The activism brewing for the past couple of years at Google Inc finally surprised the corporate world on Monday, January 4, the first working day of 2021, with white-collar workers announcing forming a union.
The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), formed by employees of search engine giant Google, hopes to have a bigger role in the company’s decision making.
The AWU will be affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and was established with the help of the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA).
The CODE-CWA is a very strong organization, William B. Gould IV, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), told indica News.
Gould, the Charles A Beardsley Professor of Law, Emeritus at Stanford Law School, said the formation of a workers’ union at Google “is certainly a catalyst, but it is hard to know what will come of this.”
He added: “But it has to be viewed as having the potential for improving employees’ condition and create a focus upon employees.
“It will make human resources more defensive.”
AWU’s newly launched website says: “We are a group focused on advancing and defending the interests of the workers. We promote solidarity, democracy, and social and economic justice in the workplace, our communities, and society. We are a part of Local 1400 of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).”
The website also says that the union will be open to all employees and contractors at Google’s parent company.
Its goal will be to tackle ongoing issues like pay disparity, retaliation, and controversial government contracts.
Two of the main reasons behind the initiation of the union, sources in the know told indica News, is angst over handling of sexual harassment cases, and controversial contracts with the defense industry.
The company has been accused of retaliation on workers who organized employees in global walkouts against workplace harassment. The NLRB has also found the company guilty of union-busting.
“This union builds upon years of courageous organizing by Google workers,” Nicki Anselmo, a program manager at the search giant, told indica News.
“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,” Anselmo said.
Project Maven is an effort to use artificial intelligence (AI) to improve targeted drone strikes.
The project sparked protests among employees who saw the work as unethical. In 2018, the company decided not to renew its contract with Pentagon.
The joint press release states that Google began as a small tech company with a “Don’t Be Evil” mantra, but has quickly become one of the most influential companies in the world. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, now has more than 120,000 workers.
Kara Silverstein, director of People Operations at Google, responded to indica News‘ email request for comment on the union.
“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce,” Silverstein wrote.
“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.”
Gould said there have been a number of workers at Google who have raised flags; and there were unfair labor practices suits filed within the NLRB last year.
“I think this is quite new and there haven’t many unions but this is very important because of the visibility of this particular company,” Gould said.
He called this formation “unusual.”
“You expect to find insecurity among, say, bus drivers; not among professional tech workers in Silicon Valley.”
Gould believes that if leaders of the company (Alphabet) would had taken employees’ complaints seriously a couple of years ago there would not be a problem with the union formation.
“This has certainly taken a lot of people by surprise, including corporations,” Gould said.
“I think they have been slow to focus upon human resources and have a lot of complaints in the two-three years.”
The AWU website shows it has several Indian Americans as its members.
Raksha Muthukumar, a software engineer who joined Google in 2018, is one of them.
“The benefits [of joining the union] to me are the opportunity to stand beside my coworkers and know that they have my back,” Muthukumar told indica News.
“I feel more confident that as a queer woman of color, I have a recourse if I experience discrimination or retaliation,” she said.
“I feel empowered to raise my voice when I see Google doing things that don’t align with my ethics. I feel a sense of community with my coworkers where we can now have open conversations and support each other,” said Muthukumar, who came to the US from Chennai as a child with her parents.
Her father came to the US on an H-1B visa in 90.
AWU is a union open to all Alphabet workers — that includes cafeteria staff, contractors, translators, etc. Basically, anyone working for Alphabet in Canada & the USA is eligible.
“We plan to advocate for equity and non-discrimination through ethical treatment of all workers, as well as more ethical decisions in Google products and decisions,” Muthukumar said.
She works in the New York office of Google, and she said she enjoys her work.
“I like my team and my project. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about reforming Google instead of just quitting and leaving is because of those good things.”
“I was and am proud to be at Google, and I am equally proud to join AWU. “
Many Indian Americans were hesitant to talk about joining the union.
Muthukumar disagreed: “I’m not the only Indian by far in our union, you can see our membership page. [https://alphabetworkersunion.org/people/our-union/]”
But she said she understands people’s nervousness to join the union and hopes that will reduce over time as the union gains strength in numbers.
“I also understand the nervousness for marginalized people to take this position of risk, particularly people on a work visa or who have dependents, etc,” said Muthukumar.
“That said, we saw Dr Gebru fired last month for speaking up about diversity in the company. I feel safer with the support of my union because I will always speak up for what I believe in and that was going to be a risk before and after.
“I encourage Indian Americans to look at the work that EqualityLabs is doing regarding caste discrimination in Silicon Valley. Issues like these highlight why unionizing and solidarity is so important for our community,” she said.
Are her parents supportive of her decision? Muthukumar said her parents raised her to stand up for what she believes in and they are proud when she does.
“For much of my life, my dad was on an H-1B visa and I saw in my childhood as well as through my coworkers now that the fear of losing that visa opens up workers to exploitation,” Muthukumar said.
“Many on a visa fear speaking up and my hope is that our union can become a safe place to advocate for these kinds of issues. I hope the support of their colleagues will encourage more immigrant workers to speak up.”