Abstract cover image for "Now I Know My ABCs" - a radial image with a Google sign

Now I Know My ABCs: A Conversation with Two Organizers from the Alphabet Workers Union

Over the past few years, Google has become an epicenter for white-collar tech worker organizing. In January 2021, a group of organizers at the company announced the formation of a “solidarity union” called the Alphabet Workers Union. (Since a corporate restructuring in 2015, Google’s parent company is called Alphabet, and Google is technically a subsidiary.) A solidarity union, also known as a noncontract union or a minority union, does not seek exclusive representation rights over the workplace through an election facilitated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Instead, it’s a members-only organization that aims to coordinate collective action outside of the traditional collective bargaining process. 

The Alphabet solidarity union is the first of its kind in the industry, and offers a potential model for developing formal organizing structures within Big Tech workplaces. Its arrival was greeted with a wave of media coverage, tweets of support from Bernie Sanders and other national politicians, and general enthusiasm in labor circles. Still, the union is not without its critics, both inside and outside the company. We sat down with two organizers from the Alphabet Workers Union, Christopher Schmidt and Honey Rosenbloom, to talk about how the effort got started, where the challenges lie, and what comes next.

How did the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) get started? And how do its origins fit into the broader history of collective action by white-collar workers at Google?

CS: When people ask me how long I’ve been in the union, it’s always a difficult question to answer. Because the question is really, “When did the union become a union?”

I’ve been part of Google since 2014 and participated in various internal advocacy efforts over the years. But at some point, it became clear to me that the old methods for making change were becoming less effective. It was no longer the case that you could write a petition, send it around, bring it to a VP, and have them say, “Okay, I hear you. We’re going to follow through on that.” 

I remember feeling this shift particularly during the fallout over the James Damore memo in 2017. [1] Rightwing websites were orchestrating attacks against specific Googlers based on leaked information, to the point where some of the targeted individuals literally hired private security. When we tried to get Google to take action, management told us it wasn’t a real concern. They told us it wasn’t something to worry about. 

For me, that was the moment when I really started to feel like Google was no longer working with us, no longer protecting us—and maybe never had been. So if Google’s not going to help, how do we help ourselves? 

The next year, 2018, is when white-collar collective action at Google broke into public view. That summer, workers succeeded in forcing management to cancel the Project Maven contract with the Pentagon, after a monthslong internal campaign. And in November, 20,000 workers walked out of fifty Google offices around the world to protest sexism and racism at the company.

CS: There was also a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the public eye. For me personally, the most poignant moment came during the Carlos Maza/Steven Crowder controversy in June 2019. [2] About ten of us got together in the Cambridge office to set up a table at our local happy hour. We had people sign up and put their names on a list to say, “I’m upset about this. I want a Moma badge that says this is not appropriate. [3] I want to give money to pro-LGBT charities to try to make up for the kind of problems that Google is causing.” 

Those conversations were where AWU started for me. We weren’t calling ourselves a union yet. But we were starting to have one-on-ones with our coworkers to try to understand their concerns. 

Those conversations looked different in different offices, though. If you asked someone from Mountain View or Seattle or Boulder how AWU started, they’d all give you different answers. In Mountain View, there was already a group that had come together around the walkout. They were having weekly meetings where people were continuing to gather to talk about workplace issues, and the core of AWU formed out of those. In Seattle, AWU evolved out of organizing around climate issues.

You said that for you and your colleagues in the Cambridge office, the summer of 2019 was a turning point. That was the same year that Google hired IRI Consultants, a union-busting firm. Then, in November and December 2019, management fired five white-collar workers for organizing. What effect did these retaliations have?

CS: They made our conversations larger. We went from having five people in those discussions to twenty-five, then a lot more. 

The firings in 2019 opened people’s eyes to the fact that we needed to start doing things differently. We couldn’t communicate on corp. [4] They were shutting down communication pipelines, and people were at risk just for participating in certain conversations. It’s clear that we needed a different approach. And a lot of people felt that way, which created the opportunity to do something different. 

HR: I haven’t been involved with our union for as long as Chris has been. I only came to Google in 2018. But I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the direction the company was taking. And it definitely felt like in the wake of the 2019 firings, we needed to do something that could take the spirit of collective action that had been developing for years at Google and formalize it in some way.

Why did you choose to formalize it in the way you did? Why create a noncontract “solidarity union,” and why partner with the Communications Workers of America (CWA)? Why did you think that this path was ultimately the most promising one? 

HR: I think “solidarity union” is a bit of a misnomer. All unions are solidarity unions at their heart. They’re always about workers coming together and standing by one another. And that’s all we’re doing here. AWU is a way to continue the fight we’ve been having and to bring all of the people whose labor makes Alphabet function into that fight. 

That’s one of the biggest strengths of a noncontract union: that we’re able to organize across all of the different types of workers at Alphabet, from FTEs to TVCs. [5] We’re able to break down all of these different structures that have been set up that keep us apart. And an NLRB-style contract union wouldn’t let us do that. It wouldn’t let us build that base of power. 

CS: There’s no point in history where someone has tried to have a union election with 200,000 people. You would spend a decade arguing about bargaining units and who’s included and who’s a supervisor and who’s this and that. The reality is we have problems today. We have problems now. 

And as Honey says, a noncontract union enables those of us with greater relative privilege to advocate on behalf of those with less. In tech, we have a caste system: full-timers and contractors. The contractors, who are most marginalized, are also often least able to organize because they’re locked into silos where they can’t even talk to other workers. They’re also at higher risk of retaliation. I’m a senior software engineer who has been at the company for six years. I want to help the underpaid preschool teachers at the Mountain View campus, the data center workers who don’t have sick time, the Waymo drivers who are driving people around during Covid. We’re a trillion-dollar company with a pile of money in the bank—we should do the right thing and keep people safe and protected. 

As for why we went with CWA, they had a lot of knowledge that could help us because Emma Kinema cofounded Game Workers Unite and had been organizing with video game industry workers for a long time. [6] The game industry is quite similar to tech. They have the same dual class structure that we do.

You publicly announced AWU on January 4, 2021. Why did you launch when you did? What decisions went into the timing? 

CS: At some point, we had to launch. Having conversations in secret was becoming harder. We were tapped out on our networks and felt that the only way to continue expanding was to go public. And what we saw is that as soon as we said, “Okay, we’re going to go public, here’s the date,” a lot of folks who had been on the fence stepped up and became part of the success of our launch. 

Also, Google pays out bonuses in mid-January. If you’re working at Google on December 31 and you are receiving a bonus that year, you will receive your bonus whether you’re employed after that date or not. That means that early January is when people generally leave Google. But after we launched, a number of people reached out to say, “I was actually going to talk to my manager on Tuesday and tell them I’m leaving. But the fact that AWU exists means that I’m still here.”

HR: Yeah, I was definitely one of those folks who was actively searching for work outside. I got so depressed working at Google that I had to be on medical leave for a bit. But when I came back, the situation didn’t improve. So I started looking for a new job. Then a friend of mine reached out to me about a week after Dr. Timnit Gebru’s firing and was like, “Hey, we are working on this thing. We’re about to go public. I know that you have experience organizing. Would you want to be involved?” [7] And I thought, “Wow, this changes everything.”

Dr. Gebru was fired in early December, and AWU launched a month later in early January. Did her termination play a role in your decision to go public when you did?

CS: I think we picked the date of the launch approximately two hours before we heard that Dr. Gebru had been fired. We immediately reached out to members of Dr. Gebru’s team to offer support, and found a lot of enthusiasm for AWU as a result of what had happened. But the firing also had a broader impact, far beyond the research organization. It reminded me of the reaction after the 2019 firings. When something like that happens, it brings people together. 

Challenges and Critiques

You said that one of the virtues of the solidarity union model is that you can embrace a wall-to-wall industrial unionism approach and involve both FTEs and TVCs in the union. But I would imagine there are significant challenges to organizing across these boundaries. We’re talking about many different types of jobs, with vastly different kinds of pay, benefits, and working conditions. And in the time of Covid, you have to find a way to bridge those divides in the absence of face-to-face conversations within a physical office environment. How do you think about these challenges? How do you try to overcome them?

CS: Well, first, it’s important to remember that just because someone is subcontracted doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing different kinds of work. There are a lot of TVCs at Google who sit next to FTEs working on the same team, doing very much the same work. 

HR: In my old team, I worked with TVCs who were far and above the skill level that I had as an FTE, and they had to jump through a lot more hoops to get their work done. Honestly, our temporary workforce is doing the bulk of the work. They far outnumber the full-time employees. 

Of course, there are real differences between the experiences of different kinds of workers, and management will try to use that fact to drive a wedge between us. But I don’t think that we can get very far as a workforce fighting for workers’ rights if we don’t consider the rights of our most marginalized workers. Organizing these workers is a priority for the union, and toward that end, we have TVCs in our current leadership structure. But we also have to recognize that TVCs may have more reticence around engaging in collective action because they are at greater risk of being retaliated against, and have more to lose if they are terminated.

CS: This is not a union organized around making my pay as a senior software engineer better. It’s a union organized around making the overall worker experience at Alphabet better, and making Alphabet better as a company for the world. TVCs are a huge part of my life at Google. These are people I interact with everyday, people I’ve formed real relationships with. The union must put their needs and their voices first.

At Google, there’s a history of FTEs showing solidarity with TVCs, whether assisting in unionization campaigns or advocating for converting TVCs into full-time positions. You know, it hurts all of us when workers are temporary. When they leave, we lose their expertise. It makes the lives of FTEs worse too.

As a noncontract union, AWU is not seeking exclusive representation rights over the workplace, which means you won’t be able to engage in collective bargaining over a contract. In the absence of a collective bargaining process, what tools can you use to win concessions from management? 

HR: There’s a lot of collective action at our disposal. There are high-intensity, high-publicity tactics like strikes and walkouts, of course. But there are also smaller things we can do like getting a bunch of workers together at a particular office to hold events or town halls or go meet with their managers to issue a coordinated set of demands. 

CS: Withholding labor is an important tactic. But it’s probably best suited for bigger battles around bigger issues. And the reality is that for every billion-dollar thing that Google does wrong, there’s a thousand other million-dollar things that Google does wrong. And those million-dollar things can usually be addressed through less public forms of action.

I always bring up the salary spreadsheet that was started at Google by Erica Baker in 2015. As Erica tells the story, through sharing that information, people realized they were being underpaid, often on the basis of race and gender. The spreadsheet illuminated the inequity in the system and inspired people to push for a more equitable arrangement. 

There’s also legislative advocacy. An interesting model here is the United Campus Workers, which is a union affiliated with CWA that organizes workers at public colleges and universities across the South. The union gets the professors at these campuses to write letters to state legislators to tell them to raise the pay for the janitors, who are public-sector employees because they’re working at public institutions. 

We can do something similar with AWU. In the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, AWU issued a statement condemning the riots and criticizing YouTube’s role in promoting rightwing radicalization. That statement was then used by twenty-five members of Congress to send a letter to Alphabet to demand answers about how the company plans to deal with the issue. I think working with legislators will be a useful tool.

When AWU launched, it counted about 400 members. Now the count is more than 800. This is a small number of the overall Alphabet workforce. The company has roughly 120,000 FTEs. It doesn’t release numbers about TVCs, but based on past estimates, the number is almost certainly larger. So it’s likely that the total number of Alphabet workers, both full-time and subcontracted, is around 250,000. That means AWU represents a small minority of the total workforce. How do you make an impact?

HR: The sit-down strikes in the 1930s were organized with a small percentage of the auto workers in the factories. And those strikes were hugely important for the history of the US labor movement. 

CS: We’ve always seen that even a small number of people participating in collective action at Google can effect change. Look at the walkout. It was an important demonstration that drew a large number of people. But management didn’t fully meet any of its demands. Then, in the aftermath, ten of us got together to continue the fight against forced arbitration. And the tool that we ended up using was legislative advocacy. We went to Congress and worked with legislators to develop the FAIR Act. Then, the day before the FAIR Act was introduced in the House, Google announced it was ending forced arbitration in all employee disputes. Ten people helped make a change that affected more than a hundred thousand.

Not all of the workers involved in organizing at Google have supported the creation of the union. On Twitter, longtime Google organizer Amr Gaber has raised concerns about the role of white supremacy in the creation of the AWU, saying that experienced organizers of color within the company were excluded. Further, in an article written by Kate Conger in the New York Times, Gaber is quoted as saying that CWA is “more concerned about claiming turf” than meeting the needs of workers. And in late January, more Googlers echoed this criticism when CWA announced an international alliance of Google workers called Alpha Global without consulting AWU members. What would you say to these concerns?

CS: Amr’s experience is just not the experience I’ve had. I haven’t had the experience of anybody claiming turf, because I haven’t interacted with CWA as a group that’s coming in and telling us what to do. I’ve interacted with them as individual people that I can call anytime, day or night, and say, “Oh, my God, I just had the worst conversation, how do I fix this?” or, “Oh, my God, I’m scared about this meeting with my manager, give me some prep here,” or, “We have another worker who’s facing retaliation. Can you help fund some legal time for us?” 

In early 2019, we were engaged with folks from a number of different unions, and I didn’t get the sense that any of them were particularly eager to jump in. CWA was unique in their willingness to support a large, nontraditional campaign at Google. And they’ve committed themselves to organizing the tech industry more broadly, with the launch of their CODE initiative. 

When we launched, we had people from dozens of different locals and unions from all around the world reach out and say, “We’re so happy for you.” No one said, “I can’t believe you’re going with CWA.” They said, “This is awesome. How can we help?” It’s about getting workers organized, not about who gets credit. 

HR: One of the things that attracted me to AWU is the fact that we have a diverse leadership and that we’ve baked into our founding articles a commitment to racial equity for all workers. 

At Alphabet, Black workers are more likely to be employed as TVCs, and when they are employed as FTEs, they’re more likely to be lowballed and stonewalled in their pay negotiations. They’re also at higher risk of being fired. Google has created diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and employee resource groups for workers of color, but they’ve refused to staff or resource them appropriately. So they’re often run by volunteers, often volunteers from marginalized backgrounds, who then become even more burdened and overworked. That’s an issue we can organize around.

Kathryn Spiers, who was one of the five worker-organizers fired by Google in late 2019 and is now contesting their termination through the NLRB, has also voiced criticisms of AWU. “This model can also leave workers feeling like joining a union is something you can sign up and forget about,” Spiers wrote on Twitter. “AWU will have to work to make Googlers understand what it means to be in a union.” How do you think about the challenge of keeping people engaged, particularly in the era of Covid, when interactions are largely happening online?

HR: There is always the risk that people will see the union as a vending machine. But our onboarding and our education emphasizes that without effort and without participation, things won’t get done. We also try to plug people into the kind of projects they’ll be passionate about, and empower them to spin up their own working groups.

As for Covid, we’re already very accustomed to using the tools of a distributed workplace. We know how to use chat, video conferencing, calendar invites, and so on. Of course, certain organizing techniques aren’t possible in the pandemic. We can’t ask people, “What does your office look like? Who do you talk to? Who do you see on the way to the bathroom?” So we come up with other strategies. We can open up our teams directory and see the different reporting chains and find a Googler we want to talk to and send them a message and put a meeting on their calendar. 

CS: Honestly, there’s so much we need to do. It’s not that we need to fit you to a task. It’s that we need to have a task that you fit. I talked to one person the other day and told them, “When we need a theme song, you’ll sing our theme song because I know you’re a great singer and that’s what you love.” 

Google hires people who are passionate, who are engaged. That’s part of why activism has taken off at Google, because there’s a huge number of people inside the company who really care. Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and I think that has tended to attract people with a certain set of commitments. We’ve seen it at AWU. It’s not the kind of situation where you have an organization with a thousand people and ten of them do everything. In AWU, there are so many people doing so much work, I can’t keep up with all of it. 

HR: I dislike Google’s mission statement so much. But I think you’re right that it attracts people who are passionate. Still, it’s super insidious as currently written. I’d like to rewrite it as “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, while respecting the source of that information.” But that’s another issue. 

What’s the alternative to people seeing the union as a vending machine? What’s the kind of culture you want to build instead?

CS: In 2017, I remember feeling that we needed a union to come in and fix our problems. In 2019, I began to realize that we needed a union so we can fix our problems. That was a big step for me. It’s going to be a big step for a lot of people. I went from looking with envy at other unionized workforces to saying, “Wait, I can do something about this.” And I can start with ten people who say we’re going to stand together. We’re going to commit our time. We’re going to have conversations with our coworkers that are uncomfortable and scary. I’ve had so many conversations where I didn’t know if someone’s going to walk away angry at me, if someone’s going to go tell on me to a boss who’s going to fire me. But I knew that without those conversations, nothing was going to change.

If there’s one piece of advice I could give workers at other tech companies, it’s that the only way things are going to get better for everybody is by having a lot of uncomfortable conversations with your coworkers. You’re going to have some people who say yes and then back out. You’re going to have some people who say yes and then can’t commit. You’re going to have some people who say no and ask you why you’re even bothering and think you’re stupid. But that’s how you build a union.

HR: When you start having those conversations, you realize that you’re not the only one who’s feeling a particular way. You start finding the others. And as Chris says, those conversations can be uncomfortable, because there’s no growth without discomfort. Especially in the tech industry, where we are given so many cushions to give us comfort, there can be a barrier to embracing that discomfort. But it’s in the struggle where we grow and find each other’s humanity. 

The last line of criticism that I’d like to hear your thoughts on is about AWU’s commitment to organizing around both social issues and workplace issues. Your mission statement makes it clear that the union wants to do both kinds of organizing. “We will ensure Alphabet acts ethically and in the best interests of society and the environment,” it reads, while also laying out your commitment to fight for an “equitable” workplace and “inclusive and fair” working conditions.

This dual emphasis—organizing to demand more power both over what you’re building and over how the workplace is run—has been a theme of white-collar tech worker organizing, but some observers have been critical of it. Carmen Molinari, in a piece in Organizing Work, argues that the “tendency to focus on policy issues rather than workplace grievances… [has] held tech organizing back.” Molinari argues that prioritizing issues that might be seen as political could alienate workers who are more motivated by specific workplace grievances, and that organizing around the latter is a better path to building a broad and robust base of power in a workplace. What do you think?

CS: I think it’s just not true. The values that come with joining a union and fighting for equality in the workplace are the same values that make you fight for equality in the world. Of course there will be cases where some people are turned off because AWU takes a position they disagree with. But we’ve created the spaces where we can have conversations about those positions. We’ve set up a structure that allows us to open those doors and do that education and come to a common understanding.

My opinion is that in order to make Alphabet change on issues of world-reaching concern, we need to build a union that puts equity first across the board, both inside and outside the company. The discussions that I’ve seen in AWU so far reflect a very strong understanding that, while we’re fighting for each other and for Alphabet workers, we also have a larger responsibility. And that responsibility is to all of the people impacted by one of the largest and most influential corporations in the world. We affect almost every person on the planet in one way or another. 

HR: I also don’t see a big separation between the global scale and the workplace scale. As above, so below. Google never said, “We’re going to screw over the environment and make the lives of people more difficult.” They said, “We are going to use large corpuses of data to build machine learning models.” But somebody had to collect that data and do the tedious, underpaid work of labeling it. Somebody had to source the huge amounts of energy needed to train the model. And so on.

Throughout that chain, workers didn’t feel that they had the power to speak up without retaliation. They felt like their workplace wasn’t safe enough or they weren’t empowered enough. So the decisions that happened at the micro scale added up to serious impacts at the macro scale. 

One of the reasons we’re fighting for workers’ rights is because it’s going to help with the ethical issues. When workers are empowered, they can intervene to do the right thing before a bunch of little decisions snowball into something big. 

The Future

Looking ahead, what are AWU’s priorities?

CS: Getting to know our fellow union members and engage with them. Over the course of 2020, I got to spend dozens of hours in virtual rooms with workers. I had one-on-one conversations with people where I learned about their issues and what we needed to fight to improve. 

Our membership is growing fast, so there are now hundreds of people inside the union who have never talked to another member. We need to reach out to those individuals and ask, “Who are you? What matters to you? How can we help you?” And we need to train them to have those conversations with other people on their teams and in their own offices. How do you learn how to listen to what people are saying? How do you not center yourself in those conversations? How do you let people bring you their concerns and their problems? I went through organizer training in 2019, and I’ve practiced those skills for a year and a half. Now we need to bring those skills to the entire membership. And as we do, we’ll learn about what matters not just to a hundred software engineers, but to thousands of workers in different roles across the US and Canada. We’ll gain a better understanding of what the world inside Alphabet actually looks like. 

HR: Love is the strongest thing we have. Yes, we have an executive council and chapters and other structures, but our union is people. And the strongest bond between people is love because it listens. It teaches. It advocates. It will fight for you because it knows you and sees you. We want to know and listen and hear the stories and desires and struggles of all our fellow workers so that we can push for them. And we want those workers to be educated around how to reach out, how to listen, and how to advocate for their fellow workers so that they can extend the care and love that grows within our union to the folks around them. That’s the way we create a dynamic, antifragile, human network for action. 

What are the things you’re particularly worried about? What are some possible storms on the horizon?

HR: We’re definitely preparing for what management might do. But this is also a new frontier for organizing. There hasn’t really been this kind of organization at a tech company before. So there might be new techniques and tricks that management pulls out to try and drive wedges between us. 

Personally, I’m exhausted. Going public was a huge effort. And we’re still feeling the burnout of all the work that we did up to that point. So at the moment my concern is training new folks to be able to carry the torch while some of us step back and recharge until we can step forward again. One of the things I worry about is that we won’t be able to train those folks in time and management will respond with something that we haven’t prepared for. 

CS: The biggest thing I’m concerned about is not being able to be effective. Alphabet is a trillion-dollar corporation. Getting them to change their mind on the billion-dollar decisions they make every day is going to be hard. It’s going to take a lot of love and caring about our coworkers to be able to stand up and say, “This is important. This is worth it.”

How do you see your role within the broader tech worker movement? Do you think the model you’re building with AWU—a solidarity union in partnership with a big national union like CWA—is one that should be replicated by workers in other workplaces? 

CS: This is a model that I didn’t know existed in 2017. I was sitting around trying to count, like, “How do we get to 50 percent so we can have a union?” It was useful learning that that’s not the only way to go about it. We’re building a union, but we’re doing it in public so that while we’re doing the work, while we’re fighting for change, we can have a little bit of an easier time recruiting. And we don’t have to be quite so scared because being public means there’s a lower risk of Google laying the smackdown on us. Finally, it’s important that we can organize both FTEs and TVCs. Our model lets us avoid the arbitrary distinctions created by the National Labor Relations Act, and brings us back to the industrial unionism that created the modern US labor movement in the 1930s. For these reasons, I think this model of unionizing is a healthy choice for big shops. 

In tech, people switch jobs a lot. There are workers who are currently in AWU who are going to be working at Facebook or Amazon six months from now. I hope they can bring their knowledge of organizing at Alphabet to their new workplace. That gives us a way to diffuse the model we’re developing throughout the broader industry.

But I’m also excited about smaller shops like Kickstarter and Glitch that have formed contract unions. If you have a smaller workplace where you can literally have conversations with everyone, go the traditional route. But when you’re talking about a 2,000 or 20,000 or 200,000-person workforce, you’re not going to get there while keeping it a secret. And it’s going to be difficult to build the power you need to effect change, because management will divide you up: into bargaining units, into managers versus employees, into TVCs versus FTEs.

HR: I’m excited to see other areas of tech organize. I don’t know if they need to involve themselves with an established group like CWA. But being able to have more experienced allies that can provide expertise, training, and resources is certainly useful. And the wall-to-wall organizing model seems like the way to go in large companies that span so many different areas of work.

Alphabet makes hardware and software. We do chip manufacturing and network engineering. We’re involved at the molecular level and at the informational level. And there are workers who inhabit all of these different strata. So being able to organize across that entire universe, and bring together all of the workers who make the company run, is appealing. If you’re at a startup with three hundred people, it might not be the right approach. But for organizing inside the tech giants, it’s useful.

For tech workers who might be skeptical of your approach, either inside or outside Google, what’s a victory, even a small one, that you would point to? I know AWU is still relatively new, but what’s something you’ve done that you’re particularly proud of?

CS: Shannon Wait is a worker in a Google data center in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. She’s employed by a company called Modis, which provides staff for Google data centers, and she has worked in this particular center for two years as a tech. While a median FTE software engineer at Google makes upward of $200,000 in total compensation with generous benefits, TVC data center workers like Shannon work for just $15 per hour with limited sick days and no time off. And, like all TVCs, Shannon has watched as Google has ended paths to convert to full-time work, creating and reinforcing a dual-class employment structure. 

Earlier this year, Shannon began speaking with her coworkers about wages—including promised bonuses of Covid hazard pay to data center workers. These bonuses took months to appear in some cases, and were paid out inconsistently. Shannon then asked an FTE for help replacing her company water bottle, which had lost its lid, and was promptly informed that, unlike direct-employed staff, Modis employees were not eligible for replacement water bottles. So Shannon posted to Facebook, explaining that she had joined AWU to challenge the demeaning treatment of subcontracted staff. The next day, she was called into a meeting with HR, which claimed she had violated an NDA and put her on leave.

Shortly afterward, Shannon connected with AWU and escalated this issue through the union. We filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the NLRB against Modis and Alphabet, accusing them of illegally disciplining a worker for discussing working conditions, which is protected under federal labor law. Just days after it was filed, Modis brought Shannon back to work and allowed her to finish her contract in good standing.

For every one of these stories that we hear, there are probably hundreds that we don’t. Google employs thousands of data center workers throughout the US, many of them through vendors like Modis. They experience poor treatment across the board, from difficult-to-meet quotas that demand dangerously fast-paced work to activities that constantly push against OSHA limits like moving heavy batteries around data centers.

Many of the stories that these workers tell feel very similar to those of workers on the Amazon warehouse floor: forced to work themselves to exhaustion, experiencing serious physical pain. Data centers are the very core of Alphabet, the lifeblood of the entire organization, yet the workers inside them are treated without respect. Google can afford to do better, and it must do better. I’m looking forward to fighting alongside data center workers as we raise awareness of the conditions they experience—which are frankly shocking to many software engineers at Google—and work to improve them.


Footnotes

1. James Damore was a Google engineer. In July 2017, he published an internal memo that criticized Google’s diversity policies. The next month, he was fired for violation of the company’s code of conduct.

2. Steven Crowder hosts a popular rightwing YouTube channel. In June 2019, YouTube investigated his account for his racist and homophobic attacks against the journalist Carlos Maza. His channel was not suspended, but it was demonetized.

3. Moma is Google’s intranet. Similar to Facebook, users can put badges in their profile pictures to signal support for particular causes.

4. “Corp” is shorthand for all internal communication platforms.

5. FTEs are full-time employees: workers directly employed by Alphabet on a permanent basis. TVCs are temps, vendors, and contractors. Federal labor law would prevent FTEs and TVCs from being in the same union if AWU were a contract union.

6. Emma Kinema is an organizer with the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA), CWA’s project to unionize tech and video game workers, which launched in January 2020.

7. In December 2020, Timnit Gebru, co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team, was fired for being critical of the company’s diversity practices and for raising concerns about the social harms inflicted by its AI systems. In February 2021, Google fired Margaret Mitchell, the other co-leader of the Ethical AI team.

8. The five demands of the Google walkout were (1) “an end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination”; (2) “a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity”; 3. “a publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report”; (4) “a clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously”; and (5) “a commitment to elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the Board of Directors” and “to appoint an Employee Representative to the Board.” In the aftermath of the walkout, Google management agreed to end forced arbitration for FTEs in cases of sexual harassment or assault.

9. The Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act would have banned forced arbitration. It passed the House in September 2019 but stalled in the Senate. In early 2021, it was reintroduced in the House.

10. In the aftermath of the Alpha Global controversy, Spiers has also become more critical of CWA, writing that “CWA is working to colonize and deradicalize tech organizing.”

This piece appears in Logic's issue 13, "Distribution". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.