Why The Google Workers Union Was Good News — But Not Great News…Yet
On the morning of Monday, January 4th, welcome news came to all who have a stake in changing the silicon valley tech giants — which is to say, everyone with a stake in how our democracy and economy functions: a new union for Google/Alphabet workers had launched.
The following week, and the days since, have presented perhaps the most fundamental illustration yet of the challenges facing those who’d remake and reform silicon valley. In the wake of the Capitol Hill riot, tech companies deplatforming a President inciting violence, and the likely prospect of the newly inaugurated Biden administration pursuing a new regulatory approach towards the entire sector, one might ask: where does worker organizing and efforts like the Alphabet Workers Union fit in?
We Can’t Fix Silicon Valley Without Empowering Tech Workers — Period.
I want to be clear from the start here: we simply can not solve the problems endemic within silicon valley without empowering tech workers to stand up to management.
It just won’t work, for obvious reasons. Scratch any tech scandal of the last decade, from Theranos to aiding autocrats, and sooner or later you’ll find either an internal Cassandra whose warnings were ignored, or a whole set of ignored workers who knew something bad was on its way, but couldn’t raise the issue without risking their jobs.
This is not just a preventative safeguard aimed at canceling extant bad practices, however — it’s also a key part of ensuring that projects have an ethical perspective at every stage of development, before they ever get off the ground. One small example: tech workers need to be empowered to engage in what we might call future-proofing, or the Dr Evil Test, where user personas are utilized not just to make products addictive, but to air potential future harms before they’re baked into the cake of a given product.
A silicon valley that was serious about addressing those concerns would welcome the empowerment of workers, considering it an internal canary in the coalmine, letting management know where they were at risk of future trouble ahead. They’re not, of course. And it’s precisely the fact that they’re not welcoming of workers self-organizing that lets us know that unionizing workers won’t solve the worst problems of silicon valley unless management itself also changes.
The Problems We Can and Can’t Solve With Worker Organizing Alone
This isn’t a gotcha: the fact that organizing workers won’t solve every problem with silicon valley has no bearing on whether or not it’s a good idea. (It clearly is.) But we need to be clear-eyed about what worker-led organizing won’t solve to know what the larger solution set looks like.
For starters, organizing for the interests of workers doesn’t grant you much societal change if the enterprise is compromised from top to bottom. Police officers in the United States work in one of the very few professions that are truly near-universally unionized, guaranteeing a wide range of benefits and protections — and there is very, very little reason to believe that police officers’ unions have made police violence any less problematic or unaccountable.
Tech workers aren’t U.S. police officers, obviously — and one of the activities that the Alphabet Workers Union seems to be most prioritizing is precisely the role of whistleblowers. (Compare this to the priorities of police unions.) The fact that so much of Alphabet Workers Union energy seems to be borne out of and focused on both police violence and improving ethical practices at Google, even going so far as to reappropriate the “Don’t Be Evil” slogan, is a good sign.
But the broader point stands: if the company doesn’t change its fundamental orientation, there’s a natural ceiling on what worker organizing can change on its own. Unionizing Google workers will lead to more protections and benefits for Google workers, including protections for whistleblowers. That’s good news, and reason enough to support this effort — but it’s important to understand why while it’s a necessary step to change the company and eventually the sector, it’s nowhere near sufficient.
Let’s say Google executives respond to consumer and political pressure and hit just about every item on the Tech Reformer wishlist.That’d be an immense accomplishment — but also intrinsically limited. As we know, even when one of the tech giants does the right thing — as Google did in listening to its employees’ protests on participation in JEDI, a highly controversial Pentagon AI program — the larger ecosystem they occupy quickly renders the decision moot, as another actor (in this case Amazon) was all too ready to take on the project in Google’s absence.
There’s a word for what happens when every actor in an industry has a certain floor of ethical norms and standards they must meet or risk expulsion from the industry: Professionalization. Professionalized industries — think medicine, law, or engineering — are those that contain professions: doctor, lawyer, engineer. Professions differ from jobs in that there are whole bodies of infrastructure and institutions that ensure you must adhere to a certain level of conduct, or must renounce the title. As it stands, technologists have no red lines that, upon crossing, trigger the loss of their titles and powers. Doctors, lawyers, engineers? They do.
What A Professionalized And Worker-Organized Sector Could Look Like
It’s frankly unfair to Google workers to expect them to carry fixing the entire sector on their back — and it’s unrealistic to expect Google ownership meeting them halfway to get us there. We need a whole-industry approach to make any of this stick. We need to organize workers in all of the tech giants — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple — while also successfully pressuring management to follow a new road map for the sector as a whole. Organizing workers at one company, or getting one company right, or even organizing every tech worker at every firm — none of it would be commensurate to the scale of problem we face.
None of this will work — a top-down approach that lets tech giants look valiant without empowering workers to whistleblow, or a bottom-up approach that empowers workers to be treated as ethically as possible within a fundamentally unethical enterprise — without a professionalized industry.
There’s no intrinsic conflict between a professionalized industry and a sector being unionized or worker-organized. What the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “professional and related occupations” are considerably more likely to be unionized than almost any other category of work. (This has been true for a while now.)
A unionism without a professionalized sector will be forced to take on more than it’s fair to expect them to take on. A professionalized sector without worker power can’t be held accountable to its stated values.
Alphabet Workers Union Is A Great Step For Google — Here’s A Roadmap Towards A Systemic Solution For The Industry
With an industry with as much import and influence as social tech, we need as many voices at as many companies as possible to be incorporated into these discussions, which is why it’s great that the Alphabet Workers Union follows an interesting, seemingly intentionally ultra-broad model. It’s a minority union, where workers organize themselves despite not yet claiming a membership from a majority of workers at a given workspace, and anyone who works at or, crucially, contracts for Google is open to join.
That is a strength from a built-for-speed perspective — but it also underscores that not all Google workers share moral responsibility for specific externalities. It’s fantastic that the Alphabet Workers Union is tackling both workers rights and their responsibilities for their work at Google — but let’s not forget that while all Google workers deserve rights equally, not all bear responsibility equally. This is an easy-enough principle to hold when it comes to the cafeteria staff who have the option to join Alphabet Workers Union; it becomes fuzzier when we talk about various roles on a development team.
Google’s motto used to be “Don’t Be Evil.” It was a fine enough motto, even if Google rarely lived up to it. Unionizing Google/Alphabet workers is a great start if we want to get back to a world where Google can still claim “Don’t Be Evil” as an overriding directive — but we are going to need to take it a step further than one union at one company if we want it to pertain to the sector as a whole.
We must encourage worker organizing at Google and any other tech company we can — while pushing for the industry as a whole to follow a professionalization model at the same time. We mustn’t set ourselves the ambition of reforming not just the primary communications medium of the age, but our very social-democratic-economic infrastructure — with one hand tied behind our back.
We not only need to empower tech workers from the bottom up, we need this worker organizing paired with a top-to-bottom approach to reforming the industry as a whole, in ways that it’s unfair to hold worker organizing efforts accountable for tackling.
“Don’t be evil” might be rephrased, from a societal lens, as “Don’t lay your externalities at society’s doorstep.” To make that real, we’re going to need to professionalize the sector so we know that everyone, from management to entry-level workers, has a North Star beyond KPIs, growth at all costs, and holding investor storytime sessions with VC funders.
You can’t stop externalities before they begin unless you’re empowered and willing to say no. Workers are willing to say no, but not empowered. Management is empowered to say no, but not willing (at least not at the expense of the promise of hockey-stick growth).
We can’t solve either part of the puzzle without solving both at once. Google workers organizing themselves are doing their part. If we push the overall industry to professionalize, we’ll be doing ours.