(Google) Unionizing: A resurging trend?

In a previous post, I wrote about ATEAC (Google’s external advisory board for AI projects) and the mysterious circumstances behind it being dismantled. In somewhat related (and unprecedented) news, two employees at Google just announced Alphabet Workers Union (AWU)— their attempt at holding the company more ethically accountable.

In an Op-Ed via the New York Times, this union was formally announced and an invitation was extended to all Alphabet employees. At the time of release, the union had about only 200 members in the US and through this post, I want to breakdown why this is potentially great news.

Why now?

This isn’t the first time workers have mobilized together against Google’s morally reprehensible projects, so why is this different? From its past, I can point to four definitive moments where Google employees mobilized to hold the company more accountable to what they considered ethical lapses.

Two were in response to projects which many employees believed to be ethically questionable. These projects were code-named Dragonfly and Maven. Project Dragonfly was a search engine that engineers allegedly were building for China that abided by their censorship laws. The second was Project Maven, where AI was being developed for the US military to autonomously track drone targets. To both projects, depending on how you view these issues, there are certain benefits. For Dragonfly, if you aren’t so keen on freedom of speech and free movement of ideas then maybe this doesn’t seem so bad. Especially in a world where fake news was increasingly wreaking havoc on society, one could empathize with such a viewpoint. Similarly, Project Maven was seen as a way to reduce casualty of the military in conflict zones. To say that projects are a sign of a company sacrificing its values for profit (as many media outlets would put it) would be to paint an incomplete picture. I do believe that there were certain merits to these projects but at the end of the day, I personally, don’t think such projects should have been developed. To me, this is because the cons outweigh the pro and by a margin that no economic gain would justify. Many Google employees seemed to agree and protested with petitions and walk-outs.

The third event was when a top Google executive got an exit package valued at about $90 million despite being accused of sexual assault. This enraged workers and rightfully so. This time, globally, Google employees were engaged. Project Maven and Dragonfly mainly got US employees to care but this time was different. In a coordinated effort, on the 1st of November, 2018 about 20,000 Google employees engaged in a worldwide walk-out demanding that executives be more transparent with their sexual harassment report and that in the future they don’t set such dangerous precedents by paying out executives with exorbitant sums of money.

The final event that broke the camel’s back was the controversial firing of Timnit Gebru. As a leading artificial intelligence researcher (and one of the few Black women in her field) her work on algorithmic bias was highly relevant to Google. A paper that she was working on seemingly highlighted the risks of large language models such as possibly dangerous biases and the potential ability to deceive people. As a company that has made significant investments in language models (for at least Google Translate) such news wouldn’t give the public the confidence that such development must be undertaken. As a result, to stifle her voice, she was fired. Other employees didn’t take lightly to such action, choosing to organize another protest.

With these growing concerns, I think it was inevitable that employees would formalize their coordinated mobilization and unions seemed like an obvious way to go. I think Google was expecting this too, given that they hired IRI Consulting, a company that provides anti-unionization services.

Going global

In just a week since the announcement, registration numbers in just US and Canada offices grew to 700 while efforts across the world are beginning to pick up steam. In another subsequent announcement, Alpha Global was revealed. This is a union alliance between workers from 10 different countries.

While it’s important to unite Google employees across the globe, holding the company accountable may prove to be a logistical nightmare. Sure such a move will help in building negotiating power of the employees but how do you consistently enact a moral/ethical code? Currently, there isn’t any universally-accepted ethical handbook. This will often mean falling back on relevant legislation. As these projects span geographic boundaries, how do you being to consistently enact laws across countries?  

Though the exact numbers at the moment may seem low, this move garnered sufficient media attention. It will likely result in the enrollment of a significant number of employees. Additionally, Alpha Global’s affiliation with UNI Global Union should prove useful in the future. Representing 20 million workers worldwide, UNI brings with it resources, bargaining power, and experience to lead such a movement at least in the short run.

If this movement gains enough traction then the union should have sufficient bargaining power to influence decisions on ethically grey projects but is this a perfect solution? Trade unions have been notorious for pushing a political agenda that often works against innovation. For Google to retain top talent from the Bay Area they would need to obey the demands of these employees. Demographic data suggests that these Bay Area employees predominantly support the Democratic Party. How does Google toe the line between retaining top talent and ensuring that it remains politically neutral?  

An obsolete medium?

Trade unions are a tricky term. Often associated with creating rigid labor forces and promoting inefficient use of resources, they have in recent years become a taboo especially in competitive capitalistic markets. Often seen as a drag on productivity which can eventually lead to economical decline, Silicon Valley and Big Tech companies, in general, have shunned trade unions. Consequently, they have often seen the lowest union membership rates amongst many sectors in an already falling category. This is in part to two key union avoidance strategies: early-adoption of gig workers and being economically alluring.

The latter reason should come as no surprise. For years working for FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) was highly coveted. These companies attracted top talent not just because they work at the cutting-edge but also because they have an edge when it comes to being able to compensate their workers handsomely. This generous pay and free perks don’t necessarily need to keep them at their jobs but are often enough to avoid unions because if there are sufficient alternatives in the Big Tech job market then the workers can easily switch and don’t need a union to advocate for them.

In regards to adopting gig-workers, this has been a novel move that other industries are also picking up on since the pandemic forced remote working. Essentially by hiring these temp workers, these companies build a culture of replaceability which may stifle dissent but will definitely result in weak bargaining power for unions.

So for these reasons it was surprising to hear that Google workers, renowned for their creativity and ability to innovate, were adopting such an antiquated model. However, I found it interesting how they shuffled past this PR hurdle. For all administrative purposes, Alphabet Workers Union and Alpha Global are unions. They are however trying to draw a very clear distinction— the traditional economic motive is largely absent. Their goal is predominantly to discuss social issues such as military applications of AI and other such ethical conundrums, not matters of pay. The main reason they have chosen to be a trade union is that this is the only way through current bureaucratic methods for employees to have collective bargaining power.

Template for the future?

For so long lawmakers have struggled to keep up with innovation, much less string up up-to-date legislation to mitigate the harms that many of these technologies could possess. The idea of self-accountability by Big-Tech leaders after every Congressional hearing has been a letdown so far. While hearing the same broken promises get old, I do believe that there is some merit to self-accountability. I just think that these unions will provide the right fire to make these leaders act in accordance to their promises.

In general, I prefer this libertarian path because I believe this will maximize innovation while keeping the company in check through a system that lawmakers simply won’t be able to emulate. With internal employees well-versed with the context of the dilemmas, I think they will be a better judge of the moral implications than your average senator. I find this solution to be a neater way of solving this issue. This puts the onus on the companies to regulate themselves rather than out-of-loop lawmakers. Needing to toe the line between keeping its top talent satisfied and managing corporate interests I think this strategy can be adopted by other tech companies facing similar ethical struggles too.

Bottom Line

Trade unions aren’t a perfect solution but on paper, it seems like it is capable of being a lot more proactive at holding Big Tech companies accountable than lawmakers are. Often Congressional hearings are only called in reaction to certain incidents. Such a move shifts our attitudes towards dealing with ethical projects more proactively.

Going forward, I still think there a few details that need to be ironed out. Consistent enactment of an ethical code and assurance that these unions do not abuse their power are just some concerns that will need to be clarified before it becomes a viable alternative to other forms of ethical accountability. I am however still optimistic that such a scheme could be the blueprint to solve Big Tech’s “Don’t Be Evil” crisis.

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