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The last line of defence against Big Tech dominance may rely on unionisation

What’s happening? Over 220 Google employees have formed the Alphabet Workers Union, following several years of disputes between employees and executives, CNBC has reported. Workers have protested several management decisions, including a former Google partnership with the Pentagon, the handling of alleged sexual misconduct by former executives, and the controversial removal of an AI researcher. The union is open to all 130,000 Alphabet employees worldwide from subsidiaries including Google, YouTube and AV firm Waymo. Alphabet supports workers’ labour rights, said Kara Silverstein, its director of people operations, in a statement, without addressing any specific grievances.

Why does this matter? Big Tech’s power and influence has grown to such an extent that the US Congress, after a 16-month investigation, released documents detailing the scale of exploitation and how it would clamp down on it. While these firms’ leaders have seemingly been able to brush off pressure from governments, adopting this approach towards concerns from within could be difficult.

Big Tech employees have achieved some success after taking issue with company partnerships. Staff at Google, for example, signed a letter objecting to cloud contracts with oil giants. Google has since declared it will no longer supply AI to oil and gas firms. It has, however, recently finalised a cloud computing contract with Saudi Aramco, suggesting certain markets are too valuable to avoid.

Nevertheless, pushbacks from within could be an effective method for holding Big Tech to account and the emergence of unions suggests potentially bigger checks on power. Will these firms be able to pursue controversial projects – such as those involving facial recognition technology, for example – if a unionised employee base shows strong opposition to certain products?

It is unclear how successful these movements will be. Amazon has fought hard against unions in the US, creating surveillance systems to monitor signs of potential unrest. Big Tech firms could also simply fire those who protest.

Google, for example, let go AI ethicist Timnit Gebru after she produced a paper questioning the environmental costs of and biases within Google’s AI language models. At the time, we noted that shedding employees offering research and perspectives challenging firms’ strategies potentially means surrendering a set of checks and balances on their work.

Lateral thought from Curation – It is perhaps worth noting contract workers are included in the Alphabet Workers Union. This brings into question how gig economy workers are treated by Big Tech companies. Uber drivers, for example, are not recognised as employees but are instead categorised as independent contractors in a large number of jurisdictions. This status has allowed Uber to ignore obligations towards its workforce, suggests the Financial Times’ Editorial Board.

Could the inclusion of contract workers in the Alphabet Workers Union therefore put pressure on other businesses reliant on gig workers?

Fred Fullerton

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