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Can a Union Make Google Less Evil?

If the company wants to make good on its long-abandoned motto, it may have to rely on its workers.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Monday, with a rollout full of social media fanfare and a declaration of intent on the New York Times opinion page, the workers of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, announced the formation of a union. Counting somewhere around 250 Alphabet workers in the United States as initial members—the number seemed to increase throughout the day—the Alphabet Workers Union argued that the “company’s structure needs to change.” Citing a list of complaints, from mistreatment of temporary workers to the recent firing of Timnit Gebru, a celebrated Black artificial intelligence researcher, the Alphabet Workers Union members made it clear that they’ve had enough:

For far too long, thousands of us at Google—and other subsidiaries of Alphabet, Google’s parent company—have had our workplace concerns dismissed by executives. Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of color.

The Alphabet union is years in the making, building on a history of employee actions. As the Times piece mentions, 20,000 Google employees walked off the job on November 1, 2018, in protest of huge secret payouts to executives who quietly departed the company after being accused of sexual harassment. It was a major event in the development of Alphabet employee activism and in tech worker activism writ large. Following that walkout, Google eventually ended forced arbitration proceedings. Employee activism has also won pay increases for hourly workers and caused Google to drop a military contract in which it processed image data for the Defense Department’s drone program. “We’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively,” reads a union press release.

As the union’s list of grievances shows, there’s a dark side to Alphabet’s work culture. The company’s management surveils employees as they attempt to organize and hires union-busting law firms to aid suppression efforts. In December 2020, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Alphabet, saying that the company had spied on workers, prevented them from using internal tools to communicate, and fired other employees in retaliation. Is it possible, absent an antitrust breakup of Alphabet, to reform such a powerful company through worker activism alone? And can workers both earn better employment conditions and bring Google to heel as a social actor?

It’s in this uncertain context that the members of the Alphabet Workers Union began their organizing, assisted by the Communication Workers of America, who are attempting to unionize workers across the tech industry. While AWU members have revealed themselves early in the process—with only a small fraction of the company’s 120,000-plus workers having joined the union—they did so partly to protect themselves against future retaliation.

“At first I was really nervous,” said Kimberly Wilber, a software engineer in Alphabet’s New York City office, in a telephone interview. “I knew organizing this in secret, this is something really big and important. What could that mean for my future? Honestly, the way that I see it is that I now feel excited. I’m part of a community of 250 or so workers that are all standing up together, that are all taking this step alongside each other.”

Alex Gorowara, a software engineer who works for Google Travel, also said that coming forward as a union helped provide protection. “We went public at this time for a number of reasons, but one of them was we realized we couldn’t effectively keep this quiet indefinitely,” said Gorowara. “At some point, we would have to step out and go public, in part for our own protection, because there is strength in numbers.”

“It makes me feel so much safer,” said Wilber of the union now being public. “It makes me feel like my work is meaningful.”

Union representatives make clear that building up membership—with any of Alphabet’s North American employees being eligible—is the first priority. (With such an uphill climb to gain membership, the AWU may be banking on a members-only union, which doesn’t require a majority of workers to sign on.) Union members emphasized the importance of including those workers known as TVCs—temps, vendors, contractors—who make up half of the company’s workforce. The union wants TVCs “treated well and treated with dignity,” said Gorowara.

While many Googlers had Monday off, Wilber and Gorowara expect some of the recruitment efforts to turn inward as Googlers return to work and begin discussing the unionization effort on internal networks. Gorowara, for example, said he would change his internal Google profile photo to include a union badge.

What the Googlers I talked to seemed to share was an earnest belief that Alphabet can be reformed for the better—but only through employee solidarity. “We aim to be Google’s conscience,” said Gorowara. “We remember slogans like ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ and we really do believe in them, even though leadership has removed those ideals, both explicitly and in practice.” (In response to a request for comment on the union, Google’s director of people operations, Kara Silverstein, wrote, “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”)

Whether that kind of change is possible depends on how much worker power Alphabet union members can muster. It may also fail to address some of Alphabet’s underlying, first-order issues, such as its voracious data collection, its use of ad targeting, and its general pioneering of surveillance capitalism—i.e., the digitization and monetization of all human behavior and expression. These may be longer-range concerns for the Alphabet union, if it gets to them at all. But the fundamental question remains: Can an all-seeing tech monopoly with a trillion-dollar-plus market capitalization ever be reformed into a benevolent social actor? Maybe Google, at its world-straddling size, is fated to be evil.

The union’s representatives aren’t focused, at least at the moment, on such existential concerns. Instead, they speak with a stirring amount of solidarity about improving life for their fellow workers in the here and now and about consolidating worker power.

“We’re here because we care for and believe in our fellow workers,” said Gorowara. “We want to follow their guidance. We have faith that they’ll make good decisions. That’s really what the union is all about: making sure those people are protected and have a seat at the table.”

Wilber agreed. “I am confident that at least we have each others’ backs,” she said. “That’s what’s most important to me. The power doesn’t necessarily come from the legal protections [of the NLRB]. It comes from a bunch of employees standing together, doing something they know is right.”