400 Googlers have created one of the first 'white-collar unions' in Silicon Valley. Organizers say they want it to combat moral issues, not salaries

  • Google employees announced on Monday that they had formed a union, following several years of rising tensions between workers and managers.
  • The union will focus largely on workers' freedom and ethical concerns, though it will also pressure for better rights for contract workers.
  • A lot of people came to Google because it billed itself as this company that would not be evil, they would do good in the world even if it was at the expense of short-term gains," a union member told Business Insider.
  • "And we've seen that not be the case time and time again."
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In November 2019, Google fired four employees who had been involved in internal activism at the company, accusing them of violating its data security policies. Since then, a group of employees have been quietly building internal support for a labor union, and on Monday the Alphabet Workers Union made itself officially known.

With now more than 400 signatures, the group represents a small fraction of the 260,000-strong workforce of full-time employees and contract workers who work across Alphabet's subsidiaries. But it hopes that it will quickly amass more support now that it can campaign publicly.

"There is consequently a lot of hesitancy from some people," Raine Serrano, a Google software engineer and union spokesperson who helped organize efforts, told Business Insider. "But on the whole, what you find is that there is a lot more appetite for change than there is fear."

The union is the latest development in years of rising tensions between top brass and rank-and-file workers, which have included walkouts over Google's handling of sexual harassment cases and an artificial-intelligence program with the Pentagon.

However, the union doesn't plan to seek recognition from the National Labor Relations Board, which means it won't have collective bargaining rights with Google management, although it is supported by the Communications Workers of America. This structure reflects a less conventional union, which will focus largely on ethical issues and providing a structure for future activism, rather than bargaining for wages and benefits for employees.

"Part of what has really motivated this was the long history of worker activism at Google and that, for the most part, has not been about pay, but morality and ethics," said Serrano.

"Are these projects we should be working on? Are people being treated fairly? A lot of people came to Google because it billed itself as this company that would not be evil, they would do good in the world even if it was at the expense of short-term gains. And we've seen that not be the case time and time again."

"We've always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce," Kara Silverstein, Google's director of people operations, told Business Insider 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."

'Longevity and structure'

The union has not laid out specific demands, but says it wants to "give longevity and structure" to the kind of activism that has already taken place inside Google. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Alphabet Union executives Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw said Google's structure "needs to change."

"Discrimination and harassment continue," they wrote. "Alphabet continues to crack down on those who dare to speak out, and keep workers from speaking on sensitive and publicly important topics, like antitrust and monopoly power. For a handful of wealthy executives, this discrimination and unethical working environment are working as intended, at the cost of workers with less institutional power, especially Black, brown, queer, trans, disabled, and female workers."

One of the union's objectives will be to protect employees against retaliation, possibly by hiring legal support, Serrano said. It also plans to create a protected space for employees to organize and discuss efforts without fear of being monitored by Google management.

In December, Google's AI ethics co-lead Dr. Timnit Gebru said she was fired following a dispute over a research paper, which had culminated in her sending an email complaining about management to an internal employee resource group for women. That group was moderated, and Gebru was told her email was "inconsistent" with expectations of a manager.

"All these groups had really vibrant discussions for a long time, and recently that has been subject to very extreme moderation," said Serrano. 

While the union was in the works long before Gebru was ousted from Google, Serrano said the event caused a "hockey-stick growth" in signatures. "It was dozens of people within a week," she said. Another union spokesperson also said that Gebru's departure led to an increase in support in December.

'I'm in this fight with you all the way'

By forgoing formal recognition from a government labor board, the Alphabet Workers Union also is free to include Google's "shadow workforce" of contractors, who are employed by third-party agencies and often perform similar jobs to full-time employees.

The workers are often paid less than full-time employees and don't get access to the same lush benefits, such as comprehensive healthcare, that full-time staffers enjoy. 

[Temps, vendors, and contractors] are paid lower salaries, receive fewer benefits, and have little job stability compared with full-time employees, even though they often do the exact same work," wrote Koul and Shaw in the Times op-ed.

"They are also more likely to be Black or brown — a segregated employment system that keeps half of the company's work force in second-class roles. Our union will seek to undo this grave inequity."

The union has caused ripples inside and outside of Silicon Valley. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both tweeted support for the union on Monday. "I'm in this fight with you all the way," Warren wrote.

The union says there are "significantly" more full-time employees than contractors signed up to the AWU currently, but it hopes that will change.

"Right now most of our attention is focused on what's going to be required to onboard what we expect to be a large influx of new members," said Serrano.

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