U is for Union: Google employees unite against bad business practices and working conditions

January 24, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Over 200 Google and Alphabet Inc. employees have formed the first union at a major tech company, following years of staff protests.

What does this mean?

The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) hopes to protect its members from firings and other forms of retaliation, as part of the Communications Workers of America labour group. Members will pay dues of 1% of their total compensation, allowing the group to hire support staff and address the company in a more assertive manner. AWU programme manager Nicki Anselmo states that they will use a new “sustainable structure to ensure that our shared values as Alphabet employees are respected”.

Unfortunately, as Alphabets workforce is over 130,000 people, this is a minority union, which won’t force Google into negotiations. As they are not looking for formal recognition from the federal government, their position is further weakened. Chewy Shaw, the Vice-Chair of AWU, explains their optimism as “small fractions of (the) workforce protested successfully” changing Google’s policies. Google’s Director of people operations, Kara Silverstein has said it will “continue engaging directly with all our employees”.

What's the big picture effect?

Google employees have been challenging their employers for years. In November 2018, over 20,000 Google employees, which equated to around 24% of the company, across 50 cities protested the handling of sexual harassment and misconduct complaints by the company. The following November, four employees, later known as the “Thanksgiving Four” were allegedly fired for breaking security and safety rules by exchanging or accessing information on projects they were not working on. As Google previously had an open operations policy whereby information was shared freely, it is understandable why the U.S. National Labour Regulations Board has accused Google of wrongful termination in an ongoing investigation, which could see Google publicly admitting to violating labour laws. This becomes more apparent when considering that these employees had previously spoken out against Google, publicly protesting its policies. They claim that Google unlawfully monitored and questioned employees about their union activity.

One Union member, Alex Garowara says Google has “lost its ethics”, from working on unethical military drone projects to the high volume of temporary and external contract employees. This is a stark contrast to the existing reputation of tech companies who are often praised for their modern thinking, having more benefits for employees than traditional employers, such as gym memberships and free meals. 

This comes as a further blow to Google as it is already facing three antitrust lawsuits from the Justice Department, arguing against the monopoly it seems to have created. They believe that Google has used multimillion-dollar business deals, such as those with Samsung and Apple, to make it the default search engine which violates antitrust laws. Google has denied breaking any laws, likening their situation to buying shelf space at a store and emphasising the fact that individuals can choose other search engines if they want to. Though they have acknowledged the definition of Google as a verb in the dictionary, which contributes towards its monopoly over other search engines. It is thought that the trial will not take place until 2023.

Google is not the only tech company to be hit with lawsuits. Facebook faced lawsuits following their purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp. There are investigations into Amazon and Apple as well, suggesting change is coming. This is particularly significant considering how much harder small companies have been affected by the current pandemic. Google then, is one of many companies who will be under scrutiny this year creating speculation over how the company will adapt. The role of the AWU in this change remains to be seen.

Report written by Lauren Kent

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