In the early 2000s, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin enshrined the motto "don't be evil" in the corporate code of conduct. Two decades later, the phrase is long gone from the company handbook, but a new generation of employees has taken the sentiment to heart. 

In a New York Times op-ed published on Monday, two Google engineers, Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, announced the creation of the Alphabet Workers Union. Named after Google's parent company, the union is taking aim at a range of employee concerns, from workplace injustices, such as sexual harassment and discrimination, to the ethics of company-wide policies such as contracting with the U.S. military. 

"Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world," they wrote. "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." 

These disputes cut to the heart of a company culture that, in its early years at least, instilled in employees a desire to avoid the moral and ethical pitfalls of other powerful companies. This legacy is now serving as inspiration for employees who have had a very different experience at Google. 

"When Google was smaller and had a different structure, you hear legends of employees speaking up during meetings and saying, 'That's not right,' or, 'We need to consider privacy rather than the bottom line,'" Kimberly Wilber, a software engineer for Google and volunteer organizer for the union, told Cheddar. "Those employees were respected when they did this, and they were able to shift a product's direction."

Lately, though, the company's response to this kind of internal criticism has gotten harsher, she said. Koul and Shaw pointed to the case of Timnit Gebru, an artificial intelligence researcher for Google who said she was fired because of her efforts to fight bias at the company. The union, Wilber said, will provide support to co-workers who speak up. 

For the moment, the union has no say over, for example, hiring and firing practices. Google has not voluntarily recognized the union, and organizers have also not made plans to hold a union election. This is a crucial step in getting recognition from the National Labor Review Board, which requires at least 50 percent of those who vote to approve the union.

“We've always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce," said Kara Silverstein, director of people operations for Google, in a statement. "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."

The idea of forming a union had circulated among employees for years, but Wilber said it really picked up steam after a series of high-profile firings in November 2019. Four employees, who had all publicly criticized and petitioned the company, were fired for allegedly sharing sensitive information. Google then hired a consulting firm known for working with companies to assess the threat of unionization. 

That's when Wilber and a handful of other New York City-based Google employees started holding "ethics lunches" to discuss their concerns. They also started reaching out to other campuses to gauge their support. 

"We realized we weren't the only one who felt this way," she said. "There were other Googlers in the Cambridge office, in the Mountain View office, and after that it sort of organically snowballed into this company-wide, cross-campus coalition of Googlers who felt that the next logical step to take was to build a union." 

When the organizers announced the union on Monday, it had 250 members. It jumped to 400 by the next day, according to Wilber. 

The goal now is to extend membership to all 120,000 employees who work for Google, including temporary workers, vendors, and contractors. 

"We're focused on massive onboarding and recruitment and bringing people into the folds, so that we can represent a larger slice of Google," Wilber said. 

This is arguably the greatest challenge for the fledgling union: making the leap from higher-paid employees interested in changing the company's values to lower-paid workers potentially interested in wage hikes, better benefits, or any number of economic demands. 

"As a full-time employee, I have pretty good pay. I have pretty good benefits, but that's not necessarily true of others in the company," Wilber said. "I don't think that any full-time employee wants the temps, vendors, or contractors to have any less protection than I do."

While different employees may have different priorities, Wilber said the Alphabet Workers Union can address all types of concerns. But this depends on more people joining up, she added, because "our union is never going to be able to speak for anyone who isn't involved."

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