Hundreds of employees and workers at Google announced Monday, Jan. 4 that they had launched a union for the first time in the company’s history. After years of criticism leveled against the tech giant regarding government contracts, employee diversity and treatment of sexual misconduct cases, both salaried employees and contractors have kickstarted the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) to ask for better ethical decisions at the company. CBS reported 226 employees of Google, its parent company Alphabet and Alphabet’s other subsidiaries were signed with the union as of Jan. 4.
Employee discontent has simmered at Google for the last few years. A November 2018 New York Times article reported Google left several senior executives accused of sexual misconduct with hefty severance packages, culminating in a walkout that had 20,000 Alphabet employees from around the globe protesting Google’s role in silencing allegations within the company.
Two weeks later, 740 Google employees signed and published a Medium article asking for the company to drop Project Dragonfly, a search engine designed for the Chinese market that would be compatible with state security and censorship measures. Eight months later, Google executive Karan Bhatia announced the project had been terminated.
Google announced in March 2018 it was working with the United States Pentagon on Project Maven, an artificial intelligence research project designed to assist the U.S. with reviewing drone footage and increasing the effectiveness of military drones. Over 3,000 Google employees published an open letter stating that “Google should not be in the business of war,” and “Project Maven should be cancelled.” Two months later. the BBC reported Google had decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon on Project Maven.
In the years since Google’s historic walkout, employees at other major tech companies have pushed for better working conditions and company ethics. In October 2020, employees at video game developer Blizzard Entertainment called for a strike following the closure of the company’s studio located in Versailles, France, resulting in the loss of 285 jobs. Last month, Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier reported disgruntled developers at the Poland-based video game development studio CD Projekt Red aired frustrations at management following the floundered launch of their new game Cyberpunk 2077 and years of “crunch” or unpaid overtime.
As tech companies grow larger and play a more prevalent part in not only daily life but in politics and society, concerns regarding the power such companies have continue to grow. Alphabet Workers Union Executive Chair Parul Koul and Vice Chair Chewy Shaw published an open letter on AWU’s mission to The New York Times on Jan. 4, in which they stated “we’d had enough.”
“For a handful of wealthy executives, this discrimination and unethical working environment are working as intended, at the cost of workers with less institutional power, especially Black, brown, queer, trans, disabled, and female workers,” Koul and Shaw wrote. “We are the workers who built Alphabet. We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.”
AWU’s formation comes just a month after Google’s firing of Timnit Gebru, co-leader of Google’s Ethical A.I. team. “I was fired by [Google executive Jeff Dean] for my email to Brain women and Allies,” Gebru wrote in a tweet on Dec. 2. In their letter, Koul and Shaw stated Gebru’s firing resulted from her research that was “critical of large-scale A.I. models and…critical of existing diversity and inclusion efforts.”
As stated in the mission statement on their website, AWU is dedicated to representing all employees of Google, not just salaried full-time employees, but also vendors, contractors and temp employees. “This is historic—the first union at a major tech company by and for all tech workers,” said Alphabet software engineer Dylan Baker in an AWU press release on Jan. 4.
“We’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively,” said Program Manager Nicki Anselmo in the same press release. “Our new union provides a sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected even after the headlines fade.”
Although AWU only has 226 employees of Alphabet’s 130,000 total, its foundation represents an important milestone in the fight for workers rights and ethical development in a field otherwise awash with the glitz and glam of Silicon Valley.
“When Google went public in 2004, it said it would be a company that ‘does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.’ Its motto used to be ‘Don’t be evil’,” Koul and Shaw said. “We will live by that motto.”