The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) that 230 Google employees announced on January 4, has a foundational problem. As a minority union i.e. not having 50% workers on board, it cannot legally bargain contracts, salaries, etc. When AWU member Andrew Gainer-Dewar was asked in a Wall Street Journal podcast about this, he said, “It’s about advocacy. The stated purpose is.. to promote solidarity, democracy, and social and economic justice.”
Two days later white supremacists spurred on by President Donald Trump attacked the seat of government in Washington. Twitter and Facebook – already under fire for most of Trump's presidency – banned him immediately. YouTube – a prime vector for the rise of fake news, lies, and right-wing hatred - resisted. It banned Trump a week later only after AWU swung into action and released a strongly worded statement and civil society threatened to organise an advertisers boycott.
To put it simply: AWU is the most radical union in two centuries. Not just due to its serendipitous timing, but because it comes in an anti-union industry one of whose founding mantras was mouthed by Intel Cofounder and ‘Mayor of Silicon Valley’ Robert Noyse, “Remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we’d all go out of business.” Is it any wonder that Google employees had to organise in secret for a year before they formed AWU and now Google is monitoring employee emails for ‘disruptive’ language.
Despite this, a union to raise ethical rather than financial concerns fly against established union logic.
Traditionally a trade union/labour union/employees’ union/worker’s union is an organised body of workers who come together to better their wages, safety standards, working conditions, healthcare, retirement and vacation benefits, etc.
Unions came about as a reaction to industrialization at the end of the 18th century. In driving for profits at all costs, companies became notorious for cutting corners often populated by the vulnerable. Unions thus became the strength of the weakest employee in any company.
This logic does not entirely apply to most tech companies, especially Google which not only pays higher wages than almost anyone, they are also generous with benefits including unlimited leaves, ESOPs, and the famous campus laundry and gyms, office snacks, and free time etc.
Yet – all was not rosy behind the scenes. For years Alphabet (Google’s parent company) employees have been complaining that the company has been forgetting the core tenet that attracted the best minds to it: ‘Do no evil’.
In 2018 Project Maven to employ Artificial Intelligence for the US military famously attracted dissent from about 3000 employees who signed a petition against it. Later that year Dragonfly project to create an internet search engine prototype compatible with China’s censorship laws was opposed by employees till it was scrapped. 2018 also saw 20,000 outraged employees emboldened by the #MeToo movement, globally stage a walk-out after an executive accused of sexual misconduct got a high severance package.
Activism inside Google grew and things came to a head in November 2019 when four employees, called the ‘Thanksgiving four’, were fired as they had “either organised or participated in petitions or protests against the company. At least two of them identified as LGBTQ.” Employees claimed the four were targeted for their activism. This became the inspiration for a lot of employees - including Andrew quoted earlier – to form AWU.
This is the most radical reimaging of the union concept in over two centuries. Tech Union 1.0 is Employees Union 2.0 for the world. These ethics-based unions also have the potential to revitalize and revolutionize the union movement that has been facing backlash from crony capitalists and right-wing governments across the world.
Take India as a case in point. Successive governments have repeatedly tried to weaken labour laws and unions. The current government used the pandemic to weaken much of the nation’s labour laws. Unions have also been repeatedly demonised.
In December, workers at the Taiwan-based Wistron India in Kolar, Karnataka that manufactured iPhones for Apple Inc., vandalised office property after Wistron allegedly underpaid staff and refused overtime pay. Instead of getting at the roots of workers’ grievances, Indian right-wing media outlets - with tacit government support – like OpIndia, quickly found a “communist hand” in a communist affiliated trade union supporting workers grievances. Wistron itself accepted many allegations and fired a manager, promising to make amends.
The ‘communist hand’ has also been ‘exposed’ by pliant media in the farmer’s unions presently staging a resistance against the three farm laws enacted by the centre.
It’s not just the capitalist world at large, but tech behemoths FAANG - Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google/Alphabet, who hate the very idea of unions. Many of these – Amazon in particular – have been known to hire union-busting agencies like Pinkerton to spy on employees. FAANG and global capitalists would be surprised to know that the one thing both the father of capitalism – Adam Smith - and father of communism – Karl Marx - agreed on, was the need for unions.
Smith, noting the power imbalance against workers, wrote: “We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combination of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate. When workers combine, masters ... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers and journeymen.”
AWU is also radical because the insurrection and 5 deaths US saw on January 6, was only a trailer of the blockbuster playing across the world, where fake news, lies, and hate-speech spread freely on tech platforms whose masters refuse to interfere, and have fermented violence, toppled governments and killed thousands.
Take just one example: that of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Their genocide was organised on Facebook by Myanmar’s military who according to this New York Times article, “turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing” with a “systematic campaign on Facebook that stretched back half a decade and that targeted the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group.”
Facebook refusing to do anything over half a decade has cost at least 43,000 Rohingya lives, thousands of rapes and gang rapes, torture, and displacement of about 740,000 who fled to Bangladesh.
Twitter – despite a virtue-signaling CEO, and YouTube – among others – by their lackluster policing, have become active accessories in the global rise of right-wing extremism and hate – be it Brexit, coming to power of Trump or spread of Hindutva - that have killed thousands, displaced millions worldwide. The Pandora’s box of their crimes also includes surveillance, misuse of AI, data mining etc.
Yogi Berra once observed: “The future ain’t what it used to be”. That’s because social media changed it. From a force to connect, organise for good, bring change, affect the world positively, to a cesspool of lies, hate speech, venom spewing trolls and a space for evil to mobilize effectively, the tech world has also become enablers of death, destruction and hatred worldwide. They refuse to censor citing free-speech, forgetting that free-speech is neither a license to abuse nor free of consequence.
In a world where tech companies have repeatedly refused to accept that their smallest actions have mammoth consequences, the Alphabet Workers Union is not just a glimmer of hope but could prove to be the spark of revolution Silicon Valley truly needs for all of us. Facebook, which needs such an ‘ethical’ union more than any other tech company to reign in its greedy and unscrupulous founder, is headquartered barely a couple of miles from Google.
AWU’s inspiring mission statement reads, “We will use our reclaimed power to control what we work on and how it is used.. We will ensure Alphabet acts ethically and in the best interests of society and the environment. We are responsible for the technology that we bring into the world, and recognize that its implications reach far beyond Alphabet. We will work with those affected by our technology to ensure that it serves the public good… We prioritize society and the environment instead of maximizing profits at all costs.”
They better Google’s famous line ‘Do no evil’ with “We can make money without doing evil.” I’d like to improve this important line further: “Make money without doing, contributing, or tolerating evil”. This, I believe, is AWU’s goal, and the only way, to reclaim our shared future.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)