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Upset with Google's leadership, tech employees launch a workforce union to fight back

Alphabet Workers Union's membership includes staff at Waymo, Verily, Fitbit

Google employees in 2018 walked out over the company's handling of sexual misconduct. Photo by Natalia Nazarova.

A coalition of employees working for Google parent company Alphabet and its subsidiaries announced Monday that they have launched a union to push back against "unethical" decisions made by the company that run contrary to the views of its workers.

The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) is the first labor group to be open to all Alphabet employees — with software engineers making up a large part of its founding membership — and is the culmination of long-standing grievances between Google and its staff that have boiled over in recent years. Union members say that Google has strayed from its original "don't be evil" mantra, and that the company must be held to account.

"The Alphabet Workers Union will be the structure that ensures workers can actively push for real changes at the company, from the kinds of contracts the company accepts to employee classification to wage and compensation issues," the group said in a statement.

'We might sell our work because everyone has to make a living, but we are not going to sell our souls.'

-JP Sugarbroad, Google employee

In an op-ed in the New York Times, AWU founders Chewy Shaw and Parul Koul wrote that Google and other Alphabet subsidiaries have repeatedly ignored growing concerns among rank-and-file employees. They point to Project Maven, in which Google worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on artificial intelligence that could be used in drone strikes, as well as efforts to develop a censored search engine in China — both of which were actively opposed by Google's own tech workers.

Adding fuel to the fire, it was revealed in 2018 that the company had quietly paid out $90 million to former Google executive Andy Rubin amid allegations of sexual misconduct, prompting emotionally charged protests demanding a better response to sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Hundreds of employees at the "walk out" in Mountain View called for more transparency, a better reporting process and an end to forced arbitration that compels employees to waive their right to sue.

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More recently, Google researcher Timnit Gebru was reportedly forced to quit after she co-published a paper criticizing racial bias baked into the development of artificial intelligence systems, which she was asked to retract by company officials. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has since apologized for the way Gebru's departure was handled.

The latest dust-up revived decadelong concerns that Google has failed to hire enough women and underrepresented minorities into its workforce, which could be a contributing factor in racial bias.

The AWU encompasses not only tech workers and full-time employees but the entire 120,000-person workplace of contractors, vendors and temporary staff working in all capacities for Alphabet, including Waymo, Verily and Fitbit.

Google employee JP Sugarbroad, who works for Android security in Seattle, said unionizing efforts have been underway for quite some time, but only recently reached the point where it felt safe to go public. Though the AWU started with about 200 members, the organization has swiftly grown since the Monday morning announcement, he said.

For Sugarbroad, his concerns with the company leadership date back to 2011, when Google announced a controversial policy that required all Google Plus users to sign up using for the service using their real names, banning the use of nicknames and pseudonyms. Employees knew it would be a harmful policy, he said, yet they were ignored.

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"I wasn't sure if we were still the company that does the right thing," Sugarbroad said. "Are we still the company that tries not to be evil?"

Since then, the stakes have been raised. Engineers working on machine learning could very well see their work used to assist repressive governments or be repurposed by the U.S. government to patrol the southern border, Sugarbroad said, and yet the employees have no say in these decisions.

"We are here to make the world a better place," he said. "We might sell our work because everyone has to make a living, but we are not going to sell our souls."

When asked for comment, Google's Director of People Operations Kara Silverstein said in a statement that the company will respect the rights of employees to organize.

"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," she said.

But the company's track record with union organizing has been spotty. In 2019, Google hired an outside firm — IRI Consultants — which has a reputation for anti-union practices. The worry at the time was that Google was seeking to pre-empt efforts to unionize workers.

That same month, Google fired four employees who were active in labor organizing for violations of "data security policies." The National Labor Relations Board later filed a complaint that Google violated labor laws in firing two of those employees, noting that the company had illegally spied on them following their workplace activism.

Sugarbroad said he recognizes that he and others are sticking their necks out and taking a risk by joining a union, but that the newly formed organization could start a trend in the world of tech. Companies ranging from small startups to Microsoft could follow suit, heading down a path in which employees feel empowered to influence ethical decisions with far-reaching consequences.

"Making a tech union happen at Google, if nothing else, is a signal to everyone else out there that it can happen for you, too," he said.

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Kevin Forestieri writes for the Mountain View Voice, a sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

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Upset with Google's leadership, tech employees launch a workforce union to fight back

Alphabet Workers Union's membership includes staff at Waymo, Verily, Fitbit

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Mon, Jan 4, 2021, 2:24 pm

A coalition of employees working for Google parent company Alphabet and its subsidiaries announced Monday that they have launched a union to push back against "unethical" decisions made by the company that run contrary to the views of its workers.

The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) is the first labor group to be open to all Alphabet employees — with software engineers making up a large part of its founding membership — and is the culmination of long-standing grievances between Google and its staff that have boiled over in recent years. Union members say that Google has strayed from its original "don't be evil" mantra, and that the company must be held to account.

"The Alphabet Workers Union will be the structure that ensures workers can actively push for real changes at the company, from the kinds of contracts the company accepts to employee classification to wage and compensation issues," the group said in a statement.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, AWU founders Chewy Shaw and Parul Koul wrote that Google and other Alphabet subsidiaries have repeatedly ignored growing concerns among rank-and-file employees. They point to Project Maven, in which Google worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on artificial intelligence that could be used in drone strikes, as well as efforts to develop a censored search engine in China — both of which were actively opposed by Google's own tech workers.

Adding fuel to the fire, it was revealed in 2018 that the company had quietly paid out $90 million to former Google executive Andy Rubin amid allegations of sexual misconduct, prompting emotionally charged protests demanding a better response to sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Hundreds of employees at the "walk out" in Mountain View called for more transparency, a better reporting process and an end to forced arbitration that compels employees to waive their right to sue.

More recently, Google researcher Timnit Gebru was reportedly forced to quit after she co-published a paper criticizing racial bias baked into the development of artificial intelligence systems, which she was asked to retract by company officials. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has since apologized for the way Gebru's departure was handled.

The latest dust-up revived decadelong concerns that Google has failed to hire enough women and underrepresented minorities into its workforce, which could be a contributing factor in racial bias.

The AWU encompasses not only tech workers and full-time employees but the entire 120,000-person workplace of contractors, vendors and temporary staff working in all capacities for Alphabet, including Waymo, Verily and Fitbit.

Google employee JP Sugarbroad, who works for Android security in Seattle, said unionizing efforts have been underway for quite some time, but only recently reached the point where it felt safe to go public. Though the AWU started with about 200 members, the organization has swiftly grown since the Monday morning announcement, he said.

For Sugarbroad, his concerns with the company leadership date back to 2011, when Google announced a controversial policy that required all Google Plus users to sign up using for the service using their real names, banning the use of nicknames and pseudonyms. Employees knew it would be a harmful policy, he said, yet they were ignored.

"I wasn't sure if we were still the company that does the right thing," Sugarbroad said. "Are we still the company that tries not to be evil?"

Since then, the stakes have been raised. Engineers working on machine learning could very well see their work used to assist repressive governments or be repurposed by the U.S. government to patrol the southern border, Sugarbroad said, and yet the employees have no say in these decisions.

"We are here to make the world a better place," he said. "We might sell our work because everyone has to make a living, but we are not going to sell our souls."

When asked for comment, Google's Director of People Operations Kara Silverstein said in a statement that the company will respect the rights of employees to organize.

"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," she said.

But the company's track record with union organizing has been spotty. In 2019, Google hired an outside firm — IRI Consultants — which has a reputation for anti-union practices. The worry at the time was that Google was seeking to pre-empt efforts to unionize workers.

That same month, Google fired four employees who were active in labor organizing for violations of "data security policies." The National Labor Relations Board later filed a complaint that Google violated labor laws in firing two of those employees, noting that the company had illegally spied on them following their workplace activism.

Sugarbroad said he recognizes that he and others are sticking their necks out and taking a risk by joining a union, but that the newly formed organization could start a trend in the world of tech. Companies ranging from small startups to Microsoft could follow suit, heading down a path in which employees feel empowered to influence ethical decisions with far-reaching consequences.

"Making a tech union happen at Google, if nothing else, is a signal to everyone else out there that it can happen for you, too," he said.

Kevin Forestieri writes for the Mountain View Voice, a sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

James
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 4, 2021 at 3:10 pm
James, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2021 at 3:10 pm
31 people like this

Unionization is about two things (1) protect and promote workers pay and benefits and (2) working conditions and hours. It was never about political ideology.

There is absolutely no reason to unionize in Google. The pay is spectacular. The environment is spectacular, with top-notch free lunch, dinner and snack. The benefits is spectacular. It's truly absurd to unionize when you are paid way above average in the industry you work in, and are provided with one of the best working environment in the world.

However this is chicken comes home to roost. Google has been fostering liberal and leftist ideology for years. Perhaps it is high time for Google to move its HQ to Texas.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 4, 2021 at 3:19 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2021 at 3:19 pm
11 people like this

I am not a fan of Google. They do get ahead of themselves when controlling the evolution of cities and transit lines. They buy up property that is owned by small business owners. So now the San Jose Council wants to provide low cost housing which is the housing they took away to begin with.

However FB is the worst offender - they delete your posts if they do not like them. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE. they are sitting in their individual homes reading your personnel inputs. And making donations with your personal financial data - they are sitting in their homes reading that.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 4, 2021 at 4:58 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2021 at 4:58 pm
14 people like this

@James, you might recall that Google's original motto was Do No Evil (or Don't Be Evil)( which attracted lots of bright people, many of whom have left in protest over some of their policies. Yes, their pay and benefits are great for full-time employees but this unionization drive also applies to cheaper contractors who now outnumber employees.

They've been sued for discrimination -- ageism and sexism -- and have paid out many, many millions of dollars. When they fired one of their big search guys days before his stock vested, their HR people were so clueless that they actually publicly stated "we're a culture of youth and energy" resulting in another huge payout. (Look it up.)

Their culture of intellectual inquiry has changed and instead of letting the gurus continue to select the luminaries for their famous speaker series, that's become the province of HR.

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is right about Google's never-ending push to pack in more people at the expense of the communities. The San Jose Sharks are protesting that and are threatening to leave SJ They're so intent on growth they're even investing in "pre-fab modular housing" aka TRAILERS for their "transit villages."

They're spending a fortune on densification lobbying and local candidateswho'll support that push at the expense of neighborhoods, small businesses and residents. Pay attention.


James
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 4, 2021 at 5:45 pm
James, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2021 at 5:45 pm
10 people like this

@Online Name, Google does not directly contract with individuals. Unionized contractors can only negotiate with their employers, i.e. the sweat shop contracting companies, Tata, Infosys, Sysco, bus companies, whatever. My bet that many of those software contractors are ICC H1B slaves and don't dare or have the right to join a union. There is no legal standing for contractors to engage directly with Google.

As for discrimination of various -isms I think incidents are blown way out of proportion. Google is for sure a big target. But overall it is doing far better in terms of treatment of employees when compared with typical large American companies.

I'd also add that aggressive promotion of leftist ideology has brought down Intel, the iconic Silicon Valley symbol. Unionization is one of the main reasons why the big three autos decayed over the last several decades.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 4, 2021 at 6:37 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2021 at 6:37 pm
11 people like this

" My bet that many of those software contractors are ICC H1B slaves and don't dare or have the right to join a union."

I don't disagree. That use of "slaves" contributes to the displacement of US workers, especially older ones who are usually more highly paid than recent grads.

That same use of "slaves" who are often young and single underlies Google's push for densification and "stack and pack" housing aka 'slave cabins."


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 4, 2021 at 7:53 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2021 at 7:53 pm
Like this comment

AS a retired employee of a US Company competing for government contracts all prime and subcontractors are required to be totally compliant in all government requirements in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), and Human Resource regulations. Part of your score in a competition was/is based on compliance with government regulations. Tech companies are in a different category in general but do have carved out sections which must be compliant. A lot depends on who the end customer is of the effort - commercial, government, foreign.

Typically the union jobs were specific to manufacturing efforts which require certifications on level of effort.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 5, 2021 at 10:38 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 5, 2021 at 10:38 am
2 people like this

Reading in the papers today on this topic the employees are against Google contracting with the federal government. A high percentage of their workers do not qualify as "employees" of Google. And the companies they actually work for are foreign importers of H1B workers. The type of government contracting that Google would due has some classification for security which would disqualify those workers for participating in those contracts. Google would have to carve out a section of workers - U.S. employees who can pass a security clearance. My opinion is that a Union would not assist in this matter. It is also questionable if the H1b workers would join a union since their pay would be docked by the union dues. Sounds like a disjointed effort set up for some people to leach money off the Google workers.


Embarrassing Themselves
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 5, 2021 at 8:10 pm
Embarrassing Themselves, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 5, 2021 at 8:10 pm
11 people like this

What a bunch of spoiled infantile high tech workers ... whining that their company took contracts to 'make money'. The nerve of a business! Didn't these googlers all profit from these contracts? And now they're complaining with google's stock price through the roof? Googlers screaming to unionize don't even live in the real world: bikes, free meals, perks, stocks, game rooms, etc. The ethical moral high ground is absurd and hypocritical -- complaining all while they become gazillionaires taking over the world 1984 style with their group think "ministry of truth" political correctness. It's embarrassing to the rest of us "normal" people in Silicon Valley. But mostly they're embarrassing themselves.


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