Workers at alphabet the parent company of Google announced the formation of the alphabet Workers Union on January 4th, 2021 while the newly formed Union is starting out relatively small in number compared to the massive size and scope of alphabet over time.
It could have a huge impact on the development trajectory and culture of one of the most powerful tech companies on Earth.
In addition to Google, the Alphabet conglomerate includes self driving car company Waymo, artificial intelligence company DeepMind, the urban infrastructure project Sidewalk Labs, the drone delivery company Wing and the semi secret R&D company known simply as X.
To learn more about this new union, why it was formed and what impact it could have on the company and the tech industry long term, I spoke to chewy sharp, Executive Vice Chair of the alphabet Workers Union and Site Reliability engineer at Google.
Tech as such quickly expanding scopes and ramifications in how it changes the ways that people interact and engage all around the world, that there's a lot of us who are very concerned and wanna make sure that the use of Most of our tech, is one that is really based upon the values that we came to this company for.
And we also wanna make sure that everyone in our company is being treated equitably and fairly.
The Alphabet Workers Union is the first to be open to any Alphabet worker anywhere in the world, including the temps vendors, and contractors, that make up more than half of Alphabets workforce.
Just one month after launching, the Alphabet Workers Union filed its first complaint with the national labor relations board on behalf of contractor Shannon Wait.
Who was briefly suspended after complaining about the conditions in the data center where she works.
In a post on twitter, Wait she was invited back to work less than a week after the union filed the complaint.
And cited the incident as evidence that the Alphabet Workers Union has legitimate power.
So what is this power and how does the union plan to exercise it?
Well aside from the organized workers, the only other entity with enough power to check the world shaping decisions of Alphabet company leadership is the federal government.
People whose job it is to focus on getting the right wording of how our legislation should be written, don't have the calling time to focus their energy on every new tech development and whether this is a key way that society.
He's about to change.
On the other hand, the CEOs of these companies, started off by solving one problem.
And now they're faced with a very different problem.
To understand these problems, how they came to be, and how the alphabet Workers Union aims to help solve them.
We need to revisit some key moments and alphabets company history, that organizers say helped lead to the formation of the Union.
Starting in 2018, with two secretive projects known as project Maven, and project dragonfly.>>Maven was a contract between Google and the Department of Defense that had Google building artificial intelligence technology for drone targeting and surveillance.>> That's Meredith Whitaker.
Faculty Director and co founder of the AI now Institute and Minoru research professor at NYU.
I'm also a longtime tech worker.
I was at Google for over 13 years and did a lot of labour organising while I was there, until I was pushed out in mid 2019.
For many alphabet employees, Maven was a turning point.
The realization that a company whose motto was once Don't be evil, was now in the business of creating tools for drones that experts say could have been weaponized.
And what became clear to me when I learned about that contract was just how ineffective
Argument alone was in pushing back on these power structures.
We had such paltry regulation around specifically AI and its implications but even if you're talking about regulation you're not going to see the US government regulate itself out of access to military technology.
Many Google workers, organized and push back against project Maven.
With over 3000, signing a letter sent to CEO Sundar Pichai, and some quitting and protest.
Google ultimately decided, not to renew the contract.
Google sort of spun up their AI ethics principles, they responded by kind of making a number of promises, putting a couple of guard rails around their AI use.
And then, right after that dragon fly was revealed in the press, dragon fly for people who don't recall was again a secretive project at Google that was building a Version of Google search for the Chinese market that was designed to allow arbitrary government censorship and tracking.
Once the purpose of the project was leaked to the press, a group of workers once again organized a campaign against the project.
The opposition was not in I kind of seen a phobic opposition to China, right?
This was about a company of Google size and power building these infrastructures for governments at all.>>The biggest thing that was concerning to so many of us.
Was that people on that project had no idea they were on that project until the information about it got leaked.
Similar with Project Maven.
We have a lot of internal debates over what are the right ways to deal with these government contracts, but we still want to know when it starts
Crossing certain lines.
This concern by some alphabet workers is reflected in one of the guiding values of the newly formed alphabet Workers Union transparency, the belief that workers should know what they're working on and have the freedom to decline work that doesn't align with their values.
Another core value of the alphabet Workers Union is the propagation of a welcoming environment.
Free from harassment, bigotry, discrimination and retaliation regardless of age, caste, class country of origin, disability, gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.
Google does have a clear policy against workplace harassment and retaliation, but many workers over the years have claimed that these policies do not always live up to their intended purpose.
The two big moments that really kind of shifted a number of us towards directly trying to build a union were first the women's walkout.
I was one of the core organizers of the walkout, which, to be clear really involved the work of 1000s of people across the company.
The walkout was catalyzed by investigative reporting in the New York Times.
That told us that Google paid Andy Rubin who was in notorious sexual harasser, or somebody with credible claims of sexual assault, and that showed that Google not only didn't punish him for these credible claims, but gave him what we call a sexual harassment bonus of $90 million as part of his exit package.
It kind of led a lot of people to begin telling their stories as well.
So 20,000 people walked out around the globe and I think it's the largest labor action in tech today.
The second big event for us was the firing of five people.
On November in December of 2019.
For me that was really connected to a big issue because One of the people was one of the ones who shared internally about the contract that had to do with the Border Patrol agency.
And let me know that the work I'm doing is potentially starting to engage in this area that I don't feel morally okay with.
When asked about retaliation, a Google spokesperson said quote We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy to make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google.
We give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously and investigate all allegations of retaliation.
Still, accusations of retaliation continued to follow the tech giant, including an official complaint by the National Labor Relations Board that alleges Google illegally questioned employees about Protected Concerted activities.
In a statement from Google, Kara Silverstein, the director of people operations says quote, 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.
I think to an extent they're kinda just holding off and seeing where we go before they are making any firm directions or response.
And because our focus is so much more on talking to the workers, we aren't necessarily in a rush.
To like, get into regular sit down meetings, but we would love to engage with them if they hit the point where they are ready to start trying to carve out space for example voice.
So far the alphabet Workers Union has more than 800 members, less than 1% of the more than 200,000 alphabet workers across the world.
I think the job now is to build that union into something that is bold and capacious enough To fight for both the social justice demands and the bread and butter issues and to recognize that they're inseparable.
Alphabet isn't the only tech company facing a growing labor movement.
Amazon workers at a warehouse in Besomer, Alabama are preparing to vote on unionization after a lengthy battle with the tech giant over when and where to hold the vote.
Those votes are set to start being counted at the end of March.
We need to organize tech, because its power over our course of institutions is profound.
There's a lot more to the history of worker organizing and alphabet that we just didn't have time to cover in this video.
If you wanna learn more, the Alphabet Workers Union has a helpful history page full of links on their website.
Big thanks to CNET senior reporter Rich Nieva for his invaluable help on this video.
For the latest tech news, stay tuned to cnet.com I'm your host, Jesse Orrall.
Thank you so much for watching.