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  34. a b Duff, Meg (2023-02-09). "Are 12,000 Layoffs Enough to Convince Googlers to Join a Union?" (in en-US). Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. 
  35. Duffy, Kate. "Laid-off Google employees are turning to a Discord server with nearly 18,000 members for emotional support and financial advice". Business Insider. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  36. "Google 'forcing' compulsory redundancies in Dublin rather than offering voluntary schemes, union claims". Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  37. "Our union". Alphabet Workers Union. 2020-12-15. Retrieved 2023-05-07.