From the start, Alphabet has had a culture of workers speaking up when the company made mistakes. The unionization effort at Alphabet grew out of a long history of organizing from the earliest days of Google, in which workers pointed out ways the company could do a better job or wasn’t living up to its values. There are far too many examples of that work to capture here, but this page attempts to highlight some of the history leading up to the creation of our union.
Much of the organizing work at Alphabet has happened quietly, with some of the people and events remaining hidden. We know of cases that never made the news where workers banded together to create fairer hiring practices, to improve the security and privacy of our products, to stop bullying of their colleagues, to level the playing field for temps, vendors, and contractors, and to fight for racial equity in the workplace. What these all have in common is that they were worker-led: worker solidarity brought management along. We know that there are omissions from this page: we don’t know everything that our colleagues have done! We hope all of you will join us, and that together we can make Alphabet a better place.
These are some of the notable incidents of workplace organizing that created the culture and conditions we’re in now. The struggle between workers and bosses has been a constant feature at Alphabet, and so has the presence of worker organizing as a tool for change.
Real Names Considered Harmful (2011): The Google+ “real names only” policy was harmful to the security, privacy, and physical safety of our users. The people working on the launch flagged the problem, but executives pushed ahead. Pressure grew steadily over three years, with combined internal and external campaigns eventually leading to the complete removal of the Real Names policy.
Salary transparency (2015): Workers started a spreadsheet sharing their compensation, giving each other more leverage to negotiate and revealing gender and racial bias in pay.
Against the business of war (2018): Alphabet bid on DoD contracts that included having workers develop AI intended to be used for war. Thousands of workers petitioned Alphabet to commit to never building technology for warfare. The campaign succeeded in pressuring Alphabet not to renew a DoD contract, and to adopt AI Principles that make it harder for Alphabet to build harmful technology.
Fighting censorship (2018): Project Dragonfly was a censored Search engine for the Chinese market. Google had ended its Chinese Search service in 2010 over censorship concerns, but the company was tempted back into the market by the potential of Search ad revenues. Criticism from Alphabet workers and human rights organizations led to the cancellation of the project.
Stopping sexual harassment (2018): An executive was accused of sexually harassing a woman who worked for him. Instead of firing him, Alphabet gave him a $90 million exit package. The international Walkout for Real Change and sustained internal and external organizing pressure led the company to make concessions on one of the Walkout demands, and commit to better handling of sexual harassment cases. Executives have blocked the remaining four demands and retaliated against organizers.
Protecting LGBTQ+ people (2019): Alphabet’s products have a long history of discriminating against LGBTQ+ users and content. Internal advocacy and external pressure led to some improvements, but failures like YouTube’s tolerance of hate speech from large content creators and systematic demonetization of videos that used LGBTQ+ vocabulary continued. YouTube committed to more work on the issues, and sustained employee and external pressure remains.
Fair treatment for contractors (2019): Almost a hundred contractors on the Google Shopping team in Pittsburgh, employed by HCL, successfully unionized with the United Steelworkers. Alphabet workers across sites organized a solidarity petition, and Alphabet remained neutral in the discussions. Since then, the NLRB has filed charges against HCL for failing to bargain in good faith with the union.
For immigrant rights (2019): Hundreds of Alphabet workers demanded that the company stop providing infrastructure to US government agencies responsible for separating children from parents and harming asylum seekers. Alphabet responded by firing some of the organizers.
No Police Contracts (2020): As protests against police violence swept the country, over a thousand Alphabet workers petitioned for the company to stop selling technology to police departments, including ending existing contracts with police departments that had been sued for racial bias. Alphabet ignored the concerns, claiming that the work was in line with AI principles.
These actions, and many others, are the events that inspired and spurred us to even more action. As Alphabet workers learned how to organize in response to workplace harassment or unethical business choices, Alphabet was also learning. In early 2019, in response to these campaigns, Alphabet hired union busters and locked down internal discussion forums, as well as making it harder for employees to discover what the company was up to. While executives claimed to support the Walkout for Real Change, they also retaliated against the organizers and ignored four out of the five demands. More workers were fired and disciplined for organizing. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) agreed to help defend these workers, and after a year of legal battles the National Labor Relations Board filed charges against Alphabet for violating US labor law.
After the Walkout for Real Change, organizers began forming site-specific committees and holding weekly organizing lunches involving deep conversations about what to do. We looked at our history of organizing, and concluded that the most successful campaigns had been those that involved a large number of committed workers pushing the company to do the right thing. We also witnessed how the company became less open to employee pressure over time and more hostile to worker demands.
After the Thanksgiving Four were fired, we realized there were limits to the organizing models we had available to us. The bosses were not only not listening to us, we realized we didn’t yet have the power to stand up to them. We had to respond to each new incident anew, relearning old lessons. A group of us contacted the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and began to study the prospect of building a union at Alphabet. The CODE-CWA campaign was launched, and we saw how it was well suited to our conditions and goals for organizing, and realized we would need to unite our struggle with the broader working class struggle in order to take on Alphabet. We would need to become more organized, more disciplined, and more skilled in order to win fights against the bosses, who are themselves already well organized into a corporate entity with billions of dollars at their control.
In January 2020, Alphabet workers met with CWA representatives to discuss organizing a union and make plans for the future. This initial base brought in more workers. The pandemic made in-person organizing difficult, but weekly organizing lunches moved online and provided more connections for building AWU. Over the rest of the year we learned, we organized, we talked to our coworkers and created our union.
On January 4th, 2021 the Alphabet Workers Union launched publicly and continues to organize Alphabet workers throughout the United States of America and Canada.