The first workers’ union in Silicon Valley frames a moment of scepticism about the big tech utopia.
The newest addition to the coolest workplace in the world is not another zany foosball table or a micro-kitchen to supply Googlers with kombucha and snack bars — it is a workers’ union. Over 400 engineers and workers at Google have organised themselves into the Alphabet Workers Union, after years of unofficial activism. How did things come to such a pass? This is Silicon Valley after all, the late capitalist utopia where technology has a fix for every solution, where individual ambition runs the world, and where generous pay-cheques were supposed to have made collective bargaining as relevant as a rotary dial telephone.
The Google workers’ union comes after several face-offs between employees and the company over the ethics of collaborating with repressive governments, of settling sexual harassment suits by paying off the accused with millions of dollars and controversial firings of dissenting employees, most recently of a leading artificial intelligence researcher — and one of the few Black women in an industry that is overwhelmingly white and male. Google is not alone. Over the years, Silicon Valley’s messianic zeal for tech solutionism has come up against staunch critiques — from the inside. Whistleblowers at both Google and Facebook have taken a hard look at the impact of the work they do, whether it is in the transmission of fake news or in fanning hate across the world or turning working-class jobs more precarious than ever before. It has found an echo in the political pushback against big tech companies, which have a disproportionate influence in human life, from jobs to hiring platforms and elections.
With great power ought to come some accountability. But individuals, even those as talented as Google engineers, do find it hard to seek answers alone or bend a powerful corporation towards justice. For that, one needs to return to the first thing that the makers of this technological utopia thought they had banished — politics. As a few Googlers of the world unite, what do they stand to lose but their illusions — and free snacks?