Last December, Google fired AI researcher Timnit Gebru after she tried to be outspoken about unethical AI, which elevated public criticism of the company as well as internal dissent. Today, more than 225 Google employees announced they’ve created a union, which is a first for parent company Alphabet and a historic event for Silicon Valley.
The reveal came through a New York Times op-ed that tries to explain how a more organized workforce will help course-correct Google from within, after years of failing to do so through public pressure. After all, the company’s previous motto used to be “Don’t Be Evil” before it was changed to “Do The Right Thing” in 2015, and many Google employees increasingly feel like it’s been the opposite — a pursuit of higher profits for executives and investors in disregard of worker rights and the public good.
The newly formed union’s leaders mention several instances in the last few years where Google employees tried banding together to protest questionable choices made by Google executives.
For instance, in 2018 thousands of Google employees expressed their distaste to the public discovery of a partnership with the Pentagon to develop drone footage-analyzing AI. The company responded by developing a set of ethical guidelines for military partnerships, but that wasn’t enough to prevent several employees from leaving the company.
Later that year it was revealed that Google had protected ‘Father of Android’ Andy Rubin from allegations of sexual misconduct and had chosen to mask the scandal through an exit deal that involved a $90 million bonus. This was followed by a protest from 20,000 Googlers as well as a series of lawsuits from shareholders who found that other executives were similarly compensated as much as $240 million to leave after being accused of sexual misconduct. The sudden departure of Timnit Gebru for being critical of existing diversity and inclusion efforts was the last straw for some.
As of writing, Google parent Alphabet has 130,000 employees that work under various contractual terms, including temporary and part-time workers. According to a joint statement from the Communications Workers of America and the newly formed Alphabet Workers Union, all are eligible to become members of the AWU, as it is meant to be “a democratic and open organization.”
Kara Silverstein, who directs Alphabet’s people operations, said in a statement that “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.”
That will remain to be seen as Google isn’t exactly known for taking kindly to workers attempting to unionize. Back in December, the National Labor Relations Board filed a formal complaint against Google for several violations of the National Labor Relations Act, from surveilling employees to firing them as a way to discourage others from engaging in union activities.