Can Big Tech be unionised?

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Readers of the column will know I have no special love for unions, especially not the ones involved in the destruction of our civil service, education and South African Airways.

But there is a fascinating development brewing in big technology where the firms have strongly resisted any attempts at unionising. Google and Amazon, most notably, are the most resistant to these forces. But this week a union was formed at Google, with all of 230 members, called the Alphabet Workers Union, named for Google’s holding company, Alphabet. Members will be asked to pay 1% of their salary and equity as membership fees.

Given that Google has about 123,000 staff and 130,000 contractors, this is a very small union. But there is also vast potential for growth.

Chewy Shaw, an engineer who joined Google in 2011 and the new union’s vice chair, said: “It felt like in the last two years there’s been a concerted effort to get rid of the culture and to silence the ability for workers to disagree with the executives. A union is the best way we can make sure to keep this environment that follows our values and takes care of all of the employees in a fair way.”

Big Tech has reason to be afraid of a unionised workforce. Amazon, for instance, is by far the most profitable ecommerce company, and one of the most valuable listed firms in the world. But horror stories abound of what it’s like to work there. Warehouse staff who pack products into boxes allegedly work back breaking hours and have unusually harsh targets to meet. There are tales of urinating in bottles, because there is a lack of time to take a toilet break.

Google, on the other hand, has a much more high-tech workforce comprising an enormous number of white-collar workers but they are supported by an equal number of blue-collar workers who often work very extreme hours and in terrible conditions, especially if they are content moderators.

These blue-collar workers, according to commentators and journalists like Casey Newton, are outsourced to third-party companies including Accenture who hired a lot of immigrants to review disturbing content posted on YouTube. They worked in a facility in Austin, Texas, which is Google’s largest content moderation centre in the US.

“Every day you watch someone beheading someone, or someone shooting his girlfriend,” one content moderator told Newton. “After that, you feel like wow, this world is really crazy. This makes you feel ill. You’re feeling there is nothing worth living for. Why are we doing this to each other?”

These are the workers who need protection, who are more vulnerable than the engineers and blue-colour specialists in marketing or sales or accounting. These blue-collar workers need protection because of the exploitative nature of global labour availability. In one instance which Newton relates in his excellent Platformer newsletter, a Google team that resisted management interference is effectively replaced when the tasks are outsourced to a company in Poland.

Clearly “Google’s work culture is at a crossroads,” as The Verge points out. “The  company has long had a history of allowing open dissent and debate among its staff, making it more permissive than other corporations of its size. But after the recent controversial departures of AI researcher Timnit Gebru — Gebru says she was fired, Google says she resigned — and several other prominent former employees who raised ethical concerns about the company’s work and culture in the past few years, many Google employees are worried that workers’ freedom has been jeopardized.”

But as Newton says, if this “unconventional union [is]successful it could upend labour relations across the industry”.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick. 

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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