Washington | After a dark end of 2020 when Google faced an all-out legal offensive from the American authorities for abuse of a dominant position, the internet giant started 2021 under bad auspices with the opening of a social front , the result of months of intense internal tensions.
Google employees announced Monday the creation of a union, after differences with their leaders which crystallized around the dismissal, in December, of a black researcher working on ethical questions related to artificial intelligence.
This decision symbolizes the activism of Silicon Valley employees against their companies, whose weight in daily life has increased considerably with the restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The union, which will be one of the very first in a tech flagship, will not only deal with issues of wages and working conditions, but also the larger role of technology in society.
“We hope to create a democratic process for employees so that they can exercise their power, promote social, economic and environmental justice; and put an end to the unfair disparities between TVCs (temporary workers, salespeople and contract workers) and FTEs (full-time employees ”, explain the founders.
“Craftsman of Evil”
In a column published in the New York Times, Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, two of the founders, ensure that ethical issues, and in particular the use of artificial intelligence, will be on their agenda.
“The motto of the company was ‘Do not be the craftsman of Evil’,” they write. “We want to follow this motto”.
“There is a backlash against the big technology firms while they accumulate significant wealth”, analyzes Darrell West, expert at the Brookings Institution, who sees with the new union the will of employees in the sector to “have their say in what happens and the fact that they want to see more “social responsibility” from their companies.
Silicon Valley had managed to avoid the creation of unions by offering generous salaries, but has recently been confronted with activism from employees reinvigorated by the emergence of movements calling for more social and racial justice, such as Black Lives Matter, and those denouncing discrimination and sexual harassment, like #MeToo.
At Amazon, employees are trying to draw attention to the working conditions and safety of warehouse workers, on the front line despite the health crisis.
“Obviously our employees have rights that we support. But as we always have; we will continue to discuss directly with all our employees, ”reacted Kara Silverstein, a Google leader in an email to AFP.
In addition to Google, employees of Alphabet, which oversees several entities including YouTube, Waymo (self-driving cars), Verily, Fitbit and Wing and employs more than 130,000 people around the world, can join the union.
The formation of this organization comes after several months of internal tensions.
In 2018, Google employees signed a petition asking their CEO Sundar Pichai to end the group’s participation in the Pentagon research program dubbed Maven.
In the same year, employees protested the awarding of large severance packages to executives accused of sexual harassment, including $ 90 million to Android boss Andy Rubin.
More recently, it was the dismissal in December 2020 of Timnit Gebru, which contributed to the deterioration of the internal climate.
“This dismissal has sparked outrage among many of us, especially among blacks and Hispanics, who are upset by the actions of the company and have no assurance about their future at Google,” further denounce the founders of the union.
Around 226 employees have already indicated their intention to join the union, according to the founders, but there is still a long way to go to become a social partner with the right to negotiate wage agreements.
The new union must indeed obtain the organization of a vote by the authorities. To achieve this, 30% of eligible employees must already indicate that they are interested in such an initiative, which is far from guaranteed.
In addition to the cost of this procedure, companies, like automotive groups in the south of the country, often have recourse to large law firms to torpedo such attempts.
“This puts a lot of pressure on the founders, who run the risk of being made redundant or subject to harassment,” warns Art Wheaton, professor of social issues at Cornell University, adding however that this first at Google will be observed closely, as it could stain oil if successful.