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Google workers form union, not to bargain a contract but to press the company to stop being evil

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The tech industry’s overwhelmingly non-unionized status took a small but significant hit on Monday, with the announcement of the Alphabet Workers Union, a minority union at Google (the parent company of which is Alphabet). Their goal—at least in the short term—isn’t to win a union representation election and get the company to the bargaining table. It’s to create a platform to pressure the company on a range of issues as a group rather than as individuals. Google remains committed to keeping its workers isolated as individuals, with a spokesperson saying “as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.” That’s manager-speak for “divide and conquer.”

“Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world,” Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, the union’s executive chair and vice chair wrote in a New York Times op-edintroducing the effort. “They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of color.”

The Alphabet Workers Union intends to fight for Google to do better. And, significantly, the minority union structure allows participation by some of the workers most wronged under the company’s current system, workers who would be blocked from participating in a typical union bargaining unit. Koul and Shaw explain: “About half of the workers at Google are temps, vendors or contractors. They are paid lower salaries, receive fewer benefits, and have little job stability compared with full-time employees, even though they often do the exact same work. They are also more likely to be Black or brown—a segregated employment system that keeps half of the company’s work force in second-class roles. Our union will seek to undo this grave inequity.”

More than 225 workers have signed on—a fraction of Google’s workforce, but enough for a voice as they build on earlier activist efforts like the massive protests against the company’s sexual harassment policies, protests that won significant changes in 2018.

Google has shown its willingness to play dirty when it comes to worker protest, with the wrongful firing of two worker activists as well as the firing of artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru after she criticized the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts and the biases in AI models. With the Alphabet Workers Union, workers will have a collective voice, and an affiliation with the Communications Workers of America.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Google Workers Say the Endless Wait to Unionize Big Tech Is Over

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The five most valu­able com­pa­nies in Amer­i­ca are all big tech com­pa­nies, and none of them are union­ized. Com­pound­ing this exis­ten­tial chal­lenge for orga­nized labor is the fact that the huge work forces of the com­pa­nies make union­iz­ing them seem an impos­si­bly large task. Now, one union has solved that prob­lem with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary approach: Just start. 

This morn­ing, work­ers at Alpha­bet, the par­ent com­pa­ny of Google, announced the for­ma­tion of the Alpha­bet Work­ers Union (AWU), affil­i­at­ed with the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, one of the few major unions that has ded­i­cat­ed resources to orga­niz­ing the tech indus­try. The AWU is start­ing with just over 200 mem­bers?—?a tiny frac­tion of the more than 200,000 total Google employ­ees, includ­ing full timers and con­trac­tors, that make up the $1.2 tril­lion com­pa­ny. But, after years of iso­lat­ed issue-based activism by employ­ees, they real­ized that if they ever want­ed a union, the only way to get it was to forge ahead. 

“A lot of us joined the com­pa­ny because we believed in the val­ues. That wasn’t a sec­ondary thing, that was why we joined,” says Chewy Shaw, a Google soft­ware engi­neer since 2013 who is now the vice chair of the AWU. Shaw describes a slow sour­ing of his rela­tion­ship with the com­pa­ny in recent years, as work­ers per­ceived as trou­ble­some were pushed out by hos­tile man­age­ment, and oth­ers chose to leave over sharp eth­i­cal dis­agree­ments about the company’s direc­tion. The inter­nal uproar last year over Google’s con­tracts with gov­ern­ment agen­cies like ICE was a clar­i­fy­ing moment for Shaw, who decid­ed that if he was going to stay at the com­pa­ny, he had to start organizing. 

Since the 2018 Google walk­outs protest­ing sex­u­al harass­ment (and the sub­se­quent retal­i­a­tion against its orga­niz­ers), Google has been the most high pro­file hotbed of work­er orga­niz­ing among the big tech com­pa­nies?—?though all of that orga­niz­ing focused on spe­cif­ic issues as they arose, rather than on form­ing a union. Shaw began attend­ing events that employ­ees set up relat­ed to orga­niz­ing: a lun­cheon, a book club, a lec­ture. Even­tu­al­ly, he con­nect­ed with CWA staff and began actu­al labor orga­niz­ing in earnest. Last June, a group called Googlers Against Racism got more than 1,000 employ­ee sig­na­tures on a Cowork?er?.org peti­tion urg­ing the com­pa­ny to take a num­ber of steps to pro­mote diver­si­ty and end con­tracts with police. That group pro­vid­ed a pool of inter­est­ed activist work­ers that led direct­ly to dis­cus­sions about union­iz­ing, and to recruits for the union. Shaw says that the fir­ing last month of Timnit Gebru, an inter­nal crit­ic of the com­pa­ny, was ?“a real­ly big ral­ly­ing moment.” 

(In response to today’s news, the com­pa­ny said in a state­ment: ?“We’ve always worked hard to cre­ate a sup­port­ive and reward­ing work­place for our work­force. 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.”)

Google is a com­pa­ny of engi­neers, and if there’s one thing engi­neers under­stand, it’s struc­tur­al issues. After the 2018 walk­out, ?“it became clear to me that it wasn’t enough. We weren’t able to move the com­pa­ny the way it need­ed to be moved,” says Auni Ahsan, a soft­ware engi­neer and one of the union’s found­ing mem­bers. ?“We need a struc­ture that we can devel­op that can be resilient.” 

Shaw scoffs at the long­stand­ing canard that engi­neers are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly hos­tile to labor orga­niz­ing, an idea that has often been float­ed with­in both the labor and tech worlds to explain why the tech indus­try remains large­ly non-union. ?“Peo­ple are at a com­pa­ny that has orga­nized 250,000 peo­ple to work on sim­i­lar projects,” he notes dri­ly. As Google employ­ees have worked with CWA to build their union, they have also been study­ing labor his­to­ry and Amer­i­can labor law, and their diag­no­sis of the weak­ness­es in today’s labor move­ment has helped inform their path. ?“We’ve been think­ing some of [the decline of unions] is due to how peo­ple have been lean­ing on the legal struc­ture, and it does­n’t give enough pro­tec­tion unless you fit a spe­cif­ic sce­nario,” Shaw says. 

The AWU’s struc­ture could be a mod­el for future tech orga­niz­ing. It will be a dues-sup­port­ed orga­ni­za­tion, like a union, but it will be open to both full time employ­ees and con­trac­tors, who make up more than half of Google’s work force. The union has been orga­niz­ing in secret, mean­ing that much of its recruit­ment work was restrict­ed to the social net­works of its var­i­ous employ­ee orga­niz­ers. They decid­ed to go pub­lic after claim­ing 200 mem­bers, and they hope that the rush of pub­lic­i­ty will bring in thou­sands of more mem­bers in short order. AWU will not be able to engage in for­mal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing like a union that rep­re­sents the entire staff, but it will be a per­ma­nent, grow­ing, and very vocal labor group posi­tioned square­ly inside one of the world’s most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies?—?some­thing that would have been vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble if CWA had tried to fol­low a tra­di­tion­al union orga­niz­ing route with­in Google. 

“Thou­sands or mil­lions of peo­ple will wake up and see this sto­ry and see that you don’t need to wait for the labor board to approve your union,” Ahsan says. ?“You have a union when you say you have a union.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Dolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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You do not have a constitutional right to be extremely sexist at work

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A male software engineer at Google, James Damore, wrote a 10-page memo in opposition to hiring practices that consider racial and gender diversity in tech, arguing that women were unable to do the same kind of work as their male peers. Days after it was circulated throughout the company and leaked to the press, he was fired.

Now many journalists, activists, and even politicians are arguing that he was unfairly punished for expressing his ideas, with some going so far as to say the employee was banished for “thought crimes.”

In this case, Damore’s thoughts were that women were biologically unsuited for advancement in tech in a number of ways and that women deserved their current status. In his anti-diversity screed, the software engineer decided to list personality traits that he says women have more of. Here is one:

Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

He also wrote that women have “higher agreeableness” and “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness,” and that this is why women tend to have a harder time negotiating salary. He does not acknowledge that research shows again and again there is a social cost for women who negotiate for higher salaries.

In addition to saying that women will always have these specific qualities that prevent them from advancing in their careers, he flat out writes, “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.”

He also wrote, “However, to achieve a more equal gender and race representation, Google has created several discriminatory practices.” He listed mentoring, programs, and classes “only for people with a certain gender or race.”

Men from all sides of the political spectrum weighed in to argue that he should not have been fired.

U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) tweeted out a National Review article with the headline, “Google Fires Employee Who Dared Challenge its Ideological Echo Chamber.” Julian Assange condemned the decision as “censorship.” Tim Miller, co-founder of the America Rising PAC, said Damore is being banished for “thought crimes.” Jeet Heer, senior editor at The New Republic, said the engineer should not have been fired for his ideas.

The engineer’s decision to write a 10-page memo, which he clearly spent a good deal of time writing, and then share that memo, is an action, however, not merely a thought.

In a Medium post, Yonatan Zunger, a former Google employee, explained why the memo was enough to create a hostile workplace environment and thus warranted termination.

Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.

Research shows that frequent and less intense but unchallenged sexist discrimination and organizational climates were similarly harmful to women’s well-being as more overt but less frequent acts of sexism, like sexual coercion. Heer suggested demotion as an alternative to firing but no matter his position, Damore would have some power over his co-workers since Google’s performance review process allows peer reviewers to give feedback on job performance. This includes employees who are junior to them.

Viewed this way, the decision to fire Damore was not censorship. It was a decision to protect women from a hostile workplace environment. Google prioritized the well-being of its workers and the company’s overall success over one man’s career.

Like most of the tech industry, Google employees are predominantly white men. In April, the Department of Labor accused the organization of “extreme” gender pay discrimination and pointed to evidence of “systemic compensation disparities.” Diversity statistics the company released last month revealed that 69 percent of its employees are male and 31 percent are female, but when it comes to technical roles, only 19 percent of the positions are held by women.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress.org on August 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.


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The Biggest Lie of 2010, And What We Can Learn From It

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Image: Bob RosnerPolitifact, the fact-checking web site of the St. Petersburg Times, announced the biggest lie of 2010. But it doesn’t stop there, the NYTimes, FactCheck.org and a number of other experts agree with Politifact’s analysis.

The lie? That the government will be taking over health care.

I’ll leave it to Politifact to debate the “why.” I’m more interested in the “how” and what we can learn from this that will help us to survive today’s challenging workplace.

Repetition was probably the one factor that pushed this phrase to the top of the list. In 2010 alone, “government takeover” was mentioned 28 times in the Washington Post, 77 times in Politico and 79 times on CNN. Add to this countless times on a variety of congressional and activist web sites.

Beyond your beliefs about health care, and the politics surrounding, is one simple fact, views can be shaped by a message being said over, and over, and over again.

Which reminds me of a previous blog that I wrote about Google. Remember, Google is not an arbiter of what’s true or not true, it’s fancy algorithms only can tell you what’s popular.

If you’ve ever locked horns with a nemesis at work, you’ll learn this lesson painfully. When someone has a lot of anger and time, they can do a huge amount of mischief at work by simply repeating something over and over again.

Which is why when someone starts spreading a mistruth about you at work, you need to respond to it. Because what could seem outrageous to everyone today, can become a “health care takeover” juggernaut in just a matter of days.

Listen to the grapevine. And take out your pencil to try to erase the parts that aren’t true, while you still can.

I’d hope that most of you don’t take this as a strategy to get ahead, but rather as insight about the dynamics of how negative messages can resonate. And more importantly, how their damage can be limited.

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.


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Google and the Truth

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Image: Bob RosnerRecently I had a chance to interview a former top executive for Google. She was wicked smart, insightful and clearly thought three or four steps ahead.

I kept grilling her about what the average person should know about online searches. We spent a lot of time on such topics as phrasing the searches correctly, a series of tricks you can use to make for a better search (for example putting quotation marks around the key words) and a variety of tools that Google has to help that most people don’t know anything about.

Then she dropped her bombshell. I was asking her what is the one thing that we don’t understand about Google searches. Okay, it was what I consider a fishing expedition question. An outrageously open ended question that 10% of the time generated an interesting insight, but far more often gave me a chance to catch my breath and think of anything else I needed to ask before the end of the interview.

Even though I heard her answer, I made her repeat it twice. Okay, I think that’s just about enough buildup.

“Google searches aren’t about the truth, they’re about what’s popular.”

Google has fancy algorithms that simply scour the web to see what is the most popular site in terms of the search that you requested. Most popular.

It’s as if your high school math teacher didn’t give you a positive grade for the correct answer to a problem, the highest grade went to whoever predicted what the rest of the class would pick for their answer.

Popularity contests work great for high school homecoming contests, political races and impulse purchases at the counter of a grocery store. But for our information based economy, betting our entire future on what’s popular is risky. Heck, it’s dangerous.

Google is clearly popular. The question for the rest of us is can the company consistently get it right?

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.


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What Makes a Job Great?

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If you’ve paid attention to this blog, or the Workplace Fairness website, you know that we often have the job of sharing bad news, or the worst of what goes on in the American workplace. But what does it take to make a place a great one to work? With all of the bad news out there, we might be tempted to settle for just the absence of some of the worst legal violations and unfair practices. But there are some ways that employers can truly distinguish themselves, as acknowledged by some of the leading contests and recognition programs out there.

Around this time every year, Fortune Magazine names its list of 100 Best Companies to Work For (just in time for those starting their post-holiday job searches, perhaps?). The very best company selected, Google, didn’t even exist a decade ago, but has quickly developed a reputation as a great place to work — so much so that they receive 1300 resumes a day. It’s partially the perks: free meals with 150 feet of every desk, swimming spa, and free doctors onsite. And those are just the most noteworthy. But those who work there also say it’s the culture: “Life for Google employees at the Mountain View campus is like college. It feels like the brainiest university imaginable – one in which every kid can afford a sports car (though geeky hybrids are cooler here than hot rods).” (See Life Inside Google.)

It’ s certainly not the 9-5 hours: “Hours are long – typical for Silicon Valley – and it’s not unusual for engineers to be seen in the hallways at 3 a.m. debating some esoteric algorithmic conundrum.” (See Working in the Googleplex.) Google turns on its head the whole idea of work/life balance, in that those who get hired are often selected for their “diverse outside interests,” yet once they come to Google, they find “such a cozy place that it’s sometimes difficult for Google employees to leave the office” — which is precisely the point. (See Life Inside Google.)

A quality that Google and Genentech, the #2 best place to work, share, according to Genentech CEO and Google board member Art Levinson is, “the environment, one where they have an ability to pursue things largely on their own terms.” (See Life Inside Google.) So a sense of control over your own career destiny is certainly important as well. Let’s be honest, too — the stock options which have made many Google employees millionaires several times (or several hundred times) over don’t hurt either. There are some Google employees just waiting to vest, so many that they’re referred to “resting and vesting.” (See The Perks of Being a Googler.)

And having a good boss is important for most workers: a recent Florida State University study shows that nearly two of five bosses don’t keep their word, and more than a fourth of them bad-mouth workers they supervise to co-workers, creating problems for companies such as poor morale, less production and higher turnover. (See Orlando Sentinel article.) As the study author, Wayne Hochwarter, points out, “They say that employees don’t leave their job or company, they leave their boss.” (See FSU News.)

Our friends at Winning Workplaces have already found some of the best bosses out there, in their annual Best Bosses contest. Now they’re at it again, in a quest to honor some of the best small workplaces. Perhaps where you work will never be able to compete with the Googles and Genentech’s of the working world, but on a much smaller scale, you’ve got it pretty good. Then you’ll want to submit your nomination for consideration as one of Winning Workplace’s Top Small Businesses of 2007. You’ll need to hurry, though: the nomination deadline is January 31, 2007.

And in the meantime: if your job isn’t great, or your boss isn’t great — what will it take? Is there a role you can play in making the situation a better one? Or is it time to stop complaining and start looking? Comparing your job to either the best or the worst might be just what it takes.


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