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.