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Google workers form labor union

INDUSTRY RARITY:
Many employees saw the power of workplace activism in 2018, when an outcry led Google to abandon artificial intelligence work for the Pentagon

A group of Google engineers and other workers on Monday announced that they have formed a union, creating a rare foothold for the labor movement in the tech industry.

About 225 employees at Google and its parent company, Alphabet, are the first members of the Alphabet Workers Union. They represent a fraction of Alphabet’s workforce, far short of the threshold needed to get formal recognition as a collective bargaining group in the US.

However, the new union, which is to be affiliated with the larger Communication Workers of America (CWA), said that it would serve as a “structure that ensures Google workers can actively push for real changes at the company.”

Photo: AP

Its members have said that they want more of a voice: not just on wages, benefits, and protections against discrimination and harassment, but also broader ethical questions about how Google pursues its business ventures.

The unionization campaign is the latest signal from employees who do not believe that the company is living up to its professed ideals, as expressed in its original “Don’t be evil” slogan.

Google on Monday said that it has tried to create a supportive and rewarding workplace, but suggested that it would not be negotiating directly with the union.

“Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support,” Google human resources director Kara Silverstein said in a statement. “But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

Unionization campaigns have historically not been able to gain much traction among elite tech workers, who get hefty salaries and other perks such as free food and shuttle rides to work, but workplace activism at Google and other big tech firms has grown in recent years, as employees call for better handling of sexual harassment and discrimination, and avoiding harmful uses of the products that they are helping to build and sell.

Many employees began seeing the power of their workplace activism in 2018, when an internal outcry led Google to abandon its work supplying the Pentagon with artificial intelligence (AI) services for conflict zones.

Later in 2018, thousands of Google employees walked out to protest how the company handled sexual misconduct allegations against executives.

Google software engineer Chewy Shaw, who has been elected to the union’s executive council, said that they decided to form the group after seeing colleagues pushed out of their roles for their activism.

“We want to have a counterforce to protect workers who are speaking up,” Shaw said.

Last month, AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru said that she was fired over a research paper that Google wanted to disassociate from.

A federal labor agency also filed a complaint accusing the company of spying on employees and then firing some of them during a 2019 effort to organize a union.

Google has denied the allegations in the case, which is scheduled for an April hearing.

The union’s first members include engineers, as well as sales associates, administrative assistants and workers who test self-driving vehicles at Alphabet automotive division Waymo.

“One of the reasons why it’s taken a while for workers to get to this point is because the leaders of these companies did a good job of convincing workers they were these benevolent folks who were going to provide for them,” CWA communications director Beth Allen said.

“That got them a long way,” Allen said, but workers have realized that they need “to come together and build power for themselves, and have a voice in what’s going on.”

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