On Monday, more than 400 Google employees and contractors announced that they had formed the Alphabet Workers Union, a significant milestone in the tech worker movement at the company and in Silicon Valley.
Previously, efforts to unionize the highly paid workers at Big Tech firms have struggled. But in the past few years, workers have increasingly called for change, particularly at Google. Some of the search engine giant’s employees have protested the company’s contracts with the Department of Defense and Customs and Border Protection and have pushed back against a project to build a censored search engine for China. In 2018, Google’s worker discontent saw its largest eruption when more than 20,000 employees walked out over Google’s handling of sexual harassment cases. Most recently, outraged employees spoke out against the way top AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru was forced out of Google in December.
Amid its workforce’s increasingly outspoken activism, Google has fired some employees and allegedly retaliating against others. The same day Gebru was pushed out, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Google had likely violated labor law when it fired two workers involved in organizing in November 2019.
“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce,” said Kara Silverstein, Director of People Operations at Google, when reached by email for comment. “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.”
Unlike traditional unions, where employees band together and negotiate a contract with a company’s management that’s often focused on financial demands, the Alphabet Workers Union will be what’s known as a minority union, without a contract. Instead, its organizers aim to use the union to create a democratic structure for voicing demands and supporting workers when they have concerns. The Alphabet Workers Union is part of the larger Communication Workers of America union, which has members in industries like media and telecommunications.
To understand more about the union’s motives and goals, I spoke to one of its elected officials and another member who has long been involved in Google’s worker movement. Chewy Shaw, a software engineer focused on site reliability who has worked at Google since 2011, is the executive vice chair of the union’s executive council. Isaac Clerencia, another site reliability engineer, has been at Google since 2010.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
A culture shift plants the seeds for a union
Fast Company: How and why did each of you get involved in the unionizing efforts?
Chewy Shaw: When I got to Google in 2011, it really did feel like the culture was one that was protected. People could speak up about any complaints that they had, say that they think that the execs are completely off base and are completely disrespecting some community in how they’re acting—and say that to the executives. And that was okay.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen different people who’ve been speaking up for values getting pushed out of the company and retaliated against within the company. It’s really made me feel like the only way that this will continue to be a safe place for me is if there’s some protection for the people who keep speaking up. And so I decided at that point that I wanted to get involved in creating some sort of a structure that can make it safe for people to speak up and move things forward.
The only way that this will continue to be a safe place for me is if there’s some protection for the people who keep speaking up.”
Isaac Clerencia: I followed quite the similar path. I joined Google back in 2010, and I liked Google at first. Because as Chewy said, it felt like anything that you disagreed with, you could basically talk directly to leadership. And if you had a good argument and you were able to convince your coworkers, you would be able to sway even big decisions. But then, a few scandals started to appear about even the good times—things like the fact that Google paid Andy Rubin a huge sum of money after leaving under the circumstances that he left [Rubin was paid $90 million in a payout package after Google had found him guilty of sexual misconduct, as the New York Times reported in 2018.]
Even back then, things were not as good as they looked. In recent years, retaliation and so on has been more obvious. Avenues for giving feedback to leadership have been diminishing. And it crystallized when last year five people were fired by Google for organizing-related activities. And it wasn’t enough to just sign letters and write letters. We need some real power that we build and is consistent and is here to stay.
A democratic structure for change
FC: People have been organizing at Google for years now, and those efforts have forced at least some change. For instance, after the 2018 Google walkout, executives agreed to end forced arbitration for claims of sexual harassment for employees (though not contractors). What has been the limit of that kind of nonstructured approach and why do you think a union can push your goals forward?
CS: One of the biggest things is that the execs have been able to take away our momentum very easily by saying nice words. When a lot of the momentum is built up, that’s around one quick moment, like the women’s walkout. We had a really great moment based around an article that got a lot of people energized and ready to fight. Executives gave some nice statements, but then proceeded to ignore the majority of the demands in the walkout.
It wasn’t enough to just sign letters and write letters. We need some real power.”
A number of us took a look at that and were like, how did this happen? How do we have this many people who care and this little change actually happen? By having a more meaningful, consistent structure that lasts, these are not just one-off campaigns. These are things that we can continue to press on and keep pushing for. We can check up on them as they give their updates, and make sure that there’s actually meaningful progress rather than just backing off and assuming that they are going to make the changes that we want.
FC: Are the unaddressed demands from the women’s walkout top priorities as you move forward? How are you thinking about the next step, now that you’ve gone public?
CS: The real thing for us right now is making sure that our process is as democratic as possible. The walkout demands were put together by some really great leaders in the community, but they also were not done in a strictly democratic process. And so we definitely ensure those types of things go through a democratic process, so we have a meaningful group of people who all strongly sign on to pushing for these demands. And then we think it’ll be a lot easier as well to motivate people, to keep on pressing for change.
We are definitely going to be taking some from the different demands. We actually took from several of the different letters and demands in formulating our mission statement and the op-ed and where our focuses are.
FC: You both have described a culture shift since started at Google over a decade ago. Much has been made of Google retiring its “don’t be evil” catchphrase. How do you start to rebuild the trust that has been lost? What does an ideal relationship between Google management and the union look like?
CS: Ideally, the union actually becomes something that reduces a lot of the load on the executives right now. Part of the problem is we are literally dealing with some of the most difficult problems that people are facing—like figuring out how do you deal with privacy on the internet, figuring out how do you balance out the different interests that people have on YouTube. These are not simple things that can be solved with a quick decision, but the executives are being pressured to give quick decisions.
We’d like to have a say on these complex issues that actually impact the values our company portrays in the world.”
I think that the ideal structure is that we’re able to come together, set up all the processes necessary to get a combined answer of what do the collected workers think is the right way to follow the values in each of these complex problems, present that to the executives, and actually give them a plan for it. And I think that way we can actually work with them. Executives then can continue to make decisions in situations where it is a nice and simple thing. We’re not taking away all power from executives, but we’d like to have a say on these complex issues that actually impact the values our company portrays in the world.
A controversial ouster becomes the spark for unionization
FC: In December, prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru said that Google fired her over a research paper that was critical of some of Google’s algorithms (Google maintains that she resigned). Thousands of Googlers and members of the research community signed a petition protesting her ouster. Did that outcry play into the union’s decision to go public now?
CS: This last month has been a crazy rally for us. Her firing was largely about [ethical concerns she voiced], at the same time as the NLRB filed charges saying that they also believe that Google was illegally acting in ways to try to stop workers from organizing. That became such a direct signal to a lot of people that this is the right decision. A lot of people who are on the fence then were ready that week to just be like, yeah, this is what we need.
By the end of the month, we pulled it together. So [Gebru’s firing] was a large part of it. It wasn’t the only thing that was at play, but it was a large part of what made it really seem like strong timing and really viable for us to get the numbers that we wanted.
FC: Gebru’s situation has sparked a lot of conversation about the role of worker organizing to protect people who are speaking out. How do you envision this union filling that role?
CS: It’s tricky when we can’t directly stop somebody from getting fired. All we can do is we can make it a very strong worker response when that happening. We can make it become something that the executives cannot ignore. We can support the worker who’s going through that situation and help them to really make sure that their life is not torn apart because of these highly political decisions that they’re kind of caught in the middle of. And we can really work towards making sure that the issue that those workers spoke up for continues to move forward, even after that worker has been driven out so that them using their voice in this way is not in vain. It doesn’t end with them getting kicked out.
The keys to building power at Google
FC: The union membership is only a few hundred people right now. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to Alphabet’s workforce, especially when you take into account all of the people who are on contract. What kind of impact can a small group of workers have on a global conglomerate?
IC: We are the ones making Google the money, right? Google is the whole of its workers. And we are the ones who write the code. If this breaks, we fix it. We’re the drivers who drive workers to work and the cooks who cook food. We are the ones making the money. So we have a lot of power, especially if the union keeps growing as it’s growing. I think we are the ones that produce the value that Google has, so we’ll have a lot of power even if we are only a subset of workers.
Google is the whole of its workers. And we are the ones who write the code.”
FC: What has the reaction been from your colleagues so far? How are you planning to recruit more people, especially given Google’s history of retaliating against organizers?
IC: I think there are three different phases of growth. The first one is the one that we have been going through. It’s been a year of work in secret precisely because of that fear of retaliation. We didn’t go public until we had strength in numbers. We don’t think Google will fire 250 people. They can’t get away with it in our opinion.
Over the next few days, we’re in a different phase: Now we are public. Maybe there were lots of people who were eager to join. We’ll see how far that gets us. When that growth is gone, we’ll have to go through how to reach out to other areas of the company. But we are pretty optimistic about the growth in the next few days.
CS: With those that I’ve been talking with, there been a number of people who have been scared of retaliation. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked with as a coworker has been in support of this concept of us having a union. The question is just whether or not they were ready to be part of the risk while we didn’t have a public name and we weren’t doing it in the name of a union. I think now that we have switched into this role, it will open the door for a number of those people to feel a lot more comfortable joining something that is directly declared to exist rather than something that they were afraid their manager would secretly find out that they’re in.
FC: How are you thinking about protecting people from retaliation going forward? Even if Google is not going to fire 250 people, this is still a hugely powerful company with deep pockets and financial interests at stake. Both of you have been very public about your support, which certainly takes a lot of courage. Do you plan to create a mechanism for people to stay anonymous while still being part of the union?
CS: I think one of the meaningful elements of us having such a diverse group is that it also means that we each have different risk factors and we can leverage that. And that’s what we’re trying to do now. There are a number of us who do feel comfortable putting our faces out there, but there are also a number—often because they have a shorter term contract rather than full employment—who feel like that if they put their face out there, they’re screwed. We don’t want to force anybody to out themselves. We do want to offer support in any way that we can. We are having a number of difficult discussions about what are the ways that we can make sure that we are protecting different groups that we see as having a higher risk profile.
But at the end of the day, we don’t have the power to stop somebody from being fired. We’re focusing on making it so that when they fire people, it has the most minimal impact on the movement. Then, it’s not a viable decision for the company to keep firing people because it won’t change anything.
IC: I think that’s also where the [union] structure comes. Of the people who organized the walkout, both of them are no longer in the company because they were fired. I used to have a group of people that I did some organizing with, and I think four of them have left. They were very happy today to hear about the union and posted probably on Twitter, but they’re no longer here. Having the union is a way to make the cost of Google firing someone much higher than the actual benefit they get.
Uplifting marginalized voices
FC: Something that comes up often on your website and in the written testimonies of your members is this idea of a culture of care. What does a culture of care mean in this context and how you plan to create this within the union and at Google generally? How does that impact the structure of the union being both highly paid full-time employees as well as contract workers?
CS: One of the benefits of not structuring around one specific negotiation is that we don’t need to contend with the initial questions of which group the union focus its attention on. Instead, we’re a union that focuses on building people’s voices up. And since we’re able to really create avenues for people to speak up and get their voices heard, we can make it so that the barrier of entry for groups that feel like they are being ignored is much lower. Within our articles, we’ve made it so that if somebody gets 10% of the union to agree that a referendum should be taken up by the union, then we have to take it to a vote. We have to make sure everybody sees it.
We can use that to allow smaller groups to really be able to get attention, get their voices heard, and really get themselves into a position where they can more meaningfully argue the case of why they think it would be useful for us to organize around a particular issue. So I think that helps keep things led by the membership rather than just simply led by the executive council. We don’t want to end up in a situation where it’s seven people making the decisions for the whole group. As much as possible we want to make it easy for the group to communicate and come to an agreement.
FC: Many unions today, including Fast Company‘s union, are focused around financial terms and improving people’s pay and benefits. That’s the traditional way of thinking about what a union is and does. But the Alphabet Workers Union is a minority union, which means it’s not bargaining for those kind of terms for all workers. Why did you decide to be a noncontract union? Why is it important to move beyond the traditional mode of thinking about labor organizing, especially in tech?
IC: I can speak for myself on why I joined the union. I think I’m fairly paid and I don’t have any concerns about that area, although that’s not the case for some of my coworkers, like the subcontractors who have way less benefits on paper than I do. But from that point of view, I’m happy. I am concerned with mostly two things. One is having to work on something that I’m not ethically okay with. In the past there were some troubles with Dragonfly, Google’s search engine for China. Someone on my team was basically inadvertently working on it. They ended up collaborating on it when they didn’t even know what they were doing.
I don’t know if that member of my team had concerns or not about it, but as a worker, I should have the right to know what I’m working on. I don’t want to discover that suddenly my work from last month is now being used for some military work or police contracts. You should know how your work is going to be used.
In addition, Google and tech companies in general have a disproportionate impact on society at large. Google is mostly driven by profit. The “don’t be evil” was dropped. It’s [difficult to balance] profit and ethics. [The union] can provide that counterbalance to the purely for-profit motive.
Arguing over whether or not we use the word ‘union’ is kind of silly.”
CS: We weren’t really intending to try to come up with anything necessarily revolutionary or new in any particular way . . . We have a number of shared concerns, and we would like to work together to find meaningful ways to use the fact that we work here and are actually part of how this is operating to change the way our company is moving. Working with collective action, as workers, on an agenda set by the workers themselves? That describes a union. At some point, we realized that arguing over whether or not we use the word “union” is kind of silly, because no matter what we’re focusing on using collective action to try to build our way up.
Right now, Communication Workers of America is willing to work directly with us, giving us a lot of support, but not telling us what we have to do—letting us create our own structure that makes sense for the problems that we’re facing. This doesn’t necessarily mean every union needs to shift into the direction that we’re going, but we are looking at every tool in our arsenal to try to figure out how can we protect those of us at our company who we feel are being mistreated and how we can make sure that our company follows through on its values. Being a union of organized workers seems the clearest way for us to do that.