On Monday, January 25th, it was announced that Google employees would be unionizing across the globe. This news came a few weeks after workers at other units of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. formed a labor union, effectively joining offices across the U.S. and Canada.
The new union is called Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) and is largely affiliated with another labor union called Communications Workers of America, which represents workers in telecommunications and media across the U.S. and Canada. Both of these coalitions stand with the increased demands of Google employees for changes in policies regarding pay, harassment, and ethics. However, AWU has a different approach in how to bring change regarding these issues in comparison to other labor unions. The new union wants to put pressure on both Google and Alphabet Inc. to give structure and longevity to activism not only at Google but also its sister companies under Alphabet Inc. and other big tech companies in Silicon Valley, such as Facebook and Apple. The idea is to keep the pressure on management so that workers can force change on several workplace issues. The movement is likely to escalate tensions with top officials of these companies in the future.
According to the New York Times, Kara Silverstein, director of people operations at Google, encourages: “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.”
However, this sentiment has often been challenged by outsiders. Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara opposes Silverstein: “These companies find it a bone in their throat to even have a small group of people who say, ‘We work at Google and have another point of view.” It is obvious that Google’s actions don’t match its words due to the high number of people the company has fired due to differing opinions.
NPR states that, just back in December of 2020, Google spied on and illegally fired two employees who had been trying to organize a union and were spreading awareness of several issues among their fellow employees. Sexual harassment, the company’s involvement with the U.S. government, and its treatment of its large contract workforce had all been issues that were the core of the activism trying to gain ground at Google. But the company squashed these efforts and failed to keep its promise of protecting its workers’ labor rights, and this has developed as a trend over the past few years. Federal officials have said in the past that Google has wrongfully fired its employees many more times in the past. Timnit Gebru, a revered artificial intelligence researcher and proud Black woman, was fired after criticizing the company’s method of hiring minorities and the biases built into A.I. systems. Two other employees were fired earlier that year after they denounced Google’s work with immigration authorities. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
Despite Google’s actions, it is encouraging to see so many workers around the world stand up for the rights of their peers. In 2018, demonstrations were held in several countries, including India, Singapore, Switzerland, and England. In New York, over 3,000 people participated in the march. They were protesting Google’s management of sexual harassment in the company after it had been reported that it had paid male executives accused of harassment millions of dollars in exit packages.
Hopefully, standing up for the rights of employees is something that can be seen in other tech companies in the future, as workers at other companies such as Netflix, Apple, and Facebook have often been quiet on issues such as diversity, pay discrimination, and sexual harassment in the tech workforce. Unions have a long list of benefits for all workers including easier access to social insurance programs, more equitable distributions of power, standard pay rates and legislated labour protections. Importantly, experts also state that collective organization among the workforce is integral to a healthy and thriving democracy. It is safe to say that unionizing is key to a more equal and just future.
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