Will Employees Change Big Tech?

The Alphabet union is a thread in a larger story of employees asserting moral force

Will Employees Change Big Tech?

The world of Big Tech is being reshaped by forces internal and external as various missteps of the past catch up with them. The recent announcement of a small but potent union at Alphabet/Google may mark a major increase in the level of accountability Silicon Valley executives will be facing soon.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the most recent events:

The choice of 230 employees seems like a nod to the notorious Section 230, which has protected social media and search platforms from traditional media liability. That clever wink aside, the challenge for unionization in Big Tech has been two-fold — the full-time workers are very well-paid and can change companies easily, while the contract workers can’t participate in collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. With Google having 123,000 full-time employees, and 130,000 contractors, the incentives and abilities for them to work together weren’t obvious — and the resulting union will not have collective bargaining rights.

However, that doesn’t mean they won’t have power or leverage. We’ve seen how vulnerable Silicon Valley is to coordinated employee action, even in the absence of unions. Many Big Tech tools are quite useful to activists (Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs). Now, employee activists have something more formal and potentially more potent — an organizing principle. Writing in the New York Times, the executive chair and vice chair of the union put it this way:

Everyone at Alphabet — from bus drivers to programmers, from salespeople  to janitors — plays a critical part in developing our technology. But right now, a few wealthy executives define what the company produces and how its workers are treated. This isn’t the company we want to work for. We care deeply about what we build and what it’s used for. We are responsible for the technology we bring into the world. And we recognize that its implications reach far beyond the walls of Alphabet.

The union has the support of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which has 700,000 members, a year-old push to organize game developers, and an effort of its own to unionize digital workers.

How they’ve formed the union is clever in its simplicity and directness — it avoids a lot of red tape and embraces the protections their prominence provides. According to the Washington Post:

The Alphabet Workers Union will have an elected board of directors and paid organizing staff members, according to the group’s news release. Members will pay 1 percent of total compensation, which includes salary and equity. A representative declined to say how many of the 230 or so members are full-time employees versus contractors.

“This union builds upon years of courageous organizing by Google workers,” Nicki Anselmo, Google program manager, said in a statement that referenced the company’s decision not to renew a Pentagon contract to analyze drone footage after employees protested. “From fighting the ‘real names’ policy, to opposing Project Maven, to protesting the egregious, multi-million dollar payouts that have been given to executives who’ve committed sexual harassment, we’ve seen first-hand that Alphabet responds when we act collectively.”

Behind the scenes, Google itself has  mishandled employee complaints time and again, according to Collective Action in Tech’s Clarissa Redwine:

In 2017, Security guards at Google and Facebook had their union recognized and fought through a long contract negotiation. In 2019, Google cafeteria staff employed by vendor Bon Appetit won their union election. In September 2019 a group of 80 contract office workers in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers, forming Google’s very first office worker union. But shortly after  these workers won their union, the company that contracted these workers to Google outsourced their roles to Poland, decimating the union’s bargaining unit in retaliation for unionizing.

Since then, Google has ramped up its anti-union strategy. In November 2020, Google illegally fired four workers for organizing. In an attempt to further chill worker organizing, the company has shut down key channels for challenging leadership, tracked expressions of dissent, and hired an anti-union firm.

Remember when Google was the “don’t be evil” company? And Silicon Valley was emanating utopian ideals?

Casey Newton, in his “Platformer” newsletter, adds this:

If the Alphabet union stays small, its impact could be limited. But with a quarter-million potential members, and tensions inside the company continuing to boil over, I wouldn’t bet on it staying tiny forever. . . . members now have a powerful megaphone for talking about workplace inequality, and they can assume their grievances will get wide attention. . . . managers now face an entrenched internal opposition with added legal protections, a growing social media presence, and prominent supporters in Congress. (Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin were among the elected officials who publicly congratulated the group.) . . . During a fraught time, Google will now have a high-profile group of employees working to undermine its favored narratives on a variety of  sensitive topics. . . .

Moreover, I’d argue that the very aspects of the union that make it appear weak — the fact that workers have to opt in to joining, that it won’t seek formal recognition, and that it won’t attempt to bargain for a contract — make it easier for workers at other tech giants to copy. It may turn out that traditional unions remain unpalatable, or simply unworkable, at most big tech companies. But a giant, legally protected megaphone to air your grievances with management? That might be something that a lot of workers find useful, in Silicon Valley and beyond.

This is the most interesting part of what the Alphabet union approach may portend. There’s seems to be a bright line connecting this moment and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 — vocal resistance and guidance from people feeling our moral compass and sense of fair play have been compromised, and a willingness to petition for change. What is going on in tech is a microcosm of a broader struggle going on in society at large — for fairness, equal treatment, rights, and accountability. These are moral issues, so it’s no surprise the union’s mission statement uses moralizing language:

Our union strives to protect Alphabet workers, our global society, and our world. . . . There is no place for harassment, bigotry, discrimination, or retaliation. We prioritize the needs and concerns of the marginalized and vulnerable. . . . We will ensure Alphabet acts ethically and in the best interests of society and the environment. . . . We will work with those affected  by our technology to ensure that it serves the public good.

The Alphabet union appears to involve a group of people working to force their employers to re-establish moral norms and standards they can be proud of. If the leaders don’t respond well, look for more walk-outs, more leaks, more protests, and more problems for the Big Tech executives — and executives in general.

The chickens of Silicon Valley’s past — and society’s inequities — are coming home to roost.

Therefore, I agree with Casey Newton — I don’t think this is limited to Big Tech. I think many employees may be willing to give up some time and 1% of their pay to get better working conditions, more influence over company conduct, and more equitable and transparent compensation and decision-making systems. This may well represent a template others adopt.

The theme of a moral reset continues . . .

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