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Google, Alphabet employees to form union so they have a 'meaningful say'

The union will be open to all employees of Alphabet, regardless of their role or classification.

Google headquarters in Mountain View, California

Google employees at a walkout protest in 2018.

James Martin/CNET

More than 400 workers at Google and its parent company, Alphabet, have signed on to form a new union that they say will push the tech giant to live up to its original motto: "Don't be evil." On Monday, the group announced the creation of the Alphabet Workers Union, after years of employees protesting for change at the iconic Silicon Valley company.

The move is a rare turn in the tech industry, which has historically been resistant to formal labor organizing. But the announcement underscores a growing tide of activism in tech, where rank-and-file workers in recent years have spoken out on issues ranging from border surveillance to climate change. 

The Alphabet union is supported by the Communications Workers of America, and is open to full-time and contract employees. The group will have dues-paying members, an elected board of directors and paid organizing staff, according to a release. But the union reportedly isn't seeking federal ratification through the National Labor Relations Board, which means it won't have collective bargaining rights. 

"We are the workers who built Alphabet. We write code, clean offices, serve food, drive buses, test self-driving cars and do everything needed to keep this behemoth running," Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, engineers at Google and chairs of the new Alphabet Workers Union, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times published Monday. "We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in."

For years, Google has been the poster child for activism in tech. In 2018, more than 20,000 Googlers walked out of their offices around the globe to protest the handling of sexual misconduct allegations against senior executives. Workers at the company have also pushed back against Google's contracts with the US military and the company's work in China. 

In response to the announcement, Google on Monday said it has aimed to foster a supportive workplace for employees. "We've always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce," Kara Silverstein, director of people operations at Google, said in a statement. "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."

But as efforts to organize grew within the company, Google has tried to rein in its more than 120,000 employees. In 2019, the company revised its internal guidelines to discourage political debates. In the same year, the company also hired IRI Consultants, a firm with a history of anti-union efforts, a move that riled activists at Google. 

In their op-ed on Monday, Koul and Shaw raised worker concerns over the search giant's cooperation with "repressive governments around the world," profits from "ads by a hate group," and failure to address retention issues with people of color

Over the last few weeks, new labor issues have also cropped up at Google. Last month, the NLRB filed a complaint against Google for allegedly retaliating against workers who spoke out against the company. The complaint claims Google broke US labor laws by surveilling, interrogating and firing activist employees. The filing stemmed from terminations Google had made a year before, when the company dismissed employees who worked on responses to its hiring of IRI. 

Google has also been roiled by the departure of Timnit Gebru, a star artificial intelligence researcher who said she was abruptly fired last month over a research paper she co-authored that criticized the company's AI systems. Her exit sparked widespread outrage among Google employees and throughout the tech industry. 

The announcement of the union on Monday drew praise from some progressive Democrats. "When giant corporations like Google have too much power, it's bad for innovation, bad for consumers — and bad for their workers," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, from Massachusetts, wrote in a tweet. "I'm standing in solidarity with Google workers as they fight back by unionizing."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, from Vermont, also applauded the union. "What these workers are fighting for is not radical," he tweeted. "They want fair wages and a workplace free from abuse, retaliation, intimidation and discrimination. And that is exactly what they deserve."

This isn't the first time Google has faced pressure from unions. In 2019, a small group of contractors in Pittsburgh unionized with the support of the United Steelworkers Union. Also that year, a group of YouTube creators said they joined forces with IG Metall, a German metal workers union, to demand more transparency from the Google-owned video platform. At the time, YouTube said it would meet with the group but that it wouldn't negotiate on the union's demands.  

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