Our company’s motto used to be “Don’t be evil.” An organized work force will help us live up to it.
By Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw
Ms. Koul and Mr. Shaw are, respectively, the executive chair and the vice chair of the Alphabet Workers Union.
On Nov. 1, 2018, at 11:10 a.m., some 20,000 Google employees, along with employees of Waymo, Verily and other Alphabet companies, stopped working and walked off the job in cities around the world. A week earlier, The New York Times reported that the company had paid tens of millions of dollars to two executives who had been accused of sexual misconduct toward our co-workers, staying silent about the alleged abuse and letting them walk away with no consequences.
People speaking at the protests that morning recounted their own experiences of harassment and discrimination at the company. In San Francisco, one woman held up a sign reading, “I reported and he got promoted.” Others read, “Happy to quit for $90 million, no sexual harassment required” and “Unfair workplaces create unfair platforms.”
We’d had enough.
The two of us are software engineers, and we were recently elected executive chair and vice chair of the Alphabet Workers Union, a group of more than 200 workers in the United States who believe our company’s structure needs to change.
For far too long, thousands of us at Google — and other subsidiaries of Alphabet, Google’s parent company — have had our workplace concerns dismissed by executives. Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of color.
Most recently, Timnit Gebru, a leading artificial intelligence researcher and one of the few Black women in her field, said she was fired over her work to fight bias. Her offense? Conducting research that was critical of large-scale AI models and being critical of existing diversity and inclusion efforts. In response, thousands of our colleagues organized, demanding an explanation. Both of us have heard from colleagues — some new, some with over a decade at the company — who have decided that working at Alphabet is no longer a choice they can make in good conscience.
Workers have mobilized against these abuses before. Organized workers at the company forced executives to drop Project Maven, the company’s artificial-intelligence program with the Pentagon, and Project Dragonfly, its plan to launch a censored search engine in China. Some of Alphabet’s subcontractors won a $15 minimum hourly wage, parental leave, and health insurance after an employee outcry. And the practice of forced arbitration for claims of sexual harassment was ended after the November 2018 walkout — albeit only for full-time employees, not contractors. A few months later, Google announced that it would end forced arbitration for employees for all claims.
To those who are skeptical of unions or believe that tech companies are more innovative without unions, we want to point out that these and other larger problems persist. Discrimination and harassment continue. 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 women workers. Each time workers organize to demand change, Alphabet’s executives make token promises, doing the bare minimum in the hopes of placating workers.
It’s not enough. Today, we’re building on years of organizing efforts at Google to create a formal structure for workers. So far, 226 of us have signed union cards with the Communications Workers of America — the first step in winning a recognized bargaining unit under U.S. law. In other words, we are forming a union.
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. We joined Alphabet because we wanted to build technology that improves the world. Yet time and again, company leaders have put profits ahead of our concerns. We are joining together — temps, vendors, contractors, and full-time employees — to create a unified worker voice. We want Alphabet to be a company where workers have a meaningful say in decisions that affect us and the societies we live in.
As union members, we have created an elected leadership and representative structure with dues-paying members. Our union will be open to all Alphabet workers, regardless of classification. About half of the workers at Google are temps, vendors or contractors. They 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. 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.
Everyone at Alphabet — from bus drivers to programmers, from salespeople to janitors — plays a critical part in developing our technology. But right now, a few wealthy executives define what the company produces and how its workers are treated. This isn’t the company we want to work for. We care deeply about what we build and what it’s used for. We are responsible for the technology we bring into the world. And we recognize that its implications reach far beyond the walls of Alphabet.
Our union will work to ensure that workers know what they’re working on, and can do their work at a fair wage, without fear of abuse, retaliation or discrimination. When Google went public in 2004, it said it would be a company that “does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.” Its motto used to be “Don’t be evil.”
We will live by that motto. Alphabet is a powerful company, responsible for vast swaths of the internet. It is used by billions of people across the world. It has a responsibility to prioritize the public good. It has a responsibility to its thousands of workers and billions of users to make the world a better place. As Alphabet workers, we can help build that world.
Parul Koul is the executive chair of the Alphabet Workers Union. She is a software engineer who joined Google in 2019. Chewy Shaw is the vice chair of the Alphabet Workers Union. He is a site reliability engineer who has been at Google since 2011.